Thursday, March 1, 2018

Look Me in the Eye, Autism, Emotional Intelligence, and Society

[Note, this WAS originally published on 27 February at about 8:54 PM, but for some reason about a third of the post was cut off at the bottom.]

 I read Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger's by John Elder Robison. It's 304 page-long book about, as inferred in the title, the author's life with Asperger syndrome. I picked up this book because it sounded interesting. I've read books about the autism spectrum before, but I hadn't actually read one that was written from a first-person perspective as this one was. I actually saw it first on my AP English teacher's shelf, which caused me to become interested and buy it on Kindle. I found the book really interesting to say the least. I was able to put on my Kindle so I could take it with me to school, to the store, or wherever. It probably took me 3~4 hours to read the book. It's an interesting book that gives a rather good insight into the minds of people with Asperger syndrome.

The prologue, in my opinion, is the most memorable. It talks about how the writer has often experienced suspicion, and how it was exacerbated by his drinking father and nearly non-present mother, due to his inability, or unwillingness possibly, to look people in the eye. He then talks about the interpretation of people like this: "Everyone thought they understood my behavior. They thought it was simple: I was just no good. 'Nobody trusts a man who won't look them in the eye.' 'You look like a criminal.' 'You're up to something, I know it!' Most of the time, I wasn't." (Robison, 18). In my opinion, this shows a flaw in society: if someone differs from what is considered the norm, they are immediately considered to be "deviants" or, as the author puts it, no good. I'm no stranger to this. In first grade, I was nearly sent back to kindergarten or special education not due to my grades, but due to my having few friends and, as my teacher put it, "acting different". Obviously, instead of just being different, I was clearly not developing properly and needed to be sent back to kindergarten, or be sent to special education. Neither of those happened, thankfully, however it does show that peoples' views of those who are "different" do need to change.

This is seen again in the 22nd chapter of the book, called "Becoming Normal". The author talks about how, in his transition to becoming "normal", he seemed to have lost what was once considered his "creative genius". "I didn't write about my feelings because I didn't understand them. Today, my greater insight into my emotional life has allowed me to express it, both verbally and on paper. But there was a trade-off for increased emotional intelligence. I look at circuits I designed twenty years ago and it's as if someone else did them." (Robison, 225) This raises another question. Are people that are non-verbal, or do not have much emotional intelligence, really so unintelligent? Nina Fiore, writing for Creativity Post in her article "Mute, not 'Dumb'", states that she knows many people with low emotional intelligence, that in other areas, are savants or geniuses. "I know numerous nonverbal Autistic teens and adults who are profound and eloquent thinkers and writers.  But they have trouble speaking verbally.  Their intelligence and abilities were underestimated for years (before they learned to type), and they have often suffered from abuse and neglect and have struggled to be heard. If you give nonverbal people the means to express themselves and the support to learn how to express themselves, you will often see that they are more intelligent than most of the “talkers” you know." (Fiore). If you were to just ask anyone if they believed that non-verbal autistic people should be taught to speak if possible, they would likely say yes. But at what cost? Could they possibly lose their genius that way, as the author may have?

In conclusion, Look Me in the Eye is a riveting, excellently written book that has given me a great insight into the life of someone with Asperger syndrome and has caused me to think deeply about the treatment of these people and how we could integrate their genius or knowledge into society.

Sources:

Robison, John Elder. Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger's. Ebury, 2009. 

Fiore, Nina. “Mute, Not Dumb.” The Creativity Post, 28 Apr. 2015, www.creativitypost.com/education/mute_not_dumb. 

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Outcasts United, Stereotypes and Today

I read Outcasts United: A Refugee Team, an American Town by Warren St. John, a 322-page book about the 2006 season of a soccer team in Clarkston, Georgia known as the Fugees. To be honest, I started reading it initially due to its interesting title, with no expectation for it to be a great book, however I'm happy to say that I think that it is overall one of my favorite books of all time. I read it for the first time over spring break of this year, and I most likely did not put it down for the first four or so hours that I started reading it. I'm not sure how long it took me to read the book, as I was on spring break and after my initial hype of the book, I probably only read it in half-hour segments. I'd estimate I spent about 6 or 7 hours reading the book.

Outcasts United is by all means an excellent book. It goes into great detail about the circumstances that brought the team together, including the life of Luna Mufleh, the coach of the team, and the lives and the tribulations of the refugees that made the team what it is. I was especially interested in the parts of the book about the community response to the refugee situation. It made me realize that today, the only thing that has changed about the opposition to immigration and the intake of refugees is that the opposition and panic are much more widespread. But really, this shouldn't come as much of a surprise. People are, have always been, and always will be, resistant to change.

