Byron is an old ASU classmate of mine. We lost touch in 2000, when he rejoined the army. Ten years later, he tracked me down on Facebook, and every month since then we’ve exchanged a few messages. The other day he PM’d me: “Turns out I have Asperger’s Syndrome. Does that freak you out?”
“Not at all,” I wrote back. It was the truth. In fact, I might have added: “Et tu?”
Just a few months earlier, an ex-girlfriend named Karen wrote me to report her own diagnosis with AS. “In case you ever wondered why I was so weird, well…” was the gist of the letter. She went on to relate how she’d enrolled in a sort of class, along with others like her, to gain a better undertanding of why and how their experience of the world differs from the average person’s. She’s finding it helpful. She also said she and her friends call themselves “Aspies.” Notwithstanding my outsider status, I’ll help myself to the word — it’s too jaunty to leave be.
By anyone’s standards, both Karen and Byron are high-functioning. Byron served as an artillery forward observer — a fact that casts doubt on his sanity, but not on any other aspect of his mental fitness — and holds a masters degree in social work. When I knew Karen, she was finishing up a bachelors in accounting. Byron is married with a son. Though, apparently like many Aspies, Karen now considers herself asexual, she claims to be “passionately in love” with two different people, both of them women. According to her, both objects reciprocate. Sex or no sex, this makes her a polyamorist, and therefore much hipper than me.
If there’s any quick giveaway that Byron and Karen are wired differently from most people, it’s the all-consuming quality of their interests. Byron’s hobby horses include martial arts and philosophy. He can entwine the two — say, by spinning an on-the-spot Hegelian analysis of Sonny Liston’s jab — in a way Norman Mailer would have admired. Karen is a sci-fi and fantasy fangirl who has made herself a respected eminence on a dozen discussion boards.
Yet I would hesitate to call either one obsessed. The social realities of this world may do nothing to tamp down their passions, but they’ve at least created an impetus toward compromise or camouflage. If anyone were to bring up botany or hip-hop music, either Karen or Byron would listen politely and make a sincere effort to contribute. When Karen, a veteran of countless comic conventions, managed to get herself photographed with Renee O’Connor, she never imagined that the event formalized some cosmic connection between them.
Both Karen and Byron are terrible drivers, but out from behind the wheel, both come across as lovable eccentrics. Or lovable to me, at any rate. I’m starting to realize that I get along better with these high-functioning Aspies better than I do with most high-functioning normal people. For starters, nobody, I’ve found, appreciates a good listener like someone with AS. If you can follow the Aspie-affected mind down its strange (though well-traveled) pathways, you’re as good as gold. Byron could amuse himself for hours with a game I’ll call — unimaginatively — Which Movie Character Could Beat up Whom? A typical round would go something like this:
“Okay, Max, who would win: Clubber Lang or Ivan Drago?”
“Drago, definitely. Clubber had no chin at all.”
“The greasers from The Outsiders or the Fordham Baldies from The Wanderers?”
(Long pause.) “Too close to call. It would depend on who brought more people. In any case, it’d be one busy night in the ER.”
“Mr. Miyagi from the Karate Kid movies, or Xian Chow from Kickboxer?”
“Xian Chow. Muay Thai is just too bad-assed.”
When I think back on this game, two thoughts occur to me. First, Byron never disputed my calls. As long as he could tell I was really engaged, he was satisfied. Second, I really was engaged. The exercise involved inductive reasoning, but allowed room for wishful thinking and even a sense of poetic justice. (Drago might have been a surly cuss, but unlike Clubber, he wasn’t crude.) It might seem childish — a regression to the Little Rascals’ Who’s Stronger: Flash Gordon or Tarzan? — but it’s related to a respectable form of sports journalism. After I lost touch with Byron, I ran across an issue of Nat Fleischer’s The Ring dedicated entirely to imagined match-ups between fighters from different eras. The writer predicted, among other outcomes, that Frazier would take Marciano in six, by TKO. As I recall, his logic was no more sophisticated than Byron’s would have been.
Then there’s the special sense of security I get from dealing with explicit verbalizers. As a writer, I like words. Sure, I can interpret nonverbal cues like a false smile, a dropped gaze or a tactful silence as well as the next person, but unless that signal gets converted into a paragraph, and quickly, I become antsy. I sense that the person I’m talking to is trying to deny me a tactical advantage by avoiding the medium in which I consider myself expert. Understatement, hyperbole and irony are fine, but in my old age I’m losing patience with people who default to them. Whenever I hear “That’s what she said,” I want to mark the speaker down for appealing to false authority.
One time, I asked Karen, “What’s wrong?” That evening, when I got home, I found she’d written me an 1,900-word e-mail explaining exactly what was wrong, and concluding with a point-by-point explication of how she wished for me to treat her going forward. At the time, I was outraged — the thing read like the Treaty of Versailles. With hindsight, I’ve come to cherish that document. It beats any of those “Oh, nothings,” that prove as reliable as the Munich Agreement.
Aspies are said to be deficient in cognitive empathy. That is, they have a hard time inferring what other people are thinking and feeling, even given clues that work fine for the rest of us. However frustrating and painful this might be under normal circumstances, it can, occasionally, be a mercy. When I first met Byron, he was dating a woman whose mother took an instant, passionate dislike to him. With karate-tested chin resting on karate-trained fist, Byron puzzled over the mysterious disconnect.
“I think I’ve got it, Bro,” he said at length. I wish I could reproduce what he came up with — something about archetypes, I think. The point is, it sounded a lot more pleasant to believe than what I perceived to be the truth: that the woman was spiteful by nature, and likely to become more obviously so over time. (The fact that Byron had introduced himself as “your typical Mormon Daoist” probably didn’t do much to boost his standing with a Southern Baptist family.) Not long after that, she and Byron got into a shouting match. I’ll bet dollars to donuts the understanding of their differences he’d constructed so painstakingly from thin air was the only thing that kept him from decking the hag.
To an Aspie, everything I’ve written here must reek of condescension. Here I am, dealing out unsought pats on the head from a position of unearned privilege. Anyway, would I speak so fulsomely of people more seriously affected than this pair? Probably not. When I worked on the ramp for U.S. Airways, I dreaded being teamed with an Aspie named Dave, who was brilliant at stacking bags, but chanted “Gotta go! Gotta go! Gotta go-go-go!” with an intensity that made my hair stand on end. Karen gave me the impression that Aspies create their own caste distinctions along passability lines. For socializing chiefly with people like me, she hinted, she ran a risk of being labeled an Aspie La Malinche. I certainly don’t want to add to that pool of resentment.
But, at least in my case, it took two poster children like Karen and Byron to get me thinking seriously about less ingratiating specimens like Dave. One of life’s cruelest realities is that some people dine out on their flaws (quirks, eccentricities, whatever), whereas others chase their own, nearly identical, irregularities straight down the drain. I’ve met no end of blustery illiterates who made small fortunes in sales. I’ve met other blustery illiterates who tanked, thanks to squeaky voices or dork faces. It’s downright criminal to say, “There but for the grace of God go I” without remembering that the devil is in the details.