Freaks and Geeks 

Each time, I grew so wrapped up with the “vision thing” that I neglected virtually everything else in my life. I worked too much, annoyed my girlfriend and generally was fixated on the goal in question.

Now medical science has given me reason to pause before I sing my little song. That’s right, no longer is being different considered something to be proud of; nay, if one steps to the beat of a different drummer, then the drum in your head must be wrong. But oddballs like me are in good company at least.

In our never-ending efforts to explain away the mysteries of human behavior, people who are “different” — or “nerds,” if you will — are now being accused of “suffering” from Asperger Syndrome (AS), or “high functioning autism.”

According to press reports, the syndrome was first detailed in 1944 by a Hans Asperger, a Viennese physician. Folks with Asperger’s Syndrome have poor social skills and can become obsessive.

Rather than becoming more enlightened and accepting of those who are “different” as we speed toward the future, Western civilization apparently has decided that those who don’t fit the mold need to be medicated.

The number of diagnosed cases of regular autism, a crippling mental developmental disorder that affects social skills, has exploded over the years. As such, AS may become the next postmodern childhood illness for already frazzled baby boomer parents to fret over. “Why doesn’t little Johnny act like the other tots?” they ask their doctor. “Could it be ... gasp ... Asperger’s syndrome?”

Just recently, Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton were accused of having this form of high-functioning autism because they were, well, a bit odd. Newton was so obsessed he forgot to eat, and Einstein was a well-known eccentric.

That’s the thing about such a nebulous condition as AS — where does being eccentric or slightly obsessive end and having something clinically wrong with you begin?

Well-known author Francis Fukuyama proposes in his book “Our Posthuman Future” that the overuse of anti-depressants and other “miracle drugs” may cause us to lose touch with what makes humans so successful to begin with.

I mean, think about it. Most of human progress has been caused by freaky weirdos who bucked the system and decided to do something even though everyone else thought it was crazy. Everything from building the pyramids to crossing the Atlantic was done by folks who would probably be diagnosed today as having AS. They were possessed by God, the devil, what have you, to see around the corner of history while the rest of us were content to amble along.

One need not travel that far back in time to find visionaries who with the proper medication might have been more “normal.” Both the computer revolution of late 1970s and the Internet revolution of the mid-1990s were led by freaks, geeks and eccentrics. Have you seen pictures of Apple Computer founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak from the 1970s? They look like barefoot prophets in need of some serious medication — and a bath. But if they had been well-medicated, would they have been able to put that “dent in the universe” known as the Apple Macintosh? I think not.

And don’t get me started on the great creative minds of human history. My elementary school principal told me once that “all great writers are messed up,” and the more I know about great writers, the more I realize that’s probably true. The same could be said about creative types in general. F. Scott Fitzgerald was a drunk and Vincent van Gogh had issues with his ear.

The entire creative urge, one of the things that make us different from chimpanzees, comes from that slightly self-destructive friction between who as an individual we want to be and what society tells us we need to be to fit in.

I hope in the name of “progress” that we don’t kill the very source of that progress through excessive medication. Otherwise, successive generations may look back upon the present as the last era before humanity became well adjusted and very, very boring. Yet for the time being, at least, there is still the hope that we’ll each appreciate oddballs rather than feel obligated to medicate them and make them “normal.”

The next time a great invention is created by someone just a little “touched,” I’ll hum a few bars of my childhood song, content in the knowledge that being different isn’t so bad after all. S

Shelton Bumgarner is a writer in Chatham.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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