One thing that is oddly reminiscent of what has recently taken place in this country, is the mayoral election of Clarkston. Due to the pre-refugee, or "native" Clarkston population panicking over the people that are now populating their town, a man named Lee Swaney ran for the mayoral office. "In 2001, Lee Swaney - a longtime city council member and a self-described champion of “old Clarkston,” that is, Clarkston before the refugees - ran for mayor. [...] Swaney’s platform reflected his old-school values: he promised the citizens of Clarkston that if elected, he’d work hard to lure a good old-fashioned American hamburger joint to open up within the city limits." (St. John, 41). This seems mildly reminiscent of Donald Trump. Swaney and Trump both ran under a similar title: "America/Clarkston is no longer great, so let's make it great again". Trump's campaign mostly appealed to people that feared changes that America was undergoing, and so did Swaney's, but Swaney's was definitely more direct about the changes that the people were afraid of.

I recently read an opinion written by Jonathan Hafetz of Al Jazeera, called "Fear of and Resistance to Syrian Refugees in the US". It discussed many reasons how and why Americans are resistant to change in our society and country. This fear is fueled by xenophobia, which is now not only a buzzword, but a word meaning "fear of outsiders", and the fear that the refugees may have a connection to terrorist groups, such as ISIL, al-Qaeda, Hamas, etc. Xenophobia is more present in the story, however, with many of the townspeople unwilling to accept the new direction their town is going in. A resident states "If you lived in the same community, on the same street, for all these years, and you know everybody on the street [...] and one house at a time, they’re either moving away or aging out of their house, and the person who’s moving in is from another country..." (St. John, 186). While it's clear that one factor here is the sense of unfamiliarity due to people moving away, it's interesting how this person mainly focuses on the fact that their new neighbors are from different nations. As I have said before, not much has changed, people have always felt anxious and mildly (or majorly) xenophobic about their "new neighbors" per se, however today, with the new influx of refugees and the larger response or outrage over it, it has just become more widespread.

St. John, Warren. Outcasts United: a Refugee Soccer Team, an American Town. Spiegel & Grau, 2009. 

Hafetz, Jonathan. “Fear of and Resistance to Syrian Refugees in the US.” Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 4 Dec. 2015, www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2015/12/fear-resistance-syrian-refugees-151203100143194.html.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Gene, Genetics, Mental Illness, and Me

I read the book The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee, a 495-page book about the history of genetics in detail, alongside personal experiences and comments from the author about genetics. I initially read this book when it came out in mid-2016. I started reading this book because the subject of genetics greatly interests me, and by the time I had finished the book, I had become even more interested in the subject of genetics, specifically how they work and their history.

This book is an excellent book. It is incredibly educational on the subject of genes and their history. I was especially interested by this book's discussion of mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, and their genetic factors. After I first picked the book up, I must have not put it down for about three hours. This book probably took me roughly eight hours to read in total. It does such a great job of making what would seem to be a somewhat mundane history actually interesting. Sometimes, it made me wish Mr. Mukherjee was my biology teacher in freshman year.

Some of the personal history in The Gene is directly relevant to me, especially the anecdotes about the author's family and mental illness. Several of Mukherjee's cousins and uncles had been diagnosed with schizophrenia - not unlike my own family. "Of my father's four brothers, two—not Moni's father, but two of Moni's uncles—suffered from various unravelings of the mind. Madness, it turns out, has been among the Mukherjees for at least two generations." (Mukherjee, 2). This affected me, because it directly relates to my family's history - there have been certain mental illnesses that I'm not comfortable speaking of traveling through the generations, and it just made me very aware of how when I have kids, my family's mentally ill genes may pass on to them. It had a kind of somber effect to me personally. When I first learned of my family's questionable genetic health, thought that maybe in the future, these genes could be altered to remove said maladies. However, in the epilogue, I read a passage that made me reconsider a little bit: "Illness might progressively vanish, but so might identity. Grief might be diminished, but so might tenderness. Traumas might be erased but so might history." (Mukherjee, 492). It made me think a little bit. My family's genetic illness is a part of its history, a part of who we are. It creates an odd situation. It causes suffering, but it's who we are as people.

In an article written by STAT News, this danger of the consequences of editing our own genes is highlighted. It states that while it can cure illness, it may cause us to lose our identity as different people, or cause different weaknesses altogether, in what I like to call "If you fix it, they'll find a new way to break it" - something this book was concerned with. In conclusion, this book educated me on the history of genes, the dangers of changing them, how far we have come, and almost changed me a little bit as a person.

Citations:

Mukherjee, Siddhartha. The Gene: an Intimate History. The Bodley Head, 2016.

Skerret, Patrick. “Experts Debate: Are We Playing with Fire When We Edit Human Genes?” STAT News, STAT News, 17 Nov. 2015, www.statnews.com/2015/11/17/gene-editing-embryo-crispr/.