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a random walk with asperger's syndrome

my developmental journey

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Childhood


My mother says I was born one month prematurely. I've read that as few as three weeks of prematurity can place a child at risk for developmental problems. Another potential risk factor is pregnancies that are spaced too closely together. My sister was born a little more than a year and a half before me, and the time interval between my parents and their next older siblings was even less.

As I remember it, kindergarten was low-impact and low-demand. You showed up, they gave you stuff to do, and you did it. Then you went home, where you belonged, sort of.

I attended the Merion Square School (now the site of a Montessori school) in Gladwyne, a small town in Pennsylvania. The first time I remember having difficulty there was in art class in one of the early grades. The teacher passed out some materials and asked us to draw something. The blank piece of paper, which seemed almost as big as I was, frightened me. Unable to think of anything to draw, I froze. That everyone else was working busily only made matters worse. I looked for an escape route, but the only place you could go was the bathroom, and an adult had to accompany you there.

I hated school and sometimes tried to avoid going there by pretending to be sick. Everyone tried to get me to go back to school, but it never occurred to them to try to find out why I didn't want to go in the first place. Unable to talk about my feelings, I had a generalized kind of fear, a fear that was usually untied to anything specific. To this day, I think that hating school is a sign of excellent mental health and perfect social adjustment.

I must have been a difficult child to nurture, as I hated it when people touched me or got too close.

One of my first meetings with the opposite sex came in the early grades. I had a crush on a pretty brunette named Janet West. She lived at the bottom of the hill on Waverly Road, a couple of blocks from our house. With the help of a co-conspiratorial aunt, I once left a small bottle of perfume on young Janet's front doorstep. Lacking the nerve to speak to her, I rang the doorbell and ran.

I could stop the narration of my love life here. Most of my encounters with the opposite sex have been variations on the Janet West theme. Much hopeful longing and yearning accompanied by much running in the opposite direction.

The perfume incident was my last interaction, if you can call it that, with Janet or any other female in elementary school. It was also the last time I ever bought perfume for a woman.

As a child, I hated quiet sounds like the rustling of leaves in the breeze or the soft feeling of the sheets against my body when I rolled over in bed at night. It was as if there were a sensitive microphone at the point of contact between the cover and the bed sheet, the sound amplified almost to the point of a painful feedback squeal.

My mother said I never spoke baby talk (a language I now know was invented by adults, not children). On the contrary, I was able to use adult words at an early age. They found this more annoying than endearing.

I never wanted to be an adorable child. It used to drive me crazy to see other children playing the role of the cute kid. Some of them behaved as if they wanted to be hugged or kissed or petted like an animal, so they could get what they wanted from adults. I didn't want anyone to touch me or pick me up. The adults liked you only if you could fulfill their image of what a little kid should be. I knew some of these fawning children and most of them weren't stupid, perpetually needy airheads. On the contrary, they were cannily learning their lesson in life, namely that to get what you wanted, you had to entertain the adult population and meet their expectations.

My family didn't buy its first boob tube until I was about five years old. That is, I lived in a healthy environment for brain development for the most important half-decade of life.

When I was older, however, my inability to follow the story line of a dramatic television show frustrated me. Everyone else was glued to the TV, and would sometimes have long discussions afterwards about the show. Who did what to whom, and why. The story lines were too complicated for me. I got lost by about the time the third character was introduced. I discovered that once you lose the thread of a story, you're lost for good. It was like falling off a bicycle. Each scene presumed an understanding or appreciation of the previous scenes.

Seeing myself as different from others in this regard, I became jealous. Though I had little interest in socialization for its own sake, a part of me did want to have a social life like that of other people. From a distance, it looked like fun. I was slowly becoming aware of the importance of socialization in human society. All activities depended on it.

The adults thought that I wasn't as demonstrative of my feelings as they would have liked. They poked their fingers into my stomach or made loud noises in my presence, in what I believe was an attempt to provoke an emotional reaction in me.

Although I felt uncomfortable around people, I was equally uncomfortable with the prospect of becoming a hermit. (There would later be no hermit table at career night in school.)

Some of the neighborhood boys were reading and collecting comic books. Again, I had trouble following the story lines. People told me that my face resembled that of the character Henry, but my favorite was Casper the Friendly Ghost. I guess I could relate to the fact that he was generally benign and both of his environment and not of it at the same time.

One of my first recollections of the public library was my dismay that some of the books on the shelf weren't lined up straight. I was much more interested in straightening them than in finding out what was in them.

