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Parallel Play: Growing Up With Undiagnosed Asperger’s

October 9, 2009
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Parallel Play: Growing Up With Undiagnosed Asperger’s by Tim Page
published by Doubleday September 8, 2009

In the years since the phrase became a cliche, I have received any number of compliments for my supposed ability to “think outside the box.” Actually it has been a struggle for me to perceive just what these “boxes” were — why they were there, why other people regarded them as important, where their borderlines might be, how to live safely within and without them. My efforts have only partly succeeded; at the age of fifty-three, I am left with the melancholy sensation that my life has been spent in a perpetual state of parallel play, alongside, but distinctly apart from, the rest of humanity. (p. 3)

Tim Page was a gifted child and, encouraged by his devoted mom and his quirky, intellectual dad, he explored his interests freely. His teachers were concerned about his abysmal performance in school, and he had to undergo all sorts of testing, both for his giftedness and his limitations. Yet he was an autodidact, passionate about music, writing, and old films. He explored all kinds of music, including classical, opera, and rock, created interesting stories, and wrote, directed and filmed his own movies.

In adolescence, an age in which people become acutely aware of their differences and their yearning to connect with others, he struggled with depression. This is a common experience, especially among those of us who are wired a little differently. However, he went on to pursue his dreams and became a music reviewer for the Washington Post; he won a Pulitzer Prize for his work in 1997. He is also the father of three sons.

In 2000, at the age of 45, he received an Asperger’s diagnosis, a label that had not been officially on the books until 1994. He was surprised and also felt liberated — he knew he was not alone. With his growing self insight, and his incredible gift with words, he penned this memoir. It was an opportunity to tell his story and to help readers grasp this much misunderstood condition.

We are informally referred to as “Aspies,” and if were are not very, very good at something we tend to do it very poorly. Little comes naturally — except for whatever random, inexplicable, and often uncontrollable gifts we may have — and, even more than most children, we assemble our personalities unevenly, in bits and pieces, almost robotically, from the models we admire. (p. 6)

I won’t beat around the bush; I loved this book. I read it in one sitting, mesmerized by Page’s beautiful writing, his insights, and his edgy sense of humor. At moments I was deeply moved, and I was often laughing hysterically. His description of his childhood felt familiar to me on several levels. For example, he described eloquently how he came to really understand death at the tender age of four and already distrusted religious answers and comfortable platitudes. This reminded me intensely of one of my children, whose insight and understanding of these issues was beyond her years, unleashing emotions her preschooler’s heart was not prepared to cope with. And some of his struggles in school, often driven by his inability to focus on what was “important,” could have been lifted from my autobiography.

I also enjoyed the glimpses of his ambivalent feelings toward his younger siblings. These problems are certainly common, but they seemed to be intensified a bit by the anger stemming from Timmy’s inability to fit in.

…I was especially jealous of Betsy, who had been born about twenty months after I was. Once, when I was about two, I was caught throwing handfuls of sand and dirt on her as she screamed in her baby carriage. I envied our pediatrician his privilege of sticking needles into he unwanted intruder and making her cry, something that I knew would have gotten me into serious trouble. “Timmy continually uses violent language” my mother noted in her diary. “This afternoon, he got very angry and came up with a real prize: “Betsy, I’m going to smash your little bones!” (pp. 21-22)

In addition to hearing Page’s personal story, the reader gets a lighthearted tour through contemporary history, from the apocalyptic mindset of the Cold War, during the 50’s and 60’s, to the acid-laced culture of the 1970’s. I loved the author’s dry humor and his honesty in describing the awkwardness of his early sexual encounters and his disastrous experiences with recreational drugs. He also allowed intense affection and sadness to shine through, as when he described the death of adolescent friends in alcohol-related accidents.

I loved the way Page illuminated the way he sees the world, and much of it resonated with me. I wish he had delved more deeply into his relationships with peers. I got a clear sense of his emotions, his connections to other people, and his struggles to relate to others. And I got a peek at various friends from childhood and adolescence. Some of his escapades with friends were hilarious or heart-wrenching. However I would have loved to have gotten a better sense of how he formed friendships, given his difficulty at “reading” other people and having reciprocal conversations, and of the quality of these relationships. I am hopeful that, in time, he will write another book about himself, just as beautifully crafted, insightful, and funny, that will explore these questions further.

I highly recommend this book, especially to people who enjoy memoirs or are interested in Asperger’s Syndrome.

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