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 make a logical statement that sounds true but there are all kinds of variables one also has to read that may change the value of the statement from true to false – or to “true but only on alternate Tuesdays”. Or true for cute guys but sure as hell not for you. 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 and/or contextual. Intent is implied far more often than explicitly stated. 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. You are only catching the face value of a statement and missing the actual intent.
Even in writing it is assumed one is using all the same social constructs as everyone else. Unless I am writing on a niche topic, I’ll probably offend a lot of people if I am completely honest. At least in writing, there is time to process and I am alone. Nobody right there pressuring me or nagging me about something that will be clarified in the 5th draft.
When I was a young boy, I had a powerful intellect but very low emotional intelligence. I was clumsy. I disliked the feel of fabric on my skin. Very picky eater. A stickler for correct answers but missing the greater truths. Couldn’t function in noisy and chaotic situations. Slow to formulate responses in conversations, I’d vapor lock completely in highly emotional situations. Like getting yelled at. Always bouncing or thrumming my fingers or tapping my feet. (Irritates the hell out of some people.) Today that is called “stimming”.
And that still describes me today, just not in capital letters and bold typeface as it did then.
‘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 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 – or just creepy – because they didn’t learn what signals to send or how to send them 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. Being “on the spectrum” is often combined with ADD, anxiety and clinical depression.
Autism is not that uncommon. It is likely that one in forty people is somewhere “on the spectrum” and many Aspies are not detected, particularly females. They grow up being told they are nerds and geeks if they are lucky, or antisocial or even retarded if they are not. Probably more have some of the traits but they are muffled enough to fit in with neurotypical world unnoticed.
Dropping the “Asperger” diagnosis is, IMHO, a mistake, even if one thinks it to be a part of a larger spectrum. There is a qualitative difference. Light also exists on a spectrum, yet it is realistic and practical to speak of red and blue and green as qualitatively different colors, not just as being “on the spectrum”.
Aspies commonly 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. 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 redefinition 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 thimerosal 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 occasion, 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. Hell, I hadn’t heard of it until my 50s.
My behavior was written off as being stupid, lazy, and being a “bad” boy. A creep. Or a nerd, back when being a nerd got you teased and tortured. 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.
I have probably 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. (An actual event.) 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. (Also an actual event.) Again, while frantic men were trying to tear the passenger side door off and failing.
Then, on a different occasion, 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 resumed raising the antenna. The 40 ft, 100 lb. antenna fell in the process 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.
In the only IQ test I’ve ever taken, I tested out at 159. 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.
“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”.