In the company of my peers, I often complained about school. On one occasion at the bus stop, another boy, who had heard enough of my bellyaching, said, "Come on, now. You know you like school. It's not so bad. You get to see all your friends there."

Until then I had thought that only a masochist or a pervert could like school. To me the other boy might as well have said, "You must like prison, because you get to see all your friends there." I did have a few friends at school, but I'd happily have sacrificed them in return for not having to go to school. A friend is only a friend, but school was torture. You might have a friend for a year or two, until you changed schools, but school went on for what seemed like forever.

Having feelings — even conflicted ones — was a good sign, I believed. At least I wasn't dead or completely numb. I valued my well-being enough to seek the protection of solitude. However poor my social skills may have been, at least my animal instinct for survival was in good working order.

In the sixth grade at the Valley Road School in Princeton, New Jersey, you stayed in the same homeroom most of the day and had the same teacher for every subject. There were exceptions for some classes that required special resources, such as shop, gym, and foreign languages. It was hell having the same lousy teacher all day, every day.

Mr Gutman was our French teacher. One day he asked us each to use the phrase "vous êtes" (you are) in a sentence. I'm ashamed to say that, when it was my turn, I said, "Vous êtes stupide" (you are stupid). I believed that his intention was to evaluate us on the grammatical correctness of our responses. As far as I was concerned, "vous êtes stupide" was a perfectly good construction. Like most earthlings, however, he took the remark personally, and spent the rest of the hour explaining to the class, in French, how he was going to torture me.

You might say that my public relations skills needed a little fine tuning. I knew I wasn't antisocial by the standards of Jack the Ripper, but I also understood that I was failing to fit into human society as well as I might have.

I also had trouble in French class with the use of the familiar form of conversational address ("tu"), as opposed to the more formal "vous." I tried to remember to use "tu" with my classmates, as I had been instructed, but it never felt right. Everyone is "vous" to me, no matter how familiar.

I hated the emotionally hollowed-out feeling in my body when I tried to conform to others' social expectations of me, or, worse, to lie about how I felt.

The following year we had separate classes for each subject.

Eugene Doherty, my seventh-grade English teacher, was a grizzled, crewcut World War II veteran who had a metal hook for a hand. Despite his disability, he carried on bravely and enthusiastically with his teaching and with his favorite sport, fly fishing.

He also loved to tell stories. Like the time, after completing his physical rehabilitation, he presented his wife with a hat he had decorated with flies laboriously but proudly tied with the help of his metal hand. She wasn't much of a fisherwoman, I guess, because whenever he needed an extra fly for his next fishing trip, he would poach one from the unworn hat. He eventually stripped it bare of its decorations.

I'm still scratching my head on that one. I know there's a moral in there somewhere; I just don't know where.

In any case, the administration had decided that we were now ready to read Real Literature. No more kid stuff, no more elementary-school stories involving Dick, Jane, and their dog, Spot. Our first book in that class was Homer's Odyssey. They might as well have presented it in the original Greek, for all I understood of it. While I was able to understand most of the individual words, I couldn't grasp the whole, the story line. That is, I could see each of the individual dots, but, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't connect them.

Mr Dougherty's style of teaching by publicly ridiculing those who were falling behind only added to my misery.

Around that time, I started to read a little on my own, mostly in popular science, mathematical puzzles and games, and hobbies like coin collecting — activities that require a minimum of socialization. I also read the World Book, a middlebrow encyclopedia, which I believe a door-to-door salesman had sold to my parents. Sometimes I think that if the Britannica salesman had arrived first, I might have ended up at Harvard.

Fiction, however, continued to baffle me. To date, I've read and understood only a handful of fiction books, such as the James Bond series. On those rare occasions when I do read fiction, it's usually for the atmospherics, the settings, or in the case of 007, the escapism and the two-dimensional, cartoon-like characters. I have trouble with books that have a more complex plot or character development. I have no clue as to why the characters might be doing what they do or saying what they say.

When I was in school, the quickest way to get me to wish I were dead was to say the word "composition." Let's just say that I continued to contend poorly with blank pieces of paper. They caused my body to become tense and my mind to empty. I never wrote anything unless I was under the threat of the death penalty for not doing so.

Unstructured free time was much more to my liking than school. Some of my most vivid memories of childhood were the feeling of lighter-than-air elation on the last day of school in the spring, and the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach a few months later when I realized that the seemingly endless summer would sadly come to an end.

As a child I made little effort to get outside of myself, to try to know or understand what others thought or felt about the world. When I did care, it was usually in a detached, distant way.



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