When I began this blog in March of 2011, I had one purpose in mind. Actually there were several, but most important was to show how lives can be ruined when people don’t understand about autism and how it works.
As an example, I took the case of James Ryo Kiyan, who was accused of harassing Miss M, a coworker, when he insisted on trying to patch up what he thought was a simple misunderstanding. To his mind, they had a promising friendship and he wanted to get it back on track. Little did he know there was no friendship. His Asperger syndrome made him “different” and made Miss M “uncomfortable.”
Because of the Asperger’s, his insistence became persistence, to the extent that Miss M perceived a threat and took to carrying a knife and pepper spray. Although he explained that he had Asperger’s, no one in the Sullivan County government understood, or cared to understand, what that entailed. Even Michael Sussman, the defense attorney Ryo hired, failed him in that respect. They were all obtuse. I have never been clear whether “obtuse” means stubborn or stupid. It seems to be both. Webster defines it as: “slow to understand or perceive; dull or insensitive” [Webster’s New World Collegiate Dictionary, fourth edition].
As a result, they hounded Ryo out of a job for which he had spent years preparing, and, indirectly, out of his life.
Without realizing how wise she was, or even that he had Asperger’s, his cousin, Sharleen Inouye, who knew him well, described him perfectly: “His reality was different from the norm, but that was what made him unique.”
Before I launched the blog, even before Ryo’s death, I had begun a novel inspired by his case. It has taken a long time and is now in the revision stage. Its working title is The REvengers, which encompasses both the mystery plot and the Asperger plot. Formerly it was A Different Planet, because for people with Asperger’s, their reality does vary so far from the norm that they often feel they are on a planet different from Earth. As one of my characters points out, those regarded as “neurotypicals” (people without Asperger’s) are typical only because they are in the majority. If not for that, they would be considered the oddballs and Aspergians would be the norm.
Because the novel is intended for young adults, my protagonists are in high school rather than the workplace. The two situations—the mystery/suspense main plot and the Asperger subplot—converge at the end, with one explaining the other.
In real life I doubt we will ever know what filled Miss M with such terror that she took to carrying a knife and pepper spray. Ryo was persistent, it’s true, and probably annoying. But never did he threaten her or intend any harm.
Nor does my hero, Ben, who runs into the same problem with a girl. In fiction, however, the important questions must be answered, or readers are left frustrated. In The REvengers, Miss M’s fictional counterpart, Kelsey, does have issues that cause her to panic at the simple invitation to a movie. The source of this is what my heroine, Cree, discovers in the end as she fights for her life.
Many of the elements in Ryo’s case work well in my high school setting. The two-hour session with an attorney bellowing nonstop, for instance. The charge of sexual harassment, which devastates Ben so much that he attempts suicide. The same charge devastated Ryo and contributed to his suicide. And then there’s the knife, which shocks Ben and shocked Ryo. He never realized how badly he upset Miss M, because Aspies are notably poor at “reading” other people. He really did like her, and regretted any trouble he caused. But when he learned about the knife, he was heard to mutter “Psycho bitch.” Ben, too, although he regrets the emotional pain he has inflicted on Kelsey, utters those same words in the same circumstances.
Finally, there’s the humiliating “perp walk.” In Ryo’s case, he was led out of the office by two sheriff’s deputies in full view of his coworkers. Since Ben is in high school and not working for the county, it’s the custodian and shop teacher who march him out in full view of his classmates. As Ben says later, “As if they thought I was going to make a run for it. Or throw a bomb, or something.” For both Ryo and Ben, the show of muscle was completely unnecessary and only served to humiliate.
In one scene Ben tells Cree about his idealism. For this I quoted in part from an e-mail Ryo wrote, which I also quoted in an earlier post. Here it is again, in Ryo’s exact words:
As you know, we Aspies are susceptible to idealism. That is why we are frequently cited as being principled, and honest, and supporters of social justice. In our naiveté, we can latch on to visions of the way the world ought to be, which are generally the very same visions held up by society at large as the way the world is supposed to be: a world where everybody gets along, tries to be nice, tries to work for the common good, doesn’t hold grudges, etc.
The NT’s [neurotypicals, or non-Aspies] say they want this world, but then they go ahead with all of their exceptions, and they tell you it shouldn’t bother you that someone you see every day hates your guts, and doesn’t want to talk to you, and thinks bad things about you that aren’t true. You don’t understand this, and the NT’s, in turn, are utterly baffled by your incomprehension. Not being true idealists, and not trying to picture the world in all its wholeness as a system that should be perfected in all its parts, they simply can’t understand why you would want to say “good morning” to someone who despises you. Not understanding that, they interpret your desire to get along with your enemies (I’ve often wondered—was Jesus an Aspie??) as something unnatural and dangerous. The only reason you could want to say hello to a girl who hates you is because you’re “obsessed” with her. Even people who try to be sympathetic with you (your psychotherapists, your lawyer) believe what amounts to the same thing. You’re “perseverating,” you’re trying to tie up loose ends in an impractical way.
But the simple truth is, you’re just trying to do what they always told you was the right thing, which is to strive for what’s good, and which in this case is to get along with people. And when somebody you see every day feels threatened by you—when you know there’s no reason—and won’t even talk to you, that’s a pretty good indication that there’s something wrong. And wrong things need to be righted. And being a logical Aspie, you might liken it to somebody feeling threatened by people of a different skin color or religion. That would be wrong. It’s wrong to feel threatened by people when you don’t have a good reason, isn’t it?
In writing both the novel and the blog, I hope to give the “neurotypical” world a glimpse of what it’s like to be an Aspie trying to live in that world. As I have one of my characters reflect on how hard it is for an NT (neurotypical) to imagine what it’s like to be autistic, it’s equally hard for an autistic to imagine what it’s like to be neurotypical. Autism is all they have ever known. How can they be expected to conform to a world they have never experienced and with which they are constitutionally unable to identify?
At one point my heroine Cree says to Ben, “Even if you have trouble understanding other people’s thoughts and feelings, you have to keep in mind that they do have thoughts and feelings.” This works both ways. Though it’s equally hard for neurotypicals to imagine what it’s like to be autistic, it’s equally important for them to grasp that autism is different from what they know, and to make allowances for it.
If this had happened in Ryo’s case—and he did tell them he had Asperger’s—he might still be with us today and able to live out the life that showed such promise. My hero Ben, since he is of my own creation, is fortunate enough to have that chance.