The subtitle of Parallel Play is Growing Up with Undiagnosed Asperger’s. I put it down here in the text so it wouldn’t spoil the energy of the main title with something seemingly less mysterious. The irony, tho, is the real mystery: “Asperger’s.”
Asperger’s syndrome, as it is commonly known, wasn’t recognized by the American Psychiatric Association until 1994, yet this neurological anomaly had been identified fifty years earlier by the Viennese pediatrician Hans Asperger, who wrote of the relatively mild form of autism, “For success in science or art, a dash of autism is essential.” Dr. Asperger’s vision for this benefit evidently did not extend to the more mundane human endeavors, such as business or evangelism, where we now find it mentioned in connection with two prominent individuals. Greta Thunberg, the sixteen-year-old Swedish environmental activist, and Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder and CEO of Facebook. Thunberg proudly refers to her Asperger’s as “my gift.” While comics taking him to task for his politics have mocked Zuckerberg’s Aspergian-like mannerisms, the social media magnate has not addressed them publicly. If in fact he is “on the spectrum,” as insiders refer to the myriad degrees of autism, perhaps he does not know it. Such was the case for two other highly successful individuals, both who’d had no idea they met Dr. Asperger’s diagnostic symptoms until well into adulthood.
John Elder Robison, author of Look Me in the Eye, was forty when a friend gave him a copy of Asperger’s Syndrome, by Tony Attwood. “I picked it up. Warily. 'What the hell is this?'” He started reading, and recognized himself in the list of symptoms. These included problems with body language such as eye-to-eye contact, appropriate facial expressions, postures, and gestures, and a lack of emotional interaction with others. He’d already struggled through a tortured childhood and adolescence to find success through technology, which led him to become the special effects genius behind KISS, the rock band known for it’s stunning pyrotechnics on stage. He progressed from there to the corporate world where he helped design some of the first video games and talking toys.
Tim Page made it to age forty-five wondering why he was so different from others—brilliantly intelligent but incompetent socially. Three years earlier he’d won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism as chief classical music critic of The Washington Post. Now, depressed after failing at a senior administrative job with the St. Louis Symphony, he sought professional help.
“One psychiatrist concluded that I was bipolar and put me on lithium, which did nothing but make me feel weirdly outsized, as though my body stretched up miles from the ground, like a Giacometti figure. Another doctor suggested a new anti-anxiety medication, which I duly added to the clutter of bottles by my bedside. And then, after a series of family consultations, a New York psychologist named Keith Westerfield surprised me first with a thoughtful explanation and then with a formal diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome.”
He read a book of essays on Asperger’s then, and “felt as though I had stumbled upon my secret biography. Here it all was— the computer-like retention, the physical awkwardness, the difficulties with peers and lovers, the need for routine and repetition, the narrow, specialized interests...had they created a developmental disorder just for me? I was forty-five years old when I learned that I wasn’t alone”...something that had tortured him especially as a child, which he describes as “an excruciating awareness of my own strangeness.”
Attempts to relieve his anxieties then included glucose-tolerance tests, anti-seizure medications, electro-encephalograms, “and an occasional Mogadon tablet to shut me down at night.”
On the positive side his mind was phenomenal. He recalls memorizing entire books, including “vast sections” of an encyclopedia merely by skimming the pages. Despite feeling socially incompetent, he persisted, gradually learning to interpret social cues and respond appropriately in conversation with strangers.
There still is no cure for Asperger’s, nor are “Aspies,” as we (yeah, me, too) call ourselves, likely to wish a trade-off—our gift for “normalcy.”
“Overstimulation of any sort remains a positive horror,” Page tells us, “and I am most content either alone, with people I have known a long time, or with the occasional new friend I make and love instantly, as though we were born together.”
He can’t bear to make eye contact when speaking of things that arouse deep emotions. “Moreover, although I’ve had a prescription for eyeglasses for the past twenty years, I’m most comfortable not wearing them...I rarely wear my glasses now, for they make me aware of too much. All of a sudden, it feels as though I’ve been cast into a world of strangers, all staring at me, so clear and so close that I’m flooded by the intimacy.”
Without warning, a need to escape can demand that we flee, and we do.
In order to fit in, Aspies must learn to act, and Page describes various celebrities, mostly entertainers, who served as role models for poses and mannerisms. Yet, he maintains, the acting itself is sincere. “The fact that my understanding of affection, comradeship, and human empathy has been hard-won rather than hardwired from the start does not make those feelings less genuine.” Nonetheless intimacy has continued to give him problems.
At twenty-nine he married his best friend, “a brilliant and intuitive woman, someone I admired and cared for and to whom I felt and feel enormous loyalty. But my capacity for intimacy was then very limited and the marriage lingered but couldn’t last. Our best moments were the births--gory, violent, and spectacularly beautiful—of our three sons, when I held on to one of her legs, mopped her brow, gave whatever comfort I could, and eventually cried for joy as a brand-new child was laid on her belly. How I pity my father—and his father and most Western fathers back to the beginning of the modern world—so long excluded from these astounding communions!”
Much later, after his Asperger’s diagnosis, he fell in love, which, he says, astonished him. The marriage lasted four years. He describes it as bliss:
“I had never imagined sustained contentment, and certainly not in the company of another person. Yet here it was: even making the bed together in the morning, an act that had hitherto struck me as Sisyphean, took on meaning, as the prelude to another gloriously ordinary day, to be followed by tea, the newspapers, a couple of hours of work, and then lunch in the neighborhood. While it lasted, everything was enhanced; the only thing I can compare it to is that moment when The Wizard of Oz turns from black and white into color.”
He says he resisted the relationship as long as he could, worried that “if I let her in, what could I ever do if she went away? But I found myself invaded, physically and emotionally, and, for the first time in my life, I was ready for it. Thereafter, I considered any day not spent with her a day diminished. I was no longer a scared kid being taken to bed but a full and eager partner, and I lived for several years in a constant state of amazed and grateful surprise…
“And then, suddenly and without warning, she had to leave and she was too regretful or too solitary or maybe simply too compassionate to tell me why. And I became a crazy man, so stunned and shocked that I felt mortally wounded. I’d finally found a mate— somebody I liked, loved, respected, admired, and lusted for all at once. Now I was alone again. I couldn’t comprehend what had happened, and whenever I believed it, even for a moment, the pain was unbearable.”
Then came the familiar stuff of heart-broke country songs...
Neither of his two marriages are listed on his Wiki bio page, which tells us he is currently Visiting Scholar in Residence at Oberlin College.
“Aspies are predetermined individualists,” he concludes in Parallel Play, “people both condemned and liberated to live in our own worlds--but, after a while, if we can summon up the courage, we stop apologizing for it.”
[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]