Thoughts and illustrations on living on the autism spectrum.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Why Are We Here? Autism and Evolution

“Some say Asperger’s is a gift, and even vital to human evolution.”

Who said that? Oh, that’s right… I did! What’s the deal with Asperger’s and evolution? Let’s take a closer look.

Evolution favors traits that help an organism adapt to its environment, and produce more offspring. Is Asperger’s a favorable set of traits?

Aspies have some advantages over NT’s. We are unique problem-solvers. We are truth-seekers. We are well-adapted to the information age.

We also have some disadvantages. We have stims and social difficulties. We are terrible liars. We are less likely to maintain a relationship and reproduce.

So we have both favorable and unfavorable traits. Some autistic traits pose severe challenges. There’s also reason to believe autistic genes have existed for a long time. Perhaps as long as humans have existed. So why are we here? And why, in spite of our challenges, do we seem to be growing in number?
The apparent increase in autism is partly due to increased public knowledge and recognition of autistic traits. But could it also be that we are increasingly useful to our species and our world?

Consider the difference between NT’s and Aspies. We are different in one major way: how we make sense of our environment. Starting from birth, NT’s learn to understand the world through their innate attachment to other humans. Aspies, however, focus on observing the patterns and structure in our environment.

Most of us learn the other way of functioning later, as a “second language.” NT’s acquire autistic behaviors, and vice versa. In this way, we have a symbiotic relationship with NT’s. They learn to specialize, to program a computer, and to enjoy alone time. We learn how to find a job, and buy a house, and read others’ emotions.

How has the symbiotic relationship affected our species? History is filled with eccentrics who became innovators. The Einsteins, the Beethovens, the Michelangelos, engrossed in their work, misunderstood in their time, but later recognized as the developers of new knowledge. No one can say for sure, but they share many characteristics with those of us on the spectrum.

Humans have evolved faster than any other species. We developed tools, built a society and industry, and catalogued our knowledge, all in a comparatively short 50,000 years. We transformed our own environment to favor our own survival. Would this be possible without the innovators? Their unique understanding of the environment based on structures and patterns enabled them to change it for the better.

But we Aspies did not change our world alone. We are different. Not superior. Autistics need NT’s. The inventor’s customers, the philosopher’s audience, the painter’s admirers, are all NT. Without NT’s we wouldn’t have team sports, CEO’s, or soldiers. Without NT’s, how would we spread our ideas?

Some like to think autism is “the next evolutionary step.” It’s an appealing upside to the challenges of the condition, or maybe it just makes a good sci-fi story. I don’t think autism is “the next step” if it means we will become a separate species. Neither do I think we are, in fact, aliens.

Instead, I think we’re meant to go forward together. Humanity has always depended on the different, to look ahead. We need neurodiversity. We need symbiosis between NT’s and autistics, with each understanding the other’s perspective. And we who are different must make our voices heard, by being our authentic selves in spite of the obstacles the world throws at us.

So no, not everyone will evolve to be autistic. But humanity will always need a few, and it will need to hear us. We need everyone to make the world. To advance, to metamorphize, to reach for the stars, and beyond. That is our “next step,” and we all must take it together. When it comes to our collective evolution as humans, Asperger’s is indeed vital.

Many of the ideas in this post draw on the writings of Alan Griswold. To read more about this theory of autism and evolution, please visit

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Awkwardness Unzipped

Awkwardness Unzipped is the name of a fundraiser in Portland, Oregon to benefit children and youth with disabilities. I love the name of this event so much, I made it the theme of this week’s post.

What does it mean, “awkwardness unzipped?” I say it’s not to worry about hiding one’s awkwardness. To accept a certain amount of clumsiness in who you are and what you do. Particularly in whether you’re breaking sacred social codes. Everywhere I look, it seems, I see examples of this.

This week, career management blogger and Aspie Penelope Trunk wrote a stunningly candid post that begins, “I smashed a lamp over my head. There was blood everywhere. And glass. And I took a picture.” The rest of the post was framed as helpful tips for readers on how to bounce back from a setback. However, most readers couldn’t leave the intro alone, and urged her to seek help.

“I wish there would not be so much feeling sorry for me,” Penelope responded in the comments. “Lots of people go through times like this. It's okay to show it while it's happening. The world is a lonely place if everyone hides this stuff.” Later, it seemed she was listening to the advice, as she tweeted that the payoff for posting the photo was, “I can crowdsource mental health strategies in my blog comments.”

The episode was more than a bit awkward to witness. Was Penelope right to blog about such a personal situation to 60,000 readers? What if she’d put her pride first and kept the incident “zipped up?” I don’t know the answer. I wish her the help and healing she needs.

Elsewhere, nonprofit marketing blogger Kivi Leroux Miller announced she would begin posting daily, on the advice of Seth Godin. “It doesn’t matter if anyone reads [your blog],” says Seth in the video, “What matters is the humility that comes from writing it… the meta-cognition of thinking about what you’re gonna say. How do you explain yourself?”

Kivi explained why she welcomes this kind of self-exposure: “I love how blogging lets me advance my own thinking on topics, one post at a time. I love hearing what you think about what I think, even when you think I’m completely wrong.” Sure enough, some readers chastised her for her decision, urging her not to become a “McBlogger” who sacrificed quality for quantity.

But Kivi has not been dissuaded. She sees a benefit in her daily posting that outweighs the risk of awkwardness. So far, her experiment seems to be going well, as I’ve noticed no drop in quality.

In my own life, I, too, feel I’m unzipping and allowing for more awkwardness. Those of us who are different are pressured to hide our differences, thinking they’re defects. But the more I see my Asperger’s traits as differences, the less pressure I feel to cover up.

