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It’s Not About You — Or Me (A Representative Anecdote)

Disclaimer: It’s not about you. Or me. I wrote this and published it in advance a week ago. So any resonance you might see is simply providential, and I’m leaving it as it stands.

This is a representative anecdote demonstrating the larger problem I’m still dancing around.

I’ve got Asperger’s Syndrome. There. I said it.

And before you proceed to pat me on the head and tell me how wrong and deluded and silly I am, just stop. I’ve heard it all even if it’s not directed at me exactly. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I seem too “normal” to you. You know people who really have it, and they are really, really weird (like that makes me feel better!). No Aspie goes into the Humanities anyway; they are all in the hard sciences. Mm-kay. As long as you’ve got it all figured out.

The fact is that you’re not in my head. The fact is that it looks different for women than men, different for adults than children. The fact is that a lot of women don’t figure this out until their forties. The fact is that we all learn to cope in time.

What is it anyway? Well, it’s a kind of high-functioning Autism. Yeah, I know. The big-A is rather scary. But while Auties have a lot of language difficulties, Aspies do pretty well with verbal communication. It’s nonverbal communication — social cues — that Aspies completely miss. With early intervention and good teachers, an Autistic child will “grow” to be classified as Asperger’s in adulthood. Some define Aspergers as an extreme male brain, so when a woman has it, it seems like she’s just more masculine in her read on social conventions.

It’s a spectrum, you see. Part of the neurological diversity that has always existed in the human condition. You might even be “on the spectrum.” Most creative people are.

Glenn Gould was an Aspie. Some think Thomas Jefferson was. Frasier Crane. Bill Gates. Dan Akyroyd. Nearly every character on The Big Bang Theory has some variation on Aspergers. Some even call it the “Mr. Spock” syndrome. Some think that all cats have Aspergers.

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What does it all mean?

It means that if I’m having a conversation with you, I can look at you intently while you’re talking but once the conversation ball is in my court, I can’t make eye contact if my life depended on it. I really can’t think when I’m looking at you — too much data.

It means that at a party, I’ll probably be playing with some stim toy while everyone’s talking. I used to have a set of stim toys on my desk to play with during long conversations.

It means that if I have to host a party and you ask me what you can bring, I will blink and stare and really have no idea what to tell you.

It means I bite my lip a lot when I’m tense.

It means that while you’re talking, I will stare at your sweater (especially a Fair Isle or an Aran) and think about those stitches. I’m listening. Really. But knitting is so fascinating. It’s like something has to occupy that part of my brain while my ears are working too.

It means that while we’re talking on the phone, I’m playing cyber-solitaire.

It means I really, really hate the phone. Hate it. I’ll answer it if I have to, but I’d rather talk face-to-face or write you a note. And the poor back-and-forth-response-time of the cell phone drives me insane because I have trouble with the nonverbal cues anyway that tell me when it’s my turn to talk. Mess with that and I practically have to take a nap after a cell phone call.

It means I’m not good with apologies. Not that I don’t want to apologize. I just don’t pick up on the cues that I’m supposed to apologize. So I either over-apologize or never apologize.

It means that I feel what you’re feeling very deeply — to an almost uncomfortable and cloying level. Conventional wisdom says that Aspies don’t feel empathy. That’s actually being proven untrue. It’s that we feel such intense empathy that we get sensory overload and we shut down.

It means that if you ask me where the pot holders are in my kitchen, it would be easier for me to show you than tell you. It’s like the task skips the verbal part of brain. It goes right from my fingers to my brain and never hits my mouth. So it’s not that I don’t want to tell you. It’s not that I’m being proprietary or selfish. I just have a really hard time spitting it out.

It means I have a hard time asking for help.

It means that if I have to buy toothpaste for Grant, I’ll never buy the right brand even though he just told me the exact description 30 minutes earlier. I don’t get verbal instructions well at all.

It means that I don’t really do well with handling the finances. I have poor executive function.

