Helpful Book – Pretending to be Normal

Pretending to be normal – living with Asperger syndrome is the autobiography of Liane Holliday Willey. Liane knew about  asperger syndrome along with her daughter, when she was diagnosed. She grew up with a diagnosis of ‘Gifted’ and though she never understood why she was different from others, she aptly titles her ‘pretending to be normal’ as the way she led her life trying to fit in! She describes herself as ‘people who never quite find their way but never quite loose it either’ .

The book has a forward by Dr. Tony Attwood, who needs no introduction. The book starts with her assessment at age three where she was diagnosed as ‘Gifted and indulged; Smart and spoiled’. From the earliest times she can recall, she shares her dislike for peers and her love for imaginary friends. She used to play elaborate games with her imaginary friends and even set a place for them at table. She shares many of her sensory problems with touch, taste, smell, of someone coming near her and many more. She talks about her failed attempts to mingle with other kids by joining ballet classes and swimming team and even trying to be a cheerleader. How difficulties with balance and bilateral coordination played a spoilsport in these ventures! Her love for words and biographies which provide factual information as oppose to fiction as she could not think beyond the literal!  She talks about her best friend, Maureen and how she failed to understand why Maureen played with other kids when she already had a friend. Finally, she found a venture to mingle in theatre, but she was very comfortable with solo acts and unable to handle interacting and coordinating with other people both on stage and off stage. she had an uncanny ability to copy accents, vocal inflections,  hand movements, gaits and tiny gestures of people and these helped her mingle to an extent.

She shares her painful experiences of late teens and early twenties when she joined college. Finding her way in a new place among new people was traumatic for her to say the least. Her college counseler helped her by suggesting she focus more on her strengths and never feel apologetic for her short comings. Her love for ceramics lab and architecture gave a much needed distraction. Then she loved working as a elementary teacher but her social skills are best described in her own words as ‘ When I was with a group I would rather resort naturally to my stage skills. Literally, I smiled, made witty remarks and told interesting stories and when I ran out of stories to tell, I left as if I was walking off the stage’.

I was rather pleasantly surprised by her frankness when talking about her life after marriage. This is my first time reading about an asperger marriage and very interesting to read how she coped with her sensory problems and her literal mindedness. Her to-do lists included holding her husband’s hand for five minutes at a stretch and hugging her husband atleast thrice a day! I feel she was fortunate to have a life partner who totally understood her sensory and other problems and helped her find her way both literally and figuratively because she often lost her way in a shopping mall or the place where she parked her car. Its a blessing to have a spouse who is a soul mate, especially if one is one on the autism spectrum.

With the birth of her twin daughters, she had a tough time coping with her sensory issues and asperger traits. She talks about how she wanted to be the mother who is her children’s role model, guiding them through life but instead she has to contend with a position where she is equally dependent on her daughters to guide her! When she gave birth to twin girls second time, her daughter behaved differently from her siblings and had many sensory problems. When her daughter was diagnosed as having asperger syndrome, Liane really understood herself for the first time, how different she was and how people in her life helped her along. She talks about how she perfectly understands what her daughter is going through and uses all her experience to help her cope. Looking back, she recalls how much she has progressed towards the standard definition of ‘normal’ and she concludes by saying ‘ I do not wish for a cure to Asperger’s syndrome. What I wish for is a cure to the common ill that pervades too many lives; the ill that makes people compare themselves to a normal that is measured in terms of perfect and absolute standards, most of which are impossible for anyone to reach’.

At the end are appendixes for many important aspects like survival skills for asperger college students, employment options, coping with sensory problems, support groups and many more.

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