What the hell am I?
I am a Martian. I look around at these strange alien people. Their customs are a mystery to me. Their behavior defies logic. They speak and write but their most important communication is encrypted. They say things but I can’t trust what they say.
They’ll say y=x+1 but never give you the value of y or x, assuming I know the secret code to understanding those values. I get a line for the answer but they expect a point. They’ll say the logical value of a statement = “true” but there are all kinds of invisible nonverbal, contextual and environmental variables one also has to read that may change the value of the statement to false. If you don’t know the secret code, if you can’t read the variables, you are obviously an outsider and weird. Not fun except to play jokes on.
It has been said that 90% of interpersonal communications is in some way nonverbal. It is a cruel world when you can’t decipher much of the rest of the 90%. Attempting to communicate using that remaining 10% can be terrifying. It will be assumed that you are using the full spectrum of communications. Either the rest of it is incoherent noise, making you an idiot or you are deliberately concealing the nonverbal content. Scary.
Even in writing it is assumed one is using all the same social constructs as everyone else. Unless one is writing on a niche topic, you’ll probably offend a lot of people. At least in writing, there is time to process and I am alone. Nobody right there pressuring me.
I am prone to joining oddball causes just because it feels right. I turn around and refuse to become part of the leadership. Too much confrontation, not a snappy talker. I’ll happily support you from the back of the pack.
TMI can also be a big problem. My filter isn’t in very good working order. I am prone to blurting out things without thought, an irony for someone who takes so long to answer a question. What appears ordinary and obvious to me is inappropriate or controversial to others. Maybe even creepy.
Person confronts me over atypical behavior or behavior that doesn’t meet their standards. Demands to know what I have to say for myself. My brain is empty. Its contents vanished the moment confrontation became a threat. I cannot think of anything to say. I am mentally vapor locked. In the language of this strange world, that means I’m either confessing to guilt or I am pathologically uninterested in the challenge.
Neither is true and given a few minutes to collect my thoughts I could offer an explanation. In this world, quick replies are demanded. My wife will ask me to explain something and often get angry or make fun of me because I’ll say something, pause for a second and then continue with the next stage of the explanation. She will often interrupt part of the way thru with, “What does that have to do with anything?”
“If you’d stop interrupting me in the middle of the explanation, it would make sense.”
“You are too slow and I want the answer now, not when you work up to it.”
“But without the initial information, the answer doesn’t make any sense.”
My fault, I guess. I have to speak slowly or my tongue gets tied up. I pause to allow myself to think. I organize my thoughts like a textbook.
I’m so f*cking clumsy, I failed at every sport we had so badly, my PE teacher told me I was worthless in front of the entire gym class. What was worse is that this was not news to them and something I had already internalized. I guess it wasn’t so bad after all..
When I try to get a job, it just doesn’t work out well. I’ve been told I did well in interviews but… I didn’t make enough eye contact or made too much eye contact. I fussed too much or didn’t speak well. When I get a job, I hide in my cubicle doing my job. Socializing with other people isn’t something I do well. It takes years to open up and then it is just a few people. This does nothing good for your prospects for promotion.
No, I don’t want to go to your party. A bunch of people I have nothing in common with. I don’t do small talk. (Actually, the word is can’t.) I don’t like being confined and I don’t like all the noise. If you can guarantee someone will be there who thinks and talks like I do, I’ll go. But don’t be surprised if I hide in a corner and suck down our data plan and don’t be surprised if I take a long walk while you’re doing your social thing. (Worst case scenario: A bunch of parents bringing their children to Chucky-Cheese for a party and I am “expected” to participate.)
Alone is a good thing. Alone doesn’t hurt or get you in trouble or get demands made on you. Long walks far away from judgmental humans are good for Martians. Alone lets your mind go free and wander where it will. A little bit of foot tapping or finger thrumming never hurt anyone. Unless someone notices and complains.
