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Why Do We Avoid People Who are Different? My Fascinating Friendship with a Guy with Aspergers Syndrome

Why Do We Avoid People Who are Different? My Fascinating Friendship with a Guy with Aspergers Syndrome

The things we miss when we avoid people who are different from us.

We’re odd, you and I. We rail against divisions in our culture — political, economic, social, racial. Yet, if we’re honest, most of our friends look and believe and think exactly like us.

What a waste. People who live in silos miss out on so much.

Some of the most electrifying conversations I’ve had have taken place with people who are not at all like me.

Like the discussions I had about race with two men who grew up in Ferguson.

Or the ongoing discussions about religion with a friend who walked away from Christianity.

Or the time a farmer asked me (a city slicker) to help him castrate some bulls.

I wouldn’t trade these moments for anything. Each has made me a better man.

The Fascinating Mind of Asperger’s

I once mentored a guy with Asperger’s Syndrome. Over the course of a year, I discovered a truly remarkable person.

Phillip (not his real name) called me out of the blue. He was looking for an older guy who he could talk to about life and work and coping with Asperger’s. A mutual friend suggested he call me.

My first thought was, “Wait…an older guy?” I let it slide.

I knew nothing about Asperger’s at the time. But now, thanks to Phillip, I’m familiar with its challenges.

Asperger’s Syndrome is a type of autism, but it resides on the high-functioning end of the spectrum. Most of those with Asperger’s have a tremendous memory and a large vocabulary. They are often very bright, incredible students in school.

What they tend to lack, though, is emotional empathy. They have difficulty interpreting body language. They find it difficult to pick up on facial expressions or emotions in another person.

For example, you and I will stop whatever we’re doing when we see a person’s eyes well up with tears. Someone with Asperger’s might not even notice and keep right on talking. So, we conclude that they’re unfeeling.

They’re not. It’s just that they aren’t wired to pick up on non-verbals.

So, we avoid them. They’re different. We stay away.

Phillip and I met a couple of times a month for over a year. We’d smoke cigars on his apartment balcony near Wash U’s Medical School (he’s a doctor now) and talk about life and politics and philosophy and Asperger’s and religion.

Our conversations were a highlight of my life. His mind astounds me. He can immediately recall dates and minute historical details with remarkable accuracy. Fascinating.

Our talks were never one-sided. I showed him ways he could pick up on the feelings of others. And to my great enjoyment, he waxed eloquently about history and philosophy.

One night, he casually mentioned Immanuel Kant’s “categorical imperative.”

Now, I took one philosophy class in college. I think I got a C, but I may be rounding up. But Phillip has a degree in it.

“Ok, stop there,” I said. “I have no idea what a categorical imperative is. Explain it to me.”

His reply was straight out of a text book. Knowing him, it was probably word for word.

“Kant thought that humans should act only according to those maxims wherein we would will that they should become universal laws without contradiction.”


“You remember that I went to public school, right? I haven’t the foggiest idea what you just said. Please…talk slower for the slower among us.”

Phillip paused. He looked down, thinking deeply. A moment later, a light came into his eyes. And he raised his head and came at me from a new angle.

“Kant believed that humans are obligated to act according to universal rules of conduct — what he called ‘imperatives’ — that must be adhered to regardless of the situation. When Kant said ‘categorical’ he meant that the rule applied in every situation or category.”

The explanation was so clear, so precise, and — what impressed me most — it was completely off the cuff.

“OK,” I said. “Now that makes perfect sense.”

“But Kant was wrong.”

“Wait. Why? Isn’t murder wrong in every situation?”

“Sure. But what about lying?”

“Shouldn’t we always tell the truth?” I asked.

“Kant thought so. He believed that if everyone told the truth in every situation that the world would be a better place.”

“But you don’t think so.”

He smiled. “Let me give you an example. Let’s say you’re living in Nazi Germany in the ‘40s. As a noble German, you decide to hide a Jewish family in your home. One day the SS comes to your house and asks if you’re harboring any Jews. Should you lie or tell the truth?”

“I’d lie because saving lives trumps telling the truth in that situation.”

“Kant would disagree with you. He’d say that telling the truth at all times and in every situation is a categorical imperative, regardless of the consequences.”

“Well then…Kant was wrong.”

He smiled again. “Now you’re getting it.”

I smiled too. I smiled because it dawned on me that Phillip was a brilliant teacher. He used simple questions to guide me toward understanding a complex concept. I’d’ve gotten a better grade in my philosophy class had Phillip been my teacher.

I also smiled because I couldn’t wait to begin weaving the categorical imperative into day-to-day conversations.

But mostly, I smiled because I had found a new friend. I realized that I genuinely loved this guy.

However, on the drive home that night, I began to feel sorry for Phillip. So few people take the time to get inside his bubble. They’re put off by his quirkiness and occasional awkwardness. He’s different from them. So they avoid him.

And that’s a shame. In the end, it’s their loss. Since when is agreement a prerequisite for respect?

It’s Time for a Change

Why do we so quickly write off people who are different from us? Why can’t we look past the oddities to see the marvelous human being in front of us?

Leo Tolstoy said, “Everybody thinks of changing humanity and nobody thinks of changing himself.”

You and I should change ourselves.

Take the time to get to know people who are different from you. The guy with all the tattoos. The lady in the Gucci dress carrying the expensive briefcase. The 62 year old homeless man holding the “Need food” sign. The 20-something black woman waiting tables in the restaurant. The rich man who owns his own business.

They each have joys. Each have problems. Yeah, even the rich guy.

Don’t write anyone off. Get out of your world and into their’s. Ask them what they see when they go home. What they hear. Ask about their past. Their dreams. The hurdles they hope to jump.

In other words, love them.

You’ll be surprised at what they teach you. You may not agree with everything you hear, and that’s fine. Since when is agreement a prerequisite for respect?

Just keep talking. I promise you it’s worth the effort.

Let me know what you thought about this post. Leave a comment below.


  1. Greg Lhamon

    Pam…if you’re listening, I’m talkin’. You might get tired after awhile, though.

    You nailed it with “fear of the unknown.” I think if someone is scared, a good way to dip their toe in the water is to get to know someone when you’ve been thrown into forced contact, i.e. sitting next to someone on a plane, standing in line, or even a waiter serving you in a restaurant. It’s a great yet low-threshold way of striking up a conversation.

    Would love to see you guys soon!

  2. pamcollins

    First of all, even though you and I are the same race and have similar backgrounds, I would love to sit and listen to you for hours. You are amazing.
    Now onto the subject. I live in a small community of 2000, almost all white, and the idea of seeing a person different than “us” is very uncomfortable for many. I am sad by the lack of diversity in this area. Although we are the same race, there are distinct differences here though. We live in one of the poorest counties in MN and thus several people on welfare. I sadly say this, most people here will not cross the street to converse with anyone who even “looks” different than them. Greg you are so right in saying we all have the same needs and wants. Love and acceptance. I think our fear is just that. Fear of the unknown. It is irrational to think that talking to someone who is in poverty will result in some sort of anguish for us. It is just too easy to build a wall around ourselves. I could go on and on, but will stop for now. Thanks for the start of good conversation.


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