Aliens and Autism
Science fiction author T.K. Boomer learned that he was on the autism spectrum three months before his 65th birthday. The diagnosis meant a re-evaluation of his life and his art.
For several years my Facebook bio has read: “The only true nonconformist is one who can be no other way.”
I wonder what people think of that.
During my twenties, I had a T-shirt that read “Weird is Wonderful” in bold letters across my chest.
At the time, I wondered what people thought of that too.
The T-shirt is long gone, but the Facebook message is still there. So, what’s this all about? I didn’t know for most of my life.
Then, a couple of years back, I watched a television documentary on treating children with severe forms of autism. Toward the end of that program, there was a brief discussion about adults on the autism spectrum, people like Albert Einstein, Stanley Kubrick, Steve Jobs, Susan Boyle, Glenn Gould, Bill Gates, and Temple Grandin. A small cerebral explosion followed, and not because I saw myself as part of that exalted group, but because these were people who found social interactions difficult but were high functioning in other aspects of their lives.
Over the next few days, I took several online tests, each placing me on the autism spectrum. I delayed seeking confirmation from a professional for over a year, allowing this to fester because it wasn’t clear what I would do if such a diagnosis was confirmed. And I wasn’t sure I wanted it confirmed. Did I want that label? I was also 63, likely well beyond the age when any treatment would be effective. I had survived to this point, sort of. But things were deteriorating.
I’m old enough now that I don’t remember my childhood well. What I do remember is not finding it easy to function socially and a series of minor obsessions. I read a lot of science fiction, a genre I would one day write, but at that age, I was identifying with its strangeness. The genre seemed to fit how I felt about my relationship to the rest of the world. I kept tropical fish, a benign enough activity I suppose, except that I filled my parents’ basement with aquariums and watched fish swim for hours on end. Alone. My other interest was an elaborate solitaire game I invented, which took hours and sometimes days to play and kept me away from other children. Playing solitaire, breeding guppies, and exploring alien civilizations kept me going until testosterone.
I entered adolescence ill-equipped for what was ahead. Hormones raged through my body and screamed at me to become socially active but crashed and burned when confronted by this phantom disability. My teenage years were an endless series of painful mistakes, social cues not picked up, intentions misunderstood, relationships broken, and humiliations endured. I could do basic one-on-one social interaction, but conformity of any sort was a problem. Adolescent conformity was a nightmare.
I bought a guitar before my fifteenth birthday. Guitarists were popular, so I should be too. Popular guitarists, however, were good at living up to the expectations of their peers. They had the right attitude, played the right songs, wore the right clothes, had the right hairstyle, and hung out with the right people. I did none of those things; they made little sense. I could not conform to what I did not understand. In my hands, the guitar was another means of exploring how different I was from my peers. While I learned the basic chords, I didn’t do the same with scales, preferring to find them by endless experimentation. Conventional musicianship didn’t interest me and because of this, I could not work well with other musicians. But, and here’s where self-delusion comes in, I harbored dreams of becoming a famous musician, of being accepted on a mass scale, of being so accomplished at what I did that people would conform to me. History was full of oddball quirky artists like Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, Miles Davis, and Jimi Hendrix, all recognized as geniuses despite their idiosyncrasies. Could that happen to me? Well, I did have the oddball quirky idiosyncrasies.
There was one side benefit to my guitar playing. Being involved in music pushed me into the artsy crowd in high school, a group of kids who were more accepting of non-conformists. The gathering place for this group was the high school drama class. Here too was latent tribalism. Adolescent artists have the same hormones as their less cool counterparts and could be just as cruel, especially if they suspect that you’re a poser. I wasn’t cool, I knew it, but I was a creative so most of them were tolerant. Being in the inner circle of that crowd, however, was not possible. My mother still bought all my clothes, and I didn’t care as long as they were comfortable. This wardrobe along with an overweight body and short hair made me laughable as a rock musician in the late ‘60s, even though I could play guitar and sing. A few of them took every opportunity to mock me. Their taunts were humiliating, but I had nowhere else to go, so I hung around and tried in vain to impress them. There were more supportive people within that group, on the fringes like me. When I think back, I wonder if some of those folks were wrestling with similar problems.