It means that I think certain colors have a smell. To the point that I plan what soap I use based on what color I’m wearing.

It means I learned to swim from a book.

It means that I really don’t like fiction. I don’t know why either. But . . . I just don’t.

It means that I am intensely interested in a few things. Really. Obsessed even. Deeply. And I’ll voraciously read everything on that topic. Nothing can stop that interest until it just dies down. It will dissipate eventually. But if you happen to ask me a question about that interest, I’ll only tentatively begin to answer because . . . well, I scare people with the obsession. I sound more like Cliff Clavin than I want to admit.

It means that I learned to read at age two.

It means that my “playing” in childhood looked more like sorting.

It means I have an inordinate attachment to things. My Barbies. My Fisher Price toys.

It means I intellectualize everything.

It means that I’m regularly exhausted from intellectualizing every interaction. That’s a lot of study! And it wears me out.

It means that I could easily live in-between my own ears.

It means I over-react or under-react. I talk too loudly or too quietly. I gesture too little or too much. I don’t read the appropriate quantity and quality of nonverbals well.

It means that I’m sensitive. Over-sensitive even. But I have a hard time expressing it, so I work very, very hard at it until I can spit it out.

It means I have really awful handwriting. My signature has degenerated into a mess. My last name looks like “Iwug.”

It means that this is exactly why I chose “public speaking” to study because learning the social cues on an intellectual level might help me cope on a personal level. That’s actually pretty typical since Aspies over-intellectualize everything. That’s also that part of the living-between-my-own-ears problem.

It means that I am bent toward solitude.

It means I like you. A lot. But sometimes you might think my nonverbals are communicating the opposite.

It means that God has neurologically wired me to be a whistle-blower. Yes, it’s true. The great-Aspie-guru Tony Attwood has surmised that all whistle-blowers are on the spectrum. We aspire to adhere to a set of values, and when those values are missed, we are genuinely disturbed. Most “neuro-typicals” are more concerned with social ties than values, and so they will ignore value-infraction in order to “be with” others. Aspies don’t. The values are more important. So we speak out. And uh . . . well, you know the rest of the story.

It means I write paragraphs like that one above to over-explain everything. I talk about myself like a textbook. That’s weird! It’s a coping mechanism. I might talk about you like that, too, and get you really annoyed.

It means I can be pretty clueless. It means that Grant has to say, “Honey! No!!” Or “Hey — stop flailing.” or “Yo! I don’t want to hear any more about that.” Oh! Okay. Didn’t realize that.

Steve Brown challenges us to ask God to show us ourselves — kiss that demon on the lips! When I picked up Tony Attwood’s “bible” on Asperger’s syndrome this summer, I was reading about that “demon.” It was all written right there. In clinical language.

And writing this all out here like this is kissing that “demon.”

I’m not alone at least. My grandmother was probably an Aspie. Others in the family too. To the point that watching an extended family dinner is kind of . . . well, comical. We Aspies sit there while the neuro-typicals carry the conversation. There’s a lot of quiet staring and stimming. Until an interest is mentioned — religion, politics, knitting, dog breeds, or (heaven forbid you unwittingly mention this) rhetoric — and BOOM! We talk! With all the passion and intensity you’d see in the House of Commons. We argue. We gesture. We speak too loudly. We scare the typicals. And then we relax. It’s like touch football for us. Aaaaaahhhhh . . . so nice. What fun.

It means also that I’ve already jabbered on too long, and I’ve bored you to tears. Aspies don’t read the social cues to quit either. So I’ll save my larger point for another post.

