Sunday, September 18, 2011

Viewing my autism as a gift, not a curse

When I was a child back in the 1950s, neither ADHD nor Asperger's (both of which I have) were even on the radar.  Because I had good verbal and reading skills, nobody ever saw me as 'disabled' or 'special' -- just a problem child who "does not work or play well with others."  (How many times was THAT on my report card?)  I was, they often said, "too smart for my own good" -- probably because I was talking by nine months, reading by the time I went to kindergarten, and into college material by 5th grade.  My family nicknames were "Chatterbox" and "Professor." A neighbor once told my mother not to let me come over there anymore, because I "made her feel stupid."

On the other hand, I was (and still am) socially inept, because I don't read body language or facial expressions very well, and I often fail to pick up nonverbal cues.   Throughout grade school I was the butt of ridicule and bullying by my peers ("Why do you always look at the ceiling?" they jeered), so that by the time I reached high school, I had pretty much withdrawn from all activities and almost flunked out.  The only reason I got into college at all was because I had really high SAT scores.   Eventually I got tracked into being a rabbi because I am a good scholar but, alas, most American Jews don't really want scholars, they want "schmoozy" social directors.  And that is something I am unable to do very well.  So, I ended up as a freelance writer.

Given all of this, how could I possibly believe, as the title of this post suggests, that my autism is a gift?   As a child, I did not believe that.  Well into adulthood, I thought I was cursed.   I spent years of loneliness trying to figure out why I could not fit in anywhere.  But recently I have come to realize how being an Aspie gives me a unique and different perspective on the world, and that it has helped my writing immensely.   My ability to remember precise details, make fine distinctions among various categories of things, and see complex interconnections all give my writing a clear, fine precision.

"Big Oak 3"
by Yonassan Gershom
(An old growth oak on my land)
As many of my readers know, I literally "wrote the book" on the subject of Holocaust reincarnation cases (Beyond the Ashes, 1992), and I believe my autism made this possible.  I was able to be emotionally detached enough to sift through the material without being overwhelmed by the horror and sadness of the stories. 

I also  believe my odd personality prevented this from becoming a cult, heaven forbid.  Since I have zero charisma as a New Age guru, it was not likely that any groupies would blindly idolize me.   In fact, readers are often very disappointed to discover that the author of the book they love is a chattering Aspie nerd who does not fit their stereotype of "spiritual."  And that is for the best. 
Autism also influences my photography.  You have probably noticed that there are no people in my photos.  Frankly, I find pictures of people to be terminally boring.  The last publication I would ever buy is People magazine, and I have never once watched a reality show like Survivor or The Bachelor.  All babies look pretty much the same to me, and I mix up adult faces as well.   For example, I know, that William Shatner is Captain Kirk on classical Star Trek, but if I see Shatner in another role, I might not immediately recognize him.  I might not recognize you right away, either, if I see you out of your usual context (such as in the grocery instead of at work.)   Which does not make for very good personal relationships. 

"Calico Kitten"
by Yonassan Gershom
On the other hand, nature fascinates me, and my ability to hyperfocus on small details helps me see the world through a creative lens.  I have hundreds of photos of the sky and clouds, as well as landscapes, trees, flowers.  I also have a great rapport with animals, too, especially cats.  I guess you could say I'm a Cat Whisperer.  Even cats that people claim are impossible to hold or pet will come up to me, rubbing and purring.   I would not ever want to give that up in order to  be "cured" and become a Normie.

As Temple Grandin once said (and I am paraphrasing here), if the socialites had been running the world for the past few millennia, we would all be still just sitting around in caves, chatting and gossiping.   When you look at great inventors and writers, they were often oddballs who did not fit in, but they saw the world through different enough eyes to come up with original ideas. 

I'm convinced that Thomas Edison was an Aspie -- how else could he hyperfocus on a single idea so intensely that he tried a thousand ways to make a light bulb?  And Bill Gates, who was the butt of jokes for many years because of his personality, turned out to be an Aspie also.  Perhaps he was not the most sociable person on the planet, but he did invent the idea of a loadable operating system, thereby making modern computing possible.  Were it not for Aspies like Edison and Gates, you would not now be reading this blog.   Remember that next time you want to "cure" people like me.


Sharon said...

As the grandmother of a very intelligent and autistic young man, your story touched my heart in a very special way. You are and always have been someone who's opinion I greatly respect. Thank you so much for writing this.

maxwellvintage said...

I love your animal pictures and your outlook on life. Very inspiring, thank you.

Yonassan Gershom said...

Thank you both for reading my blog, and for your kind comments.

Peter August said...

