Stranger in a strange land

A young woman with Asperger’s syndrome says her book’s title says it all: ‘Born on the Wrong Planet.’ Erika Hammerschmidt, 23, has Asperger’s syndrome, Tourette’s syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder. She also has symptoms of attention-deficit disorder and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Though she is gifted in languages and art, social interactions are much more difficult.

A young woman with Asperger’s syndrome says her book’s title says it all: ‘Born on the Wrong Planet.’

It features three panels of a faraway planet rotating around Earth. Each planet has a faint outline of a girl’s face. As it moves toward Earth, the outline becomes bigger and more defined.

The girl is Erika Hammerschmidt.

The painting represents her struggle.

Diagnosed with several mental conditions, Hammerschmidt learned as a child to create inner worlds where she took sanctuary. That skill ultimately helped her find her place here. In her new book, “Born on the Wrong Planet,” Hammerschmidt describes her quest to understand and be understood.

Hammerschmidt, 23, has Asperger’s syndrome, Tourette’s syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder. She also has symptoms of attention-deficit disorder and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Though she is gifted in languages and art, social interactions are much more difficult.

Hammerschmidt, of Minneapolis, views herself as a traveler who moved here from a foreign country — settling in but never fully fitting in. Over time, she has learned the ways of this culture enough to behave according to social norms. She has learned how much private information to share with others. She takes cues from others about appropriate body language. But she’s angry with herself, for instance, for not feeling more over the 9/11 attacks.

“My whole life will be a journey in the direction toward Earth,” says Hammerschmidt. “I think I’m moving in that direction every day.”

An avid writer, Hammerschmidt hatched the idea for “Planet” during her senior year at Augsburg College, where she majored in Spanish and German and minored in studio arts. Originally, she envisioned the book as a collection of her writings.

After searching the Internet, she sent her 290-page manuscript to two publishers, including Tyborne Hill Publishers in California. Hammerschmidt’s work gave Tyborne Hill publisher Raphael Serebreny insights into his son, who has attention-deficit disorder.

In its final form, Hammerschmidt’s collection of writings became a life story.

LEARNING DIFFERENTLY

Her parents, Dale Hammerschmidt and Mary Arneson, both doctors, were her staunchest advocates; they knew their daughter thought and learned differently from other children.

At age 2, Hammerschmidt, of Minneapolis, started drawing. Later, she filled volumes of blank books with stories, essays, poems, quotes and artwork. She went to 11 summer language camps. She created elaborate imaginary worlds and people groups that helped her live in this world.

Hammerschmidt’s unconventional behavior and learning style made school a challenge. She endured endless teasing. Once, after she wore a sweatshirt with a prairie dog on it, other kids gave her that nickname. Classmates saw her as the weirdo who danced on the desk, bit the teacher or kissed other kids. She went through a pro-makeup stage and an anti-makeup stage. Teachers either loved her or hated her.

“If they couldn’t understand anything unexpected, they hated me,” she writes. “And if they couldn’t stand being bored, they loved me.”

As a teen, Hammerschmidt began to articulate the central tension in her life: feeling as if she had been born elsewhere but wanting to fit in here. For a time, she moved in with an aunt when things got “hectic” at home. At Southwest High School, she wanted to go to the prom dressed as an alien (but was later dissuaded).

At Southwest and later at Augsburg, breakthroughs came when she revealed her conditions to peers.

Richard Peterson, her adviser at Southwest, says Hammerschmidt’s intelligence frightened other students. But when she shared poems about why it was so hard for her to relate to other students, a light went on for them. From then, a small group came to accept and appreciate her, he says.

“I don’t think she was accepted as much as she wanted to be but not as little as she thought she was,” Peterson says.

BRILLIANT AND BLUNT

Donald Steinmetz, Hammerschmidt’s German professor at Augsburg, describes her as brilliant and blunt. She stood out for her willingness to go above and beyond assignments. But her opinionated, undiplomatic comments annoyed classmates. Seeing that, Steinmetz suggested Hammerschmidt give a class report — in German — about her conditions.

“That changed the whole character of the class,” Steinmetz says. “I think the students began to appreciate her unique ability.”

Hammerschmidt still remembers one classmate’s apology. But she does not like to use her conditions as an excuse.

“I should know better,” she says. “It feels like a cop-out.”

Hammerschmidt takes various medications for her conditions, which have manifested themselves differently over the years. As a child, she had several motor and vocal tics, including palilalia, which is repeating the beginnings of words and sentences several times before finishing them. She says her tics are milder now — the way she adjusts her hair or glasses, the way she rubs her nostril and exhales.

“I still have a bit of hope that someday I’ll live without them (medications),” she says.

Hammerschmidt still struggles to make friends, but she counts two college girlfriends among her best pals. They both have boyfriends, something she’d like to experience someday. In the book, she writes about her first love, a boy nicknamed Pablo, who attended the same summer language camp she did.

“Writing about love didn’t make me feel uncomfortable,” she says. “Writers write about it all the time. It’s an important part of my story.”

Last year, Hammerschmidt added another chapter to her story: She graduated from Augsburg cum laude, moved into her own apartment and found a job. She doesn’t drive, but she bikes or takes the bus.

She decorated her one-bedroom apartment with paintings, souvenirs from trips abroad and electronic pets. In her bedroom, she keeps a beloved gift from an uncle: an oversized dollhouse filled with miniatures. She points out that she has reversed traditional gender roles in the dollhouse: The husband is doing the dishes, the wife is sitting in a chair reading, the son is playing with a tea set, the daughter with trains.

‘WHERE NERDS ARE WELCOME’

She has a sizable collection of “Star Trek” videos and dolls and spends a lot of time on “Star Trek” discussion boards. She says people with Asperger’s often gravitate toward the series and characters like Mr. Spock, the half-man, half-Vulcan who lives by logic, not emotion.

“The Internet is a place where nerds are welcome,” she says. ” ‘Star Trek’ is also a place where nerds are welcome.”

She has two jobs, at Target Greatland and Creative Kidstuff. The kids’ store job is part-time, temporary work filing papers. She just went full time at Target, where she restocks shelves.

“They love her,” says Kim Feller, director of the Minnesota Resource Center, the organization that helped her find the job.

An experienced traveler, Hammerschmidt would like a career as a translator someday. Steinmetz, her German professor, says she’s probably ready for written translation, but a career in spontaneous translation will require more schooling. But both are possibilities, he says.

Recently, Hammerschmidt went to South Carolina to visit fellow “Star Trek” fans she met on the Internet. She told her parents at the last minute, for fear they would talk her out of it. (They didn’t.)

The trip went well; she had no panic attacks and only one moment of nervousness. As she has done countless times, she boarded the bus for her destination, the airport. But the routine ended there; the driver, who was sick, rushed past her, ran out the door and threw up. She didn’t let being thrown for a loop phase her. She quickly dropped her coins in the fare box and found a seat.

In South Carolina, Hammerschmidt and her friends had a relaxing weekend, lounging and talking about all things “Star Trek.”

Hammerschmidt does not like to use the word “normal,” a term she calls morally charged and hard to define. To her, “normal” means being reasonably happy, not having panic attacks and being original enough that people admire her.

“There is some freedom to be found in being the weird kid,” she says.

Rhoda Fukushima can be reached at [email protected] or 651-228-5444. Who: Erika Hammerschmidt

What: “Born on the Wrong Planet”

Publisher: Tyborne Hill Publishers

Cost: $14.50

Online: Read more of Hammerschmidt’s work at www.angelfire.com/trek/aaker.

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