Kage Baker loved going to conventions, but they were hard on her.
The hours one tends to keep were tough – she was a diurnal person, and not inclined to go out to parties and be loud in any event. And when one is on panels, one tends to be on the move a lot – like airports, whatever you need next tends to be scheduled on the opposite end of the venue. And just being “on” wore her out – so much time presenting the relentless public persona was fairly alien to Kage.
The older Kage got, the more difficult she found dealing with strangers. One of the best things to happen to her in her entire life was the development of the Internet. That’s where she met and interacted with her professional peers and her fans. It let her get to know people in an un-alarming environment before she had to cope with them in public. The ability to meet people and not necessarily have to be physically proximate was the best possible development for a person with Aspergers.
There is not anything necessarily wrong with a person who has Aspergers Syndrome. Their brains are, however, unequivocally wired differently from most people; you have to learn to deal with that. Kage had the good fortune to grow up in a family where eccentricity was a badge of honour – the family definitely subscribes to the attitude of “Yeah, well, on me it does look good.” She also sought and found environments where social behaviour took a backseat to creativity: the Renaissance Pleasure Faire, the science fiction writing community, conventions … she had support staff.
So the internet gave her the chance to meet people without the stress of eye contact and facial expressions. She didn’t have to wonder what someone’s expression meant, or why they were insisting on standing so damned close to her, or whether or not they would comment on her disinclination to meet their eyes. On the internet, no one asks you why you are tying knots in your hair – or whatever nervous tic afflicts you. And, of course, with none of that stress happening, Kage was less likely to have to compensate for it. Her hair was grateful.
I was on a panel this morning: Cultural Norms Affecting This Generation of People with Autism. I’m not on it – but I have decades of experience with people who are. Kage, my sister Kimberly, her husband, their son … and I was able to give forth on my own personal observations:
First, this is a lucky time to be on the autism spectrum. There is a growing acceptance of it; nerds are suddenly sexy. The internet gives them all the chance it gave Kage – to interact with others without distressing distractions, and so enjoy a deeper and more detailed communication. We are in a technological age, where the often astounding mathematical and other scientific abilities that accompany autism spectrum disorders are and advantage; where people on the spectrum can shine, and be accepted for what they are.
Second, these are normal variations on the human mind. When autism is so profound that the sufferer cannot speak or stand contact with others – then it is a tragic variation, even pathological. But it’s not a disease. While their lives may be constrained by accompanying problems – inappropriate responses to stress, painfully heightened sensory impressions, OCD, ADHD – there is nothing inherently wrong with people on the autistic spectrum.
Third, we need these people. Diversity is the emergency supply kit of a species – the myriad traits and abilities carried along until the changing environment requires them to surface and become the tools of survival. I am not surprised that more and more youngsters are found to be on the autistic spectrum right now: because our tools are on the verge of getting out of control, and these people are our best folks to deal with that.
I’m an optimist about it. I look around me, at my family and many of my friends, at their children: and I see a latent skill set coming to the fore just in time to take control of our ever-expanding electronic environment. I see the diversity of the human mind stepping up for one of its periodic turns in the spotlight; I hear the Voice of the Narrator intoning “And now for something completely different …”
This is my conviction. Half a century dealing with my brilliant, funny, compassionate, over-stressed but courageous Aspergers sister has taught me that one of the answers is symbiosis. More than even neurotypicals, autistic people need to learn to be part of a network; they need to connect with the rest of us. They have tremendous good to offer to the human condition. And since we neurotypicals are the ones that are supposed to be so good at this communication trick – it behooves us to get up off our butts and do it.
My attitude surprised a lot of the folks at the panel. But afterwards, some came up and thanked me, saying I had given them a thought they had never had before … so I guess I did my duty.
I think Kage would have approved.