Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson

Living With a Different Operating System

I have witnessed autism up close and personal, but not as close up as my son. He has experienced—and continues to experience—autism from the inside. He has characteristics consistent with what has come to be known as Asperger Syndrome (AS), a form of autism. The name comes from a pediatrician in Vienna, Hans Asperger, who in the 1940’s discovered that certain people have a unique set of character traits.  Among them—

-they tend to have a low EQ, meaning they lack certain social skills

-they prefer to be alone

-they are very intelligent (“little professors” he called them)

-they see things in black and white, meaning they take things very literally

-they do not process information as quickly as others

-they miss subtleties, do not easily intuit, and often miss the meaning of facial expressions

There is no conclusive data as to what leads to AS. We have had to learn as we go, just as Nate has had to figure out how to mix in with life.  Sadly, through his early education, most of his teachers had no idea what to do with a bright kid who was still processing Venus when they had moved on to Mars. Beyond the sensory overloads and discharge from the service, there have been the social pains, as well as the sense of alienation and estrangement. A call to ministry has also, at times, bumped up against a certain gracelessness on the part of others unable—or unwilling—to understand.

Today there are more helpful resources on AS. Still, I have yet to discover a resource person who has been a significant help to my son, or to me or my wife for that matter. We have chased down books, gone to neurological clinics in earlier years, and met with counselors.  Some of what we have encountered is some form of sympathy.  But I have not looked for this. AS, after all, is not a disability or an illness. 

Recently, Daniel Bowman, an English professor at Taylor University, has written an autistic memoir entitled On the Spectrum: Autism, Faith, and the Gifts of Neurodiversity. What makes it especially relevant is that Bowman writes out of his own experience. He lives with Asperger’s, and this has come with what he describes as its own confusion, depression, and occasional sense of shame. He has made it his mission to reframe much of the present thinking. In many of his words, I can hear Nate also speaking.

Those of us who are in the “neurotypical majority” often misunderstand Asperger’s. Some tend to treat autistics as those with special needs, those with psychological, emotional, or mental disorders. The reality is that some, like Nate, simply deal with a neurological difference. Different brains have different operating systems. They think differently, process differently, and socialize differently. In Nate’s case, as one with higher functioning AS, he needs little support.  But then, who of us doesn’t need some help, some human bracing to hold us up?

There are certain paradoxes. Those with AS can lack awareness of other people’s pain, while at the same time having compassion for their lives. Processing may be slower, but this is often complemented with a formidable singlemindedness and persistence. What I continue to learn—what Bowman underscores—is that autism does not need to be fixed. It needs to be understood—and accepted. There are traits that can be maddening, and others that are strengthening. As Han’s Asperger put it, “It seems that for success in science or art, a dash of autism is essential.” If my son navigates through life successfully, he can use his uniqueness to do something amazing. 

Nate is 36, and my counsel can go only so far. This is his journey to sort out. I am grateful for transparent books like Bowman’s, as well as the grace of God, the One by whom all of us are wonderfully made.

Leave a Reply