Outside this cabal of high school artists, my life was much more challenging.
Robert J. Sawyer, in his science fiction novel Hominids, portrays his female protagonist, Mary Vaughan, as the victim of a brutal rape. After the horrifying event, she sheds the emotional consequences and “gets on” with her job. When I read this a few years ago, it deeply upset me. But why?
I grew up in Red Deer, Alberta. Two years ago, I went back to see if I could find my childhood home. From inside the car, it looked much the same. The current owners maintained the light green of the exterior, replaced the original black banister with a white one, and the evergreen I planted when I was in elementary school was now 25 feet high. But I could not have predicted my emotional reaction when I stepped out of the car. It was like somebody punched me in the solar plexus, knocking all the wind out. A couple of deep breaths later and I got back in the vehicle. My wife, Annie, looked at me quizzically.
“Are you alright?” she asked.
I had no answer. From there we drove to my high school where I had a similar reaction, but this time I didn’t get out of the car. I now understood this as a PTSD episode. I tried to explain to Annie what had happened but its roots were so far in the past and yet so immediately present it was hard to explain.
I had buried it deep inside me for forty years. I had too. I had no choice.
Two weeks before I graduated from high school, I was swarmed by a group of guys determined to humiliate the weird kid just for a laugh. We were in a large crowded room when they took it upon themselves to disrobe me in front of 200 people. This experience was so humiliating that I did not appear in public again for the rest of the school year—sneaking into my classes at the last minute, bolting for the door soon as the class was over, avoiding any kind of social contact for months afterwards. I told no one, but the public nature of the humiliation meant that they all knew anyway. Everyone, that is, except my parents. I wasn’t going to tell them, because I thought it was all my fault. What I wanted to do was to get away, move somewhere else where I could rebuild the mess I’d made of my life. Six months later I arrived in Calgary.
Mary Vaughan had been humiliated as I had, and I was dysfunctional afterwards. She got on with her job, almost as if nothing had happened. She was just a character and I was a real person, but I felt the attack on her anyway.
After the assault, I took several months to get back my equilibrium, and I did so ultimately by pushing that memory so deep inside that I didn't think about it, often for years at a time. But it was still there. It took Sawyer’s novel and a visit to my hometown to bring it all screaming back.
After the move to Calgary, I developed a coping mechanism for social interaction. By then I realized that I missed social cues, sometimes said or did inappropriate things like being overly loud and didn't know how to be involved in a conversation without trying to take it over. I had zero tolerance for small talk of any kind. If the subject didn't interest me or I thought I had nothing to add, I would often try and steer the conversation to a topic that did interest me or where I might make a more meaningful contribution. I would be verbose, thinking I was being social, but it was often interpreted as rude and insensitive. Over time I realized this behavior was off-putting for other people.
The coping mechanism evolved through my early twenties as I clad myself with a kind of hyper-social sensitivity. What other people did naturally required conscious effort and focus on my part. The best metaphor I have for this is aerials: it’s like I extend aerials to pick up the social cues. Group social dynamics were a big challenge, and I forced myself to elevate my social sensitivity, to employ these aerials. This took a lot of energy and practice. By my late 20s, I achieved a reasonable level of competence, but the practice consumed so much energy that I was one of the first people to leave any gathering. And I would be exhausted when I did so.
One of the most bizarre decisions I ever made in my life was to study drama at the University of Calgary. I think of it now as an adolescent hangover. I’d found a level of social acceptance in the drama class during high school, and I was looking for the same thing at university. Studying music was out of the question because I’d had no formal training in that discipline, couldn’t read music and didn’t play well with others. Why I thought I'd be any better in a theatrical environment still baffles me. But study drama I did, including acting, directing and playwriting. It was while studying theatre that I began to think of myself as a writer in the literary sense of that word. I had a couple of stage plays produced while I was at the University of Calgary, and I showed a modicum of promise.
In keeping with my new-found identity as a writer, I decided to take a poetry writing class through the English Department. At the time of my enrolment, I had yet to write a single poem that was not also a song lyric. The class instructor wanted a manageable group of only fifteen students, and his method of restricting enrolment was requiring each prospective student to submit a poetry portfolio for evaluation. I had two months to become a poet. That summer I wrote a dozen poems and submitted them to the professor. What's odd about that time was that, despite my relative inexperience with the art form, I was confident that I would get in. And I did on the strength of one poem. Here it is.
