Learning to live with autism, chapter by chapter
McHenry native David Finch didn’t set out to write a bestseller at first. He set out to save his marriage.
Five years after wedding his longtime friend, Kristen, Finch had two children, a home, a career, and a mess of a relationship with his wife. Communication was strained. Tensions ran high. Finch found himself questioning their compatibility.
“Things were not going well in our marriage at the time,” said Finch, author of “The Journal of Best Practices: A Memoir of Marriage, Asperger Syndrome, and One Man’s Quest to Be a Better Husband.” “We weren’t throwing dishes at each other by any means, but the friendship had gone away, and we didn’t feel that romantic connection.”
Finch has Asperger syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder characterized in part by social awkwardness, obsessiveness and difficulty showing empathy. But unlike many people diagnosed with this mild form of autism, Finch was well into adulthood before he understood the root cause of some of his undeniably quirky traits — his tendency to talk too much about the wrong things, his difficulty understanding others’ emotions, even his extreme discomfort in tight clothes.
It was Kristen, a speech therapist, who realized her 30-year-old husband’s eccentricities and perceived character flaws might have their roots in Asperger’s. Sitting him down one night, she administered an evaluation, asking Finch about everything from his odd sense of humor — “I remembered the time in junior high when I glued a rubber chicken head to a T-shirt and wrote LET’S GET SERIOUS across the chest,” he wrote — to his need to sit in his favorite seat — “I literally have ended friendships over the seat thing.” The evaluation said he had Asperger syndrome. A doctor’s diagnosis said the same.
It was a watershed moment for Finch, his wife and their marriage.
“It offered me all this insight as to why I was like this. It all just clicked,” Finch said. “I didn’t mean to be this inconsiderate idiot, I just wasn’t wired for all these emotional states. Kristen got insight too. She essentially got a user manual for me.”
After the diagnosis, Kristen sought to understand and improve her relationship with her husband, while Finch, at first, tried to “fix” himself.
“I thought if I can manage this, maybe I can fix this,” he said. “[Kristen said,] ‘I appreciate your enthusiasm, but you’re not broken, it’s just who you are. What we need to work on is our relationship.’”
That work is revealed in “The Journal of Best Practices,” an Amazon best-selling memoir earning high praise from the New York Times and Kirkus Reviews, among other publications. Each of the book’s chapters highlights one of Finch’s “best practices” — important tenets, from “Use your words” to “Parties are supposed to be fun,” scribbled down by the author on his path to balancing being an “Aspie” with being a husband. The book is a frank look at Finch’s once-broken marriage, his struggles to fit in at work and school, and the journey he and his wife took to cope with and learn from his Asperger’s diagnosis.
“Writing the book, I had to open up old wounds,” said Finch, who still lives in McHenry. “It was painful again, having been freshly out of the woods with my marriage problems, and that was transformative.”
But Finch, who studied sketch comedy writing at the Second City, still has something of the adolescent with the rubber chicken in him. “The Journal of Best Practices” is a lighthearted book, with liberal amounts of self-deprecation sprinkled in. That can be a rarity in memoirs, and the humor is something the author attributes to his personality, his voice — and maybe his disinclination toward the genre.
“I hate admitting this, but I don’t read,” Finch said. “I hadn’t read any memoirs [when I started the book], and when I joined a writing workshop, people were telling me, ‘Oh, memoir is so dark.’ I was just writing the stories the way that I would want to read them. It was just my natural personality coming out.”
Finch landed a book deal with Scribner shortly after his essay, “Somewhere Inside, a Path to Empathy,” appeared in the New York Times. He’d crafted the story about Asperger’s in a writing workshop and submitted it to the newspaper’s Modern Love column. It was Finch’s first break — so unknown was he that the paper had to run a correction after omitting his byline with the article.
Now a full-time writer and lecturer, Finch is unlikely to face that problem again. He travels to schools, universities and conventions, speaking about his experience with autism to teachers, students and caregivers. He also has another memoir in the works, one he said will focus less on Asperger syndrome and more on his family.
“The idea is always to be as relatable as possible,” Finch said. “It’s more like, ‘Hey, we all come from families. Here are the stories and issues people identify with.’”
That’s a theme that features prominently in “The Journal of Best Practices,” too.
“It’s the story of a marriage first,” Finch said. “The Asperger syndrome thing informs it, but I was trained to articulate our experiences in a way to show who we were. And what we overcame.”
David and Kristen Finch will appear at 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 24, at the Unity Spiritual Center of Woodstock, 225 Calhoun St., Woodstock. The event is hosted by Read Between the Lynes. For information, call 815-206-5967.