You may call me Levi. For now, I’ll call myself “Tiger,” for I was born a tiger-spirit in May 1979 in National City, CA–an awkward, boring year in a city I couldn’t remember if I tried. I’ll explain the animal names by the end of this chapter.
I have been diagnosed as having a “different” brain by many a passing friend or counselor. What does that even mean with 7 billion brains on Earth? Some people think I’m average, some below, some above, some just different.
I’ll take Asperger’s for now, but I’ve walked away with “bi-polar,” “totally logical and happy-seeming,” “agitated,” “mildly schizophrenic(?),” “above-average IQ with some dissociative personality traits,” “perfectly normal in every way, even idealistically hopeful given what you’ve gone through,” etc. from many a professional. So, who knows?
I like Asperger’s because it sounds like “ass burgers.”
Moment 1 of Each Day
“I wish to be ‘normal’…I wonder what’s going on in East Timor?…this texture is weird…countries in order of occupation by Nazi Germany…what a beautiful color scheme…I’m sorry I have hurt you…it’s so bright in here…what happened in my life at age 12?” says my brain in the first half-second of each day-upon-waking, but only somewhere in the back of my mind, as if it’s halfway in the fiery mist of a dawn-dream.
The thoughts in my mind don’t really sound like my voice most of the time, and some of the voices have accents. As these words are rattled off, images of Paris’ arrondissements, outline maps of countries, the plots of old books, the text of science articles I’ve read pass by as well. I am instantly distracted and over-focused. I calm myself by sharing my story, deep information, and listening to others.
This is one of millions of echoing thought-strings I’ll have today in 2015, as my brain cycles unavoidably through everything it knows, reminded by every sight, sound, and smell of every item I’ve ever touched, every word whispered, every scent I absorbed. Sometimes, the thoughts are traumatic and scary–all the memories of my life–being lived in the present, it seems. Also, millions of high and joyful times of my life, and theoretical adventures I’ve never been on, circling and swirling around in a fractal pattern made of file cabinet doors and star-filled cosmos. I think in pictures, shapes, Star Trek, and graphs.
Mostly, I think in animals, because their lives are simpler than ours and they help me relax.
Nowadays, I immediately think a positive thought in the morning, focusing on yellow sunlight or the song of some chirping bird. It’s the first of hundreds of therapies I do in a day, from rocking back and forth, to going on walks in the forest, to staring at the wall, sometimes pacing the inside limits of a hallway or bathroom, often closing my eyes and meditating somewhere far, far away.
Every morning I wake up far too early, thinking. I start over in my childhood just after being born, when everything was blurry and decorated with smiling clowns.
Year of My Birth
“Mom, I’m sorry,” I think to myself. “I’m sorry I hurt your body with the C-section. Something happened in the trauma of my birth to make me this way.” This was my first thought, somewhere in my first year; I remember it distinctly and have it once a day.
It is the first empathic feeling I remember having in life: the witnessing of a scar running across my mother’s belly caused by me. When I reached out to touch it or looked at it too long, I could feel the searing pain of the injury wrecking my own gut. But how, even if I closed my eyes and waved my hand near it, could I feel gravity and weight coming from it?
When she held me, I could feel the pain in that first year, but I didn’t cry; in fact, I learned to think of it as a tickle. From then on, when any person walked by with injury, disease, or deficiency, I would feel his pain like gravity, too. Eventually, I would learn to smell and feel all kinds of biological markers. For the rest of my life, it would be difficult not to smell the crazy or the sad or the exuberant on people’s skin. It never made me afraid, but would make me cautious.
My first way to compensate was to become an animal. Animals were the first thing I understood: drawings of beasts, our family dog, observing worms or frogs for the first time…
By the end of year 1, books would follow and teach me more about what was outside of our own backyard. My first children’s books were from Richard Scarry (June 5, 1919 – April 30, 1994), who drew very cute animals going about their business with vocabulary words. The main characters were a cat and a worm. I would use them to teach myself to read in year 2. The animals in these books would become my first obsession.
In his book Look Me in the Eye, neuroatypical author John Elder Robison refers to his nicknaming of family members and friends. This is not an uncommon autistic trait. Animal comparisons helped me separate the humans in my life into a new language I could understand: noise, fur color, lumbering gaits, and musky smells. Sometimes faces and emotions were much harder to understand. I began early to think about the people in my life as animals, but I usually kept it to myself.
