10 months ago



A Sharon Mind Apart

A Sharon Mind Apart Chapter 5 Sharon Seeing Other Minds Darkly The mail comes to the office in the afternoon, and I usually search through it quickly, hoping for a letter or two among the notices and requests. Sometimes the mail I receive is sad and poignant. Parents will write about delays in getting a diagnosis for their child or ask for another assessment, unsatisfied with their first encounter. Other letters ask about treatment options and what services parents should choose among the bewildering array of possibilities open to them. Other letters tell stories of children who are in trouble, who are teased by their classmates or are in danger of losing their school placement. Sometimes I receive correspondence thanking me for some small deed like writing a letter of support or giving a talk that proved helpful. I keep all these notes tucked away in a special drawer. Some letters, though, catch me completely unprepared. One letter was written by an adult who wondered if people ever recovered from autism or AS. Sharon’s letter began: “I would like to make an appointment for an assessment. Obviously, I cannot really be autistic, or even have Asperger syndrome since I have a husband, a child, and a career. But since I first heard of autism I have thought of it as ‘my problem,’ and this conviction only deepens as I learn more, and as I fail to change myself despite my best efforts. While professional diagnosis might be a comfort, professional denigration would be painful, which is why I have avoided exposing myself to anyone qualified to deny my self-diagnosis. 59

60 A MIND APART The main reason for writing now is the hope of finding a support group of fellow adult recoverees. I would really like to find some company.” A curriculum vita was attached to the letter. I learned that the writer was an architect who designed museums, private homes, and gallery spaces. Could such an accomplished person have ASD? Most of the adults I have seen with AS were still quite impaired in their level of functioning and what they were able to accomplish. But as we learn more and more about AS, it seems possible that some people with the disorder can be quite successful in adult life (Temple Grandin, described later in this chapter, is a notable example). Could Sharon be such an example? If so, I might learn more about the inner life of a person with AS and might learn, as well, how such people cope with the inevitable challenges that the diagnosis might pose. Perhaps new strategies could be devised from that information which would allow highfunctioning people with ASD to cope more successfully with their difficulties. Sharon thought this self-diagnosis was an accurate reflection of her predicament because she experienced significant problems in understanding and negotiating social interactions. She thought of herself as eccentric, and other people told her they often found it hard to communicate with her. In her professional dealings, she realized, on more occasions than she cared to remember, she had made some dreadful social gaffe with a client, but this awareness came to her only in retrospect and upon reflection. She felt uneasy with people, awkward and clumsy. Such difficulties are characteristic of people with AS but can also occur in people without the diagnosis. It would be a mistake to think that all problems of this sort are the result of ASD. Some people are shy; some people have a hard time successfully navigating the social games we play. But to give that predicament a medical diagnosis or to call it a developmental disability would be to extend the concept of ASD to such a degree that it loses meaning. What intrigued me about the possibility that Sharon had AS was not only the types of social difficulties she described but also that she was an architect. This obviously required a high degree of perceptual skill and a penchant for seeing visual nuance and detail. In the letter, she wrote that people who are good at social interactions are often quite blind to physical reality: “Organizations are filled with people who are socially adept, yet they seem to be as blind to the material world as those with autism are to social reality. In physical reality, the existence

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