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Take Five: Author with Asperger's finds niche in 'Finding Kansas' book tour

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 10, 2012 - No one is more surprised and thrilled than St. Louisan Jim Likens that his son Aaron, 29, has just embarked on a national book tour.

“If you’d asked me three years ago, ‘Where is Aaron going to be when he’s 40?’ I would have said, ‘He’ll be in the same recliner, playing the same video games,’” Likens said.

Aaron Likens has struggled with Asperger’s, or high functioning autism, throughout his life, earning his GED instead of finishing high school, despite an IQ of 158, because he couldn’t bear the unpredictability and sensory bombardment of the classroom.

As he navigated a troubled adolescence, Aaron Likens’ father fueled his passion for auto racing by driving him to contests across the country, and the young man eventually worked as a race director and starter for a variety of events. Both racing and playing video games are part of what he calls his “Kansas,” or his comfort zone.

He explains it this way: Imagine what it would be like to be paralyzed -- except for when you visit Kansas. Socially paralyzed is how Aaron feels most of the time; asking or answering open-ended questions -- the stuff of small talk -- is a particular nightmare. But in his “Kansas,” he can interact with people in expected ways.

In an effort to blast himself out of his safe place, Aaron has traveled extensively to countries including Kenya, Madagascar and Lithuania. But no matter how far he roams, he cannot outrun his Asperger’s.

Social impairment including poor recognition of body language is a hallmark of the diagnosis, which once led the medical community to list a lack of empathy among the symptoms. To help people understand more about Asperger’s, Likens wrote “Finding Kansas: Living and Decoding Asperger’s Syndrome,”which was initially soft-published by a friend of his father’s. Through the book, he found his calling.

After he took a few copies to St. Louis’ TouchPoint Autism Services, he was asked to speak to police officers about autistic people. That led to Touchpoint hiring him as their community education specialist; now he’s given hundreds of such presentations, along with speaking to Lindenwood students studying special education, among other gigs.

His blog led Penguin publishing to Likens, and they asked him to review another book about Asperger’s. When they learned of “Finding Kansas,” they picked it up, too.

The Beacon talked with Aaron Likens as he began his autism awareness and book tour, which started in New York City and will take him to Denver, San Francisco and, on Friday, April 13, to Lutheran High South in St. Louis. And yes, along the way, to Kansas.

Beacon: How difficult has it been for you to become a public speaker?

Aaron Likens: Presentations are one of the easiest things I do now. Speaking to a group, there is no stage fright. I’ve had to work up to that but very quickly it developed.

It’s much easier to do that than to go into a convenience store and have to ask where something is -- that’s almost impossible. People see me outside the presentation environment, there’s a good chance they may not recognize me; there is that big of a difference.

I’ve given over 240 presentations now and over 9,500 people have attended. I have a fear nobody’s going to show up, but that hasn’t happened yet.

Your dad said you had an epiphany a few years ago that helped you move away from racing and toward talking to groups. Would you tell me about that?

Likens: I always wanted to be a race car driver. I was at race in 2009 in Dover, Del. and when the race started, I was sort of mad about why I wasn’t out there in the race.

But then I realized if I were in the race, who would I be helping? I’m sure my bank account would be better, but no one else would be helped, really. I realized the winner that day probably didn’t help anybody by that win -- that’s not to say they don’t donate to charities -- but how many people on a personal level does he give the information to, that there is hope? And can he explain what goes on in a person’s mind?

After that day, I was thankful I didn’t make it into auto racing. Sometimes we don’t get what we originally want but we get something much better.

Why should people come hear you speak?

Likens: For one thing, I never knew I was a comedian, never knew I had that ability. But I use a lot of humor in my presentation, pretty much at my own expense, to make my points. I look back on events in my life and what I was thinking and how I said the absolutely worst thing without really knowing it.

I turn my life’s story into an understandable narrative that has a mix of humor and, I guess, drama would be the word. It’s very unique and I don’t think too many speakers are doing what I’m doing in terms of not just saying, “I’m on the [Asperger’s] spectrum” but going beneath the surface into the cognitive processing and the emotions behind it.

Can you give an example of the kind of humor you use?

Likens: One time my mom knocked herself out going to a race. We were at my sister’s house in Indianapolis and my mom tripped over a toy ball or something and hit her head. I completely panicked and didn’t know what to do even though I thought of so many what-to-dos.

A couple of minutes later, she came to and I asked the only thing in my mind: “Are we still going to the race?” She was so groggy, I think she said, “Of course we are.”

What do you see in your future?

Likens: If somebody asked me that three years ago, there’s no way I could have said I’d be where I am now. I don’t want to say where I expect to be in three years because I have absolutely no idea how big or small this will be.

Where I am right now -- bringing understanding and bringing awareness -- is where I want to be. So if anything gets bigger, great, but if it stays the same, that’s perfect, too.

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.