“I much prefer you in cat form, Dream, old friend. When you wear a human head, I find it so hard to know what you are thinking.” So says the Egyptian goddess Bast to the King of Dreams. This line appears in Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman: Season of the Mists, and in the context of that volume is relatively unimportant, but Bast’s confusion hit a deep chord with me. This one panel was a nearly perfect metaphor for my life up until reading it.
I was diagnosed with Aspergers at sixteen. In the fifteen years since, the once “trendy” diagnosis has become a lot more controversial, in no small part to a cacophony of voices chiming in on the subject including the anti-vaccination movement, proponents of neurodiversity, and media depictions of people living with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The characteristics of ASD are well-known and comically exaggerated in media. However, these characteristics are not shared by all with a diagnosis. I, for example, am not obsessively focused on one particular subject or thing, nor do I take everything literally a-là Drax the Destroyer, and my fine motor skills are not poor (but they aren’t great either if I’m being honest). However, the understanding of others’ emotions and reading facial expressions will be a lifelong struggle for me.
It’s no exaggeration to say the isolation and paranoia this can cause is like something out of Philip K. Dick. Imagine the following scenario: you are speaking with a group of people with whom you do not share a strong connection; perhaps you’ve just met them, or perhaps they are acquaintances such as work colleagues. Everything is normal. You’re just talking. Suddenly one member of the group becomes extremely upset or angry. You think, “What’s their problem?” but the others in the group quickly voice their displeasure as well, and their faces have now morphed into crunch-browed, fierce-eyed, mouth-curled kabuki masks of anger. But we were just talking, what did I say? You don’t know, and odds are good you won’t know. High-functioning individuals will likely be immediately dismissed as insensitive assholes, low-functioning individuals will often be dismissed as “just autistic.” Both are denied an opportunity to learn from the exchange, and to potentially present another aspect of their identity. This has happened to me uncountable times.Your world becomes eggshells.
As I got older and learned more about my condition, my life took on a new and distressing dimension. I was being warned, prior to the onset of discomfort, upset, or anger, to change the subject, dial back enthusiasm, tone down my voice. But I could not see these warnings. At the risk of stating the obvious, people communicate and express with more than just their voice. Widening eyes might indicate increased interest in a topic; a slight change of tone in the voice a signal that the listener finds something just said uncomfortable. The list goes on and on. Until the age of about twenty-two, I existed in a world populated by Mona Lisa smiles that I knew could transform at any moment into emotional extremes if I spoke too long.
At nineteen I read Moore’s Watchmen; having never read a comic like it before, I was hungry to find more graphic stories of equal quality. I explained this to a co-worker who very generously gifted me a portion of his comics collection, including Season of the Mists. For the first time in my life I was being presented with faces in various states of expression, and many graphic novels I was reading also narrated a character’s thoughts and emotions in each panel. Even if there was no narration in the panel, art of sufficient realism could allow me to make sense of different facial expressions on my own time, imagining them into real world interaction. There are three wordless panels in Season of the Mists where Dream learns that Lucifer has quit Hell that I’ve revisited many times because of how well they capture shock and surprise.
The literary quality of Gaiman’s work and others moved me to pursue my degree, and to read broadly to better understand the layers of references within Sandman and other works. Studying literature has not only further helped me in my ongoing struggles to identify with the emotions of others and build empathy with them, but also kicked off my lifelong love of genre fiction.
Living with ASD is difficult, there’s no mincing words about it, and as long as I live the struggle will be there. The works of Gaiman, and other genre writers have enriched my life, and help me cope with some of the more difficult aspects of my condition. A nameless character in Dream Country implores people: “Dream! Dreams shape the world.” I like to think this is true, because to make sense of a strange world, I have to dwell for awhile in dreamed ones.
© 2018 by Eli Wilkinson