On the Spectrum

I love NY Times Op Docs, which are short, 12-15 minute video pieces designed to bring the viewer into an experience of current interest. Here’s the latest, produced by a man on the autism spectrum — his is what we used to call Asperger’s syndrome — offering us a brief but poignant view of his life. The Op Doc is entitled “Perfectly Normal: Autism Through a Lens”.


When I taught kids with learning disabilities in the early 1970’s, diagnostics were not what they are now. I clearly had some students on the autism spectrum, although I don’t ever remember hearing that term. I certainly didn’t get much guidance on how to work with them. I observed many of the behaviors shown in this short film. Most of all, I noted the kids’ inability to process and interpret the social cues that more neurotypical people incorporate automatically and almost unconsciously. I found a book called Moody Moose Buttons, which featured a moose with exaggerated facial expressions and discussion of the emotions signified by them. I vividly recall working with one little boy, showing him the pages of the book to help him grasp that when his teacher scowled and folded her arms across her chest when she called him up to her desk over something he’d done, she was upset with him. He literally had no idea what her body language meant.

When I view this Op Doc, I’m reminded that each of us gets one life, to make of it what we can. The distribution of what we get in that life is hardly fair. I think of the speed of life now, how fast everything moves, as a person on the autism spectrum struggles to decode social cues and formulate a response while more neurotypical people are already on to something else. As Jordan, the producer and subject of the Op Doc acknowledges, it can be a lonely life.

My life now isn’t terribly diverse in terms of the people I meet, and I don’t have any real friends on the autism spectrum. Where I do encounter a wider range of people different from me, oddly enough, is on the workout floor of the downtown YMCA. There’s a woman there with Tourette’s. There’s a young man who wears a button saying he is blind and deaf; I have no idea how he navigates from one workout machine to another, but he does. There are a number of people in my age bracket with physical challenges, trying to build strength to compensate for what they seem to have lost through stroke or other incident.

I like going to the YMCA, and prefer it to some of the more chi chi workout places nearer to my home. Perhaps the mixed lot of us all working out together feels more normal in its own way than the upscale atmosphere of a spa.

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