Review: ‘Finding Kansas’, by Aaron Likens

Finding Kansas: Decoding the Enigma of Asperger's SyndromeFinding Kansas: Decoding the Enigma of Asperger’s Syndrome by Aaron Likens
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A very accessibly-written account and it maintains a certain charm for a necessarily personal tale by way of never failing to feel very genuine in the emotions expressed.

The foundation of my disappointment in the book, however, is that it’s largely dull and at least to this reader, lacking in the echelon and depth of insight attributed to it in its introduction and publisher’s praise. Accessible writing need not be amateurish–this isn’t to say the book is badly written per se, but it’s indeed a collection of informal, personal essays and it never lets you forget that. Small yet frequent stylistic tics toward the insecure and repetitive statement become increasingly taxing as the book wears on.

But I’d be ready to forgive the mediocre writing if the book paid off in its chief promise: to ‘unlock’ what it is to experience AS/ASD to those outside of the condition. To me it simply failed in this regard, with a notable exception I’m more than happy to mention.

First, I’m ready to admit my own bias here–from my own life experience and what I’ve passingly read about autism / AS / ASD, it looks to genuinely be one of the most over-diagnosed conditions on offer, rivaling ADD. A very recent report in America shows the diagnosis rate skyrocketing due, in the opinion of several citations in the report, to an ever-broadening scope of diagnostic criteria–to the degree that within roughly the next two years, the diagnostic criteria is being overhauled. Considering over-diagnosis and the boringly, emphatically annoying American tendency to both seek out labels and uniqueness (particularly by parents for their children) and the way in which diagnosis of such conditions can be tempting explanations for various idiosyncrasies–i.e., shortcuts to understanding and empathy without doing the heavy lifting or worrying something more troubling is at work–so much of this grows tiresome. Thinking on the notion that normalcy in most regards is a myth, don’t we all fall somewhere on the autism spectrum, almost all of us well short of the ‘healthy’ extreme? If so, what’s to truly unlock? Is it so mysterious?

Much of the book felt this way to me. With some jarring exceptions (I’m getting there, I promise) the vast majority of this book felt exceedingly normal to me. An intelligent kid that feels more comfortable talking to adults than this peers, is socially awkward, gets bored by mundane teenage jobs, and has trouble getting over his first loves. There’s no rich, unique, compelling, insightful, nuanced experience here at all. If you want to sell a compelling book using such commonplace material, you’d better be leaning heavily on some other aspect of the writing to be very charged, and Likens doesn’t pass either, here.

All of this is coming around to the point that I’m not saying nor have I ever thought autism / et al. to be a myth — over-diagnosed doesn’t mean the condition isn’t legitimately expressed in some patients. I think AS is a very real and very excruciatingly strange experience to behold, and I absolutely believe Likens himself is a very genuine victim to it. The depth of the lack of empathy Likens expresses seems staggering at its most acute, and I wish he had whatever we might say is missing from the writing here to explore that depth in a more profound and vivid manner. He does hit on such elements, but only in passing. His discourse on the way ‘first’ may work in ASDs to frame future impressions and encounters was interesting, and the reaction of professionals and ASD sufferers to this concept might prove illuminating, I’d be glad if it did considering the way this portion of the book stands out in relation to the rest.

We also cannot forget the titular theme of the book, which is Likens’ own exploration of the comfort zone he discovered for himself early on in life in the form of observing and taking part in auto racing. There doesn’t seem to be terribly much here that is revelatory to the ASD experience at large, but it remains an intriguing area to experience by proxy. Likens does some fulfilling work here exploring the very tangible ways that systems of closure and restriction work to liberate himself and many others on the autism spectrum. It indeed seems to speak to the root mechanic of the disorder which is, simply and broadly considered, being overwhelmed by choice in complex situations. No surprise that social situations are almost always emphasized in regards to AS, as the nuanced and complex variables of human interaction have always been one of the fundamental mazes of the human experience. I enjoyed Likens’ discussion of the ways in which game systems work incredibly well in this regard.

Overall, there are aspects of this book that undeniably shed light on the very intimate struggles of the true ASD experience, but these moments felt disappointingly like diamonds in the rough. A stern editor’s touch, I feel, would’ve slimmed the present material (and associated stylistic crutches, most notably the constant, needless repetition) far enough back to demand a more complicated contemplation on some of the book’s more intriguing moments. It promises to unlock the door but only offers a glimpse through the keyhole.

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