For much of his life, Birmingham native Nick Dubin was berated by teachers for being lazy or difficult. To compound matters, he withstood bullying from fellow students for his unconventional behavior. It wasn’t until he was 27 that Dubin was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a mild form of autism typified by a low frustration tolerance and awkward social interaction. In this country, Asperger’s, named after Austrian physician Hans Asperger, wasn’t recognized as a disorder until 1994. Dubin, who is now 30 and living in West Bloomfield Township, has written the book Asperger Syndrome and Bullying: Strategies and Solutions (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, $19.95). A doctoral candidate in psychology, he also gives speeches on Asperger’s and bullying. We talked with him at his parents’ Birmingham home.
It’s sad enough to read in your book about the torment you received from kids, but what some of your teachers did — the second-grade teacher who repeatedly made you try to open a door, and the art teacher who ridiculed your work — was intolerable. That must have been particularly hard to endure, because you expect teachers to be protective and understanding.
Exactly. And I think a lot of it was because teachers at that time — not to excuse their behavior — but they didn’t understand Asperger’s, and maybe felt that some of it was a lack of effort as opposed to a genuine limitation on my part. As far as the door-opening incident, I still remember that 20-some years later, and it haunts me to this day.
The door opened counterclockwise, but you were accustomed to doors opening clockwise!
Yes. It didn’t even enter my mind that a door could be opened counterclockwise. Most people would say, ‘OK, I turned it a couple of times; it’s not opening. Let me try the other way.’ But there’s a certain rigidity and routine in Asperger’s.
If you could have been diagnosed earlier, do you think anything would have been different?
I suspect it would have eliminated some teasing, because people would have known what’s causing my behavior. I think it depends on how it would have been presented, though. If it had been presented in a positive light, as something that Thomas Jefferson probably had, and to look at the positive attributes — tremendous focus, the ability to come up with creative ideas — it would have lessened the alienation. It helps when people present it as a plus, instead of as a disease or disability.
There were times when the bullying became so intense that you considered suicide. How old were you when it was at its worst point, and what kept you from doing away with yourself?
It was in middle school when it reached the peak. I honestly don’t know exactly what kept me from going through with it, but I did come very, very close.
You were fortunate in that you had loving parents who did their best to support you. But I’d imagine there are many kids with Asperger’s whose parents tell them they’re just not trying hard enough. Those kids must feel particularly isolated and prone to suicide.
Right. As bad as things were for me, they would have been a lot worse if I had parents who were less involved and less caring. God only knows what would have happened. We probably wouldn’t be doing this interview had I had parents who weren’t as loving.
One hallmark of Asperger’s is to amass a great deal of information on one subject. In your case, you were obsessed with the interstate highway system. But that ability opens the door to teasing, doesn’t it?
Yes. I think I mention in my book that I thought my knowledge would make people think I was smart, but the flip side of the coin was that they thought it was a weird interest, and why would anyone be interested in that topic in middle school?
You had other obsessions?
I knew a lot about game shows, who the host of every show was, who the announcer was. I knew a lot about tennis, too — who won matches from the 1960s, just kind of esoteric knowledge.
If you could face all the people who bullied you — students and teachers — what would you say to them? Could you forgive them?
I would probably have an easier time forgiving the students who bullied me rather than the teachers, just because I feel that the teachers should have known better. Don’t get me wrong — it’s not like I have any love lost for the bullies — but I would have an easier time forgiving them than the teachers.
So what is the antidote? What needs to be done on a very basic level for schools to combat this bullying?
The main thing is that they need to get bystanders involved; that should be part of every bully-prevention program. When somebody sees someone being victimized, that person would automatically come to their aid. And I don’t think that happens, because there’s a code of silence that says, ‘If you see somebody being bullied, that’s OK.’