On the air
He is the recipient of numerous awards for his professional accomplishments, a deeply committed husband and father, a delightfully acerbic communicator, and an unrelenting and effective advocate of the poor, the orphaned, and the outcast. And he has a form of autism.
Tune in to Mornings with Brant on WAY-FM and you feel like you’re with friends. Topics range from the hysterical to the poignant, from toast to pregnant teens. Whether you are laughing, crying or singing along, the pervasive sense is that you know Brant Hansen.
In the seven years since Hansen arrived in South Florida, thousands of listeners have come to know Hansen as the guy for whom so much seemed to come easily.
Have you thought about taking a foreign missions trip? Just in the past couple of years, Hansen has been to Afghanistan, Thailand and Senegal as he has encouraged listeners to link up with organizations like World Vision and Cure International to be a part of God’s provision for the poor.
Have aspirations of being a rock star? Hansen released two CDs with a critically acclaimed band, Farewell to Juliet, and seems to count a number of contemporary Christian artists among his friends. For Hansen then, are these glorious, carefree days filled with a humble recognition of the eternal? Hardly.
In a recent post on the Facebook page associated with his nationally syndicated radio morning show, Hansen writes, “So my son and I are Asperger’s syndrome people. ‘Aspies’ for short.”
The post goes on to detail some of the symptoms associated with the autism-related syndrome: intense social awkwardness, an inability to process social cues, a preference for visual over auditory input and an often overwhelming sense of meaninglessness and failure.
The reaction was immediate. Hundreds of listeners and readers posted, e-mailed and called in with their comments and opinions. There was pent-up pain from years of being misunderstood. There was the son who had just been diagnosed, and the relatives desperate to understand their loved ones lack of engagement. Many expressed relief that someone had given a face to their struggle.
Interview with Brant
Q: What went through your mind when you recognized you had Asperger’s?
A: At first I was resistant to the idea that I had Asperger’s – that my condition could be so easily categorized. You have to remember that, often, Aspies are highly analytical and highly skeptical.
Once I had a chance to accept it intellectually, I found it incredibly freeing. For the first time in my life, I have a way to explain myself to people. I have a way to open up communication, not just through the radio or on Facebook, but in my daily life.
I wish I could wear a sign that says, “Hey look – I’m not going to make eye contact. It doesn’t mean that I don’t like you.” Our culture has set up certain social mores and norms. I really don’t want people to feel insulted. I feel like I am called to meet people on their terms and in a way that makes them feel comfortable, but maintaining eye contact forces me to be constantly thinking, “What should I say now? What body cues am I sending?”
Q: Is it exhausting?
A: It is. When I really listen to someone, I don’t look at them. If I am looking at you, I am having a hard time listening, because I am telling myself, “Look at them. Eye contact is important to them.”
When I have the chance to meet people who listen to the show, I am genuinely and deeply honored. It is heartbreaking for me when I’ve discovered that, because of my unintended body language, they’ve walked away thinking that I’m arrogant.
But in so many ways, the diagnosis is a blessing. I’m not afraid to express my weaknesses. I have things that I’m good at, and there are some things that I am really bad at. When I own up to my weakness, people feel like they can share their own problems. Yes, it’s exhausting, and I struggle with shame; but I wouldn’t have it any other way. And I wouldn’t want my boy to have it any other way.
Q: Are you ever overwhelmed by the challenge of dealing with the effects of both conditions?
A: The two conditions are not related, but you can understand how they each complicate the other. I’m not only doing the wrong body language, I’m shaking my head as if I’m disagreeing. I’ve been ashamed of this my whole life. I’d like to hide. But I’m convinced that God is using my woundedness. He has given me this (eye) condition, but He has also given me the Asperger’s, which makes me brutally honest. Let’s face it: I’m in radio because I can’t be seen. Asperger’s makes for real honesty – and that can make arresting radio.
Q: In light of your diagnosis, do the events of Easter have new meaning to you?
A: I just love that the Kingdom is all about the upside down story. Easter is the very height of that. It’s the story of a man who lived in an occupied land and was considered illegitimate. He was the victim of racial and geographic discrimination, and harassed by those who thought that they were the insiders and the elite.
That this man ultimately defeated death and is our way of understanding who God really is, that God chose to enter our world this way, is amazing.
I think that I can understand 2 Corinthians 12 when it reminds us that in our weakness, He is made strong. As we live out that reality, He gets the credit. If a weak person yields, He advances. And that’s good News. God uses the humble, the seemingly weak.
Q: You make us believe that you don’t think of your recent diagnosis as a setback, but as a gift. When you talk to people who are struggling financially, emotionally, or physically, how can you encourage them?
A: I used to think about being a missionary in some foreign field. There are struggles that come with that. As it is, we all have struggles, and any disciple of Jesus is, by nature, a missionary. This is my field, and I have to interact with the culture, the language, the challenges of this place – where I am. Not everyone has my particular struggles, but everyone’s got issues, and God uses these challenges. Again, your weakness equals His story. I really think it’s worth it. I can tell you, it’s worth it.
Q: How do you define the Good News that Christ came to proclaim?
A: The kingdom is here, it is among us, and eventually it will be totally here. People often talk about Jesus’ sacrifice for our individual sins, and His resurrection as the totality of the Good News. I know that’s stunningly significant, but the Good News goes even further. The Bible says that Jesus sent people out to share the Good News before He was resurrected. We might ask ourselves, “So what was that News about?”
The truth is, God is among us. He has not abandoned us. He is going to put things to right. And amazingly, He wants us to be a part of that! To the Jews, the coming of the Kingdom meant a time of plenty – a big feast. There will be a time of no more pain and suffering. Things will be restored and set right. When Jesus healed, when the lame leapt and the deaf heard, people recognized it as the signs of the kingdom among us. This is the Good News of Easter.
As if the behaviors associated with Asperger’s weren’t enough, in a post entitled, “I Just Lost My Last Cool Point,” Hansen writes about the social implications of nystagmus, an eye condition that has plagued him since childhood. Nystagmus causes pronounced eye movement, which in turn causes his head to move involuntarily to compensate. The condition is severe enough that the state of Illinois granted him a full ride to the University of Illinois under a program for disabled students.
He writes, “I tend to forget about it – but not for long. I’m snapped out of forgetfulness, quickly, when the grocery store lady says, ‘What’s the matter with YOU?’ because I’m unwittingly shaking my head ‘no.’ This happens all the time.”
It would be a mistake to lump Hansen into a category labeled “brooding” or “morose.” When last heard, Mornings with Brant was actively soliciting listeners’ votes on an extraordinary bracket system that pits “that special feeling when you’re out on the sea alone” against “a Wendy’s Frosty.” No one who has visited Club Awesome on Fridays would suggest that Hansen is suffering the lack of humor often cited as a symptom of Asperger’s syndrome.
For further reading on Asperger’s syndrome check out: Solutions for Adults with Asperger’s Syndrome by Juanita P. Lovett, The Complete Guide to Asperger’s by Tony Attwood and Socially Curious and Curiously Social by Michelle Garcia Winner and Pamela Crooke. For online resources, visit aspergersyndrome.org.