Sunday, June 26, 2011

Book review: Be Different - adventures of a free range Aspergian

"Don't Self Diagnose!" was one of the first things I picked up when doing research into what could be going on with Christopher almost 3 years ago. It is really hard not to as you read about the behaviors of people actually diagnosed on the Autism Spectrum (ASD).

Reading this book certainly makes it hard not to. More about that later. First, my thoughts on this book.

"Be Different: Adventures of a Free-Range Aspergian"  by John Elder Robison. This book is a series of stories and advice by a grown adult, probably in his late 40s or early 50's who was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome when he was 40. It contains the stories of how he struggled through his education, teen years and first part of his life as an adult. He also points out some of the things that made him very successful in several different, very disparate fields. Everything from 'tuning' bicycles as a kid to custom electronics for music to specialized auto repair.

It is a fascinating story of his life experiences and how he can now associate them back to his Aspergian brain. In more than a few parts you can't help to feel sorry for him, and the later cheer him for not giving up or letting his 'diagnosis' define who he is. Even if you don't know someone with Aspergian's it is an interesting story to read. You'll be amazed how many things he associates with Aspergian's that we do ourselves or have known others to do as we grew up.

This book is also apparently where the term 'nypical' came from. I came across this term many times but never knew why/where it came from. Basically the author doesn't like calling someone 'normal' or 'typical' because no one really is. So he calls them 'nypical'.

The sections about how Apergian's can't read facial expressions, tone of voice etc were very interesting to read. I had to stop a few times and try to wonder what that would have been like.

Since we still don't know what exactly to call Christopher's challenges, I read this book in hopes of seeing and understanding what is going on with him. (Asperger's probably isn't one of them because of his language issues. Asperger's is often characterized by the strong, almost intense vocabularies. And the ability for those with the diagnosis to go on and on about one specific, obsessive topic.)

Back to my "Don't Self Diagnose" comment above. Reading this book it is really, really hard not to apply his stories to what happened to me as I grew up. But at the same time, many of the things he associates with his Asperger's seemed to happen to everyone growing up. In each chapter I can either see those things happening to me, my brothers or my friends. That being said, the vast majority of the people I get along with (brothers included) are like me, so I can't be sure that we all aren't suspects. (A whole other post will be about the recent research showing Autism clusters around hi-tech geographic areas. That one has me thinking  A LOT)

For example, a huge number of the engineers I've met over the years, both hardware, software, mechanical, electrical etc. have made the same comment: I'm good at what I do because I can focus for a long period of time on something. As kids many of us got in trouble for doing this (I remember getting caught reading Star Wars in class, hiding it behind my regular book because I was obsessed with that story). In this book the author identifies this single, obsessive nature as a strength of Aspergian brains. Does that mean all of us who can focus (obsess?) on something for hours and days have Asperger's?

Another example, many people I've worked with, not just engineers but those drawn to a technical career have joked 'I have no idea how I ended up with '. Or their friends and family tease them about 'dating above their weight class'. (Or come up with interesting nick names for their girlfriends that are shots at me, not her.) The author of this book devotes an entire chapter to meeting women, the challenges and in the end he comes up with a basic premise: the women in his life have CHOSEN him. Nothing he did directly could have made them interested in him, they just became interested after getting to know him. (Also they exclusively made the first move) And that almost nothing he did in the relationships kept them around (which isn't the same as driving them away, more that his attempts at romance etc. fail miserably). They have decided that the benefits of being with him outweigh the quirks of him being Aspergian.

I'm still not sure how I feel about this observation. I think every guy jokes about wondering 'why she's still with me', but Deb was the one who approached me first, at a time where I had no idea what to do with girls and was failing miserably each time I tried... ;) And many of the wives/girlfriends over the years have joked(?) that they can deal with the quirks of us guys because of the other benefits.

One final thought about the book: The author ends with an interesting view of how things are different as an adult than when he was a kid. One of them hit home hard. When he was a kid he was teased, even by teachers, about his ability to become focused on something, learn about it very quickly and become an expert in a short period of time. As a kid he was 'odd' or 'nuts' (he uses 'nuts' to describe himself a lot in this book) and something to ridicule. As an adult he's seen as a fast learner and expert for the same qualities. I remember vividly being teased about my obsessions as a kid, but now how quickly I understand new things is called out regularly as one of my strengths.

So you can see why self diagnosis could be dangerous. And for the record I don't think I have Asperger's syndrome nor am I on the spectrum. I'm just a typical geek in the 21st century.