In search of an Asperger culture
Charmaine C. Williams
Most of us have heard definitions of culture that describe it as a sum of ideas, beliefs, values, and knowledge that belong to a group of people who share a common background. Usually culture is an invisible matrix that aids our interpretation of daily existence, but our awareness of it is heightened when we encounter someone or something that presents experiences and interpretations that make culture, and cultural differences, visible. We are probably most aware of cultures in the moments when they clash; when some conflict or confusion reveals that we are in contact with an unknown people and unknown practices. We evoke culture to explain our perception of the exotic, the unfamiliar and, perhaps, the disturbing elements of other people.
With this in mind, it is intriguing to question if there exists a culture of Asperger Syndrome (AS). People with AS live among us and emerge from within us. What is it about these people that we are experiencing as exotic, unfamiliar, and perhaps disturbing? What do we think we can learn from applying a cultural model to our experience of them? The purpose of this chapter is to explore these questions.
The challenges of evaluating the presence of an Asperger culture are multifold. First, who is in the best position to describe such a culture? I approach the task as an outsider. I have never had a diagnosis of AS applied to me, and I have had limited (known) contact with people who have. My qualifications for the assignment are my experiences as an explorer of cultural difference and its intersection with the experience of mental health problems. I use this peripheral position to enter the world of AS and explore its ways. There was a time when this would not have been an unusual undertaking. Nineteenth-century anthropologists, charged with the same task, would return from distant adventures bearing exotic tales of strange, previously unknown people. However, this is not my