COLUMBIA — Tim Page wouldn’t wish Asperger’s syndrome on anyone.
As a kid, he fixated with feverish intensity on details the rest of the world overlooked. He immersed himself in a handful of topics — music, silent films, large chunks of the 1961 Worldbook Encyclopedia — and vigorously absorbed everything he could about them.
In spite of his zest for learning, he struggled through school. Teachers sometimes called him a genius. Then, they’d assign him failing grades.
In his career, Page said he’s angered people with his tendency to offer unfiltered opinions, a product of his perpetual struggle to recognize and decipher social cues. In his personal sphere, forging friendships and relationships has been a lifelong labor. Page has lived much of his life shouldering burdens of confusion, isolation and unhappiness.
“It’s been kind of a lonely life and remains a lonely life,” Page said. “You get the sense that you don’t have the connections with people you’d like to have.”
An estimated four to five out of every 10,000 people have Asperger’s Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder that hinders social interactions and entails intense fixation on topics that are often offbeat and “are not always productive”, said Janet Farmer, co-director of the Thompson Center for Autism & Neurodevelopmental Disorders at MU.
“You might have a child who gets very interested with sea animals, air conditioners, presidents,” Farmer said. “And they sometimes have negative interactions with other people. In other words, it can be very disabling.”
Page, however, has transformed disability into ability. It’s a real-life twist on making lemonade out of lemons: When life handed Page Asperger’s Syndrome, he forged an illustrious career out of music criticism.
“Would I wish Asperger’s on anybody? No,” said Page, who was diagnosed in 2000. “On the other hand, it seems to me that a lot of things I did and am doing in my life happened because I had Asperger’s.”
At 53, Page has a formidable resume that could incite envy among journalists and music afficianados many years his senior. He will visit MU on Monday and Tuesday, offering a series of lectures and discussions about his disorder, his career and the symbiosis between them. He worked for the Washington Post critiquing classical music starting in 1995. In 1997, he won a Pulitzer Prize in criticism for his work with the Post — work the Pulitzer board called “lucid and illuminating.” He used to be the chief music critic for Newsday, penned stories about music and culture for The New York Times and was the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s artistic adviser and creative chair from 1999 to 2001.
Now, Page is a visiting professor with the Annenberg School of Journalism at the University of Southern California.
In 2009, Page will be able to pencil in “autobiographer” on his resume, when he’ll release a memoir detailing his experience with Asperger’s Syndrome. In August 2007, Page wrote a similarly themed piece for The New Yorker called “Parallel Play: A Lifetime of Restless Isolation Explained.”
After reading the article, Sandra Hodge, an associate professor at MU, contacted Page via e-mail to see if he’d be interested in visiting campus, figuring “the worst thing he could say would be no.”
Spearheaded by Hodge, bringing Page to MU was a collaborative effort among the journalism and music schools, the Thompson Center, the Center for Arts and Humanities and University Extension, Community Development. Page’s main appearance will be a University of Missouri Distinguished Lecture Monday evening.
“He’s achieved all these wonderful things in his life,” Hodge said. “I think he’s an inspiration for parents whose children may have the same syndrome. He’s met a number of challenges and has been very successful."
Finding his niche didn’t necessarily take a lot of work. When it came to music, Page said he took to it “like a duck to water.”
“Music was not something I had to learn about from middle C,” Page said. “I knew about it intrinsically from the moment I heard it and needed to learn how to deal with that, how to put that together. There’s no doubt that it had something to do with (Asperger’s) because I was extraordinarily sensitive to music from the time I was two or three. After that, I just inhaled it.”
Paired with a knack for writing, Page’s passion paved a path to success. It’s this kind of success that Farmer said can offer real inspiration to people whose lives are affected by autism spectrum disorders.
“It’s an important message about how you shouldn’t make assumptions about an individual that are negative,” Farmer said. “They may be able to find a perfect match and be very successful in life.”
Professional success aside, Page is straightforward about the obstacles he’s faced on a more personal level, citing two marriages that ended in divorce.
“Would I give up my Pulitzer for a really, really ecstatic and happy marriage?” Page said. “Yeah, I probably would, but maybe I don’t have to choose one or the other.”
Though he’s frank about its challenges, Page said Asperger’s shouldn’t be looked at as “some sort of horrible emotional death sentence.” With three sons and many friends he cherishes, Page maintains a relatively positive outlook on life.
“I’ve had a lot of the blessings that life has,” Page said. “It’s just a little complicated. Everybody’s life has some rain in it.”