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Life on the spectrum

Times Leader - 2/22/2020

Feb. 22--Ask author Anand Prahlad if life on the autism spectrum has brought him any gifts, and he'll tell you:

"I learn to play musical instruments fairly easily. I see angles in my mind and see measurements in my mind without having a tape measure. I think I'm naturally inclined to listen to sounds other people may not listen to ... not just sounds but tones; the different emotions that might be in a bird's voice."

Of course Asperger syndrome has brought challenges, too.

Eye contact is painful. The world around him seems to move too fast. He's often felt disconnected, as if he were an alien on an insane planet. And, talking to other people -- whether it's in a classroom setting, a crowded lecture hall or one-on-one with a reporter -- doesn't come naturally to Prahlad.

"I wouldn't necessarily say it's difficult," he said. "It takes an extra effort that it doesn't seem to take other people. I'm used to doing it and I know how to do it but, if left to my own devices, it's not one of the things I would choose to do very much."

Nevertheless, after preparing with rest and perhaps some meditation, Prahlad will give a talk at 7 p.m.March 17 at Misericordia University. Titled "Autism and the Hierarchy of Senses: A Lecture and Reading," it will share a glimpse into "The Secret Life of a Black Aspie," which is the name of his Permafrost Award-winning memoir.

For Prahlad, life began in 1954 on a farm in Virginia that had once been a plantation.

"I grew up hearing stories about the slaves on the plantation," he said, reminiscing about how, as a child, he sensed the presence of children who had been slaves, children from long ago who became his friends.

"For me they were present," he said. "I don't feel like I was imagining them, but imagination is a tricky thing. Scientists aren't sure what the line is between reality and imagination."

Prahlad perceived the slave children as so real, they had names and personalities.

"One of them, Jeremiah, was serious. Lizzy was more playful. Beulah was kind of sad," Prahlad said matter-of-factly. "I remember them from the time before I spoke, and from the time after I spoke."

Speaking of, well, speaking, Prahlad didn't communicate with words until he was 4 years old -- a fact that his family simply accepted.

"I grunted and often made the sounds the animals made," he said. "They caught my attention more than the sounds people made. I grunted and tried to make the same sound the cow made and the sounds the dogs might make. I don't mean barking, but the sounds they make when they're nuzzling you or when they want to go outside."

Asperger syndrome, which wasn't officially diagnosed until he was in his 50s, didn't stop Prahlad from going to school, earning a Ph.D., working as a college professor, traveling the world and writing books. He recently retired from the University of Missouri, where he served as director of creative writing and taught folklore, film, creative writing and disability studies.

"Being on the spectrum has allowed me to become an effective teacher," he said. "I take people wherever they are. I don't necessarily have an agenda. I take things at face value. That is a way of being a supportive and effective instructor or mentor. Some teachers might complain about students who 'don't do this' or 'don't do that.' Those things don't really bother me. I don't assume students are going to do one thing or another."

Prahlad's world has some aspects that a neurotypical person -- someone not on the autism spectrum -- might find difficult to understand.

For example, Prahlad said, "I taste what I hear and I often taste what I see. Colors are attached to taste and colors are attached to sound. They feel like they're connected and they don't feel like they're different things. I don't think of my senses as being separate in that way."

When a neurotypical person encounters someone on the autism spectrum, Pharlad said, "I think it's important to really have a great power of imagination. Imagination can enable people to have some insight into the world of people who are not like them. If you think of someone on the spectrum as actively creating the world around them, they are just as empowered as everyone else. Try to understand how they're doing it and what that world is."


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