“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 Wired, The Geek Syndrome. Obviously, 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.