Pets are great. I’m never confused by what an animal does. They are never confused about what I want. We don’t criticize or try to second guess each other. It is a match made in heaven. Watching anime is a bit like that too. I recognize “me” in a lot of characters. Understanding what is going on doesn’t require a degree in deciphering body language and innuendo.
As a child, I was considered to be “at fault” for all my social shortcomings. It is easy to say that I’m not at fault for anything but saying it doesn’t change the reality I live in. “Free to be me!” doesn’t mean that anyone appreciates you for your uniqueness. They just won’t institutionalize you for it.
Having a label still doesn’t answer the question of what I am.
‘Asperger’s syndrome is considered by many in the US to be the same as high functioning autism. The DSM-5 classifies it this way. The World Health Organisation differs and still thinks the Asperger classification to be useful.
I prefer the term Asperger’s simply because a person afflicted with it can be referred to as an Aspie. It rolls off the tongue much better than “having ASD” or “being on the spectrum”. (Europe still thinks the term is useful.) It also gives an idea of about where on the spectrum you are. The minute most people hear the word “autism” everything else you’ve just said is erased and all that sticks is the picture of Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man.
The traits include an inability to read social signals. Things like body posture, facial expression, vocal intonation, subtext, innuendo, sarcasm and innumerable other clues that tell far more than words do are often lost (to varying degrees) on a young Aspie. Who is saying it and where, why, when, and how also change the meaning of what is said and this contextual information is lost on an Aspie. Much of this is instinctive in “normal” people and the rest is learned quickly as a part of “normal” socialization.
At the same time, our young Aspie may seem like he/she is mean or cruel because they
didn’t learn how to send all those signals effectively. They may appear disinterested or even cold because they are busy thinking while everyone else is actively doing. Or they may send confused and uncoordinated signals without awareness of their social unacceptability. This gets them laughed at, ridiculed or, even feared.
An Aspie may hear a question or statement and then there will be a long pause to formulate a response. My wife hates that in me.
I was in 9th-grade before I realized the importance of grooming procedures like brushing teeth and washing and combing hair. Or developed enough fashion awareness not to mix plaids and stripes. This would have been considered due to my own stupidity, of course.
Other traits include the inability to deal with loud noises or the babble of many voices at once. The chaos of crowds and parties is painful. It is often combined with ADD, anxiety and clinical depression.
Asperger’s is uncommon. One in forty people has Asperger’s. Probably more have some of the traits but they are muffled enough to fit in with neurotypical world unnoticed.
About half of all Aspies are never diagnosed. They grow up being told they are nerds and geeks if they are lucky, antisocial or even retarded if they are not. (Most nerds, geeks and antisocials are not “on the spectrum”. You need a real diagnosis to know.)
Aspies also suffer from lousy proprioception, eye-hand coordination, and balance. They could do well in sports like weightlifting, track, or shooting, that don’t require much in terms of agility. But social pariahs rarely get the assistance they need, even in areas where they could do well. They may remain discouraged, physically weak and unathletic. I was in my mid-20s before I discovered what sports I could be good at. Many never do.
Without support, it is a harsh life. I know this because that’s what I am, an Aspie man. Women have a slightly different set of symptoms. It doesn’t doom you to a life of rejection but it is a lifetime struggle. If you have average or better IQ, you can adapt and learn to think your way through what doesn’t come naturally. Less fortunate Aspies will need more help.
The root cause is something genetic, not unloving parents, and not infinitesimal doses of thimerosal in vaccinations. In the past, blaming Mommy for being too cold was the easy way out for something shrinks didn’t understand. And today, life is much easier if you can hate on corporate pharma – rather than accept that the cause is in your own genes. Fraudsters know that and will happily file lawsuits or sell you snake oil to profit from it.
There appear to be a large number of genes that could contribute to autism. There are also epigenetic factors that could play a role. No two autistic individuals manifest exactly the same. A spectrum does not have distinct boundaries. ASD ranges from almost undetectable to complete disability. There is a saying, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”
The redefintion of autism from a distinct disorder to a broad spectrum of traits has also dramatically increased diagnoses. The bigger the umbrella, the more people fit under it. Also we are actively looking more for it today. The more you look for something, the more you are likely to find.