It's the rest of humanity that is not normal. You echoed how
I've felt for years. It is also why I'm not the social bug outside the house, although I was diagnosed at 22, I have never been treated for it. It's a curse and a haven. I may not be good socially at all, but I can build a spaceship in my head, all details included.

Suzanne Sauls said...

Thank you so much for sharing, I love the part where you see it as a gift rather than a handicap/disability. Your outlook on life is refreshing and I am sooo happy you share it.

Shunraya said...

Perhaps the lesson in all this is that 'normal' should really be defined much more broadly than it generally is.

But in truth, the ability to feel genuine gratitude for being who and what you are is one of the greatest blessings there is.

May you never lose this blessing.


Shunraya said...

You know, your post got me thinking (sorry about that!). This past Shabbat, we read the Tokhacha. Not hard to see that every word of it has now come true. Some of us will bear the scars of it to our graves, and we will be fortunate indeed if it stops there.

But is it possible that at a later date we will be able to see all of this not as a curse, but a blessing? Just as you needed to live with your autism for some time to see the other side of it -- the blessings that it brought you and the abilities that it conferred on you -- perhaps so it will one day be for us as a people. Perhaps one day we will look back, from the position of next week's Parshah, Nitsavim, and see all of it as a necessary part of our becoming who we were meant to be.

Just a thought...


Yonassan Gershom said...

That's an interesting thought, Ovadya. There is a saying, not specifically Jewish, that says when God gives us a burden, He also gives us a gift. I must admit that it took me a long time to see the "gift" side of this, and there are times I wish I had been diagnosed earlier in my life, so i would have had some other label for it rather than "rude kerky nerd" which is what people saw me as -- and what I internalized for decades. I spent years trying to make friends, thinking I was doing pretty good, then being told how "awful" was.

Finding out that there is an actual organic brain difference was very liberating for me. So was the invention of the personal computer and the internet (which dic not exist in my childhood days) -- it freed me up to express the real me inside, without my odd mannerisms getting in the way of communication.

So maybe the solution is in how we define things. Or maybe this is deeper understanding is just the normal wisdom that comes with age.

Shunraya said...

But would you have developed into who you are, had you been diagnosed earlier? Would you have developed the sense of self-worth that you now have, had you not had to struggle against the image that others had of you, and which threatened to become your own self-image?

I can sympathise to some extent, because I also had to struggle against the way others saw me, which threatened to become how I saw myself. All too easy to see myself as not human, a collaborator, a coward... In the end, we learn to define ourselves from within, not from without. We learn to measure our strengths only against our weaknesses, not against the strengths or weaknesses of others. A hard lesson, but one that many may never be privileged to learn.

Could you have become a rav -- with the authority and responsibility to teach others -- had you not faced such a terrible and empowering challenge?


Yonassan Gershom said...

Well, Ovadya, it is true that the challenges I have faced helped shape who I am today, no question about that. And it is also true that being outside the mainstream has given me perspectives that are helpful in relating to others on the fringes of the Jewish community. I think it also made me focus more on spirituality, on relating to God, on peace and justice issues -- rather than socialite activities ~~ which I could never afford to do anyway. People are SHOCKED at how small my Social Security check is -- if I were still living in the city, it would be under a bridge in a cardboard box. But even that has been a prod to getting more in touch with nature. Right now i am using my old Boy Scout skills to lash together the framwork for a new sukkah, since the heavy snow collapsed my old one. A far cry from spending hundreds on a prefab plywood one -- and more authentic, I think (will post pix in a future post -- you can see what was left of the old one under "sukkah" on the sidebar.)

Shunraya said...

Hmmm, someone should do a study of how our choice of sukkah-building method reflects on our personalities. Being a former Mediterranean dock rat, I tend to build mine using a lot of sail cord and some fancy knots, topped off with the trimmings of my palm tree for schak.

we also get our share of wildlife taking up residence. The cats insist on testing the structural integrity of the design at least once. But at night we get hedgehogs below and owls above.

Speaking of which, almost time to trim that palm tree!

Kol tuv, Rav Gershom. May the new year bring you what your soul most needs.


Caroline said...

Thank you for your gift of words and insight. I work with Asperger's kids at an alternative high school, every bit of knowledge I gather from a teacher like you helps me help them deal with the world of school and its challenges.
I printed your post to keep in my desk to help me understand more fully.
My husband and youngest daughter are ADD, so I also appreciate that challenge.

Yonassan Gershom said...

Thank you, Caroline -- glad to be of help. Nowadays there is so much more awareness than when I was growing up, including teachers like you. And there are even some positive role models on TV now, such as Dr. Reed on Criminal Minds, who is treated with respect and a valued member of the team. (Spock on Star Trek played a similar role for me, and I still identify with him, too.)