My mother is a Ferret. She ferrets out the truth in others, and is tall and lanky. Her voice is chittery and insistent.
**Baby book entries from the Ferret to the Tiger**
“9 months: You love everything about animals. You walk around constantly making the noises of animals.”
“10 months: You enjoy your books now, you look at them for a long time, you like to turn the pages.”
“10 months: You talk to Cochise [the German Shepard] a lot and your new word is flower. Only me and Daddy understand you. Everyone notices how very attentive you are to everything, like you study everything at once.”
“10.5 months: You like all children. You like to look at all the kids and at church, you push all the kids in a little car thing.”
Conclusions and Thoughts
I needed glasses as a baby or youngster, and didn’t get them until age 6. I learned to identify people by general shape, height, or the sounds of their voices before I could understand words. I tried to understand those around me not as humans, but as the sets of animal noises and shapes I recognized from the books. People’s exact expressions were blurred, so I had to learn to observe feelings by watching posture or listening to the people-sounds change from jovial noise to angry silence; I’m not sure I ever noticed people smiling or frowning, and I certainly couldn’t see tears, though I could usually smell salt in the room. From the inside, it felt like I was indeed studying everything around me; unfortunately, I couldn’t explain to my parents that most of the kids looked identically hazy to my eyes, which is why I typically stared at them as a group.
I’ll never know if it was the blindness that caused the autism, or vice versa, or if they’re completely unrelated, but I imagine that a child-brain forming for 6 years without witnessing human faces can’t be building the same automatic wiring for socialization that an eagle-eyed child’s brain would. Many neurodiverse people can’t even describe their bad eyesight verbally, so may go decades without ever being diagnosed with deficiencies. It would be like asking a blind child to describe color, when the part of the brain responsible for interpreting, mixing, or describing color would never have been built, would it? The same may go for autistic kids and human faces.
It is oft-reported that people with Asperger’s or autism are lacking in empathy. In most clinical abstracts, a lack of empathy is often the definition itself. I propose empathy is not an emotion in the classic sense, but a way of being. And, I’d also like to compare it to the word “sympathy.”
Empathy n. (from Greek “em” or in and “pathos” or feeling equals “in-feeling”) or the ability to understand and share the feelings of another may be getting confused with the word…
Sympathy n. (from Greek “syn” or with and “pathos” or feeling equals “together-feeling”) or a feeling of pity or sorrow for another or understanding between people.
I suggest that autistic people may lack sympathy more than empathy. Sympathy feels like a feigned, external view on another’s situation, like feeling bad for the people involved in a Haitian earthquake while watching Beyonce and Anderson Cooper on a big screen surrounded by filet mignon. I don’t feel this sympathy feeling very easily, instead I hold myself, rocking, witnessing one of my obsession-countries or one of my favorite near-extinct species go down while all of humanity watches. This is not sympathy or empathy, it’s sometimes just hypocritical, like I can be.
When tragedy strikes, my mind goes straight to logical possible past action, like “well, why did the French destroy any chance Haiti ever had to develop a healthy infrastructure (and other insurmountable problems).” Or a simple solution: “why are we so uber-capitalist and discriminatory now, so that Haiti is such an impoverished wasteland?” These aren’t meant to be negative thoughts, they’re my version of hope, one in which people can learn about their own ignorance as I have, and learn about their own hypocrisies as I have. A sympathetic “aww, darn it,” or “oh, shoot, not again,” just don’t seem that genuine to an autistic person; we want to go back in time or forward in time to fix the situation.
Empathy, though, may be at the core of the problems an autistic child experiences, as they feel the emotions of those outside of themselves TOO MUCH, just like processing too many sounds or sights. To most counselors, the appearance of not being able to explain empathy seems to imply that there is no inherent empathy. I disagree, I think most autistic and neurodiverse people would just rather not share what they think everyone around them is really thinking. Trust us, with too much empathy–perhaps even telepathy, it may just be better not to know too much about other people’s thoughts and feelings.
In extreme autism or an aspie meltdown, even the words that may normally escape the tiny human mouth can’t come out past all the external stimuli: a total shutdown. In my case, even slight shifts in emotions and conversations can throw me for a loop, but lacking empathy isn’t what it is. I can certainly put myself in the shoes of others, but cannot sympathize with all conversations.
I’m willing to guess that most humans out there aren’t really that great at putting themselves in each others’ shoes. The world would be one filled with forgiveness and light if that were the case.