Asperger’s & Na’amah

Autism_Awareness_Ribbon-185x300In Noah’s Wife, Na’amah is an Asperger savant.  The term “Asperger Syndrome” was, of course, unknown in ancient times, but there is no reason to believe that the condition did not exist.  Most experts put it on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, although there is some disagreement about it.  Although every person on the spectrum is unique, persons with Asperger’s are usually highly intelligent. Some have extraordinary recall and obsessive knowledge about areas that capture their interest.  Na’amah’s passion was the sheep she tended on the hills of ancient Turkey. She preferred their company and her skills of observation gave her a deep knowledge and understanding of their behavior.

While savant skills are not universally present in persons with AS, they are not uncommon and generally include prodigious memory and/or skills with numbers and math. Some have heightened sensory perceptions and some experience synesthesia, a condition where one type of stimulation evokes the sensation of another.  For Na’amah, the hearing of a sound produced color visualizations, and she had savant abilities of memory recall.

I took literary license to extend Na’amah’s sensitivity to sound to include the infrasound, low frequency vibrations below the human audible range.  Infrasound has been known to cause symptoms of nausea, discomfort, and wavering in the peripheral vision.  It is theorized that infrasound is produced prior to earthquake, and that this might be the explanation as to why some animals seem to predict major quakes.

As to why I gave the central character Asperger’s, the answer is multilayered. I have always been interested in brain developmental disorders and particularly the phenomenon of savants.  If it is possible for some brains to perceive the world differently and to have extraordinary skills, the potential must exist for all humans.  In fact, there have been experiments where scientists have used magnetic pulses to temporally “shut off” portions of the brain in non-autistic persons, resulting in temporarily producing savant abilities.  Fascinating stuff!

Also, I believe my own family has been affected by undiagnosed autism or Asperger’s.  My uncle clearly had mental development issues and displayed several of the symptoms of Aspergers. Only after reading one of Temple Grandin’s books (as research for my novel) did it occur to me that my uncle might have a visual/audio processing issue as well.  All my life I thought he hated me because he would not look at me or respond to me at all. After reading Grandin’s Animals in Translation, I visited my uncle in the hospital (dreading it) and asked him a question, sure he would not answer me, but this time, as an experiment, I waited and didn’t say anything, and after what seemed a long while, he looked at me and responded as if we were having a normal conversation. It was quite a moment, and we were able to converse until he died some months later.

Perhaps the main factor was a subconscious one.  As I wrote Noah’s Wife, the character of Na’amah began to take on a life of her own (which sometimes happens when writers are “in the zone,” at least it does for me, and it is one of the joys of writing).  She surprised me with her unique perspective and what she had to say, and I realized she had Asperger’s. To be honest, I struggled with this for a while, as it was not in my “plans,” but in the end, I added the topic to my research, so Na’amah could be who she wanted to be.

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