Only since the mid-1990s have a group of socially impaired young people with otherwise normal intelligence and language development been recognized as the neurological cousins of nonverbal autistic children. Because they have a hard time grasping what another is feeling — a trait sometimes described as “mindblindness” — many assumed that those with such autism spectrum disorders were incapable of, or indifferent to, intimate relationships. Parents and teachers have focused instead on helping them with school, friendship and, more recently, the workplace.
Yet as they reach adulthood, the overarching quest of many in this first generation to be identified with Asperger syndrome is the same as many of their nonautistic peers: to find someone to love who will love them back.
My oldest son Matthew is an Aspie, but right on the border with neurotypicality, such that it’s not obvious that he has the condition until you spend some time with him. Learning to live with him has taught me to see myself in a different light — specifically, to see aspects of my own personality that reflect autism spectrum characteristics. For example, despite being highly intuitive — I scored unusually low on Simon Baron-Cohen’s test, indicating that I’m rather far away from the autism spectrum — I have certain qualities associated with Asperger’s. For example, my mother tells stories about how intensely frustrated I could be as a child when people wouldn’t do what I wanted them to do. Often I had it all worked out in my head what the correct thing to do was — and I would usually, in fact, be correct, as a matter of procedure — but when things didn’t go the way I thought they should, I found it very difficult to deal with emotionally. My father, who was my baseball coach in the 9-to-12-year-old-boy league, said that at any given moment on the field, I would have it all worked out in my head what the correct defensive play should be, no matter where the ball was hit. But I was so anxious over the fear that the correct play would not take place that I couldn’t enjoy myself.
All this worked itself out to a significant degree with age, but it’s still ineradicably there. I think to some extent my somewhat stern moralism is as much a function of my neurological constitution as it is a matter of moral conviction. On the other hand, the unusually high level of empathy I have tends to be at constant war with my moralistic rigor — and this too (the empathy) is, I think, also an expression of neurology.
Granted, this is all armchair self-diagnosis, so take it for what it’s worth. Still, autism runs in families, and my kid has to have gotten his autistic tendencies from somewhere. As mild as his autism is, I can tell that what he has is only a more pronounced version of inchoate tendencies within his father — and that these are tendencies that I can see recurring in various members of my extended family. The interesting thing to me is that at this level, it’s hard to determine which of these are expressions of genetic predispositions, and which are matters of nurture, of learned behavior. In other words, are we pathologizing a character issue, wrongly ascribing what it a moral issue, or primarily a moral issue, to medical causes? Or, on the other hand, are we seeing what people in an earlier generation (and very many in our own) would see as a flaw in one’s character (“Oh, he’s so prideful, don’t you think?”) when in fact it is a sign of their neurological atypicality, and therefore not something under their control?
A pure materialist would say that our personalities are nothing more than the expressions of brain chemistry and electricity, determined in part by our genes, and in part by our environment. I don’t believe that. But it is not the case either that we can overcome, by force of will, the neurological inheritance nature bequeathed to us. Complicating the mystery — and this is something that you really do see and have to come to terms with when you’re raising a neurologically atypical child — is that there is no formula that predicts how autism-spectrum disorders will manifest in each person who has them. I don’t think it’s accurate to go much further than saying that there are tendencies; to over-define these things is t0 risk editing out part of an autistic individual’s reality because it doesn’t fit into a theoretical model. As I said, by most measures, there is nothing autistic about me. But living with a mildly autistic child, and learning more about the spectrum, and especially hearing my parents talk about the way I thought and behaved when I was younger (which sounds very familiar to me now, as the parent of an Aspie), compels me to realize that there are more autistic tendencies latent within me than I would have guessed.