On The Ricky Gervais Show, Karl Pilkington and the autistic experience

There are few pieces of media I love more than The Ricky Gervais Show. The XFM years? Love em. The podcasts? Love em. The guides? Love em. An Idiot Abroad? Love it. I have sat around with this material on a loop many times and 9 years after finding it have yet to tire of it.

This go around however has been different. For the uninitiated, the show consists of Gervais, his (now former) writing partner Stephen Merchant, and their former producer Karl Pilkington simply sitting around and talking with the goal of getting Karl to say something “stupid.” Given that Karl is prone to absurd ideas, it’s easy to see this as a fairly mean and even ableist show. So much of the humor is at his expense.

But I’ve always felt a profound kinship to Karl as I listened. Initially, yes I laughed at him but the longer that I listened the more I started to laugh because what he said was funny in its own right. An Idiot Abroad particularly helped me see how dry witted he was. Thus as I listened this time, I was hit with a startling revelation: Listening to The Ricky Gervais Show and putting yourself in Karl’s shoes is a perfect example of the common autistic experience.

After all, to listen to 30 minutes of the show is to experience an awkward social situation. It’s obvious there’s affection between these three men but there’s tension. Gervais is legendary for his ego and Merchant doesn’t seem a lot less sure of himself here. Karl is the unassuming everyman in the midst of these two characters, not unlike all of us at a party. I’ve been in rooms where I desperately wanted to escape.

So much of the show follows an all too familiar series of patterns for us. Karl finds himself expressing his views, either with regular features or with random topics and he speaks up. Inevitably he’s ridiculed for them. Honestly much of the humor is just this.

The thing is, almost everything he’s saying either comes from a logical place or one where you can see his reasoning even if it’s odd. That’s what I find so distinctly autistic about the show. Karl is terrible at expressing himself. His words get lost in his filter. But he’s not wrong. How often have I been in his shoes? I’ve spoken up with an opinion that came out wrong but my idea wasn’t. This show captures that in a rare way.

Karl is also somewhat naive. He seemingly believes a lot of strange things and is locked into patterns of thought. These are things I’ve seen in us though the naivete tends to fade. But we’re open. I definitely am. I especially get his view of order when there isn’t any. It’s just an easier way to view life.

But perhaps what I relate to the most is his bluntness. Karl doesn’t hold back. He says what he thinks. He’s not exactly the most adept at faking social niceties. The stories he tells are ones of social blindness. Suffice it to say I believe we can all relate to this.

Seriously, for a more perfect display of our traits in audio, you’d have to find something made by one of us. And yes, the argument has been made convincingly that Karl might be one of us. But that’s irresponsible and not our place to judge. What I can say is I relate.

I realize that suggesting a series where someone gets bullied might not sound entertaining but I want to go back to my point of listening to it from Karl’s POV. Listened to from his perspective, it’s a show about a thoroughly decent, very funny person who has to endure two outsized egos. Karl is all of us dealing with society. And as it goes on he puts up with less and less. Once An Idiot Abroad starts, he’s cursing them out. Karl finds his strength.

Karl’s victory is that he never changes. He’s resolutely himself. And by the end, you’re with him.

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The Catch-22 of the Mask

“If u can “disguise” your Autism then imo u cannot possibly have autism. “

One willfully ignorant tweet can set me off. That’s literally all it takes to get me blogging here. Seeing an attitude so absurd it makes me have to write. That’s what that comment did.

Autistic people live with one of the worst catch-22s in society. We are forced to put on a mask every day if we hope to function in society. If we don’t, we’re not able to survive in it. We’re ostracized and criticized to the point of emotional distress. We can’t expect to find work or peers.

Thus we learn to develop a mask. Many of us get pretty decent at it. We’re intuitive and pick up what we need to do to get by. It’s not hard to realize curbing your echolalia and flapping will help you get a job. We learn to act right.

And what do we get for it? We’re erased. The assumption becomes that since we can turn it off for a bit, we must be able to turn it off permanently. And I’m not just expanding on that tweet. I’ve heard people in my real life assume that because I can fake it for a bit, I must be exaggerating my autism.

This is something that has frustrated me my entire life. I can’t allow my mental health issues out into the open because they’re frowned upon socially but when I’m surviving it’s assumed they’re not there. I’ve had to give variations on this very topic repeatedly over the years to friends and family and I’m not sure society gets it.

So let me put it in a way that’s clear:

First off, we’re always autistic. It’s a condition that’s cradle to grave. It’s treatable but not curable. There are certain mental patterns that aren’t going away. We are who we are and you need to accept that.

