by RENEE SKUDRA
I can set my watch by the fact that, at 4:00 p.m., my friend Julian (who carries a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome) will call me. I do not need to worry about whether or not I will hear from him because really, it is a fait accompli – if he says he will do something, I can count on his words for absolute verisimilitude. For those readers who are not familiar with this developmental disability, the concept of Asperger’s Syndrome derives from a 1944 study by Dr. Hans Asperger, an Austrian pediatrician who studied children with atypical behaviors with a common nucleus of traits. In 1981, a British psychiatrist, Lorna Wing, went on to coin the term “Asperger’s Syndrome” and although clinicians now tend to lump the descriptor under the term of “autism spectrum disorders,” many individuals with the condition (and others) still refer to themselves as “Aspies.”
The minute that I met Julian, I knew he was a member of the Asperger’s clan. He clearly had many of the traits enumerated in the Holy Grail of the DSM-5: persistent difficulties with social communication and social interaction, restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviors, obsessive focus on a single overriding and all-consuming interest, and obvious trouble reading social cues with the concomitant difficulty of failing to recognize or understand people’s feelings and intentions. Since I have a son with Asperger’s, I am highly attuned to the gifts they possess as well as the challenges that these individuals face. Both of them had the same highly focused interests (although Julian’s was that of real estate and my boy’s was American history), strong verbal language skills and pronounced, and I would go so far as to say precocious, intellectual abilities. Each had difficulty interpreting social cues and navigating the social world. I immediately honed in on their identical perfectionism, unwavering sense of integrity and pursuit of moral rightness and unimpeachable pursuit of truth. They also shared several other traits of other Aspies I had known: a desire for sameness and structure. There were similar challenges too – hypersensitivities to light, sound or taste, uncoordinated movements or clumsiness and an overriding anxiety, sometimes giving rise to depression.
The picture is amazingly complex with these highly unique folks, but the greatest impression I take with me is the phenomenal gifts which they offer. In the case of Julian, he can tell you anything you want to know about the real estate market. After all, at age 36, he owns 14 homes and is always ready to purchase another one. He styles himself as “a real estate investor” and from the sound of what constitutes his portfolio, it is not an overstatement. Although most of the real estate talk goes over my head, each day he calls me to talk about how things like home sales are booming, the current state of mortgage rates and what properties are for sale in central North Carolina (where we both live). He can even cite chapter and verse verbatim from people in the field such as when he mentioned a comment by Chris Arnold on the WFDD website that “Despite the steepest plunge into a recession on record, historically high unemployment and an uncertain outlook for the economy, the housing market is on a tear.”
The conversations with Julian usually follow the same track – real estate lecture and review, the dissemination of information inveterately surrendered with an emphatic delivery. There is that certitude which he and my son have when giving you facts – everything is ineluctably true because it is driven by the always present and underlying need to be a perfectionist. I am impressed by his zeal, moved by his loyalty to me as a friend and his calling every day at the same time to see how I am. It doesn’t matter that I am old enough to be his mother. A largely differing age between us is simply irrelevant. He treats me as though I matter. I have learned through him that it is really important to listen closely, particularly if people are neurodiverse. I don’t mind that he asks me every day if I am in the market to buy a house. That is one of the peculiarities of our friendship – the to and fro of talking about his dominant interest often supersedes the normative content of the speech that obtains between individuals.
In the end, I feel strongly that EVERYONE needs a friend with Asperger’s Syndrome. These quirky people populate the universe with their inimitable and brilliant gifts. While others might simply term them “eccentrics,” that is a limiting perception. These people bring color, light, humor and a different way of seeing and living in the world that can enlarge our own sense of what it means to be alive. An Australian friend with Asperger’s Syndrome has at least 60 clocks in his home and tells me simply “I just want to know what the time is in any country I’m interested in.” I understand now that he, like Julian and my boy, have imaginative lives that neurotypicals may not understand but are so often extraordinary. Having an Asperger’s Syndrome friend teaches you that marching to a different drummer expands everyone’s hearts and minds. Aspies show us that conforming to the status quo is a choice no one needs be relegated to make.