The International Writers Magazine:
THOUGHTS AND OPINIONS OF A BUDDHIST AMONG BAPTISTS
Reverend Father Antonio
Hernández, O.M.D., A.B.F.
Founder of the Independent Order of American Buddhist Fathers
ARCTIC REVERIE: THOUGHTS ABOUT MY AUTISM
will seem odd to the reader at first: this article is about me,
the writer, the great guy in the by-line whom you all know and
love. It always seems, or so I have been told, that I take everything
and make it about myself. My answer to that is: How can we not,
each of us? We do it all the time. The subject here, however,
will make it abundantly clear why it has to be about me.
People are generally
shocked by me. Sometimes I think it may be my Buddhist robes, sometimes
my skullcap, sometimes the shiny bald head it covers, perhaps my insistence
that I am a Jew, as well as a Buddhist priest, but then, perhaps people
just don't like me. Friend-making comes easily, and so does socializing,
when I feel equal to the tasks. I've been a Buddhist monk for a dozen
years, founded my own order in America, and written some instructional
materials about Buddhist practice.
I'm a linguist, fluent in thirteen languages and modestly capable in
another four. For several years I have been prominent as an anthropologist:
being uneducated in that field makes me unpopular, like my Welsh friend
Elaine Morgan, who postulates that humans began as semi-aquatic apes.
My practice as a doctor of Oriental medicine makes the on-again-off-again
anthropological humiliations worthwhile.
My entire life has revolved around science, engineering, art, literature,
poetry and music.
Accomplishment in all of those fields is a typical family gift: all
my siblings have talent (some, notoriety) in each field. For me, as
Einstein once said, "it's in the blood". As a lover of Einstein,
I naturally have pursued his line of theoretical physics most of my
life. Because of circumstances, I have also spent literally the whole
of my life undergoing non-stop philosophical and theological training.
Several of my pieces on metaphysics and natural theology are here at
"Hackwriters", waiting for me to rope them together into yet
another book (so far I've published two books).
After a lifetime of suffering, I was finally diagnosed in 1994 with
Tourette Syndrome. That was helpful and revealing, but something else
was happening. We didn't know what; we would not know until much later.
In the interim, I had a nasty bout that was diagnosed as relapsing multiple
sclerosis, and then in 1999 I almost died of the mumps.
In the year 2000 an almost magical thing occurred: I went to see a children's
psychiatrist who specialized in autism. We had tossed around the possibility
since 1998 that I might be autistic. Me, autistic? Several doctors had
already told me, without even blinking, that there was no way I could
be autistic. In February of 2000, this wonderful, skilled doctor tested
me intensely for nearly an hour. After that she did not hesitate: in
a detailed four-page document of notes, she diagnosed Asperger's Autism,
also called Asperger's Syndrome. Finally, an answer!
Things incredible and magical have transpired in this realm. In the
1920s, a Russian physician named Luria wrote a slender book about a
young man called "S" (we only know he was a young Jewish man
whose real name was Solomon). This man, obviously autistic, was a medical
wonder: he had the most perfect photographic memory in recorded medical
history. Since its publication, Luria's book has been a sort of bible
to the medical community. The book is The Mind of a Mnemonist: A
Little Book About a Vast Memory by Dr. Alexandr Romanovich Luria,
1st English edition, 1968, published by New York Basic Books.
What Luria had found in Solomon was a staggering condition known as
synesthesia, often spelt "synaesthesia". In the case of "S.",
the condition helped his mnemonic devices function smoothly. Synesthesia
is a rare condition, said to affect roughly one in a million people,
that has to do with the senses. For a synesthete, as we are called,
the senses are "crossed", we taste shapes, see sounds, literally
feel thoughts with our hands, faces or fingertips. The condition is
so difficult for people to understand that the layperson finds it spooky
and the doctor finds it implausible. But it is real, and is common in
high-functioning autistic people, people like me, and Einstein.
It was not until 1943 that an American doctor, Leo Kanner, had studied
and named the condition in its severe form. At the very same time, another
doctor, the Viennese Hans Asperger, studied the same condition in its
highest-functioning state, and also named it autism. Though publishing
roughly at the same time as Kanner in 1944, Asperger's work fell by
the wayside until the late 1980s.
Autism was a death sentence diagnosis. First called "Kanner's Autism",
and later, "Early Infantile Autism (EIA)", the condition,
once confirmed, usually led to institutionalization. The children, though
to be 'profoundly retarded' for lack of a better term, were pronounced
untreatable, incurable, hopeless and useless. Dr. Asperger's children,
all brilliant and talented, fit into the world well. They grew, Dr.
Asperger followed them throughout their lives, and the world ignored
In the early 1980's, American and British doctors began noticing a curious,
unbelievable phenomenon. Treating profoundly autistic children, they
noticed that the children's parents appeared to be suffering from a
sort of mild form of the same thing. The doctors who noticed this wondered
how it could have been missed for so long. What they were seeing, of
course, was Asperger's Autism. They did not know that nearly forty years
earlier, Asperger had said the condition runs through families, and
is handed down the line.
Autismus, the original German term, was once applied to schizophrenics.
It made reference to the isolation, social inadequacy, repetitive behavior,
love of routine and tics found in schizophrenics. For a long time, autism
was understood as an alternate term for schizophrenia. No one had the
slightest clue that there could be autistic adults. But autism and schizophrenia
are not the same thing, nor are they bedfellows.
A list of people said to be affected by Asperger's is impressive indeed.
