ASPERGER’S SYNDROME AND ME
A while back my friend Sandee, who is a special education teacher and is therefore trained to observe emotional disturbances in children, asked me if I have Asperger’s Syndrome. She had been watching my behavioral patterns and reactions to stimuli for a while and thought I showed several of the major symptoms. I had never even heard of it, but I looked it up and agreed that it certainly sounded like me. In January 2008, I saw a professional psychologist who confirmed that I have Asperger’s Syndrome. In short, I have had a form of autism all my life and never even realized it.
While on one hand this news is disquieting—how many other things about myself don’t I know?—on the other hand, it comes as a relief. Knowing that I have Asperger’s is the Rosetta Stone to understanding my personality. I finally understand some of my stranger habits and mental quirks. For example:
* I have a hard time reading other people’s emotions based on non-verbal cues, such as facial expressions. It also means I usually don’t notice if women flirt in a subtle way with me. So, ladies, if you think I’m clueless--it’s because I am!
* I tend to be socially inept (though not always). I am not an unsociable misanthrope, but have a large number of acquaintances and few very close friends. It goes without saying that I tend to avoid the dating scene.
* I usually have great difficulty making small talk with strangers—or even friends, especially if I haven‘t seen them in a while. One of the dead giveaways that I am slightly autistic is my problem maintaining eye contact with people when conversing. No doubt it has led many people to think I’m a shifty-eyed liar.
* I loathe crowded places; therefore I tend to avoid social events at all costs. (As my friends of long standing will attest, it is like pulling teeth to get me to attend parties, concerts, or movies.) I will attend if I absolutely have to, but I don’t enjoy myself unless I am with trusted friends and tend to leave early in any case. Even if I go somewhere and have a good time, I’m still reluctant to do it again. However, this wish to avoid crowds does not mean I am flatly antisocial on an individual level. I rarely seek people out, but if approached I am friendly enough.
* I tend to like routines (such as the obsessive, almost surreal amounts of research I do for my books, not to mention the long lonely hours required to do the actual writing, all of which constitutes a “fun time” to me) and can become highly resentful if the routines get disrupted for any reason.
* I need lots more “alone time” than the average human. In fact, I have a marked tendency to withdraw into myself on occasion. Unfortunately, people sometimes misinterpret this to mean that I am angry with them or bored.
* Because of the need for “alone time,” I can only stand to be around other people for so long (ranging from a few minutes to a few hours, depending on my mood) before I start feeling anxious, twitchy, and beyond my comfort zone. I call it “getting peopled out.” Tip for people who deal with “Aspies”: When someone with Asperger’s hints or tells you outright that he needs to leave or get away, let him go immediately and don’t try to detain him. Inwardly he is becoming more uncomfortable by the moment, perhaps something like a smoker who craves a nicotine fix. Remember, it’s nothing personal!
* I have a tendency toward obsessive-compulsiveness (mild in my case, thank God).
* I tend to be more comfortable writing than talking in person or on the phone. I almost never call anyone unless I absolutely have to. My friends will testify that while I am always happy to hear from them, I very seldom call them.
Now that I know the name of the culprit, I detect its fingerprints everywhere in my life history. I can see its influence on how I have responded to certain people and situations in my past, and also how it affects my writing, which tends to be fact-based rather than strictly imaginative. Asperger’s even explains the difficulty I have sleeping and the constant depression that plagued every waking minute of my teens and twenties, and which mysteriously vanished when I reached my early thirties and has never returned. (The psychologist explained that it was probably around that time that I finally got accustomed to the effect Asperger’s was having on my personality and worldview.)
So what is the treatment, you ask? There is none! It can’t be treated with drugs or therapy, so I’ll be the way I am the rest of my life. On the other hand, as the psychologist noted, I make my living by addressing groups when I teach and making public speeches, which indicates that I have taught myself to live with the disorder to some degree.
I don’t want to give the impression that Asperger’s is all bad. If you must have a mental disorder, it is the one to have. It is mild and not debilitating (except in a social way), and can be downright advantageous. In many cases it actually paves the way to success because the typical Aspie is a hard worker and becomes so obsessed with one thing that he becomes an expert at it.
Other positive aspects of Asperger’s:
Aspies just love their routines, which many people find annoying, but the positive spin is that they are very dependable.
Folks with Asperger’s often have a childlike quality which at least some people find appealing. Not surprisingly, many Aspies get along famously with children.
Aspies are often slightly (or even severely) obsessive-compulsive, so maybe you can get one to clean your house for you.
Aspies find it difficult to make small talk. So if you can engage in free and flowing conversation with someone who has it, then you know for certain he is truly comfortable with you and not just faking it.
Aspies hate crowded places, so if you ever make a fool of yourself at a party, your Aspie friends probably won’t be there to see it and laugh at you.
As one of my friends puts it: Aspies are “the least likely of all males to be caught in a titty bar.”
Aspies usually don’t recognize subtle flirtatious behavior in others. That means we tend to have miserable love lives, but there is a positive way to look at it: we stay out of romantic trouble more than most people.
Best of all, Aspies have an abiding and doglike sense of loyalty, even to the point of absurdity. If you make friends with an Aspie, he/she is likely going to be your friend for life.