Second, we’re able to fake it but faking it is exhausting. Imagine trying to play a role permanently but behind closed doors immediately reverting to yourself. It is utterly tiring to constantly put on a part. Not just physically but definitely emotionally. You feel frustrated because you can’t just collapse and be yourself. You hurt because you know you’re rejected.

Third, and most importantly, nobody knows what goes on in the minds of another. We’re often shocked when highly successful people take their own lives but the painful truth is we don’t know what they feel. It’s no different for any other condition. Just because you think we’re playing the part well doesn’t mean we’re seeking attention when we meltdown. Let me stress that nobody on Earth wants THAT attention. We want attention for good things we do. We are the best experts on autism, not someone who’s read a mommy blog!

Sadly I don’t expect this ever to change. But we solider on through the uncanny valley nonetheless fighting.

How reading Ultimate Spider-Man: Clone Saga freed me from a superstition

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I bought the book at a Borders in Memphis, Tennessee in June 2007. It wasn’t cheap, a 29.99 hardcover of Ultimate Spider-Man: Clone Saga. The book was bought in celebration of my new job. It was a nice, slick volume and I couldn’t wait to read it after I finished a Flash GN and a Star Wars novel. I read the Flash volume and was in the midst of the Star Wars book when I lost that new job in under 36 hours.

The following things happened between then and today. 13 months of job interviews. 9.5 years of a job. I bought a car. I dated a girl for a few weeks. I dated a girl for a few years. Married her. Moved three times with her. We struggled with fertility. We stopped struggling with fertility. Lola was born. Lola had her 1, 3, 6, 9, 12, 15, 18 month appointments. The book never left the shelf. I would not read it.

Why? Why wouldn’t I simply read a comic? Bafflingly I actually read all of the other books in the series. But I couldn’t open this volume. Why? Because as silly as it was, I knew that if I ever cracked it, something seriously bad would happen. I was bound by a supersition.

How do we explain superstition? In theory, we should know better than to give into it. It’s an irrational belief that can easily be disproved. Reading a graphic novel exists in isolation for me and me alone. There’s no butterfly effect if I do. But we all still have them.

The very simple explanation is evolutionary. Superstitions were built into us as a matter of survival and many of our best known ones have their roots in some actual reason that got lost. They’re also cultural, such as never saying the name of “The Scottish Tragedy.” They unite us. But our personal ones have neither. They’re based on our experiences.

A superstition is a mistranslation of feelings I find. When I walk through a bookstore in a certain order, I’m not trying to make something good be there. I’m delaying being let down. I

In the case of this book I nay have claimed I wouldn’t read it out of fear of something bad happening, but the truth was simple. If I read it, I was letting go of the West Memphis saga once and for all. There wouldn’t be anything left to do. I could truly move on. And no matter how many times I write about that, I wasn’t letting go. This had become the last step and I wasn’t ready to accept it.

But it was time. You know after a certain point you have to step on the crack to know nothing bad will happen. You have to get that closure to move on. I’m writing a lot about the art of 2008 this year in no small part to close that part of my life once and for all. This was part of it.

So I sat down with Lola and read the book. It didn’t take long. Roughly 40 minutes. It was nothing shocking, after all I’d figured out what happened. It was first rate though with amazing work from the Bendis/Bagley team. So yeah, I had a great time. And in under an hour, it was done.

And then that was it. It stopped being a mythic totem on my shelf and went back to being just another book. There’s no magic energy to it. I took its power.

And I’m free now.

On Being an Autistic Father

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This week a major boycott erupted over the book To Siri With Love, in which a mother notes that she plans to have her autistic son sterilized. The autistic community spoke out vehemently against the idea. We are, of course, anti-eugenics and this defines eugenics. But there’s a big reason that it outrages me and it’s in that picture up there.

My name is Austin Shinn and at the end of this month it will be 20 years since my diagnosis on the spectrum. At the end of this week it will be 18 months since that beautiful child Lola Faye Shinn entered my life. During the day, I am a full time caregiver to Lola. I am as much a father to Lola as a man can be and I am writing this to defend the idea of autistic parents.

To say the least, I am utterly in love with the job. Most of my day is spent playing with Lola, keeping her fed, changing her diapers, taking her on errands. My life is the normal dad life with the exception that I spend more time than a lot of men. However with my calm temperament I feel like I’m unusually well suited to it.

And how can I not love it? Lola is a smart, hyper little lady bear who constantly surprises me. She’s vocal and though I can’t yet grasp wha she says, I get that she’s reaching out to me. I love chasing after her at the park. I love reading to her. Being a dad gives me a purpose.

