I've drafted umpteen lead-ins for that, introductions, abstracts. But the best thing, I think, is to just say it, like ripping off a band aid.
It's a bit like Coming Out, I suspect. It is the public utterance of a phrase which at the same time changes nothing, and changes everything. I am the same person I was yesterday, but I have just redefined who and what I am.
I know many of my friends have heard me say it before, but they may have thought it merely a joke, so let me just make it clear and unequivocal: it is not a joke, it is a simple statement: I am an Aspie.
No, I have not seen a doctor about this. But for every list of symptoms I see, it is my biography. When there is a list with ‘if you say yes to two or more of these statements’, and I can honestly say ‘yes’ to all of them. When i have done online tests for Asperger's, I score well into the ‘practically crippled’ range, well outside any hint of gray area or doubt.
Some of you may not know what that means. You may have seen the Aspie on Boston Legal, almost a caricature of a very severe case. You may have seen Temperance Brennan on Bones, whose character veers between medium-severe Aspie and joke, depending on the writer. But that doesn't tell you what Asperger's Syndrome is.
The wiki article looks relatively authoritative... as you would expect if lots of Aspies were going over it with the habitual fine-tooth comb. If that is TL/DR, then the Victorian Dept of Health has a cheat sheet for Aspergers in children and Aspergers as relates to adult diagnosis.
In all of these, I am reading more-or-less a description of my self, and a potted biography. As it turns out, I was an Aspie as a child, but Asperger's wasn't recognised until 1994, by which time I was no longer a child.
But what is it?
Asperger's is an Autism Spectrum disorder, with its own distinct set of symptoms. Notable among these are a deficit in social awareness, combined with the ability to hyperfocus, and almost always combined with an abnormally good linguistic ability.
The social awareness exhibits in various ways: there is anxiety in social situations, which arises quite naturally from an inability to read other people's internal states, and an incomprehension of social rules, explicit or implicit. There is also the tendency to be less attentive to others when they speak, and less able to remember orally delivered instructions. Which infuriates teachers, and is not mitigated when the Aspie tends to be streets ahead of their peers, because they have already read the textbook, and understand it far better than they do the teacher's lecture in any case. Due to the Aspie's typical linguistic skill, hyper focus, and tendency to home in on subjects will absorb our world of interest, not to mention generally higher intelligence, we will have, from childhood, vast amounts of detail on hand on our favourite subjects. And because we don't understand that our interests are not universal, we tend to assume that if you don't know about something, that you will find it as fascinating as we do when you know enough about it. And because we don't recognise the signs that you would rather run away and poke out your eyes with blunt sticks, we will talk about that subject until you begin to share our fascination with it, or until we are physically restrained. This explains our tendency to default to the ‘lecture’ mode of communication.
It also means, due to the social unawareness, that Aspies don't tend to make friends. Children are cruel monsters to those who are different, and after an Aspie has overtures of friendship misunderstood or flat-out rejected after the mumbleth time, they — we — tend to go numb, and convince ourselves that we don't need friends anyway. It doesn't help that Aspies don't get how to keep a friend, either, and can easily alienate the most understanding people. Remember that this was so much harder when I was a child, because there was no explanation for why I didn't along with people: the only common characteristic was me, so it must have been my fault, my failure as a human being. When you have this picture of yourself running in your head for a few years, and are physically unable to see contrary evidence, you can see why most Aspies simply give up trying.
The Aspie bewilderment at others' emotions extends to our own. It's not that we're robots, we still feel all those things, but we have no way of understanding most of it. Aspies typically aren't able to accurately describe their emotions... not even to themselves. Basic emotions, we know what to do with. Anger, lust, anxiety, fear, those aren't subtle emotions, and we haven't learned, or aren't capable of, the techniques for restraining them. So when an Aspie loses is temper, it will be quick and fierce and powerful. Anxiety gnaws like a rat at the guts, over things which might not worry others. And while lust is lust, there has to be someone to exercise that lust with... and the social deficits inherent to Aspergers make that a difficult proposition, even if the Aspie hasn't simply given up trying.
Because we don't — can't — understand other people, then being around other people is a trial, at the best of times. When we have been able to learn the rules, when we know the people involved, when we are alert and comfortable, in the absolute best circumstances, it is still a continual mental effort to interact with people. It is exhausting. It is playing a huge game of speed chess in multiple dimensions, where we know that we don't know the rules, we can't even see most of the other players' pieces, and we don't understand the stakes. And that's at the best of times. When we're tired, when we're nervous, or distracted, or overwhelmed, then we can just stop being able to play that game. I don't know about others, but in my case, I tend to start to shut down: I retreat. In a turbulent crowd, the need to retreat can become violent and overwhelming). In a party, or even at lunch, I can be seen to phase out, to hang my head, and shut everything out until I can get it together enough to stick my head out again.
