Asperger’s, Olympians, and astrophysics

Michael Frank


Recently someone asked me what it’s like having lived 51 years not knowing I had a form of autism. My answer was not what he expected, but that’s not all that unusual with me.

Essentially, I got very good at imitating what you might call “normal” behavior, but you can only go so far with faking it.

It brought to mind a movie I once saw where a group of men who had never seen a track and field event - let alone participated in one - were told they were going to be USA’s Olympic track and field team. These men were handed an assortment of makeshift equipment, shown a few films, and told to just do their best.

When they took the field on the first day of the Games, they found the shot put was a heck of a lot lighter than the cannonball they had practiced with. They blew the other teams away.

Though they outperformed their opponents, it was clear to all they lacked the polish and finesse of the well-prepared, well-trained athletes. Fortunately, they didn’t lose any points for this as they would have with figure skating.

Society is a lot like figure skating in that respect. Especially in social situations, people have a tendency to judge each other by their grace and finesse first. For the most part, people see me as intelligent and articulate enough, and when at ease, a pretty witty fellow. But when they start seeing the cracks in the façade, or behaviors they don’t understand - and evidence of my alien thought processes - they are invariably repelled. You can imagine the result.

Now that I know why I don’t think like other people, I can learn to keep those cracks from appearing, and help others to understand so when they come across someone else like me, they won’t mistake them for an idiot, weird - or worse, a creep. Think of someone you consider a creep, and you’ll see why that’s worse. People who make this mistake miss out on what could be their life’s most profound friendship.

The perfect example of this is a friendship between Edmond Halley and an odd, reclusive, yet brilliant fellow, who, without Halley’s influence, would have passed on in obscurity, leaving behind nothing more than a stack of boxes full of brilliance remaining unseen by history. Instead, Halley - for whom a certain comet was named - took an interest in this man, recognizing his genius and specialness. Because of this, instead of dying an unknown, Sir Isaac Newton brought his works to light, going on to earn a Knighthood, a position as a Member of Parliament, and the coveted Chair of Theoretical Physics at Cambridge University.

Like myself, it is believed that he had Asperger’s Syndrome (a term that is being phased out, like runaway Political Correctness, the “planet” Pluto and the operating system in my laptop).

I had a cannonball, Newton had a famous friendship. Sure, he was a lot smarter than I’ll ever be, but we have something more important in common; we have both learned to make the best of it.

Well, now that I know about the cannonball, that is.


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