Friday, May 23, 2008

Adult Aspberger's

This article, by Tim Page, appeared in the August 20, 2007 issue of the New Yorker. A personal memoir and an eloquent description of life with Aspberger's, I found it deeply moving.

I received a grade of “Unsatisfactory” in Social Development from the Mansfield Public Schools that year. I did not work to the best of my ability, did not show neatness and care in assignments, did not coöperate with the group, and did not exercise self-control. About the only positive assessment was that I worked well independently. Of course: then as now, it was all that I could do.

In the years since the phrase became a cliché, I have received any number of compliments for my supposed ability to “think outside the box.” Actually, it has been a struggle for me to perceive just what these “boxes” were—why they were there, why other people regarded them as important, where their borderlines might be, how to live safely within and without them. My efforts have been only partly successful: after fifty-two years, I am left with the melancholy sensation that my life has been spent in a perpetual state of parallel play, alongside, but distinctly apart from, the rest of humanity.

Many who are now adults have had similar childhood experiences, the feeling that something is not quite right, but never knowing exactly what it is.

In the fall of 2000, in the course of what had become a protracted effort to identify—and, if possible, alleviate—my lifelong unease, I was told that I had Asperger’s syndrome. I had never heard of the condition, which had been recognized by the American Psychiatric Association only six years earlier. Nevertheless, the diagnosis was one of those rare clinical confirmations which are met mostly with relief. Here, finally, was an objective explanation for some of my strengths and weaknesses, the simultaneous capacity for unbroken work and all-encompassing recall, linked inextricably to a driven, uncomfortable personality. And I learned that there were others like me—people who yearned for steady routines, repeated patterns, and a few cherished subjects, the driftwood that keeps us afloat.

Although most people would greet a diagnosis of Aspberger's with dismay, it seems clear that it is no hindrance to a successful, if not entirely happy, life. Even happiness, I think, is not impossible, especially living in a world where these conditions are recognized as something we can work with, beginning in early childhood.

I'm very glad to have stumbled across this article; I hope you find it worth reading as well.


Blogger Lesley said...

Thanks for posting.
I plan to read the entire article.

10:16 AM  
Blogger zelda said...


Too much of this was so familiar to me. I've listened to hours of "Iron Chef" related monologues in past month. I've seen many times a conversation with a complete stranger begin with a sudden explosion of "Iron Chef" tidbits.

I don't think Asperger's is an alternate existence. I think there is a serious disconnect occurring that results in a person who is not as well adapted to survival. Children with Asperger's are particularly vulnerable to being messed with by ill-meaning strangers. They are not attentive when crossing the road or engaging in other dangerous activities (even after repeated and frantic and immediate reminders). For these and other reasons, (key among them a reduced ability to find a mate) from an evolutionary stand-point Asperger's puts one at a serious disadvantage in the race to get your genes into the future. It can't really be viewed through that lens as a desirable alternative to a non-Aspie existence.
Further, you can observe that there is a deep frustration in the child with Asperger's. "Alternate" suggests that there is a choice but Asperger's is more of an imposition than a option. Perhaps there are those who say they don't wish to shed the mantle of Asperger's but I have to take that with a grain of salt seeing how moot a point that really is. They can't choose to shed it so we don't really know what they do if they could.

I do know that I believe that a brain that functions at such high levels can be trained. You can wear down the neural pathways for desired behaviors. You can teach an Aspie child how to talk to people just as you can teach them math. Math will be infinitely easier to teach to this child but I have to believe that persistence will pay off. There are some who would argue that I should just accept and embrace the differences but I just cannot agree with that given the risk and what's at stake.

8:58 PM  
Blogger Sarah said...

Thanks, Zelda, for those right-on comments. I agree with what you say about celebrating Aspberger's -- it seems a lot like making the best of a bad situation to me, although, then again, I do believe that that's generally a good strategy. One thing that I liked about this piece was the way he made it so clear the many ways in which Aspberger's had confined and delimited his existence. I think it helps all of us have more empathy for what it's like to be in that situation. These reminders are so valuable to me when I bump up against some rigidity in Ziad that strikes me as counterproductive. "But, I'm USED to it that way," something I regard as grounds for radical rethinking, is for him a kind of life raft that he's afraid to let go of. You can see where this would generate conflict.

"I thrive on routines: I like to walk into the same restaurants, sit in the same seats, and order the same meals, and I took it personally when the PanAm Building started passing itself off as MetLife."

That is so Ziad.

So it helps me to read, "...people who yearned for steady routines, repeated patterns, and a few cherished subjects, the driftwood that keeps us afloat" because it inspires more compassion in me.

1:30 PM  
Blogger zelda said...

"it seems a lot like making the best of a bad situation to me, although, then again, I do believe that that's generally a good strategy."

Oh, I definitely agree. My concern is that the illogical extension of this attitude and the one adopted by the Asperger's community will be that they should stay the same and the rest of the world should learn to accommodate them.

And, yes, knowing how that brain is wired is really helpful (much of the time) in avoiding conflicts. But it can be so easy to forget in the heat of the moment.

6:11 PM  
Blogger Sarah said...

Yeah, I definitely see this attitude conflict in the "you should look me in the eyes when you talk" versus "my kid is overwhelmed by looking you in the eyes so he looks away in order to be able to absorb what you are saying" dichotomy. I go back and forth with this one, usually winding up by thinking that looking people in the eyes is a skill that my child needs to acquire, because it just weirds people out too much when he consistently will not look at them.

8:01 PM  
Blogger Vivian said...

Coming in late on this ... I found it hard to read the article, hard to live through another person's painful story, especially painful childhood story. This all reminds me of so many people I know.

In Daniel Goleman's Social Intelligence he talked extensively about "social brains". As Zelda said, social brains can be trained; just like academic skills can be taught, so does social skills. Some of us are better at languages, some in math, and some in communicating with other people and understanding the social environment. Those with poor wiring in language art still have to stumble through English lit and learn spelling and grammar; and those with a few neurons short in the social department have to be trained to identify people's gestures and expressions and respond accordingly. It's all in the learning process.

2:20 PM  

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