Published: Asperger’s 101 (July 3, 2015)
As I explained in an editorial for Mic (which I wrote in December 2012, when Asperger’s Syndrome entered the national conversation after unconfirmed rumors circulated that Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter, had been diagnosed with it):
Experts have found that communication is only one-third verbal, with the two-thirds that are nonverbal, including such diverse elements as body language, gesturing, tone of voice, and facial expression. For the vast majority of people, fluency in both these aspects of communication is so natural that they take it for granted, with a sizable chunk programmed into their instincts at birth and the rest being developed during their early years…
If you have Asperger’s, however, the nonverbal aspects of communication do not come naturally to you. Although people with Asperger’s are no more likely to have linguistic or cognitive difficulties than anyone else, we do not automatically process the thousands of ways people communicate nonverbally. As a result, we have enormous difficulty functioning in social situations, from abiding by the unspoken rules of etiquette (and there are so, so many), and gauging how to avoid dominating conversations, to coming across as inappropriate or rude without intending to. If life in a society is a game (and make no mistake about this, it is), having Asperger’s forces you to play while learning two-thirds of the rules as you go along, even as everyone else knows them instinctively … and assumes that you do too.
That said, having an autistic condition isn’t always debilitating. Indeed, there are plenty of so-called “high-functioning autistics” who lead happy and productive lives (including yours truly), with some autistic writers jokingly suggesting certain aspects of autism are healthier than the traits commonly displayed by neurotypicals (people who aren’t on the autism spectrum). If nothing else, we know there is a large autistic community out there: More than 3.5 million Americans have some form of autism, 1 out of 68 American children are born with it, and the likelihood is that there are countless high-functioning autistic adults who have never been diagnosed.
That’s why this series will use my own experiences as an autistic adult, the stories I learn from others who are on the autism spectrum, and the respected scientific literature on the subject to illustrate:
(a) How we understand very little about the human mind and need to make concerted efforts to explore this vast, largely uncharted frontier;
(b) How it is important to separate legitimate science from mere academic conjecture and reckless conspiracy theories;
(c) And how there are no “normal” ways of thinking and behaving, but rather a broad spectrum of thought and behavior patterns. Meaning that unorthodox ways of thinking and living should only be stigmatized and/or discouraged if they are self-destructive or pose a threat to others.
It seems best to end this inaugural article with a personal story, so here it goes:
When I was in high school, I snuck off to the library at every opportunity. Sometimes I received special permission from my study hall adviser, but if that didn’t work I would dart in and out between classes or linger within the stacks of books after everyone else had left. Like many people on the autism spectrum, I cared more about my arcane intellectual fixations (in this case books on political history and philosophy) than having a traditional childhood (driving around in a car, hanging out with friends, going on dates, that sort of thing).
My social circle consisted of books, and like most teenagers, I had favorites that I returned to again and again. One of them is in front of me right now, more than a dozen years after I first picked it up. It’s called “Marathon: The Pursuit of the Presidency, 1972-1976,” a 656-page chronicle of the election in which President Gerald Ford was narrowly defeated by former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter (about whom I would later write my undergraduate thesis at Bard College). At the very beginning there is a quote from Ecclesiastes 9:11:
“I turned me to another thing, and I saw that under the sun, the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the learned, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance in all.”
Then, more than 500 pages later, there is this passage from one of Carter’s campaign speeches, an address that author Jules Witcover referred to as “among his most memorable”:
“So, I say, public servants like me and [California Governor] Jerry Brown and others have a special responsibility to bypass the big shots, including you and people like you, and make a concerted effort to understand people who are poor, black, speak a foreign language, who are not well educated, who are inarticulate, who are stymied, who have some monumental problem, and at the same time to run the government in a competent way, well organized, efficient, manageable, so that those services that are so badly needed can be delivered.”
These two sentiments may seem paradoxical – one is an understanding that life is chaotic and indifferent to merit, the other is a call for empathy (a quality that many medical experts insist autistic people lack) – but I would argue that they perfectly capture the essence of the “On The Spectrum” social message.
Any one of us could, given the right hereditary and/or environmental conditions, find ourselves on the autism spectrum. For those of us who are high-functioning, there is a moral responsibility to not only spread awareness for those like us, but extend that empathy to everyone who suffers or feels like an outcast.
After all, while no two of us are exactly the same, aren’t we all on a spectrum?