11 December, 2011

On the Spectrum, in the Shadow of the Savant


Regular Pariah's Syntax readers know I'm an Aspergian — that is, someone with the autistic spectrum disorder called Asperger's syndrome. Asperger's is a neurological condition that makes itself most visible through the emotional internality, social disconnectedness, and narrow range of (typically geeky) interests of those who were born with it; although, constellations of other traits are necessary for a diagnosis. The characters Spock and Data, from the first two Star Trek series, pretty well represent the archetypal Aspergian — logical, unflinchingly honest, and decidedly alien among their peers.

Having been born with a brain wired a little differently than most, I've been assigned any number of labels in my life; "normal" (unless linked to the prefix "ab-") hasn't been one of them. For this reason, a recent conversation with a friend, after he expressed some puzzlement over my interest in autism awareness, was unusual.

I reminded him of our previous brief discussion of Asperger's. He said, "I guess I don't really see it, Byron. I mean, autism is a pretty serious disability and you don't... you aren't..." he trailed off. "Jeez, this sort of thing was so much easier to talk about in the days before political correctness. What I'm saying is that I'd expect you to be more — "

"More like Rain Man?" I cut in, predicting the usual reference point.

"I know this sort of thing exists on a spectrum, but yeah, I guess. Those savants have very pronounced abilities and you — you seem pretty normal."

And there it was. True, I don't recite ad nauseam the names, populations, and founding dates of every county in Ireland. I'm able to verbalize with some proficiency and occasional elan. I can take care of myself outside of an institutional environment. To one whose concept of autism was formed by Hollywood tropes, I suppose mine does seem far removed from Rain Man's myopic, closed-circuit mindset.

My friend, however, was right in part. Autism is comprised of a spectrum that encompasses a wide variety of conditions, many of them seemingly unconnected. People familiar with this spectrum generally recognize easily how, and where on it, I fit. What my friend's remark reminded me was that most people aren't familiar. Despite some inroads to the awareness of society at large — the minor film Adam, a character on the PBS children's cartoon Arthur, the bestselling memoir Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger's — Asperger's remains largely misunderstood.

Why is hardly a wonder. First studied in the 1940s, the condition took fifty years to reach the revered pages of the psychiatric professional's bible, the DSM-IV. Even with that, it was not until work began on the DSM 5 (slated for release next year) that official acknowledgment was made of Asperger's syndrome as one of the many forms of autism, rather than it being a separate, unrelated disorder. In practice, AS has been regarded as an autistic spectrum disorder for decades; however, clinicians making diagnoses during that time have had to rely on sources beyond the DSM's hallowed pages, including the extensive research of AS specialist Doctor Tony Attwood and schools and medical centers worldwide. Publication of the new edition of the DSM will mean even greater understanding of Asperger's within the mental health community, which itself may well lead to a tipping point for widespread AS awareness.

The accepted figure is greater than one percent: one out of every eighty-six American children has an autistic spectrum disorder, and the overall national ratio of neurotypical to autistic citizens hovers near 110 to one. Of these spectrumites, it's accepted that roughly one in ten have any outstanding savantlike abilities, of which my friend spoke. Exceptional mental prowess in a narrow area is an appropriate characteristic for a fictional character to have, to make his condition easily recognizable. It makes a lousy benchmark in the real world, though. The vast majority of us on the spectrum have our tics, sensitivities, and obsessions writ large, while our displayed talents may be less than cinematic. Our challenges for this are no less real.

It so happens that I'm exceedingly good with computers — hardware and software alike. I have a knack for the mechanical, and think little of tackling car- and appliance-repair jobs that would intimidate many ordinary people. Given a bit of time to discern its ins and outs, I can quickly conjure a pleasing tune on a previously unfamiliar musical instrument. But are my abilities in these areas savantlike? Absolutely not; they're proficiencies, not superhuman powers. At some point, though, "human calculator/calendar/encyclopedia," Hollywood's shorthand for "autistic," got itself enmeshed in the collective consciousness, thereby minimizing, if not outright discrediting, us non-savants. The fact that I don't think solely in, say, algebraic equations doesn't negate my sometimes debilitating sensitivity to sound, smell, and touch. Not being able to tell you the day of the week on which any given historical date fell doesn't make it any easier for me to understand the look you just gave me. I can't flawlessly reproduce a musical arrangement after a single hearing, but this doesn't make me less apt to get nauseous whenever something unforeseen disrupts my preplanned schedule.

For most of my life I was thought of as an egotist, a weirdo, an antisocial jerk. To some extent, I guess I am all of these things. They often go with the territory of being an Aspergian. Telling people this lends my sincere apologies more apparent legitimacy, on the occasions when my obtuseness, abrasiveness, and reclusiveness are misconstrued and cause offense. It is in such instances that my status as an Aspergian most often comes to light. Otherwise, I don't really see the point of bringing it up: "Pass me the salt, please. And, incidentally, my brain prohibits me from being instinctively empathetic." There's a time and a place.

First-person accounts of Aspergians "coming out" to friends and family are full of reactions like my friend's. Dismissiveness like that can be frustrating, but I know that his intention wasn't to belittle what my differences have forced me to contend with throughout my life, which is why I thanked him. To reach a point at which anyone could say, for better or worse, that I bore some resemblance to "normal" has been a long, fraught journey. Personally, I often see only how far I remain from that point. It's reassuring to know I've succeeded in convincing at least one person.

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Lacking computer access of any kind, Byron cannot respond to your comments but is relayed them and appreciates your kind remarks.