First time, every time

Column by Craig Marshall Smith


I told my girlfriend about Emily, and she said, “I wonder if Emily has Asperger syndrome?”

“What,” I said, “is that?”

She outlined the disorder, and it sounded exactly like Emily.

Each of us has some kind of inconvenience, big or small. I have a life-threatening disease, but if I do The Work, I'm fine. I also have hypothyroidism, but medication takes care of it. I have a family history of colon cancer and heart problems, so I am up on those too.

Hospitals are filled with people who are not as fortunate as I am. I am thankful every day. Every morning that I wake in my own bed is the start of a good day, no matter what happens later on.

Emily works at a nearby hardware store. I can ask her anything. Where are the blue-handled, not the red, not the yellow, ball peen hammers and which direction are they facing, and she can tell me.

I once bought a garden hose, and she gave me a garden hose tip that was as good as anything you would hear on “Ask This Old House.”

Emily works at the register. She has checked me out 100 times. One hundred times she has asked me if I am in The Program. Sometimes she has asked me if I am in The Program after I have told her that I am not in The Program.

“Asperger syndrome is an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) that is characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction, alongside restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests,” says a Wikipedia entry. “It differs from other autism spectrum disorders by its relative preservation of linguistic and cognitive development.” In other words, Emily.

My girlfriend had an Asperger syndrome student named “Guyana” who went by Guyana, and then decided she wanted to be called “Pamela.”

“She was SO good in my computer class that I had her teach several lessons. She should make YouTube tutorials.”

Emily asks me if I am in The Program, and when I say I am not, she recites the benefits. Every single time. She says, “Have a good one,” every single time. Now and then I have stayed nearby, to hear how she communicates with the next customer. It's precisely the same.

“A pervasive developmental disorder, Asperger syndrome is distinguished by a pattern of symptoms rather than a single symptom. It is characterized by qualitative impairment in social interaction, by stereotyped and restricted patterns of behavior, activities and interests, and by no clinically significant delay in cognitive development or general delay in language. Intense preoccupation with a narrow subject (e.g., hardware), one-sided verbosity, and physical clumsiness are typical for the condition.”

I saw Emily in the grocery store one day and she looked completely lost.

“Pamela” doesn't like crowds, sits in the cafeteria during sports assemblies, wears weird clothes, and doesn't understand personal space. My girlfriend had to draw a circle to describe how far she wanted her to stand away from her when they talked. She used to burst into the office and announce her arrival, show drawings of dragons, and give strange facts.

“The modern conception of Asperger syndrome came into existence in 1981.” I wonder how someone with the associated behavior was treated by others before then and before diagnosis? We can be unkind and cruel.

“The school,” my girlfriend said, “has been so good for her because her classmates embrace her and allow her to be Guyana-Pamela. She has thrived here and when I mentioned this to her parents at a conference, they cried.”

I know I have been impatient with my Emily. “Patience” is not my middle name. The next time she asks me if I am a member of The Program, I will simply say that I am not, and simply say that I do not wish to become one. I'm still learning.

Craig Marshall Smith is an artist, educator and Highlands Ranch resident. He can be reached at


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