Wednesday, March 24, 2010

It's Hip To Be Weird

Asperger's, as they say, is having a moment. I thought this the other night while catching an episode of "Parenthood," in which one offspring of the titular parents is diagnosed with the condition. In the original movie on which the series is based, the kid simply suffered from anxiety, but anxiety is so 1990s. As syndromes go, Asberger's is as trendy as they come.

"Grey's Anatomy" featured a cardiac surgeon with Asperger's, "The Amazing Race" cast a contestant with the condition, and Hugh Dancy played a young man with Asperger's in the 2009 feature film, "Adam." What is it about this syndrome that we find so intriguing?

For starters, Asperger's isn't quite as scary as the bogey man of 21st Century parenting: autism. We're happy to give the former center stage if it means we can stop fretting, at least temporarily, about the latter. Moderately strange we can deal with, the more severe disability leaves us troubled.

But there's more at play here. My personal theory: So many of us have had our public personalities flattened and filtered by the need to do and say the right thing that we have a vicarious admiration for people who go their own way--who say and do what they want, without regard for social norms. Not because they're acting rebellious in a 1960's hippie counter-culture kind of way, but because they can't help themselves, which makes their behavior perfectly permissable. They're like quirky characters from indie films, only they're real.

Baseball player Curt Schilling and his wife happen to have a son with Asperger's. They were on the "Today" show, pitching their book about what it's like to parent such a child. Schilling's wife (sorry, I didn't catch her name, which I'm sure she's used to) noted: "If he wants to play with sharks [I'm assuming of the toy variety], he gets to play with sharks." On "Parenthood," the equivalent is allowing the kid to dress like a pirate. Note, in Asperger world, it's totally acceptable to follow your bliss--again, because you have no choice. And aren't we all a bit envious of that.

My husband works as a special educator. He's come across a number of kids with Asperger's, whom he invariably describes as "fun." Compared with the average teenager, that's undoubtedly true. Which would you rather have--the teen who dresses like a pirate or the teen who texts naked pictures of herself to her boyfriend? No contest. But whenever I ask whether the Asperger's kids have friends, the answer invariably is "no." Adults might admire the independent spirit--it's so rare and refreshing--but the last thing kids, teens in particular, want is to be different, to stand out from the crowd.

Most of us carry that notion into adulthood--we want to fit in. Why do I fill out NCAA brackets every year when I don't give two hoots about the sport? Because everyone else is doing it and I want to be part of the collective experience.

We might look at people with Asberger's as fulfilling some sort of fantasy or wish--our true selves unleashed. But if we were given the option--Asperger's or not--which would we choose?


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