Detached and Separate: For Me, Lifelong Feelings

“When did you first realize you were different?”

I sometimes get asked this question. My answer invariably is, “I have always known.” Even the first time I was asked, I did not hesitate, so sure was I in this knowledge.

Being apart from others is a fate that is thrust upon autistics by our neurology, not something we choose. Sometimes we have no interest in playing those silly neurotypical games, but more often we just don’t understand them. I self-diagnosed Asperger’s syndrome at age 59, and in the years since then I have learned how to mitigate my disability. I have learned the value of small talk, and the joy of connecting with people I might formerly have found too strange for words. I have become more tolerant and calmer. My life is more fulfilling and hopeful. Yet, I also continue to struggle, and I know I will never lose that sense of being detached and separate.

This is the third in a series of posts inspired by the 2011 book Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. In the first post, Autism is a Silver Car, I expressed my view that autism is a way of being in the world. In the second post, I began the exploration of Jobs’s childhood, reevaluating some of the opinions expressed in the book through my own lens of experience. Here, I continue my commentary on Chapter 1.

Chapter One: Childhood

Silicon Valley In this section, the author describes the environment in which Jobs grew up, and his relationships with other people in his formative years, especially his father. On page 6 an account is given of a fence his father built: Jobs “recalled a lesson that his father implanted deeply in him.” He told of his father building cabinets and fences so that even their backs were crafted properly. “He even cared about the look of the parts you couldn’t see.” This sort of perfectionism would appeal to an autistic mind, and years later Steve would apply that design principle to his products. I was reminded of my experience in Venice, where the tour guide in Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice explained that there were works of art that are no longer visible because, even though the artists knew that their mosaics, statues, and other works would be sealed off from view, they felt that God would see them, so that it was important to have them be just as beautiful as the ones in public sight. At the time, I was very impressed by the religious conviction of these long-ago artists; now I realize they were simply autistic.

In the 1950s, in Silicon Valley, “even the ne’er-do-wells tended to be engineers.” [page 8] Note that this was decades before the concentration of autism in the area was noted in that famous 2001 article by Steve Silberman in WiredThe Geek SyndromeObviously, you don’t have to be autistic to be an engineer, but it is one of the professions that is appealing to autistic people, so probably attracts more than its fair share.

During these early years, Jobs says he “realized I was smarter than my parents. I felt tremendous shame for having thought that.” This was a particularly poignant statement for me, since I had experienced the same feeling, with respect to my father. It was not so much that I felt I was “smarter” since my father had many talents that I did not share, such as his musical and literary abilities. My distress came from the realization, as I made plans to attend college (something my father never had the opportunity to do), that I was about to “show up” my father.

In any case, from Steve’s friends came the report that this discovery by Jobs “made him feel apart  – detached and separate  – from both his family and the world.” I’m skeptical. Perhaps that’s what his friends thought; maybe that’s even what Steve thought and reported, but the truth is that being autistic creates that same feeling.

Next: Childhood (continued): School

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  1. Loving these posts about Jobs. When he died, I too walked around saying out loud to the news reports about his personality, “Well, he was autistic!!”

  2. Girl on Fire! Great handle; nice blog.

    Thanks for your feedback. I’m polishing up another one on his early school experiences. This one has prompted me to share a bit more about my own childhood years. I’m really not getting much pushback about the autism thing, so I guess I’m using this series more as an opportunity to explore what it is like to be autistic. In addition, I’m puzzled by why Jobs’s autism seems so obvious to me (and others) but has really not been discussed in any serious way anyplace I’ve seen.

    I think there is some concern about the ethics of “diagnosing” someone at a distance in time or space, and of perhaps violating medical privacy. The problem with that argument is that it plays into the hands of those who (incorrectly, I believe) see autism as a disorder or an illness, instead of simply as a difference.

    So, stay tuned!

    • Lucy on March 21, 2012 at 9:07 PM
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    “I’m puzzled by why Jobs’s autism seems so obvious to me (and others) but has really not been discussed in any serious way anyplace I’ve seen.”

    There are a number of reasons, I think. The ethical issues you acknowledge, and those exist independently of societal judgments about disability (though these might play a part). You know some of my objections to diagnosing people — not that I think it’s necessarily wrong, but I believe it can be, and whether it’s in the interests of the relevant population (autistic or whoever) is surely a matter for debate. This is not to say I object to your wonderful and enlightening analysis. This is a very nuanced issue for me, I find your posts fascinating, and I know Jobs is in safe hands here. And I’m at least as interested in what this story reveals about you as about him.

    Another thought: some examples you cite as evidence of autism could apply to NTs too. This might be why his possible autism hasn’t been more fully explored. I have no trouble understanding why the Venice artists perfected their hidden work. I’m neither religious nor autistic, but might easily have done the same. Perfectionism is its own reward. Granted I might not be the most typical neurotypical, but neither, probably, are a few billion others. I like the term ‘neurotypical’ but it’s imperfect: it implies a sameness that can’t exist given the many, many ways and reasons for difference.

    The feeling of disconnect and separation from the social world can come about for other reasons besides autism, and can be profound for other reasons besides autism. I am *not* suggesting that this disconnect is the same experience in autistics and NTs, but we have to labor with the same language, as did Jobs and his friends. Much of literature, music, etc through the ages has highlighted the experience of disconnect from the world, a feeling of otherness. I do not believe that’s because all those artists were autistic, although I assume plenty were. That feeling (I’m lumping all the experiences of disconnect into “that feeling”) is part of the human condition.

    So that sounds like a big critique… Actually, I love this subject and your insights. I’m ready to believe Jobs was autistic; I just don’t assume it. (I haven’t read the book: instead I pay homage to Jobs through excessive iPad use.) I’m also well aware that you’re not diagnosing him based on any one or two of these things, but on the entire package.

  3. Lucy, yes you’re right on all counts (as usual). None of the traits I describe is, of itself, the mark of an autistic. We are, after all, not a different species. http://www.mfw.us/blog/2011/11/19/i-am-autisitc-why-do-you-think-i-am-so-different/

    So, yes, I am dealing with the gestalt of “the entire package” as you put it. Until we have a biomarker or a foolproof test for autism, it is always a bit of guesswork to identify who is and who isn’t.

    Also, I’m not so much “diagnosing” Jobs (I will leave that the the shrinks, amateur and otherwise) as I am trying to understand and explain him. And, more importantly, as you point out, trying to understand myself. And the world. That’s not too much to ask, is it?

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