Aspie Days in Lille

I went to the second day of Aspie Days in Lille (near the Belgian border). It was quite fascinating and I might venture to say, illuminating. It was the first time I had met people diagnosed with Aspergers and other degrees of autism leaving the intellectual faculties and use of language intact. Some had a “nerdish” look about them, but not all. They are generally very anxious souls until they can be reassured that they are among sympathising and empathising people. I would have liked to go to the first day too, but I had a translation order to deliver yesterday afternoon and I only knew about Aspie Days last Thursday.

It was all held at the Grand Palais in Lille, and assembled several hundred people concentrating on the theme of Aspergers Syndrome and other degrees of autism without intellectual deficiency. Apart from Aspergers autists, there were many parents of children with autism, researchers, psychologists and psychiatrists and a few associations. There were also companies specialised in head-hunting “aspies” for extremely specialised and technical jobs in the computer industry in particular. This approach works well in America, and French companies are catching on to the prospect of having people who work with extreme precision and are completely honest, on condition of providing the right working conditions (no stress, competition, bullying, etc.).

I attended three lectures, two of which seemed to presuppose university-level knowledge of psychology – which was challenging. The second lecture was by the psychologist Julie Dachez who has a blog (in French). She made the point that many neurotypicals (most people) were “autistic” in regard to themselves, reminding me of a saying of C.G. Jung that society is mentally ill rather than his patients! She spoke about “coping strategies”, namely resolving the problem, manage one’s emotions, find support with family and friends and “cognitive restructuring” – turning the whole thing around and seeing one’s condition as a gift and not only a handicap. For more about this subject, I refer readers to Dr Tony Attwood, one of the greatest present-day authorities on Aspergers.

The whole conference was extremely well organised, and I was very happy to be there and meet some beautiful souls “in this world but not of this world” as St John put it.

* * *

There is a little reflection I will share with my readers. It was the first time I had knowingly met autistic and Aspergers people and attempt to get an impression of them, trying to feel the difference between them and most people in the world. One thing in common is the Angst, the sense of anxiety which is heard in the voice and seen in their faces. Some seemed to have the “look” of autism, something in the face and eyes, but most looked just like ordinary folk. You don’t just go up to them and say “Hi, I’m Anthony” and engage small talk – that’s what they hate most. We’re all already coping with high levels of noise from hundreds of human voices and people all around. You need to look for common interests – looking at similar books on a stall of the exhibition or simply he and I having long hair. A tiny spark establishes the contact.

As the day finished, I met a young man of about thirty years with his mother. Always the same edginess. We discussed things like diagnosis and special interests, and then we were about the split up to go back to our cars. There was a look in his eyes, limpid and sad at the same time, he has already bonded with me in some way. I then suggested that we should exchange e-mail addresses and “befriend” each other on Facebook. A reflection came up during those final moments whilst his mother was getting her car keys out of her handbag. The “otherness” of the mainstream world, the fact that we are “other” but all the same have to “play the game” in the world. It made me think of St John quoting Christ, as I mentioned above – They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. In its context, the verse refers to Christ’s disciples and the Church, otherness from the world of power, money and sexual lust. Last Saturday brought me into contact with people who are not “of this world” because of neurological abnormalities. The idea is mind-blowing!

One can find many articles describing aspies as predisposed to spirituality, but it is not always true. For many, institutional religion is just a part of that world they eschew, whose sophistry is as apparent as a sore thumb! I am sceptical about narratives of “indigo children”, but a common core is an understanding that life is something other than competition, power, money, lust and status. Many neurotypicals also have the same understanding through their spiritual paradigm (Christian, Buddhist, pagan, etc.), but high-functioning autistic persons and aspies seem to be pre-disposed to this clarity of vision. God made us differently. To whom much is given, much will be demanded…

I asked the young man and his mother if they were believers, because this is not something one can presume in France. I was not in clerical dress, since it would have been most inappropriate at this occasion. I was dressed casually with a hoodie and wore my hair loose. There came a point when I told them that I was an Anglican priest. Immediately, they asked me for my blessing. At that moment I felt something that I had not felt for a long time – the sense of having ministered to souls as a priest, to transmit virtus to others. Such a small and discreet gesture meant so much to them and to myself. It was most unexpected.

I went there as a part of my pilgrimage and quest for self-knowledge, since it is by knowing oneself that one can know God and enter into a relationship with the Divine. I went to observe and learn, attended three lectures, and spent time in the common area. I learned a lot about what is being done for autistic and aspie children (except that the two terms refer to the person’s history). Aspergers follows a more normal development and the child experiences difficulties towards 6 to 7 years. Autistic children, even in those whose intellectual faculties are not impaired, often take a while to learn their language and start talking. After 7 years or so, the symptoms are exactly identical, but not the history. This is why it was a big mistake on the part of the American psychiatric establishment to do away with the category of Asperger’s Syndrome in 2013. This distinction has ample scientific support and is maintained by medical establishments in Europe specialising in diagnosing autism and Aspergers and caring for those affected, whether children or adults.

All in all, an illuminating day.

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