From Einstein to the late Pope John Paul II; from Bill Gates to Ludwig
Wittgenstein. To list them all would require dozens of pages.
THE WORLD OF SYNESTHESIA, MY STYLE
Not having much of a chapter on synesthesia in my book about Tourette
Syndrome and autism, I thought I would include that here. Dr. Richard
Cytowic, a Washington, D.C. , neurologist, is a foremost expert on this
phenomenon. In his book, The Man Who Tasted Shapes, Cytowic gives
a rather torturous but fascinating glimpse into the details of synesthetic
experiences. It is a fine textbook, but here I wish to give a highly
First I have to say that two things have dulled my synesthesia: age
and multiple sclerosis. The senses just don't work as they formerly
did and I've always suspected that a great deal of it vanished as I
grew into adolescence. But I still have the basic core of it, and that
much, I can describe.
People's voices are most powerful stimuli for me, second only to classical
music (Bach, actually). My auditory senses are the most powerful of
the synesthesia, followed by my vision. The vision is a tricky thing
to describe, because not only voices but words on a page or in my mind
create different senses. The best I can do is state that voices have
a marvelous, varied texture to them that cannot be outdone by any other
sense. Written words, and even languages, create entire landscapes that
I can almost reach out and touch mentally. Rarely do I actually feel
such texture with my fingers.
Sometimes there is color and sometimes there is what I call "synestheticolor",
in which a non-visual sense stimulus creates synesthetic "colors"
of its own. This is the case with languages and the written word: these
have dimensions to them that I cannot describe, and their own colors
which do not exist in nature. For example, things must be considered
by the Buddhist term "formations", viz., a build-up to a concept
or idea. This can begin with a word. In this case, let it be the Gaelic
language. "GAELIC" itself stimulates multiple synesthetic
reactions. Whether I read it or say it, or hear it said, it is always
the same, a round but pitted, pale blue, glowing, "garlicky-sweet"
But reading or speaking Gaelic words means a transition. No longer am
I dealing with the sensations of the word "Gaelic" exclusively.
Here I am fully in my synesthetic landscape. Reading Gaelic can be painful,
because the tangle of vowels is difficult for me to process. It is much
better for me to know the words I am reading before I read them. Seeing
Gaelic on the page, I am overwhelmed with things I cannot describe.
The sound of the language, on the other hand, varies with the speaker
and the speaker's accent. There is the synesthetic response to the voice
first, of course. That is separate. The language itself varies a little
bit: spoken by a Scot, it is very liquid but nearly solid, very orange
in color, with sharp peaks and a sharp-sweet taste. Very pleasant and
reminiscent of Spanish. Gaelic spoken by a typical Irish, such as Enya,
is very loose, runny, much less orange, pungent and distasteful. So
much for comparative philology!
Obviously there is much with which to deal, and in a rapid sequence
that would shame a supercomputer. I have always had the same feeling
Dr. Luria had: synesthesia is both the origin of, and primary serving-tool
for, memory. Though doctors once scoffed at the idea of synesthesia,
chalking it up to artistic whimsy, today I am often rebuked for claiming
that I can dull or sharpen my synesthesia at will. Well, why not? All
my life I trained to this: controlling my senses and emotions.
AN AUTISM OF MY VERY OWN
According to my grade school records, which I researched as an adult,
my I.Q. was listed in my second grade year as 111. In the sixth grade,
it came out at 122. At the last test I ever had, aged 17, it was averaged
out to be 164. A normal I.Q. ranges between 95 and 105. Gifted begins
at 125; "severely" or "profoundly" gifted begins
at 132. Though I personally believe these numbers mean nothing, they
certainly mean something. They mean capacity. They mean potential. They
mean the difference between an eccentric genius and a retarded savant.
But they can also represent no more than a different way of thinking,
or mere laziness.
Armed with multiple talents and such an I.Q., my life had never been
simple to defend or even maintain. Social blunders of galactic proportions
used to afflict me. People seemed angry at me, and I never knew why.
Certainly I was conscious of blurting out things that were supposed
to remain in my thoughts. But then, I had always believed everyone was
exactly like me. How wrong I was.
Emotions always meant little to me. Definitely I felt, very likely as
much as anyone else. It was problematic at best to express how I felt,
so I didn't bother. Once when I was about seven, I was playing with
some friends in the alley. One of the other kids was swinging a large
metal squeegee and it accidentally struck me on the head, full force.
Never had I felt such pain.
Yet I stood, silently, unmoving, then turned on my heel and went home.
I told my mother what had happened, and she carefully examined the large
bump on my head. I was annoyed, as usual, about the alarmed fuss being
made over me. The entire time I hardly blinked, but I did finally cry
about it... much, much later. It took all the accumulated pain and humiliation
to finally make me cry a few tears. Though I had severe tantrums as
a child, they were usually for good reason. But the sting of that injury
prevented me from ever striking anyone.
Tiny as that memory is, it is autism at its worst.
My form of autism, at its best, can be glorious.
Never striking anyone as a child or as an adult is actually part of
that glorious aspect. Autism helps me understand the world in a scientific,
logical way, also a magical, progressive way that I think is blocked
to normal people. It helps me feel and experience the poetry in film,
the music in literature, the incredible gustatory tastes to be savored
in music. It helps me literally feel the written word in my hands. It
helps me think, speak and write.
Sometimes it occurs to me that without autism, I might indeed be hopeless.
Dr. Antonio Hernández
May 23rd 2005
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