autism, culture, health, living abroad, psychology, travel

I Am Not Rain Man

brain color colorful cube
Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán on

What is Asperger’s Syndrome?

Most people around the world either don’t know what Asperger’s is or never heard of it. I’ll be happy to explain. It’s a higher-functioning form of autism. It affects social interaction and communication. The subjects are known to have above average to genius IQ’s but handicapped emotional and social intelligence. It’s not learned behavior or a way of rebelling. We’re not retarded, psychotic, or schizophrenic. My IQ has always been three digits so far as I can remember. I don’t have hallucinations or hear voices, nor am I incapable of speaking in complete sentences. If anyone has ever watched the original Star Trek or The Next Generation, Spock and Data meet the archetype of someone with Asperger’s. Their speech is quite eloquent. They’re practical individuals with excellent reasoning skills, but they lack the intuition NT’s have. For those who don’t know, NT is the initials for neurotypical, the word to describe someone not on the autism spectrum.

All That We Knew and Know

For the longest time, all anyone knew about autism was the movie Rain Man. His name was Raymond Babbitt, but his kid brother, Charlie, called him Rain Man as a kid because he couldn’t articulate his name. Charlie also thought Rain Man was his imaginary friend and didn’t realize he was real. The title character was a mathematical genius. He could recite phrases and remember minute details. However, his social interaction was deficient. Raymond didn’t know how to read facial expressions, body language, or non-verbal cues. Raymond was a savant which is someone lower-functioning. Charlie took Raymond under his wing as they ventured from Cincinnati to Los Angeles after their father passed. Charlie was ill-prepared and had no idea what he was up against. The viewers could tell Charlie grew frustrated with his brother because he had ridiculous expectations. He wanted Raymond to be a normal person the same way everyone did me.

We’re Counting Cards

My favorite scene happened when the two arrived in Las Vegas during their journey. Charlie had a meltdown after losing tons of money from his regular job as a Lamborghini salesman. His business got seized by his creditor. Charlie opted to take his brother to a casino where they could gamble their way out of debt. Next thing you know, they’re winning rounds of black jack, poker, roulette, and whatnot. Charlie finds himself back out of the hole after he ascertained Raymond could detect the spatial patterns which enabled them to win. Eventually, they’re asked to leave by security for counting cards because the staff think they’re cheating. Rain Man is based on a real savant by the name of Kim Peek. The latter could speed through a book within an hour and remember all the details. On occasion, Peek would visit casinos and count cards which inspired screenwriters to produce the movie. After this was unearthed, casinos have placed a ban anyone with autism as a means to an end.

Ignorance is Not Bliss

Therein lay my dilemma. I didn’t feel comfortable disclosing my condition to anyone for the longest time because I’d half-expect them to compare me to Rain Man as a backhanded insult. Nobody would believe me when I told them I have autism because the aforementioned information was all they knew. A few weeks ago, I got impatient with a Korean expat friend when I tried elucidating it to him. He knew nothing about autism or anything pertaining to psychology. Our mutual American friend had heard of Asperger’s, but he knew very little. I realized my Korean friend was trying to understand and that he meant well. The problem was he came from a culture where mental health is a taboo subject nobody wants to touch with a ten-foot pole. The reason I got irked was because I presumed he would at least know something. Truth be told, he shared the same disposition as half the people back in America I knew. It’s not that he was daft or trying to provoke me; he was uninformed. The other American guy wasn’t much help because he never knew anyone on the spectrum before he met me. That said, I recommended both of them read about Asperger’s and autism online because there are sources that could explain it better than me.

Do Not Shelter Me

I mentioned before I was raised as a neurotypical because I wasn’t diagnosed until I was 19. I’d already been to hell and back by the time anyone had a clue. I’ve been socialized and taught how to interact with others. Not everybody acquires interpersonal skills naturally or is born with that gift. Some people have to be taught like yours truly. If all they know is what they see on screen, then you can’t expect much. Most people on the spectrum I’ve known were only children diagnosed at younger ages. They lived sheltered lives. Not only am I the youngest of four who went undiagnosed. I grew up in a working class neighborhood in Houston. Most people from major cities in general are more street smart than folks raised in the countryside. They have to be because they’re interacting with everyone from all walks of life each day. They’re not secluded on a ranch or farm where there’s limited contact.

Independence or Inconvenience

All this links to what I said yesterday about how the Vietnamese are. The reason Saigon looks like a ghost town during Tet holiday is because most people here are from parts of rural Vietnam who migrated here for job opportunities. They’re not as sophisticated as the locals born and raised here because they didn’t grow up in that environment. By the time I reached high school, my dad, who lived in Long Island, New York, would have my brother and me switch planes at different airports whenever we flew to visit. He wanted us to land in Islip so he wouldn’t have to drive all the way to LaGuardia in Queens during rush-hour traffic. Eventually, I’d fly there alone without my older brother to chaperone me as I lived with my dad during my preteens. My dad even had me take the train to Penn Station to meet him when he got off work. He expected me to act like an adult and become independent from an early age, so I had to adapt and overcome.


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