The other day, Tony Attwood's The Complete Guide to Asperger's Syndrome arrived from Amazon. I learned about the book from John Elder Robison's memoir of growing up with (undiagnosed) Asperger's, Look Me In The Eye. Mr Robison made the Guide sound like a rigorous but usable handbook - the place to begin, as it were. To begin what, exactly? To begin asking if Asperger's might really - I don't know - have something to do with me.
Once upon a time, I should have been perfectly content to diagnose myself on the basis of Dr Attwood's book, but those DIY days are over. Older and wiser, I'm fully committed to working with a psychotherapist whom I've been seeing for several years. Asperger's isn't his specialty (addiction and dependancy are), but he speaks with an authority that cautions me against rash conclusions.
In the doctor's view, while I share a number of cognitive traits with Asperger's people (I'm disinclined to speak of "victims" or "sufferers" in this broad context), my emotional makeup is almost anti-Asperger's, as far from normal as Asperger's but in the opposite direction. Empathy, emotional intelligence, and the ability to "read" other people: these I've got in spades. I was inclined to look at them as skills that I taught myself as a nearly clueless child, but in the doctor's stricter's view, the ability to learn such skills is inconsistent with a diagnosis of Asperger's. The doctor draws a very firm distinction between the rote learning required, say, to fix a car - a cascade of invariable if-then conditionals - and the emotional connectedness that enables one to understand not only that but why a certain action might cause somebody serious psychic pain. I'm not so sure that I go along with the distinction, but, as I say, I'm taking the caution. For the moment, I'm placing myself outside the diagnosis.
It might seem very silly (not to say adolescent), this search for a diagnosis, given that I'm not egregiously malfunctioning at the moment. It's more than a little perverse, too, as I'd be lying if I denied that I'd like to meet the criteria for Asperger's. I'd like to able to claim to have "a mild case - but definitely Asperger's." A diagnosis is worth a thousand words - a thousand words that nobody wants to sit through. And to whom am I keen on explaining myself? Here's where it gets even worse: to my parents. They have been dead for over twenty years, but of course they live on in my mind. They are still judging, and I still expect the world to judge me as they did. Occasionally - really quite rarely - it does, and then I want to be able to throw the judgment back in its face, pointing to the note from the doctor. The note that I have been unable to get the doctor to write.
My mother would sooner have believed that I single-handedly invented the myth of Asperger's Syndrome than accept the possibility that such a thing might afflict me. "You like to tear the wings off flies and watch them suffer," she would say, accusing me more of sadism than of the cold-blooded curiosity that does in fact motivate me. She certainly thought that I possessed the emotional intelligence to make her unhappy. That's why I yearn to be able to say that, no, I didn't.
What really happened, I think, is that my mother couldn't understand why I was such a disappointment. The only sense that she could make of it was that my failure to develop into the man she expected her adopted son to be must somehow be not only intentional but optional; she imagined, as parents will, that I might have chosen the correct path. With a little effort, &c, I might have grown up to be an accomplished, public-spirited business executive with an adoring wife and a clutch of perfect children. Why didn't this happen? One of the reasons for my instinctive solidarity with gay men is sharing the gaping speechlessness that constitutes the only possible response to such expectations, which clearly, to us, have someone entirely different in mind. Are our parents talking to someone over our shoulder? They can't really be talking to us! But, yes, they are talking to us.
In the course of my lifetime, gay men have won a widespread right - it could certainly be more widespread - to explain, with the economical use of a word or two, why they don't court women. There is, wherever this right is enjoyed, no need for lengthy discussion. Increasingly, their family and friends are likely know something about homosexuality already, and not to need an introduction to the concept. I was hoping, I see, for something like that ready-made packaging from the two words, "Asperger's Syndrome." If I could tell people about my "mild case of Asperger's," then they'd know where to place me in their minds. "His head isn't screwed on right," they could say. They'd know that anyway, but now they'd have an idea of just how it wasn't screwed on right. Whenever I made statements that didn't seem to follow, or fell into monologues about my obsessive interests, or interrupted myself (and everybody else) with backstories and footnotes, they would have an idea why this was happening. My peculiarities would have a framework, and not seem to be novel or arbitrary. I would not be entirely sui generis.
That's what I was looking for, then, in Dr Attwood's book. I may just have to make up my own syndrome. My mother wouldn't be surprised.
Copyright (c) 2007 Pourover Press