A reader asked, “If you hear or read anything new about mild Aspergers or coping with it as a young adult, PLEASE let me know. After all these years, therapists, and psychiatrists, I am still so frustrated that no one can “put a finger” on my son. His psychiatrist who insists it’s not (Aspergers) also said, “I can see why you have those concerns, he has little inflection in his voice and does not use facial expression when communicating for the most part…. I wish I had more time with him….”
I have come to the conclusion that most of these people just really don’t care… it’s not their kid; he’s just a filled time slot on the schedule. The doctor suspects my son’s IQ is “too high, which is not always a good thing”. After one semester at college, he cannot find anyone who wants to room with him next year…. My husband is convinced he will be with us for life as he will never be able to interact with people appropriately enough to be on his own. I am getting more concerned about it myself.”
While I’m not sure that I have anything “new” to offer, I wanted to take this question up in terms of relationship rather than diagnosis. In other words, perhaps we need to see others with so-called “differences” as inter-beings with ourselves, and not as problems to solve. In other posts I’ve made the case for nerds and so today I’d like to make the case for Aspergers. No matter what else we manage to come up with, our central intention here is to be in service and support for those, Aspergers or otherwise, child, young adult or parents, who suffer—even if all we can offer are good wishes and sincere compassion.
Coincidentally with receiving this question, the film Adam, about a young man with Aspergers Syndrome arrived in our Netflix cue (not ordered by me). It’s a romantic comedy in which Adam’s father dies (perhaps our deepest fear for our kids who are not able to live independently) and Adam then confronts his non-comfort zone of social relationships, motivated out of his bubble because of his attraction to a woman. Adam is a nice evocation of “mind blindness” (where someone is poorly equipped to intuit what others could be thinking), and helps deepen our compassion and understanding regarding Aspergers.
As I started to watch the film I must admit I felt a little uneasy when Adam opened up his closet… and it looked exactly like my own closet. Everything in Adam’s closet was in perfect order, sorted by color; this was one of our first cues in the film that Adam is not “normal,” and yet I myself find comfort and harmony in this sort of slightly obsessive order. Besides being a little squirmy, my partial identification with Adam and his closet (a Through the Looking Glass moment) offers me a chance to out myself here for being a little different in my own right, and also to encourage my fellow parents to seek ways in which we can all connect and recognize the self in all others. Trust me on this—we all have an inner “Adam.”
I’ve worked with plenty of Aspy kids, and I look back to childhood to realize that more than a couple of my personal friends have certainly had some traits (back before we had specific words for it). As a kid, I myself preferred to be read to from the Field Guide to Insects rather than Goodnight Moon (although I also loved stories, so I’m not squarely in any peg—and neither are any of our kids). Another point is that nothing in life presents as clearly as labels and diagnoses might have us believe. Just as we all have an inner hero and Shadow, we all have an inner Autistic and an inner Extrovert; moreover, it is only as an inclusive and diverse group that we will find the full spectrum of human potentiality. For this reason, taking an interest in each other, and in each other’s kids “completes” us more than the romantic notion of the anima/animus typified by “normal” romantic love.
Besides being well acted and rather sweet, Adam could be a therapeutic tonic for “spectrum” (i.e. mild autism through Aspergers) sorts who rarely see themselves depicted in films at all, especially in a positive and yet realistic manner. While Adam is not a perfect film, it offers a place to gather, watch, discuss and deepen empathy (rather than jump right into treatment options).
The film shows Adam learning to socialize, and this is the crux of what sort of interventions can help those with impairments in this arena move toward more normative connecting, but maybe we should also consider why we might also like to deepen our understanding of, and appreciation for, them. While in treatment (see floor time) we need to sometimes block the autistic or Aspergers’ avoidance of emotional and social connection, perhaps from them we can also learn the importance of inwardness and the ability to be with ourselves.
Radical honesty and authenticity, an Aspergers trademark, can help us have more real relationships ourselves, rather than too quickly becoming what we think others want us to be (and in the bargain losing our authentic voice and spirit). Yes it’s good to be giving, but often we are at risk of being pleasers, enablers and co-dependents… and then resenting those to whom we over-give.
One voice in the Aspergers world that has particularly impressed me is an Australian psychologist, Tony Atwood. What I like about him, in addition to a lot of experience, is that he has a compassionate, humorous and exceedingly human spirit that helps us understand the relative nature of the spectrum that ultimately links us together more than it divides us.
