By Tom Welch
I have had the interesting experience of growing up on the autism spectrum, in what used to be called Asperger’s Syndrome.
This condition is marked by a number of traits, the most notable of which are social awkwardness and a tendency to become “overloaded” by external stimuli. Most people don’t exhibit all of the 10 or so main traits of Asperger’s but perhaps half of them.
That is the case with me.
My mother has told me I didn’t speak at all for the first two years of my life, no mama or dada or such. At two, I started speaking in complete sentences. This today is a tip-off for autism, called mutism, which in some children lasts for several years or even indefinitely.
These days, this is treatable, and is sometimes overcome, with early therapy. Sometimes the mutism is selective and appears only in the presence of people not in the nuclear family.
Other times it is total.
In my case it was total—but fortunately only for two years. I don’t remember it.
My first recollection is at about four years old. My mother was trying to bond with me by talking baby talk to me. I felt what I now know is called offended, that she appeared not to appreciate that I could understand regular speech.
One day at about that same age, a couple of women friends came over to visit her. As they were sitting in the living room, my mother called me over and tried to pull me into her lap. I felt two things then, first that she was treating me like a baby and secondly, that I was being used as a “prop” although I knew no word for that then.
When I was about five I had a small collection of Golden Books into which I could escape when I wanted to. After they were read to me a few times, I had memorized all the words on every page of each book.
Most were pretty boring to me even at that age, but I had one that was about a rainy day in France. No matter what the weather was outside, whenever I looked at the pictures in that book it was raining for me. Although the look of that rainy day gave me a depressing feeling, it was fascinating to me that I could enter that other world at will.
At about age six, in kindergarten, our teacher gave us a little test on the words to, two and too. One by one the kids got the meanings right and were excused for recess. And while I loved recess, I was lost in thought about why the same sound should have three different meanings. And then why the concept of two should be represented by the word two and the Arabic numeral 2, Why would the two concept be written two ways? Why didn’t we just use 2 as a word, as in, “Mary has 2 apples. Would you like 1?” This was fascinating. I didn’t think to ask the teacher. I just turned the idea around in my head, round and round.
I missed recess.
At about age seven we had a school play and I was assigned a role that I very much liked—that of a tree. I was a tallish tree, covered by bark and so I was hidden behind a kind of mask. This felt perfect. I was very comfortable as vegetable matter.
Without trying to, I learned all the words of all the parts, so I would whisper them to whomever had forgotten a line. I was moved to the center tree position. My parents later asked whether I might have liked to have had one of the speaking parts. I couldn’t understand why anyone would care about that or want one.
That summer we moved to California from our little house, outside a little town (Dalton), outside a slightly bigger town (Nunda) lost in the middle of upstate New York. We had a two week car trip during which (1) sitting in the back seat, I stuck my finger in the door frame before my mother closed her door to see what would happen, and (2) climbed under a wire fence at Devil’s Gorge to see what was down at the bottom.
Fortunately, the first only pinched my finger and the second resulted in my father rescuing me before I fell over. I started to understand there was an impulse in me to hurt myself so I resolved to watch myself going forward. This was to become a pattern as I grew older, watching my outside self from inside, an estrangement from self.
In California we moved from house to house as my father bought, repaired and sold them to make a little extra money. At some point in there I stopped trying to make friends.
In the middle, there was a house where we stayed for two years. I had friends there. We went trick-or-treating together, rode our bikes all around, year-round, played baseball and so on, running free, roaming.
At about that time we were asked in school to write about our families. I wrote that my father went to work every day and my mother slept all day. This was true—my mother was ill with cancer of some sort. Of course, this was pretty embarrassing for my parents but they weren’t mad at me, I don’t think.
I really don’t know what effect my tiny essay had on their feelings because I had no feel for what they were thinking or feeling, and we didn’t talk about troublesome things at home.
An inability to empathize is a known sign for autism.
Later I learned to use body language and facial expressions to guess how people might be feeling, an imperfect method but better than nothing.
At about this time we were asked to write a poem in school. I wrote:
“I went for a walk and saw a hawk. I looked in the trees and saw some bees.”
This was considered to be a wonderful poem and it was actually published in the local newspaper. I was surprised. I hadn’t put any effort into it at all. In fact, just dashing it off was my form of silent protest at what I thought was a stupid assignment. Obviously my protest didn’t work.
When I started second grade we were given a list of 30 books to read by the end of the school year and to write a little book report for each. I finished them in two weeks and the teacher assigned me to be the gatekeeper for the other students. They had to explain a book they had read before they were allowed to write their report. At this point I was fairly immature for my age, and silly, but I still fit in with my peers.
My parents were consulted about skipping me into the third grade to keep me interested in school. To their credit, they asked me if I wanted to and I said sure, because nothing was worse for me than boredom.
This was fine academically but left me incapacitated socially. Social awkwardness and failure to develop friendships are classic signs of Asperger’s.
I learned how to disappear in social settings. I was never bullied that I remember, in spite of being pretty odd, I suppose. If I was bullied I couldn’t have perceived it and so wouldn’t have reacted so it’s possible bullying was tried and abandoned as being no fun with Tommy.
