My Asperger's son attended his school leavers' dinner this past week dressed as a pimp. His outfit, purchased over the internet, featured a gilded pimp cane, a black crushed velvet and leopard printed jacket, a matching fedora, and gold satin neck scarf. The dress code for the evening, it should be noted, was NOT fancy dress. My son doesn't care. He does what he wants, not what he thinks he should do. As he has enthusiastically asserted, he may wear this outfit over the summer when we go out to dinner in Connecticut. I can only imagine the waiters' expressions when a gangly, sparsely bearded teenager struts into their dining room, pimp cane in hand, boldly demanding a coke and a margarita pizza.
My father was equally nonconformist. Indeed, as my mother and I several years ago realized, he too was certainly Asperger's. Our homespun diagnosis has helped us, as we think back on my quirky and loveable father, to put certain lingering puzzle pieces into place. Although frightfully charismatic and outgoing, my father struggled to decipher social cues. He often misread situations, but learned to mask his social awkwardness by pouring on the charm. Still, Bob Natkin saw everyone and everything as black and white, this leading, sadly, to the abrupt curtailing of many friendships.
Being with my father was like spending time with a naughty but endearing toddler. In his early seventies, he went to the Saatchi Gallery with his dear friend Ron. My father, a successful abstract painter, was outraged by the shallowness and pretentions of the art on display, and illustrated his dismay by urinating on one of the works of art in the main gallery. Ron, of course, was mortified. I can only thank goodness that none of the museum guards noticed.
My father, like my son, spurned all social conventions. As a child, I was taken to the cinema several times per week, but we would arrive at the theatre whenever it suited my father, and always in the middle of the film. If he liked it, we'd stay. If not, we'd leave, usually then sneaking into the film-in-progress one screening room over. It was only when I was 11 or 12-years-old that I discovered the pleasures of viewing a film from beginning to end. Before that, movies were like Turner paintings -- hazy and visually appealing but with barely decipherable subject matter or narrative. The cinematic experience was, for my father, similar to gazing at an abstract painting in a museum gallery. Plot was always secondary.
My son, like my late father, has learned to use wit and charm to compensate for underlying struggles to grasp and master the subtleties of social conventions. He comes off as gregarious, eccentric, and comfortable in his skin. Maybe we all have something to learn from my son's lack of concern of the opinions of others? I remember being his age, and working desperately hard to fit in with my classmates despite the fact that I was glaringly different. I was, after all, a Jewish Manhattanite and daughter of two abstract painters, liberal Democrats who wore blue jeans and had kinky hair. This didn't exactly fly in leafy, preppy Connecticut. Suddenly I was surrounded by pert, blond field hockey players discussing country clubs and cotillions. Mortified by how different our family was, I tried hard to blend in, but never really succeeded. It was only by the time I got to university after three isolated and very lonely years at boarding school that I had the confidence to be who I was rather than try to be who I felt I should be. I felt liberated.
One of the things I admire most about my Asperger's son is his complete disregard for winning the approval of others. He is a wonderful melange of scholar and rebel. My son describes himself with unabashed earnestness as " a communist who likes foie gras." We should all try to worry less about what others think. Quirky is good. Bland is boring. Maybe I should prove my solidarity by donning a matching pimp's outfit? I think perhaps I'll ask my husband first...