In the year 2002, when I was seventy-one years old, I read a book review in the Times Literary Supplement (London). The author of the biography under review speculated that his subject might have suffered from Asperger’s. I recognized that the symptoms enumerated also applied to me. After further research, it seemed intuitively obvious to me that I, too, must have AS. Searching for a therapist to confirm or disconfirm my hypothesis, I was both astonished and frustrated to find none who treated adults. I randomly selected one who treated autistic children, and who agreed to see me. She confirmed my self-diagnosis, and I became her patient. My random choice was fortunate, for she turned out to be a superb therapist.
Instead of focusing on the details of my case history in this talk, I would like to reflect on what I might have done differently had I been diagnosed during childhood. Since Dr. Hans Asperger first published his clinical description when I was 13 years old, and AS remained virtually unknown for some decades thereafter, my approach commits an historical sin. Nevertheless, I hope that the result will be informative.
A terminological note: I employ the term “Scarlet-A” as a more linguistically felicitous replacement for “Asperger’s Disorder.” This is in no way intended to diminish our academic and clinical debt to Hans Asperger.
As I now see it, my actual undiagnosed childhood situation consisted of two major psychological components. The first factor was that my social abilities became increasingly dysfunctional after about age three. The worst of these were: my inability to read the unexpressed emotional states of others; failure to understand intuitively the rules of the games they played; inability to assimilate the raison d’etre of the local mores, and my preference for solitude.
The second factor was mostly positive: a high IQ. Later testing placed me a bit to the right of normal on the Gaussian intelligence distribution. That had lifesaving properties, as we’ll see, but at the same time it severely limited my ability to communicate freely with others: I asked too many questions.
In short, I felt like an alien, was treated like an alien, and was an alien.
My Scarlet-A was exacerbated by the continuing psychological abuse—and intermittent physical abuse—visited on me by my father, starting at age six. He lectured me with a Hitlerian attitude, insisting that I start acting like an adult, precisely follow his orders, make no decisions for myself, and make no mistakes. I had no real childhood. If I did not conform, or tried to argue with him, he punished me in ways that ranged from threats, to slaps in the face, to being sent outside to cut a whip for him from a bush. Most significantly, he cut off my attempts to seek mentors, even within the family. He held vehemently the belief that the only cure for psychological problems was a boot to the rear, not a psychologist. I lived in an almost continual state of fear through childhood and adolescence, particularly due to the inconsistency of his expectations.
The foregoing maps onto Boswell’s report of Dr. Johnson’s attitude toward voyages at sea. Dr. Johnson had claimed that going to sea was like being in prison, but with no possibility of escape. As for me, huis clos, no exit—but I certainly sought one.
Some time during the first grade, I began to realize that I was living a life that was only partly me, that I needed to find some preoccupations unique to myself in order to deal with my alienation and cognitive dissonance. I sought both escape and fulfillment.
The act that enabled me to do this was to sneak into the adult section of the public library until my mother finally managed to procure a borrower’s card for me. Of course I didn’t understand everything I was reading, but I understood enough to change my life and overstimulate my curiosity.
At school, my performance in mathematics was very poor all the way through the 12th grade. I hated and resisted jumping immediately into solving boring problems without first obtaining some answers to questions about the nature of logic and mathematics. I was regarded as stupid by my peers. My teachers couldn’t or wouldn’t answer my questions, so I eventually stopped asking them. The library had no books on the foundations of mathematics. It wasn’t until I graduated from high school, when I purchased one of Bertie Russell’s books, that I discovered in the first chapter that my questions had been right on target and, in succeeding chapters, how to resolve them. Thereafter, I pursued pure mathematics to the point of obsession.
I read heavily in natural science, and came to see its methods as the sole means to reliable knowledge. Consequently I became an atheist. What I read about Albert Einstein taught me that one needed to raise one’s attention above the ordinary world of fixed objects, like houses, and fixed locations, like streets, to a universe in which everyone is in motion. What is required to make sense of the cosmos is a search for invariant laws holding everywhere. Ordinary school geometry fails to apply at very large distances. Einstein became a boyhood hero to me.
Everybody I knew turned their radio dials away from classical music. I accidentally heard a broadcast of Beethoven’s sixth symphony, and from that time on became addicted to classical music. I found that it purged my emotions. It raised my consciousness to experience an enchanting internal space, very unlike that of my environment.
I started progressively reading the “Harvard Five Foot Shelf,” and absorbed what I could of the Socratic dialogues and the Roman Stoics. Accepting Socrates’ claim that the unexamined life is not worth living, I took both his life and his death as an ideal moral model. For me, Socrates, too, was a hero. By the seventh grade I was reading the fiction of authors such as Tolstoy, Aldous Huxley and Herman Hesse. They became badly needed substitute mentors.