When I was ten,
I wrote my name
on the red brick of the schoolhouse.
every day for three months
I came to see
if the rain had washed away my name.
Finally, it was gone.
I can’t remember my teacher’s name that year
or the name of the little girl
who sat behind me
that I sort of liked.
I can’t remember how the hockey team did.
I can’t even remember who my best friend was
or even if I had one.
But I remember the mud.
The poem is autobiographical. It’s true, every detail. At twenty I had turned a ten-year-old memory into a poem, a portrait of my state of mind as a grade school child, a portrait of low self-esteem and isolation. Seen through the eyes of a senior citizen recently diagnosed with autism, it speaks volumes.
The whole theatre thing came crashing down during my final year of study. I wrote an autobiographical play called Guess I Owe You a Song. Thinking back, I was trying to deal with the problems in my life that were caused by autism. The university staged the play during its summer season, and it was well-received; however, I reacted to seeing my life on the stage by going into a funk. The solutions to the problems written into the script were not solutions in my real life. The main character, a misfit, finds a way to conform and his life gets better, but no such thing had happened in my real life. I felt the disconnect. I had created a lie, a lie that the audience embraced. But it wasn't just the subject of the play that was problematic. I was also having increasing difficulties dealing with the intensity of the social relationships that naturally come with any theatrical production. My aerials had served me well during my time in the Department of Drama. As the author of the play and the increased center of focus, the intensity had been turned up several notches. I was not coping well, and toward the end of the production the aerials fell away, and I was dysfunctional. It was the second great crisis in my life—after the disrobing in Red Deer—and this one was also of my own making.
I pulled back socially after my time at the University of Calgary and that pullback defined the rest of my pre-retirement adult life. Sometimes life unfolds in gradual increments, and we don’t notice the changes. Within a few years of graduating from university, I had slowly adopted a “man-waiting-for-the-bus” image, trying to be invisible when I was out. I used the aerials for group interaction but avoided most social events. Even my choice of occupation reflected this. I have seven years of post-secondary education, but I chose to earn my living by delivering mail. Why? I made this choice because most professionals I know take their work home. As a creative, I wanted my off-the-clock time to be my own. I did not want to spend my home time reading through client dossiers, preparing marketing plans, or keeping up with the latest medical research. But choosing the letter carrier occupation also afforded me another benefit; it involved little social interaction. That's not the reason I made the initial choice, but it is the reason I stayed. Instinctively I knew that any job requiring people skills would be problematic.
We all need other people even if they come with risks, and as an adult, I have managed a modest social life. I even fell in love and got married. Still, over the years there have been many occasions when I've felt overwhelmed, when I’ve said or done the wrong thing, misunderstood or been misunderstood. I had one instance when I was released from a puppetry troupe because the director said the two of us couldn’t get along, a shock to me because I held no animosity toward her and wasn’t aware of any ill feelings that she had toward me. Clearly, I had completely missed something that she thought was obvious. I’ve also had a few of those autistic meltdowns when I negatively misinterpreted the actions of others and became angry. I’ve damaged relationships and lost friends, and I’m usually bewildered when this happens.
As an adult, my artistic output was almost exclusively writing. But often there was a lot more going on in my head than was making its way onto the page. I produced a couple more stage plays, one published and one unpublished novel, a smattering of songs, poems, short stories, reviews, and essays. This was a meager output for 30+ years. When I look back on why, it was in the nature of the material I produced. Almost nothing I write conforms to what I perceived to be neurotypical expectations.
Neurotypical is a word I learned recently that has its origins in the autistic community, referring to individuals not on the spectrum. The advent of the internet has given rise to an online community of persons who refer to themselves as “Aspies”, slang for people with Asperger syndrome. Until recently Asperger syndrome was considered to be a separate diagnosis from autism, a distinction made because children with autism were usually non-verbal whereas those with Asperger syndrome were not only verbal but often had larger-than-average vocabularies. With the publication of the DSM-5, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition—you can see why the title was shortened—psychologists decided that Asperger syndrome is more properly understood as being part of the autism spectrum. Aspies are often gifted in some aspect of their lives, but usually have issues with social interaction. I would probably have been given the Asperger syndrome label had my problem been diagnosed ten years earlier.
