A book-lover’s shortcut to learning more about Asperger’s

First, a confession. I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Second, a frustration. With the character of Lisbeth Salander, author Stieg Larsson apparently sought to create a grown-up version of Pippi Longstocking, the nine-year-old heroine of Astrid Lindgren’s books, published in the 1940’s. But when we seek similarities between the two, as a May article in the New York Times did, we don’t actually find many: Both girls live without parents, look odd, and possess some cool skills. Oh, and they both drink a lot of coffee. But shouldn’t the resemblance run deeper than that?

Third, an inspiration. Reflecting on Salander’s work as a private investigator, her colleague Mikael Blomkvist says to himself: “Asperger’s syndrome…Or something like that. A talent for seeing patterns and understanding abstract reasoning where other people perceive only white noise.” So, Salander might have Asperger’s. Does Longstocking have it too? Maybe this constitutes the missing link between them.

Finally, another confession. I am interested in Asperger’s syndrome because it often involves difficulties with language use, but I don’t know enough about it to answer my own question. So I took the book-lover’s shortcut. I read a memoir called Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s, by John Elder Robison.

Unlike our fictional Swedish characters, Robison is an actual guy who lives in western Massachusetts and runs an auto repair business. He happens to be the brother of Augusten Burroughs, author of Running with Scissors, but Robison tells his own story about growing up with a difficult family and a unique set of proclivities and skills.

Love of Logic
Robison loves the logic of machines. He can fix speakers, circuit boards, and automobile engines. But this same trait sometimes makes him uncomfortable around people. “I’m a very logical guy,” Robison writes. “Psychologists say that’s an Aspergian trait. This can lead to trouble in common social situations, because ordinary conversation doesn’t always proceed logically.”

Salander loves logic, too. In her career as a personal investigator, she uncovers facts and figures that elude her colleagues. But she does it primarily by hacking into email accounts and hard drives, not by asking questions or engaging in conversations, which she avoids. Salander seems to treat her work “like a complicated computer game” that just happens to involve actual people.

Longstocking is a bit different. She exhibits a certain desire for logic, but this drives her head-first into intense interactions with people, rather than away from them. For example, when a schoolteacher says that eight and four are twelve, Longstocking, who has never attended a math lesson before, fights back. “‘Well now, really, my dear little woman,’ said Pippi. ‘That is carrying things too far. You just said that seven and five are twelve. There should be some rhyme and reason to things even in school.’”

Maybe Longstocking is obliged to interact with people because the world of the 1940s did not offer enough gadgets to properly satisfy a preference for the logic of machines. Maybe a twenty-first century Longstocking would have sequestered herself in front of a computer, like Salander does. We cannot know, although the Pippi Longstocking book does offer one scene in which the old world confronts the new: while riding her horse into town, Longstocking gazes longingly at a shiny red fire truck and considers buying one of her own.

Seeing and Hearing Patterns
Before opening his auto repair business, Robison worked as a sound technician. He started by repairing tape decks for the language lab at his high school. He picked up more skills by hanging around an engineering laboratory at the University of Massachusetts. But then he encountered an obstacle: math, and the equations needed to model complex circuits. Never a star student in the traditional sense, he balked.

But Robison overcomes this obstacle. He finds work at nightclubs, setting up sound systems for bands, and something clicks in his mind. He actually starts to visualize mathematical functions. “For example,” he writes, “I saw the pure tones of a guitar going into a circuit, and I saw the modified waves — immeasurably more complex — coming out.”

Where some people see patterns, others see only white noise

Salander and Longstocking seem to have a special capacity for seeing patterns, too. On holidays, Salander eats ham and plays chess with her legal guardian (the nice one). Salander doesn’t have much fondness for the game, but never once loses. It seems she can envision the board and its potential moves in ways that her opponent cannot.

Longstocking also envisions things in ways that other people cannot, but with funnier results. The schoolteacher tries to tell her that she’s reading the letter i. Longstocking responds, “That I’ll never believe. I think it looks exactly like a straight line with a little fly speck over it.”

Pleasure in Lying
Much as he loves logic, Robison also occasionally enjoys lying and playing pranks on people. During a particularly horrible cocktail conversation with pompous professors,
Robison, who is flunking out of high school, announces he’s begun a career in waste management — that is, as a trash collector. He strings his audience along for quite some time with increasingly unbelievable scenarios. “You know, we see all kinds of things. Just last week one of my buddies found a dead baby in the Dumpster behind one of the dorms at the college.”

Salander lies too, although her fabrications don’t possess enough quirkiness to make them believable. When faced with some prying questions about her intimate affairs, she tells the rather dry story of Magnus, a computer programmer whom she dates occasionally. Apparently, Magnus treats her well, takes her to the movies, and sometimes comes home with her. But “ ‘Magnus’ was a fiction; she made him up as she went along”.

Longstocking also lies, but exhibits less control over the situation; she seems to have a compulsion to lie even when she does not mean to. For example, when talking about the misbehavior of her pet monkey, Mr. Nilsson, Longstocking says, “ ‘He’s always doing things like this. Once in Arabia he ran away from me and took a position as a maidservant to an elderly widow. That last was a lie, of course,’ she added after a pause.”

Interestingly, Longstocking tells the truth in exactly those situations where lying seems to be called for. When two burglars arrive at her home, they ask where she keeps her gold coins. “ ‘In the suitcase on top of the wardrobe.’ answered Pippi truthfully.”

The Bottom Line
Robison wrote an insightful book that taught me a lot about Asperger’s. Salander shares a few things in common with him, and so does Longstocking, but these two Swedish characters still strike me as very different people. Their experiences may be shaped by similar forces: a passion for logic, a capacity to see patterns, and a proclivity to lie. Yet Salander tolerates life, while Longstocking relishes it. Maybe that’s just the tragedy of being an adult, and Salander has certainly experienced her share of tragedy. Still, there’s something terribly depressing about imagining Longstocking devolving into Salander. Since they are both fictional, I think I’m allowed to say that. I’ll take my coffee with Longstocking, thank you very much.

Books referred to in this post
Larsson, Stieg. 2005. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. English translation by Reg Keeland, copyright 2008. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Lindgren, Astrid. 1950. Pippi Longstocking. Translated by Florence Lamborn. New York: Penguin Books.
Robison, John Elder. 2007. Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s. New York: Crown Publishers.

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2 Responses to A book-lover’s shortcut to learning more about Asperger’s

  1. Mary Ann W says:

    food for thought. I hear there’s a lot more going on now in terms of support and networking for adult Asperger’s/autism folks. So maybe Salander wouldn’t have it so bad.

    Just reading those few Pippi quotations makes me want to break out the Lindgrens for a reread!

    • annepycha says:

      Yes, Robison seems to agree with you, and also says that his life got a lot better once someone actually pointed out to him that he might have Asperger’s, i.e. once he was aware of it and had something to call it.

      Pippi is such a pleasure. I do recommend a re-read.

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