I hear it probably 10,000 times per year. The applause, the shouts of joy, the desire to have me back soon.
Twenty years ago, what I heard 10,000 times per year were was the derision, the torment, the ostracism.
What a difference information and time make!
My name is Darren Lambert and I have autism. I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome in 2012, at age 32. To say that life is often very difficult for a person with autism is an understatement, and I doubt I need to explain why. However, one can have autism and a tough childhood in addition, and still end up as a happy, fulfilled adult doing something that you’d never expect to see an autistic person do!
My wife and I are musical entertainers. That one single sentence carries a lot of hope for people with autism! Let’s pick it apart.
I am happily married and I have been for four years now. My wife is neurotypical, and with what we do for a living, we’re with each other literally all the time, with very few exceptions. I am considered “high functioning autistic” and any autistic person’s mind will be substantially different from the mind of a neurotypical person. Yet, that has not caused us any significant trouble, nor has being around each other constantly for four years. The sheer number of articles that you can find when searching the Internet for “Ccan marriage work if you’re autistic?” shows that it is a question frequently asked, in silence if not audibly, by many people. The simple answer is a resounding “YES!”… and there’s not much to it!
Like most people with Asperger’s, I am unusually gifted in mathematics. My wife is not gifted in that area. Therefore, whenever anything mathematical needs to be done, I do it. However, like many people with Asperger’s, my mind is constantly racing with thoughts. This makes me oblivious to a lot of what goes on around me. My wife, on the other hand, is the most observant person I know, and she has a memory that still amazes me to this day. So whenever we need to recall or remember something, that’s her domain. She’s the emotional thinker, I’m the logical thinker. It’s understood that whatever we do must make sense, but each of us brings a perspective to the table that the other one often didn’t consider at first. Our mental differences are aligned such that what each of us lacks, the other provides. If that condition is achieved in a relationship between an autistic person and a neurotypical person, it works very easily indeed. Beyond that, we share just about all of the same interests and desires, so we have everything else that a good marriage should have, and I believe that “until death do us part” will be a happy journey indeed!
The autistic person can leverage his or her autistic qualities as positives rather than negatives. Often, young autistic people feel like they have some extremely unusual traits or desires; perhaps so extreme that those traits or desires could never be “loved” by another person. If there is one thing to be gathered from this part of my story, it’s that that is an entirely untrue statement! My wife may never share, for instance, my fixation on the design of the speedometer in vehicles I view, but it sure has given rise to its share of jokes … and when you both get a laugh, your bond strengthens and your life lengthens! There’s nothing not to love about that.
It might be easy enough to imagine how a neurotypical person can be an entertainer, but, surprisingly, it’s just as easy —- if not easier —- to see how an autistic person can be an entertainer! Autistic people frequently feel like fish out of water when they are in group settings. I know that feeling all too well. I still have difficulty navigating the waters of social interaction and I am almost 35 years old. I feel awkward in groups when I am “mingling”, largely because I know from experience how unlikely it is that I will encounter someone with whom I have enough in common to sustain a conversation that goes beyond shallow platitudes. Furthermore, I find the “rules of socialiszation” to be nebulous and almost impossible to comprehend in a concrete fashion. If I do find someone with whom I can have a conversation, usually I converse with that person one-on-one, as possible, even if the others in the group are nearby. I simply tune out everything that everyone else is saying around me. It’s not uncommon that I will retreat to a place of solitude after two or three hours of being in a group of people, because I’ve simply had enough —- it does take effort to tune out the sensory chaos of group interaction for a long time. This is something I doubt I will ever be able to change, and there’s no way that I’m the only one who feels like that.
However, one main reason why I’m writing this story is to give autistic people, and those who love them, hope. There is hope for an autistic person to become comfortable in a group setting. I have achieved this. 500 times per year, I get up in front of groups of people, ranging from a dozen to hundreds, and entertain them. By being an entertainer, I control the group. When I’m singing and/or playing, they’re listening. When I’m telling a story or a joke, they’re listening. If someone says anything, it’s usually only one or two people at a time and I can easily converse with them briefly on the microphone while everyone else listens. If I am in control of the group, I am essentially setting the rules, so the situation becomes logical and understandable. There’s no sensory chaos when I’m doing a song … and if it should ever happen, I can turn the volume up —- which drowns it out and encourages it to effectively makes it stop!
