About two years ago my father, then seventy-seven, announced that he was—or had, or, well, the verb is uncertain, but he had self-diagnosed himself as being on the autism spectrum, specifically living with Asperger’s Syndrome. If you’re unfamiliar, Asperger’s is like a genre of Autism whose primary characteristic is a difficulty understanding other people’s emotions. There other characteristics as well, like turning conversations into monologues about facts and having difficulty maintaining eye contact, but all of these tertiary traits stem from a fundamental relational disconnect.
It was a great relief for my father to learn about Asperger’s. Socializing had never been easy for him. I had observed him from my son’s vantage try to succeed in a conversation the way he succeeded at his board games and spreadsheets. A son’s view of his father is always obscured by his own desire for that man’s success and approval, but I saw enough to know that in learning about Asperger’s he was finally allowed to drop the story of his own failure. He was who he was, and socializing was challenging not because there was something wrong with him but because he was a part of group better suited for analysis than improvisation. He was a like a fish who had just learned why climbing trees was so difficult.
Still, there is the question of that verb. To say he has Asperger’s suggests that he isn’t really a fish but a one-armed monkey who did his best with an unfortunate situation. I don’t buy it, and not just because he’s my dad. A surprising challenge of meeting an Asperger’s kid is that he isn’t easy to like. He seems to be ignoring you. He won’t make eye contact and there is no emotional acknowledgement. The kid seems insensitive, as if he doesn’t care at all about other people, only himself. What’s to like?
Yet I had sometimes been called insensitive when I was younger. In fact, when I was nineteen a girlfriend told me that she dated me despite the fact that I wouldn’t look her in the eye. It was the first anyone had brought this habit of mine to my attention. Sometimes looking someone in the eye felt as if I was seeing and showing too much. There is a nakedness in that moment, as the eyes have no words or gestures to disguise desire, love, fear, or disinterest. It is an intimacy that I find tolerable only if I can trust that there is nothing to be frightened of—no uncontrollable emotional train I must ride—within me or the one with whom I am sharing that glance.
So I do not see people like my father or my son as insensitive, but as just the opposite. I resolved at nineteen to begin looking people in the eye again. It wasn’t easy at first, but at forty-nine I’ve now more or less got it. Though I still forget from time to time. Trusting in what waits within a stranger’s or even a loved one’s eyes is like trusting in life itself. I must remember to see kindness before it shows itself to me, even in those who turn their eyes from mine in search of a safety they cannot lose.
I am the author of Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write with Confidence, and Write Within Yourself: An Author's Companion. Learn more here.