Jean Ngo chooses her words very carefully. She wouldn’t want you to misunderstand. She’s had enough of that already.
The doctors, when Jean was very young, were not much help (though she says they were only doing their best). When she didn’t learn to talk until the age of five – instead speaking in a made up language that had the cadence of real speech – the doctors were baffled. It wasn’t until she was fifteen that she was definitively diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.
Asperger’s is characterized as a “higher-functioning” form of autism. Though symptoms run the gamut, children and adults with the disorder typically have difficulty with social interactions or communication.
By the time doctors officially diagnosed her as an “aspie,” a term Jean uses, she’d already spent a third of her childhood speaking in gibberish and getting strange looks. She’d spent the other two thirds in and out of special classes for children with learning disabilities.
“I was a very angry child,” Jean says. “I was frustrated because I couldn’t voice how I was feeling. I remember screaming on the floor pointing to something on a shelf that I wanted and my mom couldn’t understand.”
Watch the trailer for Jean’s animated film.
That memory renders Jean silent for a moment. The recollection of years of frustration and wanting desperately to be understood, suddenly and altogether painful. And that’s just one of many painful memories she has.
Kids can be mean, particularly to those who come across as different or quirky. “For the longest time I wanted friends so badly,” Jean says. But she had a hard time breaking through the cliques and making connections. Jean seems to still harbor some regret after she scooted near a nice girl in second grade, and was promptly rejected.
“That’s just another instance of an ‘aspie’ like me,” she says. “You know what you want, you just don’t know how to obtain it.”
But one thing she did obtain and nurture all these years, was her love of art. Besides wanting friends, Jean says she loved to draw and did it obsessively. “A particular thing with Asperger’s is that people with the syndrome have a particular focus and they laser in on it,” she explains. It began with the onion paper her mother used to keep at home. Attracted by the texture of the paper, she started drawing and drawing – to the point of getting carpal tunnel.
“I wanted to jump into the Disney studios right there in ’92 when I was still in the special ed classes,” she says. “I had an animator’s kit that a friend gave me for my 11th or 12th birthday. It had a small little tab with three prongs (an animation peg), some paper and a non-photo blue pencil. I just thought it was so cool.”
Jean says she’s known since then that she wanted to do something in the arts, particularly the animation industry. But it’s been somewhat of a pilgrimage. After high school, she enrolled in a two-year college that wasn’t doing very well. Teachers would leave in the middle of the semester and she’d later learn that next to none of the course credits were transferable to an university.
After finishing her two years, Jean found herself working at Aaron Brothers Art and Framing. “I was sweeping the floor one night, and I was just saying to myself, ‘This can’t be it. I can’t just do this. I need to try again and be more careful about who I choose for education purposes.”
Inspired, and with newly found motivation that she credits to God, Jean enrolled in Cerritos College and took a slew of art classes, including ceramics and oil painting. She felt at home with the art students, who she says were equally quirky to the point of not noticing her Asperger’s. She also discovered she could enroll in the Disabled Student Services office and get financial aid, as well as additional time on tests, which was very helpful. She finally transferred to CSULB in 2013 as a junior in the animation department.
“It was a long journey to earn credits to get here,” she says. “I finally got here and it was like another hill that I walked over. Right now I feel like I’m about to get to the peak of another hill.”
Jean’s latest hill is completing her senior animation film to be shown in the May 2017 student showcase. Animation Program Head Aubry Mintz taught the Writing for Artist class where Jean came up with the story for her film. He says he was excited by the interesting characters Jean developed.
“What grabbed me was the depth of the characters. I wanted to know about them,” he recalls. “There was something deeper to them and I just didn’t know what it was yet.”
The depth was Jean herself. Her film titled ‘Dawn,’ about a rag doll who dares to venture outside despite bad memories of being hurt by birds, is an allegory about her own life and her struggle with Asperger’s. She hopes her film can help raise awareness about the syndrome.
In her film, when the rag doll attempts to talk to the birds in her gibberish language, the birds fly away. Several of them also overwhelm her and tug at her strings. In a final scene, the rag doll pushes against the window latch with all her might, ripping some of her arm threads in the process.
“I guess it represents trying to go beyond your boundaries even though it hurts,” Jean says.
And that’s a nice way to describe Jean’s journey thus far. Like a cloth rag doll, childlike but a little worn, she dusts herself off and pushes on. She reaches out and engages with a world she doesn’t fully feel a part of, she pushes herself to make meaningful connections with people despite painful memories, and she strives to understand Asperger’s and how it affects her as research is still being done.
After the ending credits to her film, Jean includes the web address to Autism Speaks, an autism science and advocacy organization, dedicated to funding research and raising awareness.
“I’m hoping that people will get more interested in Asperger’s and maybe break the stereotypes in the media,” she says. “The media acknowledges Asperger’s but, so far, just focuses on super geniuses in science that don’t know how to have feelings and stuff. But I’m not a rocket scientist. I’m into sculpture and art, and maybe I can tell another side of Asperger’s in the non-extreme Sheldon ‘Big Bang Theory’ way.”
As for her journey – Jean graduated from the animation program in May and is still working on her film. She doesn’t struggle now as much as she did as a child, but she continues to try to learn and become who she is while navigating this world and its “normal” people. She knows she isn’t finished yet, but after each night, a new dawn breaks.
“I feel like I’m growing. I’m never finished. I’m on a mission and I’ll always be incomplete until the very last day,” Jean says. “And that’s okay because it’s good to grow and to learn new things and be open to wisdom that will help you later on.”