I feel like answering a question I’m often asked about one type of article I like to write… in no small part because I am myself curious about the answer.
It’s been more than three years since I first started writing about my experiences as someone with Asperger’s Syndrome. The idea first came to me after it was reported that Adam Lanza, the mass shooter at Sandy Hook Elementary School, was himself high-functioning autistic (another term for Asperger’s). At the time, I decided to go public with my stories because I wanted to demystify the condition and establish that Lanza alone was responsible for his actions.
What I gradually discovered, though, was that an audience exists in our culture for a certain type of literary navel-gazing. There seems to be the growing realization that the best way to achieve knowledge about and connect with others is to understand ourselves. As we do that, we begin to realize that the things we believed made us ineluctably different were actually shared by a whole world of people. Sharing a part of ourselves with the world is one way, however slight, of increasing our collective capacity for empathy and insight into the human condition.
It is also immensely gratifying. More and more, I find myself using certain article topics as a form of therapy. There kind of cohesive analysis required to adequately discuss what it’s like dating with autism, or constantly damaging relationships because of social rules you don’t understand. You have to boil down years and years of stories into a few general patterns and themes, which can be enormously cathartic provided your mindset is sufficiently detached.
The only danger in this approach, I’ve found, is that it’s dangerous to be careless when using it. I often worry that problems which I discuss with focusing and driving may be viewed as embarrassing. Certainly I’ve unintentionally embarrassed other people, particularly in articles where I focus with too much detail on one particular story, which can come across as petty. There are articles that I regret writing because I know that they came across in this one and hurt people I didn’t intend to.
That said, my personal articles have more than paid off for me in one very important way: Through these pieces, I have developed friendships with dozens of people who were kind enough to reach out after reading something I wrote. Roger Ebert once referred to friends made in this way as “far flung correspondents,” and I couldn’t think of a better term for them. While it’s unlikely I’ll meet more than a handful of these friends face-to-face, I treasure my relationships with them no less.
These connections are also of inestimable value to my writing. While I usually focus on my own stories (I only name or photograph other people in my article when given expressed permission), I often draw larger conclusions about the common themes of HFA experience because of what readers have told me they’ve been through. This symbiotic relationship between the content I write and those who read it is healthy for everyone involved. It allows for a very unique kind of discussion to develop, one that I feel privileged to play a part in.