Monday, August 13, 2007

A peek into the future

Tim Page, the classical music critic of the Washington Post, wasn't diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome until he was an adult. But as he writes in the current issue of the New Yorker, his peculiarities started frustrating his teachers from an early age.

I was struck by the familiar ring of a second-grade essay Page composed after a field trip to Boston. Except for one sentence in which he mentions that they saw things "like the Boston Massacre," there is no mention of museums or historic sites. Instead, he chronicles the exact time the bus left. He notes the number of the bus, which is the same as the number of one of the schoolbus routes that travels on this particular street, and that one, and that one, where a classmate lives. He lists the interstates on which they traveled to Boston. Then he concludes with an account of the exact time they returned.

Fast-forward Archer a year into the future, and I find it hard to imagine that he won't be writing that exact essay. After all, most of his conversation consists of information about the temperature, the time, various street addresses where important people in his life reside, dates when crucial events will take place, and the relationship between all those numbers -- which collectively makes up the framework on which his happiness depends.

I tend to think that Archer's autistic communication reflects his obsession with numbers -- and so it does. But Page's account of his early life reminds me that there's another meaning to it. He can't separate relevant details from irrelevant ones. It's what makes social interactions so difficult and laborious to achieve. Normal conversation depend on reading the important cues and knowing what's appropriate based on them. That, in effect, means knowing how to dismiss or ignore trivial details.

It's that ability to intuitively discriminate among the various facts, objects, and symbols in our environment that makes it possible to share a common world with people in communication. And it's exactly that that autistic individuals have to learn step by step, rather than understanding through the usual socialization processes. Until they do, the world that makes sense to them is going to be made up of stuff that doesn't make sense to us, and vice versa. In the final analysis, that's the difference that keeps autistic people locked in their own world -- the trait that gave them their name, from the Greek for "self."

Archer's making great progress, but I get most excited when he's able to connect what other people are talking about (or a story in a book) to something that's already slotted into meaning in his life. He may not be focusing on the piece of information that's significant in my world, but he's attending enough to my world to want to build a bridge between the two. And he's got to start where he is -- with his numbers, times, mazes, and complicated processes for transforming them into each other -- and find a way to translate. When that happens, I see his joy. Another piece has fallen into place for him, and he loves more than anything that sense of the world organizing itself from chaos to meaning. My greatest hope for him is that he finds a way to live in the details he loves, like Page has done with his music. I have confidence that he can negotiate enough of our world to make his way into and out of those details as required, but I'd rather that he be able to work inside the world that makes the most sense to him, and not have to spend most of his waking hours translating in a foreign land.

1 comment:

Justin Ray said...

I find it fascinating to imagine Archer's thought processes. The few times I have interacted with him have made me want more, because I honestly think there is a lot I could learn from him. What is relevant is a matter of perspective. When I think about how skewed some of our perspectives are, I wish there were a little more Archer in us all.