None of which means that all Aspies are as bad as each other. It's a spectrum disorder. Which means that it is possible to mitigate its effects, some people can learn tricks to hide the condition. Just as a deaf person can learn to lipread, and you mighten't notice until you say something when they're not looking. In the same way, Aspies can consciously learn rules of social interaction, and tricks to make you think they understand you like you understand everyone else. But those tricks are tricks, like lip-reading, and they have to be practiced, when the very act of exposing yourself to the situations where you can practice is stressful at best, terrifying at worst. So the aforementioned chess game is one done while walking a highwire over a calamitous drop. Many may simply never get enough nerve to practice enough. Others are simply unable to comprehend other's behaviour enough to even begin to make the generalisations needed to form those rules. And remember also that Aspies aren't generally good at generalisations, but get lost easily, happily, in detail and specifics.
Because we don't understand emotions, because we can't comprehend the signals you give off, we can quite easily say or do astoundingly rude or hurtful things. And when we are told, or we realise later, what we have done, we are crushed. We don't want to hurt your feelings or insult you, we simply didn't realise the implications of our actions. And even if we learn from it, are able to make the link and avoid doing that ever again, that doesn't mean we don't agonise over it later. I am still tortured by the memory of things I have said, years, decades later. I regret every word. I was playing the game of blindfold mystery chess over a tightrope, and lost. And the memory of those failures is in the back of my mind whenever I try it again. And by ‘it’, I mean: ‘any human interaction’. Catastrophic failure is a big disinhibitor to repeated attempts. “If at first you don't succeed, you probably shouldn't be a fighter pilot.”
It's not just immediate situations, either. I had a girlfriend drop me, after a long relationship, where her complaint was that I ‘wouldn't react’. I didn't know how to react. Not to that, not to anything. This was long before I realised that I might actually have a condition... it was a failure, my failure. I wasn't able to react properly to, well, anything, really. And she had noticed this, without really realising it, and it disturbed her in ways she probably couldn't describe, except that it wasn't her, it was me: I didn't ‘feel’. I did, of course. Her rejection of me still hurts, a marriage (to someone else) and two children later. But in a way, it was also the clearest anyone had seen me to that point. She didn't know what exactly was wrong with me, but she was the first to point out that there was something wrong with me.
My childhood was practically described by the symptoms of childhood Asperger's, except that no-one knew what it was at the time.
You know that irritating kid who never understood he was being brushed off? Who always said the wrong thing, but still managed to be smarter than the rest of the class? Who was reading high-school level books in primary school, but couldn't keep up a conversation? That was me. I was at the bottom of the heap in primary school. I had precisely two friends, through all of primary school. One who moved away, and I haven't heard from since... (I think he was actually very ill, given the times I met him in hospital, and I fear that he has long since died. But I would dearly love to meet him again), and another in later years, whom I haven't seen since my 21st birthday party. That's it. They were the only two patient enough to put up with me. High school was torment for a couple of years. Even in the lunchtime D&D group, I was the one sent out for snacks. It wasn't until I got the hell out of that school, and into a selective entry school that I got out from beneath the bottom rung, and it wasn't until I met a similar bunch of misfits that I developed actual friends. Where I met usuakari. Melbourne High may have saved my life.
But on top of all that, being filled with emotions we can't adequately describe, let alone comprehend or deal with, ostracised, isolated, scared, stressed, is it any wonder that most Aspies are also Depressives? And to rub it in, we are simultaneously gifted with this almost secondary illness, and robbed of the ability to adequately deal with it. Which goes a long way to explaining why my coping methods are all intellectual, whether they are reasoning through it, or meditation, or setting up a bunker and warning signs, and waiting it out.
So. With hopefully a minimum of ‘woe is me!’ whingeing, that is my coming out. I am an Aspie. Not ‘I have Asperger's’: that is too much like this is something which can be cured. No. I am an Aspie: it is a large part of who I am. It has its benefits. I can put focus on details which puts many to shame. I have an almost abnormally good linguistic skill, even if I can't process auditory information properly. (If you want me to remember something, show it to me in writing or on paper. If you tell me, I simply won't remember.) But still, I am trapped in a world of aliens. If I look blankly at you, it's because I have no idea what you are thinking, and are trying desperately to figure out how I should respond. I will fuck it up. I will get eye contact wrong, too much or too little. I will say inappropriate things. I will lose my temper at the drop of a hat. I will remain a minefield of information (take one wrong step, and I'll take your leg off with facts).
There's not much I can do about it.
But for all I joke about it, it is also a plain fact. I am an Aspie, and that has consequences. For good or ill, I'm owning them. So, this coming out essay is as much an apologia as exegesis. I have other observations and theories about Aspergers, but this is already unwieldy, and I shall give those lectures another day.
But for now, tomorrow I turn 36 years old, and I am an Aspie.
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