There’s an order to it too. Lola has breakfast and a new diaper when she wakes up. She goes out for a bit between 9-11. She goes down for a nap at 11:30 after a good lunch. She has a snack afterwards. Her day is orderly.

Sure, there are issues. She gets sick so I have to deal with that. She has trouble sleeping so we confront that. There are times the schedule doesn’t work. She can be stubborn. These are all normal things though and being autistic has not a thing to do with it. All parents deal with these crises. Why else is Baby Blues so beloved?

I look at being an autistic parent like this: it’s irrelevant. There are tons of people who aren’t suited to being a parent who are neurotypical. They put their kids far down the list of their concerns, while I put Lola at #1 all the time. They take their kids where they don’t belong. They neglect them. I don’t do these things.

My autism hasn’t kept me from going to college. It hasn’t kept me from getting a job. It hasn’t kept me from getting married. It hasn’t kept me from an independent life. Why should it, which is really a way of describing my mindset, stop me from being a dad?

I’m mad at the idea that we can’t be decent parents because it goes again to the need to view us as damaged, nonfunctioning people. Yes, I have the occasional meltdown though I take caution not to have one in her presence. But I’m in therapy and on medication to treat these things while there are a great number of people who aren’t actively working to improve who they are who are parents. I am a functional human!

Then there’s how I interact with Lola. That’s a magical bond and there are ways I think autism might even help. Since so much of Lola’s communication is nonverbal, I’ve learned to “learn” her. I know what she’s thinking and feeling. Lola also gets through the touch barrier. I love it when she crawls all over me. It’s affection even when she jams her hands in my face.

Am I able to be Lola’s dad because I’m “high functioning” or because I’ve adapted? Probably. But I had help. Based on who I was at 13, I never could’ve considered I’d be here. The lesson in my story isn’t to see the value in the useless functioning labels but to see what proper treatment gets you.

So in the end I have to reject the premise that we can’t be parents. I’ve never been better at anything else in my entire life.

A Flickering Life: The Audiobook

It is with the utmost joy I present A Flickering Life: A Memoir of Autism: the audiobook. Written by myself and read/edited/music selected by Web Bist.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

This has been an undertaking long in the works. It started in June when Web read my book, noticed there wasn’t an audiobook, and asked for permission to do so. It was my pleasure to allow him to record this and it has been the greatest pleasure working with him this last few months.

Web gave his afterword on the audiobook so I’d like to give mine. While I never had any intention of recording an audio edition of the book, I wrote the text as an extended monologue. My hope was that it would come off that way, which at least one beta reader picked up on. Ultimately though, I didn’t record one due to time and my own difficulty reading aloud. (I read far faster than I speak.)

Web put the book where it belonged. His reading brings the book to live in the exact manner I’d hoped. His inflections are the precise ones I would use. His energy is spot on. No, it’s not my voice reading it but there’s not a note I’d change. Web gave me the gift every writer wants: He showed me my work connected. Web made my story his with his incredible reading.

It’s a strange, beautiful experience to hear your life told by another. It truly is. You step back and view it in a whole new light. You become invested in your life as a story and if you’re lucky, you’re still interested.

So what’s my hope with this? Simple. I hope you listen to it. I hope you like it. I hope you share it.

