Novelist Offers Insight into Asperger's Syndrome
Novelist Michael Potts was an adult before he was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, a mild form of autism. The diagnosis help him make sense of many parts of his personality that had previously been a mystery to him. He used his experience with Asperger's Syndrome to create the character of young Jeffrey Conley, the protagonist of his debut novel, End of Summer.
Potts went on to earn multiple degrees, including a PhD in Philosophy. He currently serves as Professor of Philosophy at Methodist University in Fayetteville, North Carolina. He offers the following insights into Asperger's Syndrome.
Q) What is your experience with Asperger's Syndrome?
Potts - Seven years ago I was formally diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome. The diagnosis finally made sense of parts of my personality I had never understood before. As a child I was socially awkward to an extreme, and as an adult I remain so, though I have improved some. As long as I can remember I wanted to talk about "serious" subjects, considering small talk to be a waste of time. As a child, I was considered "a little professor" due to my adult way of speaking. I preferred being around adults rather than being around children my own age. I also was obsessed with certain subjects and would always try to turn the conversation to those subjects no matter how much my conversation partner was bored. Which subject depended on how old I was--at one time space flight was my fascination as was astronomy. I also went through a relativity physics phase. A constant obsession has been an obsession on death and on the physical heart. That remains such an obsession that I read Sherwin Nuland's fine book, "How We Die," in two days.
Q) How does Asperger's Syndrome differ from Autism Disorder?
Potts - Asperger's Syndrome is on the mild end of the autism spectrum, a version of high functioning autism, and my Asperger's Syndrome itself is relatively mild. People with Asperger's Syndrome can hold steady jobs and marry and have families. Many are found in academia, a place suited to their quirkiness and poor social skills. Others may work in libraries, in laboratories, and other research settings. Mozart and Einstein may have had Asperger's Syndrome.
Q) The protagonist in your novel, End of Summer, is diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome. How did that affect the way he was portrayed?
Potts - Jeffrey, the protagonist, has obsessions consistent with a diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome. He obsesses over death and the afterlife, as well as with how diseases and injuries cause the heart to stop beating. He is obsessed with the heart and with heartbeats to the extent that the sound of a woman's heartbeat is a turn-on for him. His obsession with death and the heart began as a child, and since most of the book is about Jeffrey's ninth year, his Asperger's is revealed more through his behavior as a child. He prefers being around adults, especially older people, and has more of an "adult" way of speaking to older people--he is not a typical nine-year-old boy.
Q) What advice do you have for family or friends of an individual who has Asperger's Syndrome?
Potts - To family and friends of a person with Asperger's Syndrome, I recommend patience and kindness. "Aspies," as people with Asperger's often prefer to be called, must be taught social skills as a list of rules and adhere to them via memorization. They will never get the "skill knowledge" of sociability that outgoing people have, who have gone beyond rules to being sociable automatically. Asperger's individuals must be kindly reminded of the proper rule when they make a social blunder.
Patience is required when the Aspie begins talking about his favorite subject. Listen politely, and if he goes on too long, either gently change the subject or make a convincing excuse to walk away.
Give an Aspie room to explore his obsessions unless they harm other people. As Aspies get older, parents should give them rules on how to behave around authority figures--teachers, supervisors, and law enforcement officers. The clumsiness and social awkwardness of Aspies can potentially lead to disaster in an encounter with an officer of the law.
Friends should remain loyal. Aspies have a bad tendency to think everything is about them and is their fault, so they tend to blame themselves when a friendship ends. If you feel a friendship must end, be as kind as possible about it.
To the Aspie: do not use your condition as an excuse. If you make a social blunder, apologize, and when you go home, look up the proper rule of social behavior so that you do not repeat the mistake. Realize that most people prefer small talk unless they know you well or are talking in a professional context. Practice small talk. Most likely you will quietly slip away when the conversation lags, but give yourself credit for trying.
Try to remember that other people are not as interested in your obsession as you are, and they may not be interested at all. Understand that such a lack of interest is not evidence of someone's inferiority, but reflects the fact that we're not all interested in the same things.
Work on reading social cues and body language, but don't become obsessive to the point of staring. Try, as much as possible, to look people in the eye without staring them down. If you date, some people of the opposite sex will be kind; others will not be so kind. There are people out there who would be interested in you as a dating partner and potential mate. Be patient and do not try to ask every woman to whom you are attracted to marry you.
End of Summer has drawn accolades from both sides of the Atlantic. Michael Colonnese, Ph.D., and author of the books Sex and Death, I Suppose and Temporary Agency called it a deeply moving and passionate book. "Michael Potts’ End of Summer is a poignant literary novel about childhood and memory. This is contemporary Southern fiction at its best. In textured language and with heartfelt attention to detail, Potts’ nuanced portrayal of rural life in southern Appalachia and a young boy’s initial encounter with death reminds us that life at the economic margins can be culturally and spiritually rich, and that even as absences and losses sometimes damage us, these can also strengthen and redeem."
Charlotte Rains Dixon, Director Emeritus of the Writer’s Loft at Middle Tennessee State University said, "In Michael Potts' novel, End of Summer, an idyllic rural childhood is the setting that reveals deep psychological insights. Innocent obsessions of childhood are juxtaposed against the Tennessee childhood, allowing for a rich tapestry of drama. The child is indeed father to the man in this gripping and lyrical read."
"End of Summer ... is a beautifully written, poignant tale of Jeffrey Conley’s physical and emotional return to the summer his life changed forever. As Jeffrey journeyed back to the location of his childhood, his memories welcomed me in and together we got lost in the joy and pain of life in an ever changing world. I felt privileged to share in a summer that stirred such familiar feelings of bliss and longing," says U.K.-based reviewer, Kate Sedgbeer.