But for now, I’ll say this — it all means that I need you. I do. Even though solitude is natural to me, even though I may seem to be saying “I want to be alone!” I still need you.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tojjWQvlPN8[/youtube]

But it also means that you need me. Even if you don’t like me very much. I’m like the heel spur on the right heel (wing) of the Body. I’m there. I’m bone of your bone. And I’m the reminder that you have been neglecting your shoes, that you need to buy a custom orthotic, and you need to put your feet up at the end of the day. And surgery to remove me will only hurt your entire foot worse. . . . No, you have to learn to live with me because ignoring me makes your cortisol level rise to uncomfortable levels. Change your habits ’cause they are killing you — stop the power walking and take up swimming.

Aren’t you glad? 😉

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.

I Corinthians 12: 21-26

17 thoughts on “It’s Not About You — Or Me (A Representative Anecdote)

  1. Thank you so much for being vulnerable and sharing this. I have often thought that I would like to meet you:) I know we don’t always agree but I admire your willingness to stand up and speak out. I really love to discuss things and figure out where the differences are and why I agree or don’t and you blog has been a place I could do that- I am thankful for that.
    I wish I knew how to do a quote b/c your comment on the Neurotypicals being more concerned with social ties than values really stood out to me. I wouldn’t call myself a fundamentalist at all- in fact I am really not sure what I would call myself other than a Christian saved by grace-but I continue to go to my church which would be classified fundamentalist b/c I so value the relationships that I stay. I see so much good in the people I call friends- I love them and I still see so much good- so I stay. It makes more sense to me now why I can stay but you could not. I don’t know the path God will choose for me and if that includes leaving in the future. Anyway this is getting off track from the point of your post- but I think I am starting to get more why you left and why you say what you do and why I am still here in the movement- not always in lock step but not willing to leave.

  2. I love this post, because it’s accessible and honest.

    We do all need each other. The “heel spur” comment made me laugh. 😉

    Sometimes I wonder if labeling all the behaviors not considered “normal” just derails us from appreciating what IS so wonderful about the many different kinds of people on this planet. Yay for the Aspies. You keep our thoughts on track. You remind us that not everyone wants to be overwhelmed with verbal information. You help people-not-like-you get over the stuck-up idea that you need to be “like them” when you talk or listen or interact.

    I have certainly taught students with some of these characteristics. If I ever get to teach a “full-blown Aspie” you can guarantee I’ll be pulling this post out as a reference. Imagine how horrible we teachers make our classrooms (accidentally) when we assume all kids need to interact or learn the same way!

  3. Thank you for your brutal honesty.

    Being “different” in a fundy church is rough. I have dyslexia and auditory-processing-disorder. Sometimes I don’t hear “words” at all, it’s all gibberish so I have to watch people’s lips. I can’t judge people’s body language and I used to sound like I had a speech disorder (before I began training myself with proper diction).

    The most horrible experience that I’ve ever had was playing Taboo with some church people. The pastor creamed me and completely ignored that I was stuttering and having problems reading the card. I tried to tactfully say something later, but I it was obvious they didn’t believe me and they said something about me being anti-social.

    So…

    Rock On, Camille! Christians (this includes some Fundies I know…) need to learn that we are saved, sanctified children of God and the problems we have are NOT sins!

    😀

  4. So why is not liking fiction an asperger’s thing? I’m genuinely curious — I have a lot of these characteristics, and I really don’t care for most fiction either. (though I know I don’t have asperger’s, or at least if I do, my psychiatrist hasn’t told me)

    1. Hey, Jen!!

      Attwood (50) cites the AAA listing of “impairments in imagination”:

      1) Lack of varied, spontaneous make believe play appropriate to developmental level.

      2) Inability to tell, write or generate spontaneous, unscripted or unplagiarised fiction.

      3) Either a lack of interest in fiction (written, or drama) appropriate to developmental level or interest in fiction is restricted to its possible basis in fact (e.g. science fiction, history, technical aspects of film).

      They theorize that it’s because Aspies don’t *get* nonverbals. I don’t know if that’s it for me or not. Personally, it feels like I’m entering another planet that I don’t get. Like when you walk into an asian market or something and everything’s just a different color or a different place with a different set of letters. It makes me tired. Sometimes I just don’t want to make the effort.