Track List
•Level Plaguing Field – Michael Giacchino
•Intro – Danny Elfman
•Talk to Jan – Danny Elfman
•Room of Books – Danny Elfman
•Minneapolis – Danny Elfman
•Reprise 1 – Danny Elfman
•Going Sour – Danny Elfman
•Little Child – Wes Montgomery
•Yesterday’s Child – Wes Montgomery
•A Quiet Thing – Wes Montgomery
•Bumpin’ on Sunset – Wes Montgomery
•Awakening – Alexander Desplat
•Clouds – Alexander Desplat
•River – Alexander Desplat
•Circles – Alexander Desplat
•More Hope – Jon Brion
•Sign Up – Jon Brion
•Drive Home – Jon Brion
•Pick Up – Jon Brion
•Lady Bird Kiss – Jon Brion
•Rose Garden – Jon Brion
•Consolation – Jon Brion
•Hope – Jon Brion
•Titles – Jon Brion
•Mourning Pepper – Jon Brion
•Row – Jon Brion
•Drive In – Jon Brion
•Main Title – Jon Brion
•Spotless Mind – Jon Brion
•Constantine Snaps His Fingers – Rolfe Kent
•Miles’ Theme – Rolfe Kent
•I’m Not Drinking Any Merlot! – Rolfe Kent
•Miles and Maya – Rolfe Kent
•Slipping Away as Mum Sleeps – Rolfe Kent
•Chasing the Golfers – Rolfe Kent
•Los Olivos – Rolfe Kent
•DMI Thing from When She Was the Kitchen – Jon Brion
•Exodus – Kilar
•Victory Celebration – John Williams
•It’s An Abstract – Daniel Pemberton
•Toys and Stars – Carter Burwell
•Private Milne – Carter Burwell
•Little Notes – Daniel Hart
•The Secret in the Wall
• Snowfall, Snowrise – Carter Burwell
•Abandoning the Wedding – Rolfe Kent
•Soft Trees Break the Fall – Reznor
•Homerun – Jonatan Bengta
•The Dime – Jonatan Bengta
•Dad in Uniform and a Ten-Gallon Cowboy Hat – Jonatan Bengta
•Home Again – Mark Snow
•Time’s Passage – Jon Brion
•Row – Jon Brion
•School Early Morning – Rob Simonsen
•Mary’s Theme – Rob Simonsen
•The Wicked Flee – Cartwer Burwell
•La Boeuf Takes Leave
•Gossip – Mark Orton
•The Old Compressor – Mark Orton
•Diminished Capacity – Mark Orton
•Magna Carta – Mark Orton
•Mr. Frustration Man – Grim Fandango
•Opening Credits (Election) – Rolfe Kent
•Doug and Tracy – Rolfe Kent
•Talk to Jessie – Randy Newman
•The Cleaner – Randy Newman
•Off to the Museum – Randy Newman
•The North Mountain – Christopher Beck
•The Would be a Tuba – Wonder Boys
•End Credits Suite – Moonlight
•Bogart and Bergman – Justin Hurwitz
•Mia Gets Home
•Imaginary Friends – Roger Neill
•The Audition – Roger Neill
•Post Audition – Roger Neill
•Rose’s Theme – Marcelo Zarvos
•Chicago – Dickon Hinchliffe
•Caring – Dickon Hinchliffe
•Ricercare rusticano – Angelo Francesco Lavagnino
•Sur la route (II) – Daniel Pemberton
•Une autre réalité – Daniel Pemberton
•Une nouvelle vie – Daniel Pemberton
•So Now Then – Jon Brion
•Diary of a Wimpy Kid – Theodore Shapiro
•Meet Rowley – Theodore Shapiro
•Intellectual Wasteland – Theodore Shapiro
•The Suspension – Theodore Shapiro
•One for the Team – Theodore Shapiro
•The First Goodbye – Christopher Spelman
•The Lost City of Z – Christopher Spelman
•The Sweet Life – Matti Bye
•Spotlight – Howard Shore
•Deference and Complicity – Howard Shore
•Investigative Journalism – Howard Shore
•Legacy – Howard Shore
•Morning Procedures – Howard Shore
•Gifted – Rob Simonsen
•Things were going so well – Mychael Danna & Rob Simonsen
•I Want to Get Her Back – Mychael Danna & Rob Simonsen
•Jason & Cynthia Piano Theme – AR Rahman
•Undress – AR Rahman
•The Luau – AR Rahman
•The Castle – Craig Armstrong
•The Beach – Craig Armstrong
•Nathan Agrees – Craig Armstrong
•Autism in Love – Mac Quayle
•Social Antenna – Mac Quayle
•Lenny – Mac Quayle
•It Starts Here – Mac Quayle
•Dead Already – Thomas Newman
•Any Other Name – Thomas Newman
•Just the feller – Thomas Newman
•Road to Chicago – Thomas Newman
•Reading Room – Thomas Newman
•The Farm – Thomas Newman
•Road to Perdition – Thomas Newman
•Take Five – Dave Brubeck
•In a Silent Way – Miles Davis
•Huck Finn – Bill Conti
•Charlie Brown Theme – Vince Guaraldi

Thoughts in a park on a morning

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It’s a lovely day. It’s cold but it’s nice. The sun is out. There’s a breeze. The smell of smoke is in the air. It’s a perfect November day.

Lola races ahead of me, as she always does. Six months ago she couldn’t walk but she runs now. Her tiny legs pound the ground as she explores the epic terrain. She’s flailing her arms as she soars, screaming and babbling. She’s incredibly happy.

I can’t help but be in awe of my little girl. She is pure energy on this morning and I’m almost jealous of her. I’m exhausted and depressed yet she’s so utterly unaware of any of this. She couldn’t comprehend any of what’s on my mind if she tried.

Lola and I act out a ritual from my childhood. I spent a lot of time at the parks with my parents. Now I’m the daddy keeping a close eye on his kid. The realization that the torch has passed hits me like a brick. I’m truly an adult now. I know that’s what others see.

But I don’t see it. I see the guy who yesterday had a meltdown over an unexpected financial hit. No way is that guy an adult. He’s not Lola but how can someone so weak be considered an adult? I’m ashamed of me.

That’s hard because that’s who I’m trying not to be. I’m trying to be the guy I’m playing now. I’m a put together father in a nice overcoat walking with his baby girl. I’m admirable in this moment. If you saw me you’d respect me.

Lola respects me. She’s loudly babbling to me. Every so often she looks up at me, asking me my thoughts on what she’s said in her baby vocabulary. Later we’ll curl up on the couch and she’ll coo as I read to her. She thinks I’m great.

And I don’t think I’m great. My confidence has been shaken of late as I’ve fought for something I wanted, an opportunity, and haven’t gotten. I made several very serious tries and was rejected every time. I feel like there’s something lacking in me.

How I wish that were my only worry this morning. I’m thinking of the news. Yet more names come out of men who’ve abused women/men. I feel nauseated at this behavior yet oddly uncomfortable. I want to condemn it, and I do, but I feel like I live in a glass house. I know I’m not perfect and I wonder what sins of mine will come to light. I’ve never done anything this bad but I’m uncomfortable thinking I’m “good.”

Then there’s my future. There were layoffs at my job. There’s change there. I’m certain I won’t be in the newspaper business within five years, despite training for a life in it. I’m not sure who I will be and that frustrates me. It make me wonder about my very identity.

My reverie is broken by Lola handing me an acorn she’s excitedly found. As I take it I look at my little girl and all questions about my identity and worth fade. I’m secondary now in my life. Lola is first.

We walk through the park. Lola runs and I let my mind go blank, just watching her.

In Praise of Big Nate

In 1994, at the last book fair I ever attended in Houston, I picked up a comic strip book that I knew nothing about. It was a collection of Lincoln Peirce’s Big Nate strips. The strip didn’t run in Houston papers and it wouldn’t run in any paper I’d ever read. As a result the book felt like a strange artifact from another world to me.

I read it and it cracked me up.  The book was one of the things I leaned on heavily during the move to Conway, in fact. Over time I memorized every word in the book. But that was the only book in the series and indeed through my childhood that was the only book that was ever published in the series. In time the book was packed away and I might vaguely recall it but nothing more.

In March 2010, I was at the library in North Little Rock when I stumbled upon a book that felt like a lightning bolt from my past. It was a hybrid comic/prose novel, the first in the Big Nate series. My childhood memories demanded I check it out so I did and within an hour consumed the book, thoroughly satisfied with an unexpectedly funny work.

7 years later, there’s now a mountain of books. Digitally, 17 years of the strip have been released in $4 collections. There’s 7 prose novels, a series which recently ended. There’s no end of collected volumes of the strip in print too. I’d argue no comic strip has been as easy to find at any time in print in fact.

So with that epic preface, let me finally get into why this strip is my comfort food. Big Nate is like almost all comic strips, a fairly formulaic strip with largely one joke that reiterates itself in various situations. What makes the strip work is it’s a funny joke: the male ego blinds itself to reality.

Over and over again, Nate Wright stumbles through a world he thinks he understands but has no idea about. He thinks he’s an art prodigy. (He’s not.) He thinks he’s a star athlete. (He’s terrible.) He thinks he’s irresistible to women. (He’s a creep.) He thinks his teachers are unfair to him. (They’re completely fair.)

This is something that I have to admit I find extremely entertaining. Nate’s continual obliviousness socially has to strike a chord with me as I frequently don’t get the world. I understand Nate Wright. I get living in your own world.

But the strip has far more virtues to offer beyond one good premise. Over 26 years, Peirce has crafted a world filled with great characters. Chad, the lovable nice guy. Gina, the brain. Artur, the “perfect” guy who is. The unseen Chester. His girlfriend Kim. These are hilarious characters. 

The strip has lost something over time. There was initially a greater focus on Nate’s art and I loved that. I do miss Doctor Cesspool. But I get why it’s gone. The strip evolved. 

What it became truly is wonderful. Big Nate isn’t adult and I love it for that. It’s a middle school comedy. But it’s a funny, smart one that makes me happy it’s there. It takes me back without condescension. And it was worth the wait.