But the social expectations are still very hard in the work world. I was under-employed all my life because I did not "fit in" to whatever group of people I was working with. I was NEVER told I did a bad job, only that I was a misfit in the job's "culture." It got worse in the 1980s when companies began to seek out people with "EQ" instead of "IQ" -- in other words, it was OK to be ignorant or stupid, as long you can chit-chat around the water cooler. No wonder America is falling apart.

Society needs to learn to value Aspies for what we CAN do, not penalize us for things we can't do. As I often say (as you are free to quote me, it's my oiginal), "Nobody expects Stephen Hawking to dance, so don't expect me to be the life of the party."

Nekkid Chicken said...


As a mother of someone with ADHD (possibly Aspergers); I love the way his mind works. Sometimes I wonder if I too have Aspergers especially since, I worked in the confines of the military establishment. Those who are not fitting the norm are usually social outcasts. I don't think this is a bad thing unless behaviors are destructive to self or others. So I cherish the ODD MAN OUT more than I do those who fit themselves into molds.

I find you fascinating as an individual.


Yonassan Gershom said...

Well, this is the online self-test I consider to be most useful, although, of course, it is not a medical diagnosis. But it does give you some idea if you are an Aspie or not, and at the end you get a useful visual graph comparing your results to neurotypical results. (Which is useful to me, since I rend to need to see things to understand them.)

The first time I was given a test similar to this one, I was amazed at how many of my "odd" mannerisms would be consdered autistic. People who know me need only read the Qs on this test to get the point. I scored 164 out of 200 for Aspie qualities on this test, and only 38 out of 200 for neurotypical ("normal") qualities.
If I score this high on Aspieness as a 64-year-old adult, heaven only knows what it would have been as a child, since I have learned some coping skills along the way.

Yonassan Gershom said...

er, I see the URL is not showing, must have messed up the HTML -- here it is:

Anonymous said...

alonetoMr. Gershom,
I, too, am an Aspie and have always lived on the fringe of "normal" people socially. I have always been told I am a bad person. I finally discovered I am an Aspie while in my early 60s. How sad to have waited so long to understand I am different, but not necessarily bad.

I believe you have a condition know as prosopagnosia, or faceblindness. The area in your brain in which facial recognition takes place is damaged. Please Google prosopagnosia (PA) for a welcome explanation of your facial recognition difficulties. I learned I have PA while in my fifties. Believing myself to be a misfit for the first 5 or 6 decades of my life is tragic because I hated myself and my life. I hope early diagnosis of these neurological conditions results in all afflicted children being able to grow up and live among "normal" people comfortably. Much education of the general public is needed.

Anonymous said...

So much of what you write resonates with me because it describes my own life.

I was particularly struck by, "I might not recognize you right away, either, if I see you out of your usual context (such as in the grocery instead of at work.)"

This actually happened to me. The person I failed to recognize was my boss! Fortunately, our workplace was one in which attention to details and skill with numbers were highly valued, so my boss treated the incident as a joke rather than a serious faux pas.

Flora van Stek said...

Pleasantly surprised to read that you have Asperger's and ADHD. I am the Dutch translator of your book Between the Ashes, and in the past 6 years I also received these 2 diagnosis. ADHD in 2006 and Asperger's in 2010.
Warm greetings from the Netherlands!

Flora van Stek

Yonassan Gershom said...

Flora -- good to hear from you. I did not know about the Asperger's when I was in Holland back when the book came out, I had just learned about the ADHD. I think if I had known then, people might have perceived me differently on that speaking tour. As it was, a lot saw me as nervous and not very "spiritual." Or they all wanted to be personal friends and were disappinted when I did not connect well that way. The same happened in the USA. I am retired now and no longer travel or do much with reincarnation -- mostly because nobody was paying me, they either thought I was a "rich Jew" (not true, I am on a very small pension and we struggle to survive), or expected it to be free because I'm clergy. The book brought me fame but no fortune. So I decided to just let the psychiatrists collect their big fees and I have moved on to other projects. Peace & blessings.

Anonymous said...

This is not going to be an interesting post because all I feel like saying is 'Bingo' and yes I do relate to and appreciate so much what you have said

M Stern Mcjannet

Unknown said...

We've talked several times on Facebook, never on the telephone because I get really bad anxiety on the phone, but Rabbi may I just say that you have hit the nail on the head here. Being a fellow Aspie, Jew, rabbi, and author/poet, I was completely surprised to discover I was not the first to being the one who held that unique collection, but I'm glad because I've been able to read what you wrote and really felt the same issues in myself and in my past. Thank you, Rabbi Gershom, you always provide excellent insight.