You mostly cannot express your thoughts through speaking, but you’ve published more than 20 books. How does your writing process work?
My basic methods of communication are my letter board and computer. The letter-board method involves a card with the alphabet arranged in the QWERTY format. I point to individual letters and “voice” the letters as I touch them. I can also type on a computer keyboard, but I get stuck on or obsessed about certain letters. Or sometimes I’ll type a word over and over. I can’t converse well, but this doesn’t mean I don’t think. It’s just that when I try to speak, the words that come to mind disappear. I wonder if this isn’t similar to the sensation we all have of forgetting something? Even if a person with severe autism learns to use a computer, it doesn’t mean he or she will be able to express in writing all the emotions they have been unable to verbalize. Expressing what’s inside the heart and mind of my autistic self will always be problematic, I think.
What first made you aware that you had autism?
There wasn’t one trigger, but growing up, I listened to the people around me talking, and this alerted me. I worried about not being able to do what others did so easily, but at that stage I didn’t feel compelled to understand what this thing was that made my life so difficult. When people told me, “You have this disability,” it somehow never really struck home that their words applied to me. Maybe this was because I was still just a child. If you judge me by appearances, I haven’t changed all that much. But I feel pride in saying that I’ve grown into a happy-enough adult.
You write of “thorns in the heart” — realizations of things you will not be able to do. Which thorn aches most?
People who have disabilities are told what they ought to do much more often. Those giving the advice may have good intentions, but sometimes the advice is more geared to minimize the hassle and inconvenience caused to others.
You’ve said that maturity is “a matter of progressing ever closer to your ideal self.” What is your ideal self?
To travel this world without being tied to others. Not in the sense of crossing the sky like a bird. My meaning stems from the fact that people constantly compare themselves to others. They find it difficult to decide the best way to live, I guess, and comparisons help them evaluate their own situation. A person can attain pure freedom only by being set free from being a person.
What do neurotypical people agonize over too much?
Human relations. Not wanting to be left out of the group, or wanting to be better than others — this kind of mentality makes relations between people way more fraught than necessary. Sometimes I wonder if the human intellect can nudge us backward.
What’s your favorite number?
I’ve never really thought about my favorite, but if pushed, my answer would be 3. The number 1 is the most important. It feels like proof that something is there. Then again, zero is the most amazing discovery. The concept of nothingness is proof of human civilization. After 1 comes 2 in order of importance. The number 2 lets us divide things and put numbers in order. These three numbers (0, 1 and 2) would have been sufficient. As a number, 3 is enchanting. It was created even though it wasn’t needed. Perhaps it was born out of creativity?
What would you tell parents who are sad that their child has been diagnosed with autism?
I don’t think of my autism as a misfortune. You may be stuck, your suffering may be ongoing, but time flows on. What your child needs right now is to see your smile. Create lots of happy memories together. When we know we are loved, the courage we need to resist depression and sadness wells up from inside us.
Translated from email by Hamish Macaskill and David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas.