Autism spectrum

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My name is Michael and I have Asperger’s Syndrome, a mild form of autism. I was formally diagnosed about five years ago by my psychologist–and I knew that the diagnosis fit. “Aspies,” as we are sometimes called, often feel like aliens around other people. Rather than go through a list of characteristics of Asperger’s, in this post I will focus on what it has been like growing up Asperger’s.

As a child, I was different. Unlike other children, I preferred to be around adults, especially older people, more than I preferred to be around people my own age. I talked much like an adult, and imitated their words, expressions, and intonations. Things had to be accurate; I thought I was being helpful when I informed my first-grade teacher, Mrs. Christman, that “You forgot to change your calendar!” She did not find that statement as helpful as I thought.

Change was frightening; I hated change. When, in second grade, I was moved up from Mrs. McNeal’s class to Mrs. Lowry’s, I cried because I was in an unfamiliar environment. I would get attached to toys or objects–when I lost a golf ball I’d found, it felt like the world had ended. When I forgot the title of a song my dad had played on the harmonica, somehow that forgetting was traumatic. If my parents put me in a new bed, I hated it since I wanted my old bed back.

I loved to rock in rocking chairs. Unlike many children with full-blown autism, I did not spin around on the floor. But I could rock for hours, and I still can. At an academic conference, if there is a chair that rocks, I probably drive my fellow academics mad, since I will rock for hours.

As an Asperger’s child, I focused on interests to the point of obsession. I did not care for conversation that was not over a serious topic, and that hurt the process of making friends with other children. But I had friends: Melvin in the first three grades; I was sad when he had to move to another state; Paul, who used to talk with me during play period about becoming an astronaut. My interested then was in space, and I obsessed over it, checking out every book on space and astronomy from the public library in Smyrna.

Aspies tend to live in their own little world, and for that reason it is easy for us to talk a lot–to ourselves. I remember in my high school days stopping at the drive through at a Wendy’s (which is still at the same location–some things don’t change!). I was calculating whether I had enough change so I would get only bills back, but I did so out loud. The woman at the counter gave me a look like I was stark raving mad. I can laugh about it now, but at the time it really hurt–and on a bad day if I have this memory it still hurts.

The ultimate change in life is death, and it is no surprise that this became my ultimate obsessive interest. My fraternal twin brother, Jeffrey, died two hours after birth from a bilateral pulmonary hemorrhage. I heard about his death as a child, and at that time thought of death as sheer nothingness. In 1967, when I was only five-years-old, I watched the Easter episode of the show, “Davy and Goliath.” In the episode, Davy plays with his grandmother in the attic, and later, outside. But the next day, after coming home from a ball game, Davy’s father told him, “Grandmother died this morning.” I fell apart, ran to my grandparent’s kitchen, and cried, asking “When will I died,” and thinking of death as a black hole, as absolute nothingness. This fear continues despite my Christian faith–that religion is wrong and that death will mark the total end. My interest in philosophy ultimately arose out of this focus on death, and my recent interest in parapsychology also arose from this obsession.

A related interest/obsession is with the heart–the physical organ. As the organ which best symbolizes life–and death–I became fascinated, especially after my dad brought a stethoscope home from work. That interest continues–to the point that at times I force myself to focus on other interests or on boring projects at school to get away from it. I read everything I could, from anatomy textbooks to my dad’s notes from work when he took his EKG course. I read about causes of death, not to be morbid, but out of pure curiosity–how does this disease or this injury cause the heart to stop? And I would listen to my own hearts and others’ hearts to hear the precious life within, the life that is God’s gift to us, that ends all too soon. (Having lost my best friend to cancer this past May, the reality of how soon life ends hit me full-force). To most people, my obsession is bizarre; to me, it is a way of controlling and coping with a deep fear of death. Of course my faith is the most important way–but like the Apostle Thomas, I have to say, “Lord, I believe; pardon my unbelief!”

I suppose my interest in paranormal investigation and ghosts arises from this fear/fascination with death. I have always loved horror movies, to the classic “Frankenstein” and “Dracula” movies I saw on “The Big Show” on Channel 5 in Nashville as a child to the Japanese “Ringu” and “Ju-on” horror series today. And in my own paranormal investigations, I get lots of electronic voice phenomena (EVP)–more than other group members. I leave the source of those voices a mystery; I just don’t know. I wish they were unambiguous evidence of life after death, but I could be causing them with my own mind–or someone else living could be. Oh, to be certain about what is intrinsically uncertain!

Asperger’s Syndrome has a few advantages. I can focus on a project obsessively, so that I have an impressive number of academic publications given a heavy teaching load at a church-related university. I love learning and love to read, especially sitting in my rocking chair beside the book case I built in Mr. Sims’ ninth-grade shop class, the case that holds my books I obtained from early childhood on through high school. Again, it’s a familiar space.

There is a painful social awkwardness that arises from Asperger’s Syndrome–I often do not know the right things to say in a social situation, though I have improved over time. Even in e-mails, which I read over before I send it, it is easy for me to be misunderstood, something that is always painful. It’s a risk to be social, scary as hec, but to refuse being social is to refuse all love and human companionship–and that is hell. Sartre said, “Hell is other people,” but I would say, “Hell is being totally alone.”

What would be heaven for an Asperger’s individual? In my case, it would start with something as familiar as tying my shoes in the morning. I spend the night at my late grandparents’ house. They are alive again. I wake up to the aroma of bacon frying on the kitchen stove. A breeze cools my skin. Dappled sunlight shifts as branches sway. Today, I will pick a watermelon from Granddaddy’s garden. I will ride my bicycle around the driveway and underneath a tree full of pears. My Spitz, Fuzzy, is barking, and I release him from his chain and hug him. He thinks he can lick me to death, but I love it. Later, I will run to the swing chained to one of two large maples in the front yard and swing back and forth across the drive in the cool shade. Granddaddy and I will bring out chairs and sit by the Old Nashville Highway, guessing which color the next passing car will be. Granny will call us inside for supper and iced tea. I’ll read one of Patrick Moore’s books on astronomy, watch “To Tell the Truth” at 6:30 that night with Garry Moore as host. I lie on the tile floor next to the fan, feel the late summer heat stream from my back. Above is a schoolhouse light; I stare at it, close my eyes, face the fan, feel its air on my face, and go to sleep–the next day will be a new, but also an old, adventure–and God willing, after seeing the face of Jesus in my loved ones and in familiar places, one day I will have the strength to see Jesus Christ face to face.