That summer a couple of older boys said they were going to the store and that I should go with them. I asked why and they just said they wanted me along. When we got there the boys explained we were each going to steal a 7 cent box of wooden matches.
I was uncomfortable but went along. My mother discovered me hiding the matches under the house—I didn’t know what to do with them, after all. She grabbed me and without asking what happened took me straight down to the store. The poor storekeeper was embarrassed by my mother’s treatment of me.
I felt sorry for him and he felt sorry for me.
So what do you think happened to this little Asperger’s boy? He didn’t learn to be Abe Lincoln honest. What he learned was to never trust his mother again.
He made that resolution in the silence of his mind, the only real place after all, and kept it for sixty years and counting.
I don’t know if my mother ever wondered why I never told her anything important ever again. Maybe she did but she never asked. My father, also an Asperger’s person, never noticed. The second thing that happened was that I resolved—once more in the only safe place—my head, that “peers” (I didn’t know the word then) would never be allowed to influence me again.
During the ages 8-11, I roamed in the boy bunches that considered girls to be yucky or some equivalent term. Then at 11, the boys started peeling off one by one to pursue an interest in girls. As the youngest and by miles the most socially immature, I watched them all go until I was the only one left. By that time I had begun to have similar feelings but felt it was just too late for me.
I became an isolate.
I became very uncomfortable around girls my age, so conflicted that I couldn’t even look at them, let alone look them in the eyes. Unable to make eye contact is another classic Asperger’s symptom.
I remember having a dream where I was down on a river bank below a high bridge (naked of course the way it is in this kind of dream) and some girls spotted me. In my dream I thought, what should I do now? I decided I would have to kill myself.
When I woke up I remembered the dream, and validated that decision. I really would have to kill myself. Fortunately, I was never spotted naked on a riverbank by any girls, otherwise you wouldn’t have this interesting (Do you find it interesting? I have no idea what you may think of this.) story to read.
From then on to high school graduation I occupied myself with schoolwork as a way to pass the days of my life. I ran track and cross country, undistinguished, but interested in observing the ways of better adjusted young men. I graduated valedictorian, gave a ridiculous speech at Commencement (I think it was called) went off to Stanford, and fell into serious depression.
Vietnam. Student protests. Summer of love. Drugs.
These all passed me by as if on television. I wasn’t feeling really there, or anywhere. At one point (1965 or 1966, age 20) I wrote a letter asking a serious questions about a war that made absolutely no logical sense to me. It went to Robert Kennedy, Frank Church, on the left and others on the right. I almost expected to get answers to my questions, but was beginning to get pretty cynical.
What I got back was “Position Papers” from one and all, explaining how they were examining this war in great depth and this is my position at this time. None made any sense. I didn’t understand about politics at that time, that everything is about reelection and how best that might be achieved, and rarely about honesty or doing what is right.
Into the army I went—a few days before being drafted (the military draft, look it up), and went to language school in Monterey, then on to Germany for two years which were about the best years of my life. I met my wife, Gitta, learned German and a little Bairisch (Bavarian dialect), traveled some around Europe, before returning to work 30 years with General Motors (which included another eight years in Europe). And during these thirty years I learned a lot of skills that I had missed growing up.
So, to make a very long story a little shorter, here is the scorecard:
1. Failure to develop friendships – still a problem. I don’t know when I have a friend, and tend to alienate those who actually are or to lose them from inattention.
2. Mutism – overcome at age two, not a problem
3. Inability to Empathize – I don’t think this was ever a problem, but maybe it has been on some level that I’m not aware of.
4. Unable to Make Eye Contact – overcome during GM career
5. Social Awkwardness – not overcome but better
6. Narrowed Interests – never a problem
7. Sticking to Routine – never a problem
8. Literal Interpretations – still a slight problem
9. Excellent Pattern Recognition – this is an advantage rather than a problem. Always strong with me.
10. Poor Motor Skills – never was a problem
11. Failure to develop friendships – still a problem. I don’t know when I have a friend, and tend to alienate those who actually are or to lose them from inattention.
So you can see, each autistic person is somewhat differently affected by this syndrome. This is probably why the medical community has eliminated Asperger’s as a diagnosis. It’s not specific enough to be used to direct treatment.
It is very important to identify children with any of the above symptoms (or more severe ones) of Autism Spectrum Disorder as soon as possible, because the sooner therapy is started the more helpful (as measured by a reduction in effects) it is.
Tom Welch has an M.A. in Education from Stanford University and is a former high school math teacher, US Army Specialist 5 Radio Intercept Operator, an executive at General Motors, and has 10 years experience leading groups of parents and children in a community education program that explores the effects of addiction on families. He has also worked for several years with adjudicated teenagers using the same program materials. He has published a book available documenting this program on Amazon entitled “Raising Healthy Children” which is available as an e-book and soft cover. His blog on WordPress contains this story and many others. His wife Gitta’s husky, Spirit, is 14 years old and loves cold weather, the colder the better. It is Tom’s assignment to walk the dog every morning without complaint. Tom loves to write as ideas come to him.
Editor: Dana Gornall