What we do know is that thimerisol has nothing to do with it. All those autistic children in Silicone Valley aren’t part of an epidemic. People on the functional end of the spectrum have a high propensity for science and engineering as professions. Silicon Valley created an unprecedented density of male and female technogeeks. Concentrate the genes in a small area and you’ll get more of the results of those genes in that same area.
If I put on my Aspie “goggles” I can see traces of it everywhere. But it really isn’t. Maybe one in 40 people, at most, legitimately belong “on the spectrum”. I have goggles for every occaision, including nudie goggles. Anime is full of characters who have a few of the traits but would never get diagnosed as such.
When I was young, nobody had ever heard of it. My behavior was written off as being stupid, lazy, and being a “bad” boy. I had to work on my symptoms on my own. Decades of experience taught me how to compensate, to use what I had (a high IQ) to mimic what I had not (intuitive social skills). I finally figured out I was an Aspie when I was 59. It explained many things but, of course, couldn’t fix them. I am still a stranger in a strange land.
Has it ever benefitted me? In some ways. Long ago it helped get me into a rare “non-degreed engineer” slot at the highly classified Lockheed “Skunkworks“. Yet, overall it has caused far more doors to be closed to me than opened.
It may (or may not) be why I never saw any purpose or use for wearing clothing, (other than environmental protection) even though I still had to wear it. It seemed illogical. More to the point, it felt like authoritarianism run amok. Consequently, I was free to enjoy nudity without the emotional baggage most people carry about nakedness – even if I knew I had to (reluctantly) hide it. Is that a good thing?
Unexpected public nudity is also a common “issue” with people a bit farther down “the spectrum”. Perhaps I had just enough of a filter to keep it under wraps?
I have been in an unusual number of emergencies, life and death situations. Other people are running around trying this and that and emoting all over the place. I am terrible at emoting – and noisy chaos grates on me. In an emergency, I withdraw, put my thinking hat on, and reach a conclusion. While I am doing that, no doubt anyone who looks at me thinks I am utterly useless. Maybe locked in panic or confusion or just disinterested.
Then I walk over, pick up the ladder that had fallen off the truck and use it to lever the truck off the victim that 4 strong men had been unable to budge. Or coax a woman who thought she was pinned in the passenger seat to slip over to the driver side and out of a wrecked car. Again, while frantic men were trying to tear the passenger side door off and failing.
Then, on the other hand, once I was helping erect a large antenna when I realized it wasn’t properly guyed. I shouted for the crew to stop. They stopped, but when I couldn’t stammer out the reason immediately, they kept on going. The 40 ft, 100 lb. antenna fell and could easily have killed someone. I was informally blamed for not having clearly stated why I thought they should stop. Aspies need time to answer. We have all the information but forming it into coherent speech sometimes takes time. They were idiots for discounting me but that is another staple of Aspie life. One learns to expect to be discounted.
All true stories. Most of the time it sucks. I am not so lucky as the guys in that Asperger-fest, Big Bang Theory. Sheldon has Asperger’s in spades (as did Amy until they decided to soften her image) and all the guys in it have some of the “Aspie” traits. But it is “cute” Asperger’s without the anger and loneliness and self-loathing.
Mr. Spock (Star Trek) was my hero growing up. He didn’t have those miserable emotions that tortured me so much. Being a genuine alien, nobody judged him for being different.
There is no doubt in my mind that if I could’ve traded 60 points of IQ for being a normal, happy kid, I’d have done it in a heartbeat. I still believe that would be a good bargain, even today. Such trades cannot be made and I weep for it.
“Kimi ni Todoke” is an anime about a girl with an almost textbook case of Aspergers. I blogged about it once.
If you have the time and are interested, this is a great article on why anime appeals so strongly to people “on the spectrum”.