I have been hesitating about writing another posting on Aspergers Syndrome (high functioning autism). What I have already written has attracted different reactions. One has been someone who seemed to be sick and tired of the subject and that all that was wrong with him was the rest of the world. Perhaps I am being unjust and oversimplifying, but I have had to decide whether this is my blog or his. The anonymity and mechanical nature of the internet make it possible to create whether ego image you want. I could be a pope or a cardinal or a king or a company director. The trouble is that none of those descriptions is true of me.
Should I stop being “self-referencing” and hide my identity and being? Just talk about other people and things outside myself. What do I know about the Great Wall of China or the city of Los Angeles? I have nothing to say about either because they are outside my experience (unless I read books about them and look at photos). I think that attempts at writing about things that have absolutely nothing to do with my personal experience would sound hollow and lack interest. Finally, I don’t care if some think I am selfish or odd. It’s not very nice to be put into the category of “unacceptable”, but some will label us so whatever we say or don’t say. Just a day ago, I learned that I was “stuffy”, perhaps because I am English! Oh gee! We English also have stereotypes about gun-slinging American galoots in the saloon with John Wayne or Clint Eastwood wearing the Sheriff’s star to clean up the town – or whatever else we see in American movies. I have been to the USA four times, so these steroetypes are not a part of my belief system.
My week in England has been very important for me. To begin with, I spent the weekend with the dear friend who had me discover Keble’s parish and grave in Hampshire, and with whom I talked about my marriage difficulties. That weekend was followed by a visit to my father who lives up north, and spent many hours talking with him and my two sisters who have an immense amount of experience in nursing, teaching mentally handicapped children, counselling and social community work. We have many talents in our family, and I was extremely humbled by their lucidity about their brother who never seemed to fit in anywhere. The task of breaking their suspicion to me was eliminated by my coming out with it myself – Aspergers Syndrome. I have not as yet received a diagnosis because I am on a long waiting list with the autism centre attached to the main hospital of Rouen, and I just have to wait my turn patiently.
Going by my notes, I began to research this thing about a year ago, after having read about some people’s experiences and how they rang a familiar note. I looked it up on the internet and found some online tests. I did four of them, trying as best as possible to give honest answers to get an honest a posteriori result. They all come out positive, though mildly because I have good physical coordination, spatial perception and have less of the sensory issues some have. My difficulties all lay in my social awkwardness and anxiety when faced with an overbearing situation. As I read more, I began to see myself like in a mirror. It answered my old childhood questions, because I came from a stable family background with loving and caring parents. I was unable to identify with any psychological issue or “classical” mental illness. If I was not crazy, then I had to be morally wrong, selfish, unconcerned about other people, hardly Christian dispositions! The contradiction tormented me for years, through my studies, seminary and the hard positions expressed by some of the priests with whom I have come into contact.
As far as I have been able to understand, it isn’t a disease or a psychological neurosis. It is a genetic difference in the brain that makes some of the neurons different in some way. There is no cure, all we can do is use the intellect to compensate for misleading emotions, in the way a blind man learns to use his ears to tune pianos to earn his living. It isn’t anyone’s fault, not mine, not that of my parents, teachers or anyone. For some reason, this is how God made me for his mysterious purpose.
There is still work to do: get the diagnosis, see a psychiatrist recommended by the autism centre, seek out the right kind of counselling to help my wife find out who she married and “get used to it”. I seem already to have a diagnosis, since it can’t be anything else, but something “official” can be useful in many ways. It also gives a rigid label that society tends to demand, that leaves little consideration for a human person. It is a double-edged sword. It has to faced that this is an anomaly, something out of the ordinary, and something we have to accept and come to terms with. We can go through our life in denial and cognitive dissonance, or we can put the pieces together and accept the truth.
What is the experience like? It is obviously different from that of most human beings. An answer is only possible in terms of comparison, but I don’t have the experience of being neurotypical, any more than being a woman or Chinese. What is it like to be me? What is it like to be another person? Every day, I see humans of different races and languages, elderly folk and children, ordinary people and occasionally the owner of a château or a large business. I can’t begin to imagine their experience, though they and I are all human beings. In the same way, all they have to go on with me is what they see and observe of my behaviour.
Some people are born with disabilities, and they learn what they can and can’t do as they grow up. Others suffer accidents and become disabled, so they know what it was like to walk, and be confined to a wheelchair. The Asperger’s person grows up being simply himself. I found other people as hard to understand as they have found me difficult to comprehend. I often think how fortunate I am to be in reasonable to good health, able to go sailing, say Mass in a normal way, be able to drive a car and all the things able-bodied people can do. I have often had a profound sense of alienation from this world, a sentiment that prevailed with the old Gnostics and is still present in the Christian Scriptures and Tradition. I was marked by the saying of Fr Gabriel in The Mission as he said “If love has no place in the world, I do not want to be a part of it”. How many times do we repeat the words in the Mass and the Office – despicere terram et amare coelestia?
