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Learning to live with one’s differences

WEBUTUCK — Jesse Saperstein, local author of a memoir about Asperger’s syndrome, spoke to Webutuck middle and high school students on Tuesday, Nov. 22, about ending bullying and replacing it with respect, dignity and understanding.“Try to find your own way to end bullying and be heroes,” he urged the audience.Whether it was through sky diving, raising $19,000 for kids with HIV/AIDS by walking the entire Appalachian Trail or by writing a book, Saperstein did just that.Saperstein, who has described himself as “extremely weird,” was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at the age of 14, after years of being misunderstood by many of the people in his life, especially his peers, who bullied him continuously during his childhood. Saperstein is the son of Lewis and Janis Saperstein, of Saperstein’s store on Main Street in Millerton.Asperger’s syndrome, according to Tony Attwood’s definition on the Online Asperger Syndrome Information and Support (OASIS) website, falls within the autistic spectrum. Characteristics of the disorder include, “a qualitative impairment in social interaction ... a qualitative impairment in subtle communication skills ... [and] restrictive interests.”OASIS’s Susan Moreno described autism as “a life-long developmental disability” that is characterized by “difficulty in verbal and/or nonverbal communication ... rigidity in thought process ... [and] difficulty with reciprocal social interaction.”Attwood explained that “children and adults with Asperger’s syndrome have a different, not defective, way of thinking.”That is a theme Saperstein focused on during his talk with the students, citing negative, positive and humorous experiences he has had with Asperger’s syndrome.He said that people often fear those who are different, but that way of thinking is just as irrational as believing that everyone who is “normal” is nice.He encouraged the students to show mercy and compassion to people who are “different,” to help them, to embrace them when they put in hard work to do better and to “learn when to give someone the break they deserve.”Giving breaks to people extends to giving oneself a break too, he said, explaining that everyone should learn how to give themselves the encouragement and praise that they don’t get from other people. Believing in yourself is the best path toward accomplishing anything.He had students come up on stage, look into a mirror and tell the audience about one of the things they have accomplished and are proud of.He said that he wants people, especially students, to fight for themselves and for their peers, to try to understand their classmates with differences and to give those classmates the hope that wasn’t always present in his life.After his presentation, several students went up to Saperstein to thank him and to say how much he had moved them.Saperstein speaks to students around the country to increase awareness about Asperger’s syndrome, to teach them that differences can be overcome and to “extend admiration to others with differences” by looking at them in a different light.Saperstein’s memoir, entitled, “Atypical: Life with Asperger’s in 20 1/3 Chapters,” was published by Penguin Group in 2010. It can be purchased from most book retailers, including Oblong Books & Music in Millerton.

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