Thus started a life-long pursuit of a series of parallel obsessions, and an over-intellectualization that I am only now starting to fight. However, it was no imaginative or playful process. It was deadly serious, a heuristic endeavor to find a space that I could own in isolation, escaping the anguish preponderating in public space, and finding my own self-resonances. Still, given my circumstances, I have no regrets about following this path.
Had I known that I had the Scarlet-A, I would have pursued it intellectually as just described—but that could only have happened as a result of mandatory school testing. Even then, my father’s ignorant, negative attitude toward psychology would have closed off treatment. In any case, both of my parents would have denied that I could be “infected” with the syndrome. While I could not have sought formal therapy, however, I might have been able to use a telephone hot-line, had one been available.
So what would I have done differently had I known at an early age that I had Scarlet-A?
- My father would still have forced me to major in Chemical Engineering at Cornell, and I would still have been rusticated at the end of my freshman year. My request for student counseling would still have been denied by the university, because I needed written parental permission.
- I would still have been drafted into the army during the Korean War, “pretending to be normal” in order to survive. I would have also been a guinea pig in a Nevada test of a 30KT atomic bomb while 4 miles from ground zero. I would still have learned to admit and conquer fear. And my father’s dictatorship would still have been broken—except for what lingered subliminally.
- I would still have gone to Union College on the GI Bill, happily majored in philosophy and pure mathematics, and risked a lower grade-point average by taking advanced theoretical physics courses.
- On the other hand, I would have sought therapy for my Scarlet-A, either through the college or with a private therapist. This treatment might have done the great job my therapist and I are currently doing, although I doubt it.
- I would most certainly not have gotten married after graduation in order to share some human warmth-even though the marriage did produce three beautiful children, and we were divorced only after 23 years. I would not have wanted to inflict my Scarlet-A on any woman, and would probably have avoided any long term attachments. My former wife was a psychology major. She wanted to make a “people person” out of me which, of course, I could never become. During one of our heated conflicts she told me that she would say I was autistic, except that I was too intelligent to satisfy that diagnosis.
- I would still have sought my Ph.D. in philosophy and mathematical logic at Harvard, but having avoided marriage, I would not have gotten into an irresolvable conflict between the marriage and tough academic challenges. I loved the graduate school, but I had to leave because I couldn’t handle both.
- I would not have wasted thirty years of my life fooling around with the technical side of computers and networking, even though I had some success in that field.
Would I have lived happily ever after having taken my Ph.D.? My answer is that one sentence summary of one of Bertie Russell’s essays: if you want to make God laugh uproariously, tell him your plans.
I now wish to reflect on the fact that I only learned about my Scarlet-A diagnosis relatively recently. On one hand, it served to answer a question which repeatedly tortured me for years, “What is wrong with me?” On the other hand, it engendered a further question, “At my age, since the Scarlet-A is genetic and incurable, why don’t I fade gently away with my books and music?” Well, I am not ready to give up. I have also come to understand that I have a passion for living which is not reducible to logic or reason. It exists unconditionally and is unwilled. I have assembled a number of maxims to guide me. They are not intended to be absolute rules of conduct, but experimental rules subject to revision as needed.
1. Death is only an empty set and not to be feared. There is no need to worry about gaining a just afterlife, and no sense in ceasing to struggle with real puzzles, such as the Scarlet-A.
2. It is not the case that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. To some, fear is an unknown emotion. Some may no longer feel fear because they no longer care about living, but fear is otherwise a natural human emotion—and even useful, when it comes to fight or flight. There is no loss of one’s humanity in admitting openly to it. Many have learned to carry on in spite of fear’s nagging presence.
3. One can use one’s will and brain to try to handle calmly anything that can be thrown at one, including the Scarlet-A. But not having tried at all, or alternatively committing hubris, can prove to be fatal flaws.
4. Gritting your teeth and tolerating suffering can kill your emotions. You must do what you have to do. The Scarlet-A does not require lowering yourself to be, or to be treated as, a beast.
5. The only real freedom you have is inside you. The achievement of some goals requires acting obsessively. There is nothing wrong with having a freely chosen, healthy obsession.
6. Being neurologically atypical, no matter how alienating it is, is a matter of disjunctive polarity on nearly the same level as a gender difference; it is genetic. Instead of bemoaning and whining about what neurotypicals have done to you, ask what you may have inflicted on them.
7. Finally, mapping onto a statement about concepts and precepts in Kant’s first Kritik, one can remark that: diagnoses without applied therapies are empty; therapies without diagnoses are blind. That means that the line to follow lies between over-intellectualizing and over-pragmatizing. That line is like a razor’s edge.