I don’t get it. You got the
Asperger’s and now everyone has it. Why is everyone talking about autism?
My younger brother isn’t exactly fluent in the politically correct vernacular of the autism community, which is why I found his question to be so intriguing. Sometimes it takes the unrestrained tongue of an outsider to make the “duh” statements the rest of us are avoiding. Autism was once considered a diagnostic death sentence; now a thriving autistic community is shattering stereotypes, surpassing expectations, and dazzling a world long darkened by ignorance and misunderstanding. The autistic community, however, is not without its share of disagreements, but we must remember that the very existence of the autistic community is a slap in the face to the doom and gloom prophesies of a society burdened by an “autism epidemic.”
I am autistic. Why is autism awareness so important? Because I’d like, for once, to feel that I don’t have to educate every person who wanders into my life. “Nice to meet you! I may seem relatively normal right now but I’m actually autistic and if you don’t want to end up really angry and confused by my behavior, I’ll need you to read this small stack of books, watch these videos, and really consider what you’re getting yourself into.” Yeah, that gets old...
Diagnostic labels, causation theories, and inventive lingo will always fall short of explaining the autism spectrum, because each autistic individual has their own singular opinions, experiences, and emotions. What if autism was not necessarily a disease or disorder? What if the commonly accepted social design, with its arbitrary laws and etiquette, imaginary lines drawn in the sand, and countless divisive ideologies, was simply tossed out? What if we started from scratch, constructing a society with room enough for all God’s children?
Many of you reading this are doubtlessly humming the tune of John Lennon’s “Imagine” and scoffing at my gumball sweet optimism. Well, I’ve been called much worse than an idealist, and as far as I’m concerned, you cynics can go smoke behind the bleachers with the cool kids. How many social revolutions began with the words, “I don’t have a dream...”?
The world needs all kinds of minds. Human evolution is dependent on our diversity. Hans Asperger said, “It seems that for success in science and art, a dash of autism is essential.” Why is the autistic mind so vital to the human experience as we know it? Because great minds do not think alike… they think differently.
Shortly after my diagnosis, I had the opportunity to view the work of celebrated artists at the Baltimore Museum of Art. I strolled, disinterested, past statues and tapestries, landscapes and portraits. Finally, I turned the corner and entered the contemporary art wing. I felt a slow, electric wave dance through my body, escaping out the ends of hair, which stood erect on my arms and the back of my neck. Kandinsky, Matisse, Picasso... this was art I could feel. I was ecstatic as I tried to divide my time and attention among each of the sparkling canvasses.
I was drawn to an astonishing painting by Gino Severini, entitled “Dancer at Pigalle’s.” The figure in the painting was split apart by shafts of light, leaving swirling fragments of color, texture and sound... yes, sound! An exuberant music, the unlikely meeting of a French can-can and the Hallelujah chorus, vibrated in my brain. This music was not heard by my ears, but it was heard nonetheless, automatically, and through no effort of my imagination. If I closed my eyes, the music would rapidly fade.
I had experienced an overlapping of my senses before, though rarely had the sound of colors been so discernible. This phenomenon is known as synesthesia, and I now know, after some standardized testing, that I am constantly experiencing some form of it. I see letters, numbers, days of the week, even people, as certain colors and textures. The numbers zero through nine each have distinct personalities. Listening to Miles Davis in a perfectly dark room, I see geometric patterns in shades of brown and blue, moving, not with the music, but as the music.
I involuntarily retrieve masses of information by moving through synesthetic pathways. A certain color in my environment may trigger a kaleidoscopic catalogue of images from my prior experiences, each image continuing in an endless chain of sensory and intellectual information, a new chain adjoining each separate link, ad infinitum... This can make it very difficult to hold a conversation, as I often try to verbalize my every thought.
Mark Twain said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter - it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” My own writing is the result of carefully selected synesthetic impressions - words are chosen based on the compatibility of their individual colors, textures, sounds, etc... Words must not only convey the intended meaning, but meet strict sensory requirements. If met correctly, the words will be inextricably linked to a pre-existing mental landscape. I can develop this landscape wherever I am, and set it down on paper at a later time; the words on the page are nothing more than a crudely drawn map of this utterly private world.
Mozart spoke of “seeing” his music, “My subject enlarges itself, becomes methodized and defined, and the whole, though it be long, stands almost complete and finished in my mind, so that I can survey it, like a fine picture or a beautiful statue, at a glance.” Famous autistic Daniel Tammett has used his synesthetic mind Tammet to recite pi to 22,514 digits in five hours and nine minutes. Schizophrenia and epilepsy run in the Tammet family. Though recognized among the small handful of true savants alive today, Tammet has stated, “There are many things that I can’t do that most people can.... When I look at someone who’s hosting a party and they can talk to 100 people and they can remember all their faces, they can do eye contact and communicate flawlessly and fluently I think of them as a genius.”
How thrilling it is to entertain the infinite possibilities of the human mind! No two minds are alike. There are at least as many variations in human neurology as there are human beings. Yet people still expect others to be capable of thinking and behaving exactly as they do. Our prisons are overflowing with the mentally ill. Even those neurologically diverse individuals who pose no immediate threat to society are often ostracized for their differences.
A recent study by Kamila and Henry Markram offers a radical approach to understanding autism, which suggests that this “disease” is the result of an overactive brain, a brain continually processing such enormous amounts of information that daily life becomes a challenge. The Intense World Theory states that autism is the consequence of a supercharged brain that makes the world painfully intense and that the symptoms are largely because autistics are forced to develop strategies to actively avoid the intensity and pain. Autistics see, hear, feel, think, and remember too much, too deep, and process information too completely. The theory predicts that the autistic child is retreating into a controllable and predictable bubble to protect themselves from the intensity and pain.”
Indeed, history has repeatedly witnessed the scientific and artistic contributions of the autistic mind. The enormous impact of autism on human evolution cannot be disputed, yet the socially awkward catalysts of human progress have often been vilified by those who insist on social homogeneity. Where would we be if all humanity was more or less the same?
No one has it all figured out. This is the frightening yet liberating truth of the human experience. The blind lead the blind in pursuit of the light. We must love and share in order to survive. People need other people. We rely on the strengths of others to make up for our own weaknesses. Each individual mind is superior and inferior in its own way. While stumbling in the darkness of uncertainty, we cling to each other for support. In doing this, we come to realize that we all exist as one, each unique color merging seamlessly into the next along the human spectrum.