Why the internet has been such a boon to these folks is that it allows them to get around their social disabilities by removing the need for face-to-face or group interaction and replacing these with a computer keyboard. Suddenly body language, maintaining eye contact, and the subtleties of facial expressions were not so important. And it also gave these folks the tools to fight back against the discrimination they’ve endured in the past. Laura Tisoncik, an autistic woman, launched a website in 1998, including something called The Institute for the Study of the Neurologically Typical. She defines neurotypical in this way: “Neurotypical syndrome is a neurological disorder characterized by preoccupation with social concerns, delusions of superiority, and obsession with conformity… There is no known cure for Neurotypical syndrome.” So, it’s clear that the word neurotypical is borne out of attitude. Nevertheless, the word is useful, and I’d rather use it than “normal” for reasons I’ll explain later.
I don’t write well for neurotypical folks if the process requires trying to think like them. It’s not for lack of trying, but with each attempt, I either miss the mark or I hit it and then can’t identify with what I’ve created. It’s been a perplexing problem. My creative life is littered with unfinished ideas, projects abandoned because I didn’t think there was a neurotypical audience. At that point, I still saw myself as a failed neurotypical, a failed normal person.
I’ve always seen science fiction as a refuge, consuming the genre in various forms whenever I needed to escape, but I had not considered writing it. I had no training in science other than high school, and I wasn’t sure if being a scientist or at least having a science background was a requirement for writing science fiction. Then, in my mid-fifties, I had an idea for a science fiction trilogy that wouldn’t go away.
It took a while for me to act on this, partially because I knew I would have to do a lot of research to make it scientifically viable. As I got into the research, however, I found I loved doing it. Perhaps I’d always been a science nerd at heart and never realized it. Conducting this research rapidly became another glorious and socially isolating obsession. Why socially isolating? Because I did almost all of it on the internet. Just me alone in front of a computer screen and perfectly comfortable with that state of affairs.
The other reason for the delay was that I wanted to ensure there would be an audience for what I wanted to write. A science fiction trilogy is a huge project, and I wanted to be reasonably sure there was a neurotypical readership for what I wanted to create. Part of me was still looking at this as a way of fitting in, a form of redemption for whatever it was I’d been doing wrong for all these years. I concluded that science fiction trilogies were selling well, and if I could write a good one, I should be fine.
One final bit of confirmation was needed. I wrote a single scene from the proposed book and sent it off to a writer friend. In it, Agastin, the Chancellor of an aquatic alien species, the Fahr, experiences a deep and pleasurable high when exposed to humpback whale song. When Agastin decides he must have a breeding population of these creatures, it sets the stage for a confrontation with humanity. My friend’s response was enthusiastic.
I made good progress on the first novel of the trilogy, a book I would later name Planet Song, but I was halfway through the first draft before realizing that I was writing a first contact story from the alien point of view. It was a perspective I was quite familiar with but it was unusual in the first contact subgenre. Most writers would have human protagonists in this kind of story. But it was worse than that. My aliens were aquatic, did not walk around on solid ground, did not have hands to gesture with, and expressed their emotions by rippling their gill slits and displaying colors on an inflatable balloon-like bladder that projected from their foreheads. Creating this universe was so much fun, but amid all this progress, my life was deteriorating.
As I got older my energy levels decreased, reducing my capacity to deal with the more difficult aspects of social interaction. The change was so gradual, I barely noticed it. Without the energy to put up the aerials, I retreated into myself, and into the world and story I was creating. In 2016 I published Planet Song, but I had no idea how to promote the novel. There's a plethora of advice online and in books about how writers should promote their work, but these suggestions all have one underlying assumption: that both you and your intended audience are neurotypical in their thinking. Successful promotion involves getting into the heads of your potential readers, figuring out their felt needs, and pitching your book in a manner that will attract them. This process involves a level of conformity that I am currently incapable of. Still, my clumsy efforts did result in some very good reviews.
