Meeting James The Giant Peach (Autism/Aspergers)
The other night, I was introduced to James. A warm smile, a friendly face, and a jovial presence, like a twenty-something Santa Claus without the beard and the red suit. He left a lasting impression which has been with me ever since. I was scheduled that evening to be the guest speaker at a local Asperger’s Support Group meeting and James was the first to arrive. Initially, I thought he was a member of the hospital staff setting up the room. He moved around the place as if he was familiar with the surroundings: setting up chairs, moving things about in place; being mindful. Then as we went around the room with our introductions, I was surprised to find out that James is a 24 year old with Aspergers. And he attends these sessions each month and has been loyally doing so for almost two years.
Though my prepared presentation never took place, only a small group of five showed up that evening, we exchanged stories, resources, and laughter for an hour or so before we called it an early night. And looking back, I walked away with way more than I imagined, for I met James.
When James was in public school, he was “odd”, “the geek”, “the special needs kid”, and he probably heard a hundred other disparaging nicknames, describing everything but the wonderful person he is today. He told us how he was first diagnosed with “ADHD”, then “Bi-Polar”, then “Clinically Depressed” [“I wasn’t depressed, I just didn’t want to be with people … that really pissed me off when I heard that”], then finally, at the age of 21, he was diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome. As he puts it, “Finally, someone could explain to me what was going on inside … I felt relieved to know why I am the way I am”. Clearly, James has evolved to a place in life where he is truly becoming comfortable with his self and how he fits in the world. An affirming diagnosis set him in the right direction.
As he was describing his new part-time job, one where he could use one of his talents, exemplary eye-hand coordination, I got the clear impression he was content. Here he was able to contribute and be a part of our world; the one in which most of us go to work each day, earn a paycheck, and if lucky enough, we know we have made a difference along the way. Knowing so, it helps us sleep at night and most importantly, provides the inspiration to wake up each day. James fixes labeling guns for retail stores. With great detail and enthusiasm, he described the process at work, the different types of guns used across the country, and proudly expressed how easy it is for him to diagnose the broken guns and quickly solve the problem. His employers were wise enough to identify James’ skills within the interview process when he was asked about his interests and he went on a long diatribe about Legos, Transformers, and other collectable gadgets. They immediately figured out they had the perfect guy for the job for they were needing someone who loved to figure out how small things work like broken labeling guns. His dedication to the job profoundly made an impression on me. For we all can learn from James; its not about the grand scale in which we contribute to the world, not everyone can be the President, the Rockstar, or the Rocket Scientist, but its in the mindfulness and attention to detail that makes a difference.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best while addressing a group of middle school age students, “If it falls upon your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music, sweep streets like Leontyne Price sings before the Metropolitan Opera, sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.” James exemplifies exactly what Dr. King was describing. James fixes labeling guns like a surgeon performs heart surgery, with precision and intuition. And I was moved and touched by his presence.
From my perspective, Asperger’s is not something that needs to be fixed; It’s not as simple as a broken labeling gun. It’s more about acknowledgement of what works well, building upon talent, understanding what needs to be learned, and realizing it will take time to see the list of deficits balance out over the long haul as the extraordinary assets unfold. At one time, James felt broken, and like Humpty Dumpty, no one knew how to fix him. Now, after three years understanding the challenges before him through an appropriate diagnosis, James is far from broken. In fact, he is perfect. And through his example, he taught me more than I ever imagined that evening. For its not what we say that makes a difference, it’s more about how we live. James is a peach, a giant peach. And I will never forget his story.