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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.
We think of love as things like oxytocin, which bind us to other people. But in the figurative sense, I would say that love is an unselfish attachment to another person in that you’re attached to somebody both for what they do for you, but also mostly for what you can do for the other person.
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Kirsten Lindsmith, from "Navigating Love and Autism"

The college student’s relationship with Jack Robison, who also has Asperger’s syndrome, is the subject of Amy Harmon's fascinating New York Times feature. The piece reveals how Lindsmith and Robison’s love grows out of their shared experience of autism while the struggles and tensions in their relationship are also amplified by their Asperger’s.

~Nancy Rosenbaum, producer

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What It Means for Me to Be Human

Krista Tippett, host

Being Autistic, Being HumanThe Centers for Disease Control report that 1 in 110 children in the U.S. is now diagnosed somewhere on the spectrum of autism. In other words, this is a condition that affects many lives, many families. General reporting and publicized controversies tend to focus on the physiology and neurology of autism, or on possible causes and cures. As I’ve followed such stories, I’ve longed to understand something about the inner world of people with autism and those who love them. I’ve wanted to hear about autism in terms of spirit, intellect, and human nature.

Not Even Wrong: A Father's Journey into the Lost History of AutismAnd when I discovered Paul Collins’ warm and erudite book Not Even Wrong: Adventures in Autism, I knew I’d found a way in. During a routine checkup, his beloved son Morgan was diagnosed with autism at the age of two and a half. Paul then went searching for understanding in history and literature. He traced the winding process by which 20th-century physicians finally diagnosed autism after centuries in which it was conflated with very different conditions, such as schizophrenia and Down syndrome. He had previously written about eccentric characters and forgotten inventors in history, and he began to find evidence of autism in some of these figures who had already captured his attention. In his travels, he also experienced how the spectrum of autism quietly reaches into centers of contemporary invention — such as Microsoft.

Some of our shows feel like an “experience” in the making. This one did. Paul Collins and Jennifer Elder have opened my imagination about what it means to be human, as well as what it means to be autistic, without for a moment downplaying the debilitation that life with autism also entails. I had imagined this condition to be thoroughly isolating and inscrutable. The very word “autism” comes from the Greek for “self” — autos — connoting a state of being in which a person seems quite literally to live in his or her own world. And yet Paul and Jennifer help me grasp that autism is not one thing but a spectrum on the vast continuum of human personality. Autism has deepened their understanding of disability and of intelligence, curiosity, and accomplishment.

Most thought-provoking of all, perhaps, are their stories of how life with Morgan has imparted a new generosity and respectful good humor to their dealings with each other and their families of origin. There is a documented correlation between autism and families with achievement in fields like engineering, music, mathematics, science — professions that require an aptitude for logic and a capacity for intense, solitary focus. The late scientist Stephen Jay Gould wrote a beautiful essay about his son with autism.

And, Paul Collins writes this:

"Autists are described by others — and by themselves — as aliens among humans. But there’s an irony to this, for precisely the opposite is true. They are us, and to understand them is to begin to understand what it means to be human. Think of it: a disability is usually defined in terms of what is missing. But autism is as much about what is abundant as what is missing, an overexpression of the very traits that make our species unique. Other animals are social, but only humans are capable of abstract logic. The autistic outhuman the humans, and we can scarcely recognize the result."

There is more in our hour of "Being Autistic, Being Human" than I can evoke in these paragraphs. And if you enjoy it, I’d encourage you to listen to my original, unedited two-hour conversation with Jennifer Elder and Paul Collins. It is full of illumination and warmth, and I didn’t want it to end.

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Asperger’s, Autism, and Parenting

by Andy Dayton, guest contributor

Here’s a four-minute animation from StoryCorps with a touching conversation between 12-year-old Joshua Littman and his mother, Sarah. Joshua has Asperger’s syndrome, which is related to autism. His mother describes it as “born without social genes.” We get a sense of Joshua’s unique perspective and perceptiveness by the questions he asks his mother, including this weighty one:

Joshua: Did I turn out to be the son you wanted when I was born? Did I meet your expectactations, and …

Sarah: You’ve exceeded my expectations, sweetie. Because — sure you have these fantasies about what your child’s gonna be like — but you have made me grow so much as a parent, because you made me think …

Joshua: Well I was the one who made you a parent.

Sarah: You were the one who made me a parent. That’s a good point. But also, because you think differently than, y’know, what they tell you in the “parenting books.” I really had to learn to think out of the box with you, and it’s made me much more creative as a parent and as a person. And I’ll always thank you for that.

It made me think of SOF's program "Being Autistic, Being Human" — a conversation with Paul Collins and Jennifer Elder, whose son Morgan is autistic. The show forever changed my understanding of the words “autism” and “Asperger’s’” — a conception that, for me, is now more of a sliding scale and includes many talented people that, if they lived today, may have been diagnosed with Asperger’s or autism. Here’s Collins on some of what he’s learned from his son:

Krista: Yes. I mean, how does living with Morgan and the way you’ve had to think about autism — how does that change the way you think about some of these great existential questions or, you know, what it means to be human? How does it change the way you live — think about yourself?

Paul Collins: I think I’ve become — I would hope, at least, much more patient and empathetic with other people when they’re acting in ways that I don’t understand. I think that in the past when someone seemed to be acting oddly or seemed to be sort of very socially awkward or just doing things that seems kind of unnerving or didn’t make sense to me, I would think, ‘Well, what’s that guy’s problem?’ and, you know, maybe avoid them. That’s, I think, a natural reaction for anyone to have.

Krista: Yes.

Paul Collins: But at the same time, when I see that now, I actually find myself asking that as a genuine question. ‘What is that person contending with, you know? Or what is it like for that person?’


Andy DaytonAndy Dayton formerly served as associate web producer for On Being. You can follow him on Twitter or read his blog.

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