There’s a story often used to illustrate operative conditioning in animals. A barracuda is placed in a large aquarium and allowed to go without food. After several days, the scientists slide in a pane of glass at one end of the tank and release one of the barracuda’s favorite prey species on the other side of the glass. The barracuda tries repeatedly to get at the other fish but keeps crashing into the glass. Eventually, the barracuda stops trying. At that point, the glass is lifted and the prey fish swims freely in throughout the tank, but the barracuda is now convinced that the prey fish in unattainable and doesn’t try to catch it.
I’ve had a similar experience with social conformity. And while I maintain a few close relationships with people who have similar interests, I’m still baffled by what most people value and the way they live their lives. So much of it seems to be about conformity to an ever-shifting set of values and tribal loyalties. I don’t understand, so my attempts to join in have failed and, like the barracuda, I have lost the will to try. Before my autism diagnosis, and with the reduced energy level that comes with aging, I was starting to see myself as unlikely to succeed. I could create original work, but I couldn’t figure out a way of engaging mainstream society. The major problem was I saw myself as a failed member of that society.
In October 2017, I finally visited a psychologist to have myself officially tested. Three sessions later he confirmed that I was, indeed, on the autism spectrum. So, what changed? At first, not much. For 65 years I had considered myself a flawed individual unlikely to succeed if the achievement was defined by conformity to neurotypical society. This mindset took time to rebuild. I did so through extensive research into autism, followed by a re-evaluation of my 65-year-old life through that new lens. I concluded that my energies had been misspent trying to fit in and would be better used embracing my strengths. Weird is Wonderful because it allows me to create things the neurotypical conformity-focused mind wouldn't consider. I’ve learned that embracing my oddness is my best chance for making a significant contribution. And worrying about how this “sits” with others is a waste of my time.
There’s a new paradigm of inclusiveness that’s being embraced by increasing numbers of the psychiatric professional community. This is called “neurodiversity” and seeks to broaden the definition of what is normal brain/mind functionality. Basic to this new understanding is the idea that conditions like autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and other brain differences should be accommodated within a broader definition of normal human neurological functionality. The human brain, as part of the natural course of things, can and will be wired differently in every individual. As in other parts of the human anatomy, these differences will impact strengths and weaknesses, but in the past psychological professionals have focused on treating the weaknesses rather than embracing the strengths. Neurodiversity changes the emphasis, seeing value in the strengths that these individuals bring to society. Where would we be if autistic individuals like Albert Einstein, Glenn Gould, and Steven Jobs had focused on their weaknesses rather than their strengths? Yet historically, the majority of people on the autism spectrum have been asked to do just that.
Most of my life was spent enjoying my strengths but fixated on these shortcomings. Understanding this is allowed me to refocus the emphasis. I can now both enjoy and focus on my strengths. And if my behavior is occasionally challenging for others, hopefully, they will give me the benefit of doubt. If not, well I can no more change them than they can change me. I can’t explain why this is freeing, but it is.
Before I finish, I’d like to add this little postscript. I recently sent a copy of Planet Song to British scientist Dr. Ellen Garland, because I had somehow missed her research on humpback whale song and thought I should apologize. So, this poor woman is going to receive a book from an author she’s never heard of with an apology attached for a wrong she never knew was done to her. That, my friends, is a very autism thing to do.
T.K. Boomer Bio
T.K. Boomer lives in Sherwood Park Alberta, Canada with his wife. He has a degree in theatre and has had several stage plays produced. In 2014 he published a mainstream fiction novel, A Walk in the Thai Sun, written under the name G.J.C. McKitrick. Over the years he has been a professional musician, a songwriter, a puppeteer, and an employee of Canada Post. A voracious reader, Boomer indulges almost every literary genre but his favourites are science fiction, musician biographies, murder mysteries, and literary fiction. His workspace includes a home recording studio which he uses to record songs and podcast serializations of Planet Song. He is embarrassingly Canadian about hockey, fond of British television, tennis, jazz, and he plays his guitar at least three times a day. In the fall of 2018, he will release Alpha Tribe, the second book in The Fahr Trilogy.
You can visit T.K. Boomer's Facebook page here, follow him on Twitter here, or visit his website here. His website has all the book purchase, contact and newsletter links but if you want the direct Amazon.com purchase link for Planet Song, that's here.