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Serendipity And The Autism Spectrum

Yes, we are all different, but we are also made of the same stardust.

A ll my life I’ve had a sense of magic that I can feel in a place or thing. Likewise, serendipity has always been present for me. Akin to what Robert Moss calls synchronicity, “when the universe gets personal.” It happens when coincidence has resonance, a golden thread to be followed into something greater. So, when I discovered just last month after 50 years of “shot nerves” not only what the autism spectrum was, but that I was on it, what followed did not surprise me. Suddenly it was everywhere: a new book on the history of autism being discussed on C-Span, a rare lunch with a friend during which the topic of the spectrum came up, a news story about Microsoft adjusting hiring practices for autism, The Establishment looking for essays about being on the spectrum.

There are plenty of reasons to tell one’s story. For one, it adds to the well of human knowledge and what disability means — but I want to talk about its greater meaning; what each of us holds within and why that makes understanding disabilities like the autism spectrum all the more important.

In A Soul’s Code, James Hillman wrote that:

“Each of us has a daimon, or part of soul, that is the acorn of our true nature. Fate is not sealed, but signified: our daimon infuses particular events with emotional importance. Events have intention. To look at events of childhood through the lens of purpose changes ‘negative’ behavior into expressions of the necessities of the soul. Time only slows and holds back realization. For the daimon, time can’t cause anything that is not already present in the whole image.”

This was strikingly true for me and how I grew up. The grit and chaos of 1970s New York was a backdrop to extreme personal and family dysfunction. An artist dad coming out of the closet; a mentally ill mom experimenting with sex, drugs, and music. Any chance at a normal existence was negated, and yet this very fact eventually afforded me an opportunity to live amid magic and serendipity, to find the deep knowledge underpinning the world we live in — because I was so exposed to trauma.

Again, we find Hillman understanding that as we grow up as humans, our souls must grow down into the world, a requirement of deepening, as he says, though the soul is reluctant. Who can blame it? My earliest memories are feelings of homesickness so deep and wounding they scarred. That feeling has never left me; it is, as Jung called it, a problematic theme, something one cannot change about oneself.

Stephen Buhner points out Hillman’s take on childhood is particularly poignant when it comes to children with ADHD, how:

“Exterior oriented terms should rather be indicators of a child’s interior: distraction becomes boredom, impulsiveness self-generated explorative behavior, disorganization a failure to follow rigid regimes. . .”

Noga Arikha, in her book Passions and Tempers: A History Of The Humours, understands that emotions in their raw state are cognitive tools. How we feel the world is is who we are, and the Western world has made feeling anything outside what is considered normal a sin.

If my mother had not been so far outside the system herself, I would likely have ended up pinned down in some type of institutional setting. Instead, because I could not function in the world, I was left outside it. Where others became entwined in the minutiae of family and job, I was left with books and nature as my only companions, able then to perceive bigger patterns, to delve into the depths of the natural world, of human history, the history of science and spirit, of consciousness itself. This is my daimon’s gift! Despite pain (or maybe because of it), when given a chance, our soul will react to the world with magic and serendipity. But one must be open to it, and more importantly, one must let others be open. Our daimon will call us out. The truth then is that labels are only true for those who apply them, and reasons only matter for those who reason with them.

Emotions in their raw state are cognitive tools. Click To Tweet

Jill Lepore, in Book of Ages, wrote about Benjamin Franklin’s sister, Jane. Little known in historical accounts, she was one of the closest people in his life, and though she was not allowed an education and had a very difficult life, losing many of her family members early, she did on occasion send her brother suggestions of books he should read. One of these was by the Welsh philosopher Richard Price. He wanted to show, as Lepore comments, that nothing happens without a good reason. That the great waste in the natural world had purpose. That it may take “three hundred thousand seeds to make an elm, six hundred eggs to make a spider” for want of a favorable situation.

And what is true for elms and spiders is also true for the human species; how many brilliant minds have been lost for lack of opportunity, though as Price says, even these minds are capable of endless future progress, so there is no wasted humanity. There is only a “seeming waste.” “The seeming waste may, for ought we know, answer important ends.” Price felt that no one dies for naught. Though the majority of humanity has lacked opportunity to shine, the mere fact of their being lays the groundwork for those whose brilliance does change the world.

This simple, yet elegant understanding of how nature works is an example of foundational knowledge — something that is fundamental to who and what we are, and what gives our lives meaning. We come to understand that we owe those who have struggled, and continue to struggle, our gratitude. That everyone matters, the poor and disabled as much if not more than the rich and able, for without every single person there would be no us. No one lives their life alone. When we treat others with disrespect and box them into corners without a voice, we are only really hurting ourselves, for we are all of this one world.

Yes, we are all different, but we are also made of the same stardust. The same starlight energizes us, the same moonlight shines on all our hopes and dreams. Looking back over the thousands of years of suffering people have endured, it hasn’t been for naught, but part of the greater tide of life on earth. Part of a greater whole from which we cannot be divided, a whole whose journey is open-ended and ever unfolding. Which means every voice, each person, has meaning, every story part of the tapestry that is us, and when we deny others dignity, we tarnish something priceless.

And so, being outside the realm of normal, I will with gratitude continue to believe in magic and serendipity and to be thankful for who and what I am.