Lessons Learned from an Aspie Penguin Hero
Blue car syndrome is when a person buys a new blue car and then notices just how many blue cars are zooming around. Those cars were always there but now there is a point of commonality. It’s as if all those cornflower, royal, and cobalt automobiles now glow with the words “one of us.” Instead of buying a car my new point of commonality is my Asperger’s diagnosis. It’s like finding out I always had a blue car but for some reason never bothered to look at the outside paint job. But enough with this metaphor for now.
While researching everything Asperger’s I fell down the Internet rabbit hole of the lists of people known and suspected of having Asperger’s. In the midst of this special interest plunge I learned this type of speculation is taboo in almost all circles. It is the equivalent of being in the 1950s and publicly asking if a person is gay. I found that surprising but it did make a kind of sense. Average people often mistakenly believe that if something is labeled a mental health problem then it is automatically a bad thing.
This is how I look at it. Asperger’s, as with all mental “disabilities,” are diagnosed by continued behavior over a specified period of time. With real people this is a difficult guessing game because only so much is publicly known, and most of it is third party gossip. Fictional characters however are easier to study.
ADHD aside: Having worked as a teacher in a lockdown children’s psychiatric hospital I can’t pretend everything listed as a mental health disease is a disability. Not too long ago a sexually adventurous woman and a gay man were considered psychotic as the killer in the Tell Tell Heart (click here to read the short story or listen to it expertly performed in 15 minutes by Sir Christopher Lee here). And then all of a sudden those consensual adult sex acts weren’t psychiatric diseases anymore. Anxiety, ADHD, OCD and the like can be disabling. But they can also be super-powered fuel for great achievements.
Aspie, Penguin, Hero
I’m using Kowalski from the Madagascar film and TV cartoon series as my character case study. There will be spoilers ahead for Penguins of Madagascar but only a few of small ones.
The film starts with average penguins flocking in single file to an unknown destination. The flockers happily admit they don’t know or care where they are going. Fortunately the story focuses on the anti-flockers, which include a young Kowalski.
Now how can we tell if a penguin is an Aspie? By careful observation of course. Instead of the rest of his species, Kowalski doesn’t frolic or do the pointless but cute activities that I equate to human small talk. In a culture where the average penguin follows the flock without question Kowalski metaphorically and literally stands outside the norm with his friends at their introduction.
Kowalski’s relationship with his best friend Skipper is not one of relaxed camaraderie but a structured unit with a full military rank system. He is very comfortable with this clear definition of role expectations. When Skipper rejects society by rejecting nature and then dives headfirst into danger to save a tumbling egg, Kowalski abandons the safety of the large flock to help his friend. His sense of loyalty and honor to Skipper literally leads him to jump off a cliff.
Skipper is also by no means an average penguin. He does what he thinks is right even when it means rejecting all of polite flocker society. Kowalski’s other friend, Rico, has apraxia of speech and a case of pica so severe it’s his superpower. The dynamic of the trio is highly common for those with Asperger’s as we often group together with other atypical individuals as we have as hard a time relating to average people as they do us.
As with real life Aspies, even among friends Kowalski doesn’t understand what others think or what words might upset them. When Skipper calls a pod of leopard seals “natures snakes” Kowalski asks, “Aren’t snakes natures snakes?” This correction causes Skipper to yell at him in anger.
Not long after that the egg hatches as the three friends drift out to sea on top an iceberg. The hatchling asks, “Are you my family?” The three friends share a knowing look, smile, and nod to each other. Having silently agreed on what to tell the baby Kowalski beats Skipper to the punch.
“You don’t have a family and we’re all going to die. Sorry.”
Skipper elbows him.
“What?” Kowalski asks. “I thought that was what we were all nodding about.”
Skipper elbows him again. Harder.
Through the exchange Kowalski’s facial expressions show he is confused with Skipper and Rico’s anger. He has no idea why telling the truth, no matter how bad it is, could be a bad thing. But many years later an adult Kowalski makes an observation that leads Skipper to say, “Remember our talk about true but unhelpful comments?”
ADHD Aside: My wife and I shared a look during this scene. I have said very similar things countless times earning elbows to the gut, smacks to the back of the head, verbal warnings at work, and most recently a stomped foot from my wife while at a wedding. A woman told us how she was nervous because her eight-year-old’s grandfather lets him use power tools when he visits. Apparently “well, they do remarkable things now with prosthetics” is one of those true but unhelpful comments I should have kept to myself.
Kowalski is also the team’s idea man. While unable to read, all the birds are illiterate, he has an amazing head for engineering, mathematics, and forming complex plans at an astonishing speed. This, combined with his mind-blindness and choice of atypical friends leads me to conclude that this character is an Aspie.
What makes Kowalski a beautifully written Aspie character is how his eccentricities are his strengths and not the butt of jokes. His loyalty and sense of honor to his friends surpasses his fear of death which makes him a hero. He is unapologetically honest. While done for comedic effect the laughs are not directed toward Kowalski but at the situation he sums up with direct honesty. Best of all, methods of coping with average people are handed gift-wrapped to those in the audience with Asperger’s. For the rest of my life, when in doubt, I will ask myself or my wife “is this one of those true but unhelpful comments?” before proceeding.
When done right, characters and stories have deeper levels of meaning for each individual in the audience. Unless the viewer is close to someone with Asperger’s they will not see this particular Sapphire Lexus of an Aspie character as anything other than a quirky bird. But for those of us who have our own sporty blue coupe in the driveway we can’t miss how Kowalski and Skipper role model vital friendship lessons showing how semi-average freethinkers can be good friends with Aspies, and how we can be better friends to them.
It is never stated that Kowalski is an Aspie in the show’s continuity or that the character was intentionally written as one. At least not that I could find, so this is purely speculation on my part. It may be coincidence that he shares a name with Timothy Kowalski, M.A.,C.C.C.-SLP, a respected expert in Autism research and that the penguin’s nemesis King Julian, played by actor Sacha Baron Cohen in the films, is cousin and close friend of professor Simon Baron-Cohen who is a well known if somewhat controversial Asperger’s expert. It could be a coincidence, except I don’t believe in those things.
© 2016 Glenn Hawkins. All Rights Reserved.