      Also — I’ve picked up too many books that were terrible, and it was miserable to finish. But I *had* to finish. I HAD to. . . .

      When I do find a fiction book I like, I won’t put it down. I have to conquer it. That’s exhausting too.

      I don’t feel that way about nonfiction. It feels more just on an even keel. You enter, you leave. No readjustment of worlds. It just is.

      My dad hates fiction too. HATES it. Despises it.

      1. While I don’t know if I have Aspies (never even heard of it until I read this), I definitely saw *a lot* of myself in this post (minus the whole colors thing). I know that for me to like fiction it must be believable, in the sense that the characters act in realistic ways, and in the sense that the world created by the author acts consistently according to whatever laws the fictional world is under. That’s why I can *love* books and movies such as _Lord of the Rings_ and _Harry Potter_, but can laugh my way and roll my eyes through movies like _A Walk to Remember_ because “no one acts like that!” I’ve found that what little fiction I like tends to fall into the sci-fi/fantasy genre, which I actually find more realistic than most novels written about *this* world. I definitely know what it’s like to force myself to finish a novel I despise, though I have been learning to just put the book down (saves me a lot of energy this way!) Like you, I, too, prefer nonfiction. The books I’m reading for fun right now (i.e. those books *not* related to my research) include Calvin’s Institutes, Berkhof’s _Systematic Theology_, and _On Being Presbyterian_, and yes, I actually find those books very relaxing, perhaps because I find deep intellectual discussion far more engaging and stimulating than anything else. I once had a friend ask me if I was doing any light reading, and I responded (in all seriousness) with “Why yes, I’ve been reading John Owen.” Got some strange looks for that one!

    2. Oh, and . . . the “unplagiarised fiction” thing . . . That was another point in Attwood’s book that I wanted to crawl under a rock. Creative writing in school drove me nuts. I remember for one series of assignments — I stole “I Love Lucy” episodes. Yes, I admit it. I did. And I got As for it. ::bag over head::

      Sigh. . . .

  5. Wow, thanks for this post. I relate to quite a few of these characteristics. I too am a synesthete–letters & numbers (and months, days of the week, etc.) have colors to me. That’s wild that it is a defined phenomenon! I just figured it was one of my quirks. Anyway, thanks for sharing this.

  6. One more comment: I wonder how many academic types are Aspies. I say that because a lot of those things you described, such as intellectualizing and thinking long and hard on everything, are *crucial* to being an academic. Even the stereotype of the absent-minded, socially-challenged professor (a stereotype that I can relate to all too well!) does seem to fit.

    1. Oh yes. 1/3 of academics are Aspies. It completely makes sense. When you read certain authors or hear legends about their behavior, it completes the circle. Weird bunch. All of us! ;-D

      1. That makes me feel almost normal – seriously! 😀 Reading this post I almost felt like you were describing me. And, for what it’s worth, I can relate to your choice to go into public speaking. Despite the fact (or maybe *because* of the fact) that I’m not very comfortable with verbal communication (I’ll take email over the phone any day), I chose to go into linguistics, mostly because I found that I love studying how and why people communicate the way they do. Granted, my research at the moment involves *written* texts, not spoken, but all the same, my compulsive need to study and over-analyze every aspect of how things work the way they do, along with my general awkwardness in social situations, has led me to a field where I analyze the patterns and rules governing those very social interactions. It just makes more sense to me that way.

  7. I just wanted to say… I liked those toys in your office. It was one of the things that made it easier to talk. You just had ‘fun’ stuff on your desk and shelves. 🙂

  8. Hi, and thank you for a fun and well written post, I was diagnosed with aspergers some years back myself, and I can really see myself in your description, most of it. about the fiction, I love fiction, I write, read and watch tons of fiction and I want more.
    thanks again for a perfect post, I will redirect my friends and family to your site, when they need more knowledge. merry christmas from Denmark.

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