Monday, July 10, 2023

Finding Kansas revisited: the full forward


Part of my development as a writer stemmed from a doctor I was seeing. My dad was seeing him first learning about what Asperger’s was an eventually I too saw him. It was easier to write about things than talking so that to spurred the creative juices. In the first version of my book he wrote the forward so here now, was the original forward to Finding Kansas…

I have been asked to write a brief description of my impression of the “clinical” value and importance of Aaron Likens’ writings.  I feel honored by this opportunity.  At the same time I also doubt if I am capable of providing anywhere near a comprehensive interpretation or analysis of the value and meaning of Aaron’s truly remarkable writings.  However, there are a few observations I feel confident in making: These writings are of prodigious value to anyone interested in autistic-spectrum disorders, especially Asperger’s Disorder, whether they be a mental health professional, researchers in the field, family members, or other persons with similar disorders.  There is always a desire to secure some exacting definition of a particular disorder such as Asperger’s, a tendency to see each person as part of a more or less homogeneous group.  This categorical thinking has been yielding (especially in the conception of autistic disorders) to the notion of a continuum, which may be fore descriptive and individualistic.  In this regard the term autistic-spectrum disorders has increasingly gained acceptance.

As a mental health professional who has specialized in the field of autistic-spectrum disorders for nearly twenty years, the only apt comparison I can make of Aaron’s writings is the effect of Temple Grandin’s first book, Emergence. Her personal account of the “experience” of autism was a revelation.  It shattered many myths and previously accepted “facts” about autism.  Her book permanently changed the previously limited understand of autistic disorders.  

I believe Aaron’s writings have the same potential regarding Asperger’s Disorder.  He reveals depths of emotion, social comprehension, nuances of cognition and perception, and especially the potential for something close to “recovery.”  I believe its potential benefits are invaluable and capable of changing lives.

One of the changed lives has been my own. Aaron’s writings and our conversations have granted me clinical insights, a new understanding, and subsequently more effective care for my other clients with autistic-spectrum disorders.

It is difficult to keep this introductory statement brief because of the broad range of subjects he addresses; the questions raised by his intensely personal observations and analyses have implications beyond this field and the expertise of this professional.

First, I think it is important to note that unlike most current books on the subject of Asperger’s, this is not a “how to” (treat symptoms, etc.), but a “how did” book.  It is Aaron’s intensely personal journey, begun half unconsciously, its purpose emerging intuitively.  The process has been self-healing, but the product, like many literary journeys—from Homer and Dante to James Joyce’s re-visitation of Homer’s hero in Ulysses—Aaron’s writings speak to us all.  When he came to realize its potential value to others, he unselfishly decided to share it.

Aaron presents his writings as a series of essays arranged in chronological order (in keeping with the typical preoccupation with sameness, order, and predictability that is a hallmark of these disorders).  In many ways his descriptions and observations about himself reflect those made by Temple Grandin, as well as other observations and testimonials regarding the autistic experience.  His personal experience and even the words used to describe these experiences are often strikingly similar (although Aaron has never read her work), but beyond sharing certain clinical symptoms (as one would expect), Aaron has written a very different document.

Aaron has subjected himself to a rigorous self-examination, using himself as the subject of this “study,” a study of the nature and experience of Asperger’s Disorder.  He has bravely exposed us to his inner world.  He queries himself relentlessly about the nature, meaning, and implications of his thoughts, feelings, and perceptions.  In the course of this self-examination, he diligently applies logic, metaphor, analogy, and self-reflection to this “question” of his life, which most compels him.

In the course of this personal odyssey, however, he becomes much more than a clinical study of Asperger’s, for his personal queries eventually pose the same strenuous questions about the human experience that have challenged philosophers since antiquity: What is the meaning of our lives and actions? How do we reconcile our experience with that of others?  Where does the Truth lie? What is Love? Does freedom equal love?

Aaron does not ask these questions casually or as a kind of intellectual dalliance. (He is no dilettante.)  He poses these earnestly, for he perceives this is the only place where his personal salvation may be found.  This is one of the most fascinating and unique aspects of his writings to me.

Aaron examines everything with the tool of reason and logic.  This is the fateful manifestation of autistic preoccupation with sameness, predictability, and cognitive inflexibility.  Aaron is compelled to seek according to this method, applying “reason” to all matters and questions.  This seemingly innate methodology makes for a unique, self-made form of “philosophical inquiry.”  When I say “self-made,” I mean this literally, for Aaron reads very little and is completely unacquainted with the discipline or any of its most notable contributors.

The unfortunate aspect of this comprehensive philosophical mode of inquiry is, of course, the fact that our lives, our personal problems, and experiences can be only partly (even marginally) resolved by logic and reason.  Aaron’s cognitive inflexibility may be seen as a manifestation of the autistic tendencies as mentioned before and the pressing need to abolish ambiguity.  In Aaron’s case, owing largely to his extremely high intelligence, this preoccupation with order goes beyond arranging routines and establishing and imposing order on his environment.  He imposes this philosophical mode of thinking as the sole means of understanding himself, the world, and others.  The result is a kind of “tyranny of reason.”  In Aaron’s words, he “asks questions on paper to come up with some reasoning for someone who lives in a world of contradictions and paradoxes that have no answers or resolutions…a world within a world; a prison, chained by one’s mind.”  The expression “being on the horns of a philosophical dilemma” acquires a terrible disproportion here, a metaphorical “goring” of human potential and experience that is particularly bloody.

Aaron loves metaphor and hyperbole such as this.  It is one of the elements that make his writing so enthralling.  He has a marvelous sense of irony and a prose-style that is rich with emotional revelation, wit, and a wonderful absurdist sense of humor.  An incipient depth of emotion is given greater weight and meaning more often by implication rather that explication.  This is especially the case when he writes of the death of a friend (his cat) and his romantic experiences.  But his writer’s flair is also evident when he examines the value and torment of his prodigious memory, his work experiences, his fears, and his despair.  He is often given to morbid recollection, doubt, and hopelessness, but there is also the zest and excitement of release, joy, and peace, and even moments of serene and blissful happiness.

Where does he find this illusive “happiness” we all seek?  On answer he discovers is in playing games such as Monopoly.  In asking himself why this is so, he finds compelling answers regarding his Asperger’s mentality; the fact that games have clear rules that temper the “unpredictable,” that “there’s no better feeling that the unpredictability of a game set with predictable rules.”  He sees he is temporarily “free of my mind…of all the other mental anguish…the chains that make me overanalyze life, the critical mind…The real world and my world coincide, and happiness is found through the medium of the game.”  These observations and conclusions correspond with our current understanding of autistic-like mental processes.

But a more comprehensive, even profound fruit arises from Aaron’s study of himself.  It is an existential, even spiritual observation that “within rules comes knowledge of boundaries and limitation…[that] I am free because there are limits…”  The notion that in order to find life-sustaining meaning and true freedom we must know our limitations, Aaron concludes that limitations set the boundaries in which we can truly know ourselves.

As I caution previously, I had difficulty keeping this concise.  There are so many other aspects of Aaron’s writing and of our therapeutic relationship left untouched.  I hope I have this opportunity at some point.

I know that the general “rule” regarding getting a book published is that, well… “That isn’t going to happen.”  On the other hand, I find hope in one of Aaron’s many pithy aphorisms, “The rule that saved my life was the rule that there is an exception to every rule.”


Mark A. Cameron, Ph.D., M.A.

St. Louis, Missouri

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