Creative people need geeks to help them master things like simple math and new cellphone technology. And the geeks need us to help them explore their feelings (they do have them) and the complicated world around us in ways that make it bearable. And the rest of the world needs both our kinds.
As the mother of a kid with Aspergers Syndrome (considered to be an Autistic Spectrum disorder), I’ve had the opportunity to watch it from a close distance for 20 years. I’ve learned one thing. It’s not a disability, it’s a gift (see the work of Dr. Tony Attwood). In fact, I think it signals a major evolution of the species.
How else would humankind be able to make the tremendous technological leaps of the past two decades? Most of us have barely learned to handle a mouse, much less integrate into the virtual world, but my kid can run through Runescape picking up weapons, supplies, and friends, talking with people on the bottom of the screen, and building a house at the same time. I can only sip my coffee and watch.
He also wears the same clothes over and over, is hypersensitive to noise, overexplains everything, has a tightly black and white sense of morality (despite being the child of a creative), and will only eat nine foods.
But he can process math problems like Rain Man, intuitively gets some complex scientific principals that challenge much higher minds, and he chose a double major of oceanographic engineering and Chinese. He’s not a genius, but there are some things he’s brilliant at. His skill sets lay like a map of Swiss cheese―he either has it or he doesn’t. No subtleties. One high school science teacher called him a ‘savant’. And yet he can’t understand simple instructions on where to find a book in the living room (or follow the directions to pass some of his college exams).
Life is literal for him. A college professor announced that ‘this is the only formula you will ever need’ and it took a semester of failing the exams to realize this might have been an exaggeration. When he was little and I would snap at him in annoyance he would respond with, “is that the real ‘good’ or the sarcastic one?”
So I learned to try to follow his map. I can’t always see where it’s going, but I can figure out where it’s been. And he’s learned to master so many of the things people said were disabilities he would never overcome, like swimming, skiing, and making friends. He cooks, drives his own car, has shared a dorm room at school with one and then two roommates, and he has worked during the summers at a very busy retail fruit stand and garden store.
He likes to stick with what he knows, but we can expand his repertoire. He enjoys the theatre now, although his tastes are narrow. He’s seen and enjoyed Wicked and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and he’s seen Spamalot three times. If you ask him to go to a new show, he says he’d prefer to see that again, but he can be talked into something new.
The trick with him is to constantly help him add to the range of his comfort zone. He can process social information, but clearly not the same way we expect him to learn it. He does it like Temperance Brennan on Bones, or Sheldon Cooper on Big Bang Theory, through intellectual analysis. He’s developing a pretty good sense of humor, the result of listening to hundreds of hours of comedy tapes whenever we were in the car, including Bill Cosby, Victor Borge, the Smothers Brothers, Brian Regan, Sinbad, and his favorite, Bill Engval.
We would listen together and he would laugh, and then we would talk about what made it funny. As a writer, this stretched me enormously, as I had to really understand the components of humor in order to explain it. “To be funny, something has to be true, but not so true that it hurts,” I told him, although I didn’t realize it until I said it. And just last week when we were watching the Ashton Kutcher version of Guess Who we talked about racial humor. We were watching the scene where Kutcher is prodded to tell his black prospective in-laws the bigoted jokes his Aunt told him and my son laughed before it happened. “You know he’s going to go too far,” he said. It was a proud moment.
I stand at the other end of the so-called spectrum of outsiders. I was a creative. My mother wondered why I deliberately chose to do everything “ass-backwards.” My grade school teachers complained that my mind wandered and I wrote stories while the other kids were coloring between the lines. The lines bored me. And it wasn’t so much that I thought outside of the box, but rather that I thought it was for trash.
At five I was writing poems and at six my mother sent them out so I could officially receive my first string of rejection slips. I drew, wrote plays, painted, sang, and played a pathetic guitar by the time I was in junior high. I felt compelled to express myself in these ways. My son did not seem to need self-expression at all, and yet at seven, when he got bored of making the lego projects the packages prescribed, he put all the sets together and made a full-sized VCR with a tape. He didn’t color until he started making elaborate fire-breathing dragons by the hundreds, never lifting the crayon or pencil from the paper. When asked to make something else, like a bear, he said “no, I can’t do that.”
Raising my beloved son has been an education, to say the least. And having done my undergraduate work for 20 years, I can now say I’m ready to complete my thesis. Here it is: Aspergers gives him more ability, not less. And what’s more, I think the world needs his kind. Microsoft Billionaire Bill Gates is the unofficial poster boy for Aspergers, and look what he has done. Temple Grandin is a full autistic who has an enormously positive impact on the treatment of feed animals in this country, who has written books on life with autism. And if we all think back, I’m sure most of us remember kids who had some of these odd traits who then went on to do amazing things.
My son can, and does master the conventional world, but at his own pace. He learned to ride a bike at nine, years after other kids. He was very slow socially in grade school and it seemed he would never be able to handle the confusion of middle school, where they had to change classes all day. But he did eventually master it, and many other tasks that he apparently deemed not too important at the time we thought he should be learning them. Guidance counselors predicted he wouldn’t make it through high school, and he’s almost through his second year living away at college, and doing fine. There seems to be nothing he can’t do—once it makes it onto his agenda.
The writer in me finds his unique approach to the journey of life interesting. Like Aspergians, creatives are somewhat on the periphery, and through this blog, I’m trying to help us celebrate how necessary we are to legacy of the human race. Creatives are the ones who explore and expose the path of human thought and emotion. (It’s a messy job, but someone’s gotta do it!) Creatives used to be viewed in the minority, as only the exceptional Leonardos or Picassos were in the club, but its now understood that a large percentage of the population demonstrates creative leanings (and thinking), and it’s taken on that wonderfully positive spin in our culture.
And at the other end of the human spectrum are the so-called “autistics” who are so bothered by the clatter and noise of our everyday world that they act out strangely. But they are the ones who can help us move forward as a species, to manage the massive amounts of information we have collected and implement the ideas we have produced.
So we are all on the spectrum. And we all have our gifts. And without them (the ones who figured out fire) and us (the ones who drew on cave walls so others could repeat it), we’d all still be sitting in the dark.
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