For a long time, I thought that I would never be comfortable with groups of people. I can still hear, in my “mind’s ear”, one of my 7th grade teachers constantly telling me to “blend” in a stern voice. I’ve never been able to blend in with my peers and I know that many autistic people I’ve encountered have felt the same way. What that teacher should have told me was “lead”. The autistic person is well-suited to be a leader, because leaders make the rules and call the shots, and their tendency to think logically makes them unusually well-equipped to create the structure of a situation. I know that once I became a leader and recogniszed that I was far better suited to leading than blending, I felt like I had found my niche. These days I am around groups constantly and I feel no awkwardness at all.
In my younger years, from age 10 through to almost age 16, I would wake up dreading almost every day when I had to go to school. If I had to go to school, I didn’t even want to get out of bed. I would regularly cry on Sunday nights, knowing that I had another week of school ahead of me … largely because I knew what I woulnd experience at the hands of the people I would encounter.
Often, the high-functioning autistic feels like he/she is trapped inside his/her own body. There are desires to do unusual things, but the feeling is that if those desires are manifested observably, they could generate ridicule or at least exhortations to do something different. The thing is —- we don’t want to do something different! For example, I used to like listening to the same song over and over on repeat play, sometimes several dozen times in a row. That drove people crazy! But I didn’t want to listen to any other song. It was like a mental itch that begged to be scratched. Sometimes you scratch an itch and it comes back repeatedly! To this day I still sometimes listen to certain songs on repeat play.
It’s very important for an autistic person to be given a lot of freedom with activities and pursuits as long as they’re those pursuits are not harmful, starting from a very young age, even if watching the person indulge in such fills your mind with questions. You never know what might become of it! For me, all of those years of listening to various songs over and over have indelibly etched the nuances of the songs into my mind, and now when I perform them live, I can provide a very accurate replication of the songs for my audiences. Recently, my wife and I performed a song that I used to listen to, over and over, in my junior year of high school. (After that, I only heard it maybe two or three times per year on the radio.) 18 years later, Kristen and I were asked to do that same song at a show. We had never performed nor practisced the song. She found the lyrics, I set up my keyboards for the accompaniment … and we pulled it off near-perfectly! Largely due to how many times I listened to that song in my teens, I knew what the accompaniment notes and chords were, what instrument sounds to use and where, and even what the vocal harmony notes were! Who’d have thought?
Fast-forward 20 years … now I never wake up dreading what I do, no matter how many shows we are to perform that day. I look forward to what I am going to experience at the hands of the people I will encounter! Recently, a lady who heard our show told me “You must sleep really well at night!” —- and it wasn’t because she thought I would be tired after having done a show! She said that I seemed really happy, and as such I would be likely to be able to sleep well at night, and she was right. People with Asperger’s often tend turn out to be unusually gifted in music should they pursue it, and I have managed to parlay that gift into a very fulfilling career. The fact that I get to do it with the woman I love makes it many times better.
If I had been aware of my condition in my middle-school years and had been given the opportunity at that time to switch it out and become neurotypical, I would have taken that opportunity in a heartbeat. Now that I have found a perfect fit for the way I am, I wouldn’t even dream of changing it. Autistic people CAN make a life that is energizing and fulfilling for themselves, even in a world that is geared toward the neurotypical population majority. This may have to be achieved in an unusual way, and that should be encouraged as often as possible. Too often was I encouraged to pursue a life I might best describe as “conventional” when nobody knew I was autistic, and though I did try that in a few different ways, it never worked. I felt like a square block trying to shove myself into a round hole. The simplest advice I could give to another autistic person comes in two short sentences —- “Be true to yourself” and “Be unconventional”. The closer I’ve adhered to those axioms, the happier I’ve been. Find that square hole. Because, after all, though most of the “blocks” out there are “round”, not one of them will fit into it!
About the Author:
Darren Lambert is an autistic professional musician and entertainer who has been playing piano since age 2 and singing since he could talk. He performs an average of over 40 shows per month with his wife Kristen. They live in Conneaut, Ohio, United States and travel all over for their performances. They are online at www.DarrenLambertMusic.com.