Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Uncharted Path: A Book Review

For those of you with Asperger's or autism, do you remember what it was like when you first got your diagnosis? For parents, have you wondered what was going on in your autism spectrum child's head? Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg's new book "The Uncharted Path" explores these questions and more. Cohen-Rottenberg was 50 years old when she was first diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome. Her book is a wonderful and insightful exploration into a childhood living with undiagnosed Asperger's, and what it means and feels like to be an adult woman living with autism.

Cohen-Rottenberg always felt the odd one out at school, never able to make friends like all her peers seemed to be able to. The behavior of other kids was confusing and frightening to her. Nothing made sense. High school was an even more difficult and overwhelming place to be. Cohen-Rottenberg tried to mask her social deficits by copying the behavior of other girls, and to an extent, it worked. The many problems she had with the social world, however, persisted. College was an overwhelming place where she felt like an alien and no idea how to interact with others. So Cohen-Rottenberg escaped to Berkely, California, where she found a more accepting culture and group of people. Eventually, she found a successful career as a technical writer and got married. And then, at age 50, came the diagnosis. And that changed everything.

Cohen-Rottenberg's strength in this book is being able to let you get into the head of someone with Asperger's, and show you exactly what they think and feel. Others with Asperger's will gasp in recognition at so many descriptions that so well parallel their lives. Friends and family will gain much needed insight into their loved one. Cohen-Rottenberg is emotionally honest and skilled at relaying the stories from her childhood and adulthood that made her the person she is today. She aptly conveys what it is like to discover at age 50 why you have felt different from your peers all your life, and engages the reader fully as she describes how she had to learn to accept that her life was actually going to be a lot different than she planned it. She leaves no holds barred as she talks about the puzzling conundrums that come with an Asperger life.

"Unless someone tells me so explicitly, I cannot tell whether a group has accepted me. And even if someone tells me outright, how will I know that tomorrow that acceptance will remain? Certainly, I can look back and see that yesterday people liked me. They smiled at me. They joked with me. They gave me compliments. I felt reassured. But what about today? It’s a whole new day. What if today is the day that I screw up and have no idea that it’s happened? What if today I make a mistake, and I’m cast out?"

"Okay, smile. Make eye contact…No! No! Not that much! Pause. Say something helpful, but don’t jump in too fast…Wait…Wait…Now! Say something clever…Very good. People laughed…Now, make more eye contact…Okay, good. Act like you’re following the conversation…What? It’s winding down already? How do I exit gracefully? Help! Help!…Um…er…Time to walk away? Okay. I’m walking away now…Why do I always feel like such an idiot?"

Ultimately, though, Cohen-Rottenberg's book, "The Uncharted Path," is about coming to terms with a life that you never expected would happen. It's about learning to reframe who you are, and reframe your sense of self. It's the fine art of learning to change your expectations of how much you will be able to do at any given time, and not hate yourself for your limitations. It's the struggle of looking at your peers, and trying with all of your heart not to compare yourself to them. To accept and love yourself for your own unique gifts and strengths, instead of always wanting what everyone else has. This is a theme that will resonate with people far and wide - How do I accept myself? How do I come to terms with who I am? You don't need to be disabled or autistic to realize that Cohen-Rottenberg's words speak to the human condition that we all find ourselves in. A highly recommended read.

"I’d never wanted to be famous, but I once was full of promise. Could I have done the work my former classmates are doing? No, I couldn’t have—and yet, I can’t quite grasp why not. Intellectually, I know all the reasons: I know that raw intelligence isn’t everything; I know that I don’t understand or respect social politics; I know that I get overloaded in groups of more than two people. I know all of these things, but I still can’t quite understand what’s happened. The gulf between who I was supposed to be and who I am is so deep and so wide that my mind still can’t take it in and make any sense of it."

Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg writes about her life on her blog "Journeys with Autism," which can be found at To purchase this book, you can email her at


  1. I hadn't heard of this one yet - thanks for posting about it!

  2. Got to love the ones who claim autism yet write books, blogs and have a pretty normal life. God help the idiots who fall for you.

  3. Don't let comments like this discourage you. It is often hard for people whose children are more seriously afflicted not to feel bitterness at the "complaining" of people who are so much better off. One of my sisters-in-law said she finally had to look for a new specialty after working (as a nurse)in the children's burn unit because she no longer felt any sympathy for her own children (who weren't suffering the agony of burns).

  4. Yeah, I agree with you re the commenter. But re the burn unit, WOW, I never would have thought about it from that angle. That is fascinating.