I worry less about the way I walk. I worry less that I’ll mess up what I’m trying to say on the phone. I doodle on my notepad in meetings, even if people can see. These things may be no big deal to you, but they always made me feel awkward. Lately, I feel I am growing more assertive. I put myself before others. I allow myself more imperfection, and I get more done.

My blogging has certainly taught me humility. I’ve written about topics I never expected to. I’m never entirely satisfied with how my cartoons turn out, but if I kept redoing and redoing them, I would never finish. At the same time, I don’t ever plan to make this blog a tell-all expose, or a daily.

This week, a reader left a comment on this post thanking me for my help with an “A-ha!” moment, and then she “skipped happily away in a state of gleefully glad-to-be-me silliness.” I think that sums up what you find when your awkwardness zips away.

Moments like that are my payoff for putting myself out there. I write about my own awkwardness in the hopes that I can help you feel gleefully glad about yours. And if we’re all comfortable being awkward, then none of us is really awkward, are we?

It feels good to unzip. It feels honest, and healthy. You might sacrifice a little humility, but you might solve your problems faster. You might find friends you didn’t know you had.

So don’t be afraid. Go ahead, unzip! Let your awkwardness hang out!

Erm, metaphorically speaking, that is.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Meet The Characters: Squishy Bird

Gather round, readers! Today, you’re in for a real treat. For today, I tell you the legend of the Squishy Bird.

The year, 1986. The place, a Marshall’s department store. My mom goes shopping and brings home a plush birdie for my two younger brothers, but not for me. As if, at ten years old, I was too old for a stuffed bird. Little did she know.

Squishy Bird, so named by me for his spongy texture, stood 5 inches tall and resembled a bright blue penguin. He had personality. From the permanent amused expression on his face, to the mischievious glint in his beady little eyes, it all seemed to invite you to take a squish.

Naturally, the birds became a hot commodity around our household. Enticed by the lure of the squish, I would habitually steal the Squishy Bird from my brothers. This led them to guard him closely, which made me covet him even more, in an escalating cycle. Truly, a squish in the hand was worth two aggravated siblings.

Skateboard Squish, Sept. 1986
Squishy Bird became popular among our neighborhood friends as well. He was known to join us on our skateboards, cuz that’s just the kinda bird he was. He also inspired us to wax philosophical, and was the subject of many a quote in the Sayings Book. “Around here, we call it a Squishy Bird,” declared Ian. Another time, he memorably pontificated, “Squishes. How few there be.” Truer words were never spoken.

First cartoon appearance of Squishy Bird, April 8, 1986
As a character, Squishy Bird’s storyline began not on paper, but on a tape-recording called “Bear Going Lunch’s Greatest Adventure.” In this project, my friends and I took a tape recorder and voice-acted the exploits of superhero Bear Going Lunch and his dimwitted sidekick Camel Dude as they battled arch villain Eggo Waffles. Squishy Bird, who was voiced by me, showed up to interrupt our heroes at every turn, wanting to help, but just being annoying. A typical exchange went like this:

Bear Going Lunch: “I’d better get over there right away!”
Squishy Bird: “Hi! I’m Squishy Bird, where are you going?”
Bear Going Lunch: “This is confidential, and don’t follow me. You might get hurt.”
Squishy Bird: “It’s always confidential with this guy.”

An Interview with Squishy Bird, Aug. 17, 1986
Bear Going Lunch finally punches Squishes out just to shut him up, but Squishes would always come right back. He did, however, have his useful moments, as when he reminded Camel Dude to use medicine to revive an unconscious Bear. And, in a display of bravery, Squishy Bird saved Camel Dude from a burning building, getting caught in the flames himself. This led Bear Going Lunch to exclaim, “I’ve gotta save him, even if he gets on my nerves.”

In cartoon form, Squishy Bird’s major storyline came in “Piggy Parties, The Book.” Mimicking events in 1986’s Transformers, The Movie, Squishy Bird falls down a hole to find the leader of the News, Party Piggy, dying. In his last moments, Party Piggy urges him to take the Matrix of Newsyship and carry on his responsibilities as leader.
Squishy Bird takes the Matrix of Newsyship. From Piggy Parties, The Book, Fall 1986

Squish E. Bird. Fall 1986
Upon taking the Matrix, he assumed a new identity, Squish E. Bird, along with long orange legs and new feather markings. He served as leader for a short while, but the more mature Squish E. proved to be a boring character, quite in conflict with the zany roots of Squishes. I thus retconned him back to Squishy Bird.

Today, I’ve found the perfect role for Squishes in Dude, I’m An Aspie as the overly friendly, perpetually cheerful and well-adjusted NT. His personality is a bit of Barney, a bit of Pillsbury Dough Boy, a bit of Tigger, and a bit of the Walmart greeter we all want to punch out. Naturally, Fuzzy hates his guts. You can see him take out his aggression in such cartoons as “Instant Moron-Maker” and “Twitter.”

Squishy Bird is still a meddling buttinsky, prone to do more harm than good in his attempts to be helpful. But as often as he gets knocked out, he’ll pop right back up with that amused smile on his face.

Hold on… who’s that? Somebody just came in… Hey, leggo of my keyboard, you!

Hello! I’m Squishy Bird!

Squishy Bird, get out of here. I’m writing a post!

I have a message to the peoples! Hellooo, peoples in the Internet! This is very important! You need to reset your linkee linkees to, for more cartoons about meeeee!

Oh. Well, that’s actually very helpful. Thank you, Squishy Bird.

And may I say too, also, a Squishy New Yeeeaar!1!! I give to you, a big squooshy hug! And…



Sorry about that, folks. Sometimes, you just gotta do that. As I was saying.

Oh, yes. He’s the indestructible, the inscrutable, the squishable. The legend. You cannot resist the Squish.