A central Aspergers question that I ponder, but cannot really answer, is what positive and/or evolutionarily advancing advantage might Aspergers offer to the group? Just as Bi-Polar may be seen as linked with the birth of art, myth and culture (the foundations of our linked and interconnected world), and certain learning differences suggest that so-called orchid kids might be more, rather than less, likely to come up with advances in science and culture (if raised with ideal empathy and support), it could turn out that Aspergers might be some genetically inspired portal to some sort of higher consciousness. Given that these spectrum disorders have not been selectively bred out of us humans, especially in light of the non-socially-related person’s decreased likelihood of passing on their genes, there must be some advantage to be found in the spectrum—maybe they’re a different sort of orchid and we just haven’t figured out where they grow best.
Maybe Aspergers represents some sort of science-meets-transcendence sort of genetic potentiality. One probably has to be a bit Aspergers to think up and build a super collider. Could the Buddha have been just a little Aspy? After all, sitting under a tree and deciding that everything most people believe in is mere illusion may be enlightenment, but it is not the pinnacle of social relatedness, at least as we tend to think about it (Twitter Update from Buddha: Under the Boddhi Tree, feeling terrific!).
What about monks, mystics and meditators? Think about it—to a socially normative person, a monastery without talking, sex, and fun would be a prison; but to someone with what we call Aspergers, an ordered and monastic life just might feel very right. And when you look at brain scans of Zen monks with years of meditation under their robes, their happiness areas light up like a person on heroin… only they have good feelings that last, rather than feelings that crash and lead to rehab.
In our materialistic culture, is it possible that the Aspys are biologically turned inward, keying in to other frequencies? Adam, in the film, is interested in space and poignantly, yet dispassionately, talks about everything in space moving away from everything else, heading toward some future day of inevitable and deepening darkness. Perhaps the Aspergers person is the one who is connected with some greater reality, some bigger picture that pierces and obliterates the hollowness of many “normal” (i.e. false) relationships; a person left cold by the platitudes and falseness of most typical human relating (which Martin Buber might frame as human using, and not truly “relating”—a term which he reserves for the seeing of the sacred in the other, free of all objective use, be it for gratification or any other purpose) might be just the ticket for helping us transition to some as yet only dimly understood sort of relating that could prove truer and ultimately more nourishing and transcendent than much of what currently passes for relating.
How sure can we be, in our “normal” egocentric arrogance that it isn’t us “neuro-typicals” who are, if not “mind blind,” perhaps “sacred spirit blind” nonetheless? This is not to idealize Aspergers, as the seer, or shaman, is an archetype to be found within the Aspergers and the so-called normal person alike. Still, if we look again toward those who are different, looking for the beauty and perfection of them, and in turn re-think them as mirrors held up to reflect our deeper Selves, perhaps they will break us through to some other side (and not the other way around).
Alfred Adler, an overlooked contemporary of Freud and Jung who was most interested in helping regular people and not just rich neurotics, suggested that we each have our particular way of being—the crucial thing was to make use of our predilections with social interest. In other words, anyone can be for, or against, the group; a brilliant criminal mind can be a thief or a detective; perhaps the Aspergers, with an emphasis on honesty and fairness, can be ideal scientists, but also judges, refs, mediators—maybe our society would be better off with Aspergers bankers.
In a world informed by “attachment parenting” (which I myself favor), it is still interesting to compare and contrast non-attachment as one of the hallmarks of spiritual enlightenment. Jung suggests that the divine is to be found in the intersection of opposites simultaneously held; in this way attaching and non-attaching that are simultaneously at play when we love those with Aspergers (and when they love us) could imply that a great opportunity for growth exists for all of us via these relationships.
Also, keep in mind that while those with Aspergers may not read social cues very well, it would be a huge mistake to think that they lack feelings. If you can’t see to the pulsing spirit and emotion of a human with Aspergers, how will you see the life energy of a plant or a rock? And if you can’t see how planet and all things, animate and inanimate, are alive in their own way, you may remain isolated from the magic and unity to be found in existence.
To feel, to risk, to hurt, to be tangled up in blue even though it hurts is but one slice of being alive; to be rational, fair, ordered against the chaos and profoundly introverted is to be equally alive in its own way. Let’s dedicate today to a widening perspective of what it means to feel, to relate and to connect—rethinking our roles, the roles of our fellows to see to the eternally beautiful heart-centers of all our collective children.