© Adam Granger
69% of cars have an odd number of spokes in their wheelcovers. My daily walk is 5110 paces. I know these things because I'm a compulsive counter. I count everything, all the time, and have for as long as I can remember. Center stripes on roads, lights in store ceilings, number of E's in a paragraph.
Eccentric? Yes. Insane? Probably not, although non-counters (who make up the numeral majority) might say so. I was a terrible student, inattentive and disruptive. I limped out of high school with a 1.7 GPA, but I could have told you how many bricks were in the gymnasium wall.
Were I coming of age in today's world, my dysfunctionality—whatever its nature—would be detected, defined and dealt with, but in the 60s, treatment consisted of a perfunctory annual trip to the school counselor who would tell me that according to my test scores and my IQ I should be getting better grades. Thanks. We should end world hunger and disease, too. There. All fixed. So, absent 21st-century enlightenment, I wove my way through the obstacle course of my idiosyncrasies and ultimately made a successful life for myself.
This all comes to mind because of the re-education I've undergone in the six years since we found out our 20-year-old son has Asperger's. As anyone not just back from an internship on Neptune knows, Asperger's is on the autism spectrum, so hearing that my son was thus afflicted was alarming: To people my age, the word autism conjures an image of a helmeted child sitting alone in a rubber room bouncing a ball on the floor for his entire life. To find out, then, that my son is in the same neurological group. . . .
But then I found out that he's not anywhere near that rubber room, and then I found out that that helmeted kid shouldn't have been either, that those rooms existed because we didn't know how else to deal with autism, and somewhere along the way I realized that my impatience with my son was equally inappropriate and archaic.
By now, we're pretty much all hip to the more dramatic negative elements of Asperger's Syndrome: social awkwardness, poor eye contact, hypersensitivity to various stimuli, eccentric speech habits, self-absorption, obsessive focus on one subject, compulsive adherence to routine and—a new word—stimming: repetitive physical movement. My son possesses some of these, but he also has high intelligence, unwavering honesty, trustworthiness, creativity, a very interesting sense of humor and dogged perseverance in the face of adversity. These qualities have made my son a wonderful human being, neither more nor less of a pain in the posterior than any of the rest of us.
Asperger's is calibrated on a scale, the variables being how many of which traits are present, and to what degree. The possible mixes are infinite. The Big Trick seems to be determining which traits need attention and which are harmless, perhaps even to be encouraged.
My son's diagnosis and the counseling we're getting are a godsend to our family. My occasional concerns that his diagnosis will become an end unto itself, with him not trying to make life in the neurotypical (another new word) world work, prove consistently to be without foundation. If he ever plays the Asperger's Card, it is rare and, I would guess, legit.
The questions I am pondering are: Would my life have been better had I been diagnosed and treated for whatever it is that's wrong with me? And is there anything wrong with me? Was there character-building value to my growing up in a world at a time that said, essentially, “Get over it, kid,” or would I have flourished earlier had I not had to blaze a sometimes-perilous DIY trail? How would my son's life be different if he hadn't been diagnosed? When is it appropriate to play that Asperger's Card, and when should one say, “I think I'll just try getting over this one?” And should we be referring to people, as I did above, as “having Asperger's”—as though it were scurvy—when in fact the Syndrome defines a broad peninsula on which all of us own property?
That's right, all of us: Read those Asperger's traits again and tell me there's a person living who doesn't have any of them to some degree and I'll show you a person who has assumed room temperature. And if, against odds, there is, then they're on some other spectrum. There's not one of us who doesn't have something about which any reasonable person would say, “Now that's weird.”
So here's my suggestion: I'll keep on counting steps and spokes and bricks, you keep on doing your quirky little things and my son can keep doing his, and we'll all watch each others' backs and intervene if there's a need to. Deal?
And by the way, this article is 817 words long.