This is the first in a series of blogs on Autism and Aspergers. I’m writing these from the perspective of someone with Asperger’s, and not as an expert.
I was in my thirties before I heard the word Asperger’s. A few months later, I was certain it accurately described me. You might ask — what does one feel like, making this discovery so late in life?
One word: relief.
Imagine a child who comes home from school crying. “Mom, I’ve tried so hard, but I can’t walk like the other kids. I’m always last when we race. I feel so stupid because I just can’t figure it out.” Mom pats the child on the head and says, “Honey, it’s because you only have one foot.”
For years, I’d always felt guilty about who I was. Society favors the extroverted, the socially aware, the emotionally open. I was none of these. When I opened my mouth, what came out was often immature, or inappropriate for the situation. Constantly nervous, sometimes frustrated, and often lonely, my chief defense mechanism was trying to not stand out.
Worst of all — I thought it was my fault. I should be more athletic and outgoing. I should know how to talk to people, how to express myself, how to make people like me. Every once in a while I’d build up my nerve and reach out; and inevitably, fail horribly.
Discovering there were others like me — and physiological reasons for my struggles — was freeing in a way that’s difficult to describe. Rather than try to be something I couldn’t be, I learned to be confident in who I am. Even in those things where I still have trouble.
Viewed without the lens of autism, the behavior of those with ASD (autism spectrum disorder) are often interpreted as rudeness, insensitivity, lack of empathy or even sociopathy. It’s hard to blame anybody for feeling that way. We have a tendency to be direct. Abrupt. Saying things in ways that don’t take the listener’s feelings into account. Speaking single-mindedly (and endlessly) on subjects that fascinate us. Clingy or even stalker-ish towards friends or romantic interests. Seeming to have no notice or concern when we make others uncomfortable.
However, behind the odd behavior lurk solid reasons for being that way. The autistic brain works differently than its neurotypical (NT) counterpart. From the way we receive sensual input to how our mind processes it, we experience life in a way unique from the majority of humanity’s bell curve. Things that are natural, or at least simple, for a normal person, can be utterly confusing to us.
Human interaction is essentially a game; its rules written not only in words but body language, tone of voice and facial expressions. To those with ASD, it’s like learning how to play a complex board game when the instructions are in some unknown tongue. When younger, I had a vague sense that rules existed, and enough understanding of people’s reactions to know when I’d broken one. I’d move my game piece, get told how I’d messed up, and have no idea why.
Back in the 70’s and 80’s, autism was hardly a common term, and even Asperger’s was unfamiliar to many professionals. There was little choice than to deal with us as if we were normal; meaning humiliation, punishment or worse. Today things are blessedly different; you can get buried in books on the subject, and programs exist in many schools and communities to help those with ASD grow into confident, independent adults.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of assistance related to autism is geared for families and caregivers. Imagine if this was the case for other social issues. Depression. Anxiety. Homosexuality Gender issues. Alcoholism. Mental health. If you focus on the affected, the afflicted become a problem. A disease to be cured. Or a leper to be cast out.
Those with ASD aren’t (necessarily) lesser-abled, but differently-abled. High-functioning individuals can lead productive, or even exceptional, lives. Those with more severe issues can as well. If we take the time to figure out how to speak to them. And more importantly, how to listen.
Simon Baron-Cohen, one of the world’s premiere autism researchers, said this after discovering two-thirds of the patients in their clinic had at least considered suicide, and a third had made an attempt:
“To my mind, this is nothing to do with autism or Asperger syndrome. These are secondary mental-health problems. You came into the world with autism, and the way the world reacted, or didn’t react, to you has led to a second problem, which is depression. And that’s preventable.”
The way society treats people has a huge role in determining who they tend to become. If we treat autistics like diseases, they’ll live like the terminally ill. If we treat them like social pariahs, they’ll become either isolated or sociopathic.
If we treat autistics like human beings worthy of time, effort and expense, they’ll blossom. And humanity itself will be blessed by the emergence of their unique minds.
To be continued.
This site is undergoing a redesign, thanks to the upcoming release of my new novel, TO BE ANNOUNCED SOON.
You might be asking, “why call your website The Oddest Duck?” The answer is pretty simple. THE recurring theme of reviews of The Tuning Station is that it’s a bit unique. I particularly enjoyed one that ended this way:
The story is a bit of an odd duck, which from me is NOT an insult. If you enjoy reading books that are a little different, you ought to give this a try.
I like to think we “odd ducks” add a little spice to life, shaking up the status quo. Full of surprising twists and turns, imbued with imagination, unafraid to look different.
Life is just too short to be normal.
The Tuning Station has been out for nearly a month now. And while it hasn’t exactly shaken up the world, it has sold slow and steady, and found readers in four countries so far. The reaction, at least from those who have either reviewed the book or contacted me personally, has been satisfying and often humbling. But most gratifying is how many have felt a personal connection to the story.
Some comments I’ve received:
“The story made me cry, and nowadays barely any novel does that anymore.”
“The discussion is not a whole lot different than the constant introspection, self doubt and fears of an Asperger’s host. Personally, I read my life in this account”
“By the time I reached about 30% I still was not quite certain yet, if the story was written from Christian or an atheist perspective.”
“I think you did a great job, portraying both sides in quite a fair manner to the point where you even gave the atheist a few points of advantage in the beginning. This might allow a non-religious person to identify with Ted. “
“Not only does the novel avoid caricatures and glib answers, but it tells the story of two versions of the same life in a manner that is profoundly moving. “
“(the main character) seems to me a lot like my oldest son. He was never diagnosed with Aspergers or anything else, but he was always considered strange by other kids and by his teachers, and he was therefore constantly bullied in school, badly bullied.”
As the comments indicate, it’s definitely not light summer reading.
The topic of Aspergers is one that is near to my heart. My oldest son was diagnosed with it as a small child, and he’s exactly like me. It provided a way to explain how our minds work, and why we have difficulties connecting with others, especially during our formative years. This theme made the book extremely personal for me, despite the character’s difficult past that I do not share, and the obviously fictional sci-fi elements.
It was my intention to write a book that presented the atheist characters fairly and respectfully, in a way that feels real. In doing so, it has proven to be an uncomfortable journey for some Christian readers. My opinion is that the best way to communicate with someone is to truly understand him or her; to go beyond the obvious exterior and figure out “why”. The book sets up a circumstance where the two main characters know each other in a way impossible in the real world. Up to a point in time, everything about them was identical – events, actions, feelings, and even the exact thoughts in their head. More alike than any two people could be, even identical twins. Thus, how they could possibly end up at two dramatically different points of view is a mystery that can only be revealed by delving deeply into their lives and reactions to each other.
The most humbling comment I’ve received so far is this one:
“I finished the Tuning Station last night. Whew, what a ride. I’m praying that God will show me why, at this time in my life, all this stuff from my past was dredged up again. Stuff I haven’t thought about in a long, long, time. I almost put it down it brought up so many bad memories. But I finished it and now I just will keep asking what am I suppose to do with it?”
I wrote this novel because of what I see in the world around me these days. Young people are losing their faith, and so many of our actions are counter-productive; from severing relationships to preaching apologetics, both sides seem to talk around the issues. Why, exactly, do we see the same things so differently? Why does something so meaningful to me leave another person unaffected? When something turns us against God, what is it that brings us back?
I want us to find ways to truly understand each other, so we can more fully be expressions of God’s love towards all humanity.
I’m hosting a contest at Goodreads for a free paperback of The Tuning Station to five lucky winners! You’ll need a free Goodreads account to enter.