This week I read Safety Skills for Asperger Women – How to Save a Perfectly Good Female Life, by Liane Holliday Willey, even though my own daughter with autism doesn’t have Asperger’s Syndrome. Normally, I avoid books about Asperger’s because Samantha doesn’t speak, think or write at that intellectual level—despite all her efforts, enthusiasm and high functioning in the neurotypical world. While it’s heartbreaking to read about ASD women struggling to fit into the neurotypical world, it’s even more difficult for me to acknowledge that my own daughter must work harder (and fail more often) than her Asperger’s sisters as she navigates the NT World, looking for the niche where she can achieve success. Liane’s target audience is other women diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, along with their family and friends. Two months ago, I met Liane at the Adelphi Autism Conference, where she was a keynote speaker. Not only was Liane wonderfully energetic, with a self-deprecating sense of humor, but she also generously agreed to read My Picture Perfect Family – What Happens When One Twin Has Autism. Thank you, Liane!
Listening to Liane speak at Adelphi, I became curious about her as a writer. In spite of my expectation that her book wouldn’t apply to my daughter, I was happily surprised to find that Safety Skills for Asperger Women really DID help me understand Samantha better. Instead of feeling overwhelmed with sadness (and, yes, envy) that Samantha couldn’t’ share her feelings with Liane’s eloquence, (or cleverly compensate for some of their shared social challenges) I am prouder than ever of my daughter’s efforts to interact with the neurotypical world. Reading the first chapter of Safety Skills, which addresses creating healthy and safe relationships, I saw that Samantha was already following much of Liane’s great advice about manners and making a good first impression. My daughter is unusually polite, always on time and smiling. While she still needs to improve in grooming and fashion, Samantha understands that mastering these skills will be integral to her success in the neurotypical world. Fortunately, she’s willing to learn (more than half the battle!)
In terms of polite conversation, avoiding controversial topics like politics, religion and personal finances is no problem for Samantha. Unlike Liane and other Aspie women, my daughter has zero interest in these areas, and neither do most of her friends. Obviously, the ignorance-is-bliss approach limits her ability to make conversation with passionately-political, neurotypical peers, especially in an election year. Samantha also has trouble talking about many of Liane’s suggested “topics to enjoy” such as current events, trends and television because she doesn’t read newspapers or watch much TV. However, Samantha is able to ask other people about “who they are and what they like,” and she LOVES talking about music and theater.
For me the most important take-away from this first chapter is that all ASD women—not just Aspies—need to “learn to be socially bi-lingual. . . . Able to turn on and off whatever skill sets we need whenever we need them.” Doesn’t that sound great? Ideally, everyone should communicate better and become more attuned to the many complex social and cultural differences that affect our world. The future of the human race may depend upon it. Obviously, you don’t have to be an Aspie woman, to need relationships that are “honest, kind and supportive.” I am grateful that my daughter has managed to cultivate relationships with her peers on the spectrum who possess those three most essential qualities.
Much wonderful advice is offered throughout the whole book, including: how to pack, travel, and stay safe in hotels; how to blend in instead of attracting unwanted attention. In addition, there are multiple check lists for supplies and instructions on what to do in emergencies. Liane also offers a lot of information about how and why Aspie women need to pay attention to their hygiene and wardrobe, along with organizational tips for keeping their homes clean and orderly. What I found most touching and incredible was the generous, cheer-leading energy and thought that Liane invests in organizing her own life and in breaking down her process step-by-step so that others can learn from her anecdotes and examples. Listening to her rapid fire speech (alternately sad and hilarious) at the Adelphi Conference, I’d never have guessed Liane had worked so hard on the mundane details of her life that most neurotypical people take for granted. Poised before a large audience, I thought she presented herself better than many stand-up comedians—as an honest and brave storyteller, attractive and endearingly quirky. Yet, at the end of the day, Liane shares more in common with my non Asperger ASD daughter than I’d ever imagined. They both struggle with routine and following complicated instructions; they both over-extend to others and have trouble saying “no”.
Alas, there are also some fundamental differences between an Aspie woman and my daughter which become abundantly clear by the end of the book. I doubt my daughter will ever ask (or answer) many of Liane’s more profound questions like: “What are the big life questions I need to ponder most? Is life preordained or do we have free-will?” And forget about asking Samantha to “contemplate.” She doesn’t even know what the word means. But maybe deep intellectual ability is over-rated. “You are ultimately in control of your tranquility and life’s joy,” Liane advises. “Dance with your spirit and smile.” Luckily, my intuitive daughter already understands how to dance with her own unique spirit and smile. Could any other life line be more important?
Samantha’s current performance schedule is: Dreaming Ever After on June 3rd and June 4th, at 7 PM; Charlotte’s Web at 7 PM on June 9th,10th and 11th; Dream Street Roars–Bagels and Ballads at 2 PM on Sunday, June 12th. To purchase tickets to DreamStreet Theater Group events, click here: www.dreamstreetnyc.org