Pulitzer-Winner on Living with Asperger's Tim Page, a Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic, describes living with Asperger's syndrome in his article "Parallel Play" in the Aug. 20 edition of The New Yorker. He talks with Robert Siegel about learning to live with Asperger's.

Pulitzer-Winner on Living with Asperger's

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Tim Page writes music criticism for the Washington Post. He does it well enough to have won a Pulitzer Prize. He has advised a major symphony orchestra, interviewed important composers and musicians. He also wrote a biography of the novelist Dawn Powell, and edited and annotated her work. So reading his article in this week's issue of the New Yorker is a real eye-opener. The article is called "Parallel Play, a Lifetime of Restless Isolation." It's about living with Asperger's syndrome.

Tim Page joins us from Baltimore. Welcome, Tim.

Mr. TIM PAGE (Music critic, Washington Post): It's good to be here.

SIEGEL: First, how old were you when it became evident to people around you, if not you yourself, that you were different?

Mr. PAGE: Oh, I think it was pretty obvious by the time I was 3 or 4. It was just a question of what that difference was and I didn't fit into any of the categories at that point. And I had some strengths and I had many, many weaknesses.

SIEGEL: You start the New Yorker article with something that you wrote in the second grade. And I wonder if you would first describe the assignment, and then read some of what you wrote in response to the assignment.

Mr. PAGE: Well, we took a field trip to Boston, and I think we were supposed to write all sorts of inspirational things about Bunker Hill and all sorts of things like that. I turned in an assignment that exasperated my teacher so extravagantly that she actually cut through the paper when she wrote, see me, in red pencil.

SIEGEL: Well, let's hear what you wrote.

Mr. PAGE: All right. Here's what I wrote.

Well, we went to Boston, Massachusetts, through the town of Warrenville, Connecticut, on Route 44A. It was very pretty and there was a church that reminded me of pictures of Russia from our book that is published by Time Life. We arrived in Boston at 9:17. At 11, we went on a big tour of Boston on Gray Line 43 made by the Superior Bus Company like Schoolbus Six, which goes down Hutting(ph) Lodge road where Maria lives, and then on to Separatist Road, and then to South Eagle Ville before it comes to our school. We saw lots of good things like the Boston Massacre site. The tour ended at 1:05. Before I knew it, we were going home.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Well, you certainly had observed a great deal on the field trip to Boston.

Mr. PAGE: I went directly to the toenail of the matter.

SIEGEL: The toenail, exactly. And this was a pattern. You were obsessed with detail when you came in contact with some information.

Mr. PAGE: I was obsessed with detail. I was obsessed with music. I was obsessed with silent film. I was obsessed with old photographs. And I was really completely oblivious to a tremendous amount of other things that were going on around me, including most social things and certainly most of what my teachers wanted me to know. I basically flunked and flunked and flunked and flunked for many, many years but I educated myself, at least in the subjects I was really interested in. It was an unusual boyhood, and I thought perhaps writing about it would be helpful to other people who might have some of the same characteristics.

SIEGEL: One of the things you immerse yourself in was etiquette.

Mr. PAGE: Yeah, yeah. I really didn't understand how people related to each other. But it was funny. It was when I was in my early teens that I discovered Emily Post's book "Etiquette" and I fully intended on sneering at it and thinking that it was uncool - and old hat, and old fashioned. And it actually explained to me why people behave the way they did. And once it was actually explained to me and I could understand it intellectually, I could work it into my own life.

SIEGEL: And you haven't placed the fork in the wrong place yet, I assume.

Mr. PAGE: Oh, I'm not so good at that, but at least I got the gist of it. I got the idea of why people didn't just talk on and on about things and how courtesy was something that make people feel more comfortable.

SIEGEL: How important was it to you - long after your childhood was behind you and after you'd become a very successful critic - how important was it for someone to diagnose and put a name to this condition and say you are living with Asperger's syndrome?

Mr. PAGE: I found it very helpful simply because it explains so much. It finally explained why I had this, you know, fairly extraordinary capacity for remembering facts and figures and data, and why I was so oblivious to so much of what the rest of the world really thought was important. I say in the piece that I'm often complimented for being able to think outside the box. But for me, it's always been a struggle to find out exactly where the box is. You know, 40 years ago, when I was probably at my most afflicted, there was no knowledge about this whatsoever. I clearly wasn't retarded and I clearly didn't suffer from classic autism, but something was still very wrong. And I think, for me, it's certainly helped me make more sense of my life. And I just hope that my own experience will help other people.

SIEGEL: In the article, you at least allude to the fact that in terms of interpersonal relationships, personal relationships, you feel much more easy about life today than you did 15, 20 years ago, yes?

Mr. PAGE: Oh, absolutely. There's no doubt about it. I'm much more drawn into the human race now and much happier and certainly much more in control. But, you know, it's not something that goes away. There is no, quote, unquote, "cure" for it, but there is living with it. I mean, for instance, I couldn't tell you what color my mother's eyes were. And I have no idea what the person I had dinner with last night was wearing to dinner, but I'll remember all about, you know, what we talked about and what the room might have been like. You know, it's just a different way of processing information. And - but it can be quite difficult, especially when you're young.

SIEGEL: Tim Page, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Mr. PAGE: It's been my pleasure.

SIEGEL: Tim Page, music critic of the Washington Post, is the author of an article about living with Asperger's syndrome in this week's issue of The New Yorker. It's called Parallel Play.

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