Wednesday, June 09, 2004

I have been spellbound by Songs of the Gorilla Nation, a beautifully written memoir of a young woman who has Asperger’s Syndrome, a mild form of autism. Although she has difficulty communicating and interacting in person, she is a remarkably eloquent writer, and is able to describe and provide profound insight into the thought processes and experiences of people who have the syndrome.

She describes her syndrome as a sensory filter malfunction (interestingly enough, many people with Autism and Asperger's have asthma and terrible allergies, which can be seen as other types of 'filter' disorders). For her, to experience the world is to drown in synesthetic sensory overload. Overwhelmed, unable to process the tidal wave of stimuli, she escapes the painful barrage through obsessive compulsive behavior, repetitive actions, and solipsism. As a child she was unable to connect normally with other people and was incapable of picking up on normal social cues. Although not cognitively or verbally delayed, she was socially helpless. Blunt, inadvertantly rude, and always “different,’ she was a vulnerable target for vicious schoolmates and even teachers. She suffered greatly as a tormented, confused social outcast.

Completely alienated, she dropped out of school at 16 and was moved to Seattle and became homeless, eating out of garbage cans to survive. She eventually became an exotic dancer, and with her first paycheck visted the Seattle zoo because she had always found solace in animals. There she discovers an almost mystical connection with the gorillas, and for the first time experiences empathy and connection with another primate. Adept at shutting her senses off, she is able to focus her brain like a laser, and with a formidable singlemindedness observed and learned everything she could about them. Through studying their social interactions, and from the relationships she develops with the gorillas, she learns how to interact with humans. She credits the gorillas with "civilizing" her, and forms deep, communicative relationships with some of them. She becomes involved with the zoo and eventually is able to earn her PhD in Interdisciplinary Anthropology, form a relationship with a significant other, have a child, and become an activist for gorillas. Now she works to bridge the worlds between ape and human as well as autistic and normal people.

Although she can “pass” now as a normal person, there are still some things about human society that counfound her, although I can certainly see why.

It is hard to express the horror I feel when I am out at a parade or carnival (already a sensory nightmare) and I see a clown coming. The garish colors of an exaggerated smile, the electric daggers that are rainbow wigs, the oversized hands and feet: all of these make me want to run at top speed for the nearest exit. If I can't get away, I sometimes feel like I want to attack the clown.

Amen, sister. Amen.

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