I have found many spiritual notions in science, especially quantum physics and this branch of medicine. There are many more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy, to quote Shakespeare loosely.
In my life before tying the knot with my wife, there was always a workaround. At seminary, I went to chapel, refectory, some of the classes and other corporate activities, but a part of the discipline was a partial “monastic” silence. This made me awkward and relieved at the same time. It made community life more tolerable, and most conversations during recreation were more profound and interesting than small talk. I was able to spend good parts of the day alone in my room, at the organ or smoking a cigarette in what was dubbed La Via Nicotina, since smoking was not allowed in the seminary building (rightly so). Marriage brought me a life without bolt holes or in which bolt holes became rare, for example going to England on Church business or to a sailing gathering. A wife can accept the limitations or attempt to construct an ideal to which the reality has to conform by changing to her expectations. I have done some very painful “work” this week with my family, but the job is far from finished. I have had the “retreat of my life” but everything remains to be resolved with the help of the right people.
Aspies (not a nice name, because it makes me think of snakes and stinging nettles) experience life in different ways. Like this example, many words have their normal conventional meanings, then some give me “impressions” that have nothing to do with their use as a part of the English language. I don’t have the same sensory problems, though I can smell things other people can’t detect. I must be like a dog! Woof! woof! I enjoy good food. My ears are sensitive and I have more or less perfect pitch. I do a good job of tuning an organ. I love and live with music following the rules of harmony, counterpoint and rhythm. Don’t ask me to like the modern atonal crap or oof-ta-oof-ta-oof-ta! I have good sailor’s eyes and wear glasses only for reading. I have sensitive skin and I have my preferences for soft clothing and bedding – and I appreciate my old silk curtain in bed. However, I can easily be overwhelmed by groups of people or individuals who stress me and demand things like competition, team work and multi-tasking. My old school reports often mentioned my tendency to “switch off” and retreat into my little world of the imagination.
It is easy to get into an “us and them” mentality like the LGBT scene or militant feminism, a kind a politically correct taboo on discrimination. I know that this kind of thing makes the majority blow back against the minority, so that the “oppressed” become even more so. Hitler was putting a lot of people in gas chambers, not only Jewish people. It could happen again! God forbid, but it is possible. We have sometimes to be very careful with people and play the game, even if it is acting and is wearing us out with exhaustion.
One thing self-knowledge does, a professional diagnosis even more, is to bring those who matter to us to understand what is going on. Unacceptable aloofness and tactlessness become things we can’t help or occasions to be damned careful what we say and when. Words mean different things to different people. As a linguist (translator) I understand words more literally than analogically. I look for the Greek, Latin, French or Anglo-Saxon etymology and the original meaning. But, meanings do change as do conventions. It isn’t rocket science, but it isn’t intuitive for aspies either. We have to work it all out and the process is often slow. It is also a temptation to use this thing as an excuse for moral failings, but we are usually honest, too honest – and have the faculty of self-criticism of our sins of omission and commission.
In my own life, it is quite unnerving to find myself on this journey at 57 years of age, the age of many young grandfathers and well-established people. Karol Wojtyla was only one year older than I when he became Pope! All my life, I have had to take advice from family, friends, teachers, priests, just about everyone about living in society, doing and saying the right things. I just couldn’t feel it intuitively, so had to use my reason. It is like not being able to rely on your reflexes when in a dangerous situation on the road, because the rational faculties are too slow.
I could keep quiet about all this, and write a blog that would no longer be me – or I can use my blog as part of the means of coming to terms with reality and learning to live with it better. I have every reason to believe that my wife will learn to identify and respect her real husband. It isn’t going to be easy for her if we are to stay together as a Christian marriage should, in love and fidelity in accordance with our vows and promises. Of course it’s a label, and that means different things to different people. The difference is that I have nothing to lose and nothing to hide, even if I am “stuffy” and “self-referenced” (please excuse my waspish humour which usually falls flat in company). For the information of some, I cannot think of anything more dull and boring than paying exorbitant membership fees to go into a large Georgian building in London, sit in an armchair, read a newspaper and make grunting noises! I might be odd, but stuffy I am not!
Where is it all going? Many of us can adapt and play the game when we have to, and have a well-defined private life. It is another experience of life, but one that is so subtle that most people miss it altogether. Perhaps it is a gift rather than a disability. Self-knowledge will certainly bring me the ability and motivation to work, work hard and transcend my difficulties with the sublimity of which an individual human being is capable. That is one advantage of keeping away from playing silly role games and small talk. We see things too straight, and it’s even worse being a descendent of a solid Yorkshire family!
Don’t feel sorry for me! That’s the worst thing in the world. Some of you readers might be aware of similar things in yourselves – some but not all, often what makes us interested in old liturgies and academia. It isn’t relevant to most people, but that doesn’t matter. It’s important to those of us who really go into things and seek to get to the bottom of them. I do believe that God put aspies here for a reason, to bring good, love, compassion and criticism of the absurd as has always been the vocation of the Fool for Christ in the western and eastern traditions alike.