Thursday, August 27, 2009

Life from the Outside: Reflecting on Aspie Tendencies

Today I got a message from Amazon in my e-mail, apprising me of a new book coming out in a few weeks. I get these messages all of the time, and sometimes I order one. This book is called Parallel Play: Growing Up with Undiagnosed Asperger's by Tim Page, and after reading John Elder Robinson's review of it (on the Amazon page linked above) I ordered it.

In part, Robinson said:

"Tim says he’s lived life as an outsider, and that’s exactly how I feel too. As a result, even though I’ve grown up to find commercial success, happiness often eludes me. Within minutes of meeting Tim, it was clear he felt the same. Neurotypical people try to welcome us into their world, but Asperger’s blinds us to the olive branches of friendship they proffer. They even shake the leaves in front of our faces, but we just gaze, impassive and oblivious. People assume we’ve rejected them, but in truth we want their friendship and acceptance with every fiber of our being. That’s the heartbreak of it." (From the review linked above).

That's the heartbreak of it.

As some of my readers know, I am raising a son with diagnosed AS.
AS is primarily genetic in origin, although there most likely are environmental triggers that influence the severity of the disorder and the particular symptoms manifested.
So the Boychick's AS had to come from somewhere, and although I believe his biological father also has AS, I have also come to understand that I manifest the characteristics also. I have taken Simon Baron-Cohen's AQ Test several times, and I have always scored above 32, and usually around 40 points. And although I have no formal diagnosis, I believe that if the diagnosis had existed when I was a child, I would have met the criteria.

Though as an adult I function reasonably well in some social situations, they take a lot of internal energy. I am well aware of my own internal awkwardness, and missed social cues. I spend many hours in bed at night reviewing the social gaffs of the day.

Last night was one of those nights. At a meeting of a 9-12 group I am part of, my intention was to ask for the group's support and involvment in the Continental Congress, because I want to go as a delegate. I have been working on this since March, but as soon as I brought it up to the group, one of the more dominant female members immediately decided that "we should send" one of the other members. She had it all planned out while I was still talking about the history of the Continental Congress of 1774 and how it relates to what we are doing.
I had not clearly communicated with the group, probably because for me, the whole history is more fascinating and I wanted to work up to what I was asking.

My immediate reaction was disappointment.
I've been working hard on this and I wanted the group's support.
I heard this more dominant woman saying "you should go, C." because C. could speak well and knew a lot.
And these things are true.

I thought of all my education, all my reading. All the ideas I would like to share. I thought of Thomas Jefferson*, who was also an awkward speaker, although he was a good writer. I, too, am a better writer than speaker.I thought of a lot of things, and my social awkwardness was that while I was trying to frame how to respond, I blurted out something just to keep myself in the conversation. Since my mind was elsewhere, I can't even remember the words I blurted out. But I did realize that it was the wrong thing to say.

*Jefferson is an example of a historical figure who demonstrated most of the symptoms of AS. Others who are thought to have had AS include Albert Einstein, Motzart, and the pianist Glenn Gould.

So, in my social blindness, I immediately started in to make it worse for myself. I said that well, maybe I was not going to be elected to go, but that I would happily go as somebody's assistant, just to be part of this great historical endevour. But I mentioned the name of a certain somebody who will most likely be elected.

This provoked two negative responses. The woman who had taken over the conversation said:
"I don't even know this __________." She seemed angry. (I thought, "Well, no. You haven't been involved in this, even though I have brought it up before.")

The other woman, the one who had been directed to go by the first, said something to the effect of:
"You mean we are just shills for the people who have already been determined to go?!" (I thought, "she didn't listen to what I said about the election.").

If only I had been allowed to tell it all my own way, without the interrogation or interruptions, she might have understood what I was trying to communicate about the upcoming election.

The group leader said nothing, though later he allowed as to how he would be happy to vote for me.

This is one illustration in the frustrations I encounter because I forget that I tend to think about communications as words that are put together in a particular order for a particular purpose; words that must be heard all the way through before one can get the sense of them. Words that have no particular meta-content. And I forget that, in the scheme of things, I have a uniquely wired mind.

I forget that neurotypicals (NTs), tend to see the same words as imminently interruptible, and full of emotional content and other (possible nefarious) implications that I am blind to, that I did not intend. They seldom listen to the whole communication before jumping in, and thus miss a great deal of my meaning. This is probably because I have the Aspie tendency to go on and on, and in every particular, in order to be most thorough about the details. I am fascinated by the parts, and in this way I get to the big picture,and it is all fleshed out. NTs skip the parts and jump right to the whole.

It is not that I cannot see the big picture, though. I can. I can see it in all of its detail, whole and complete; a picture in my mind. But as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. And to translate that into words requires all of my attention. NTs often claim that we who think in pictures lack attention. They say we have ADD.

IMHO, it is they who lack attention. They jump too quickly, thus missing the richness of the picture altogether. It is they that have difficulty listening, becoming impatient after a few sentences. They have already jumped to what they think is the big picture the speaker is describing, and often miss what is really being said.

The neuroscience work I did this spring bears this out. There is a great deal of evidence from imaging studies combined with neurobehavioral tests, that those of us on the Autism Spectrum naturally and easily remember all of the details as we process auditory and visual information from "the bottom up" (actually, in the brain, it is from back to front). We can also remember the big picture once it is assembled in our minds. We can do top-down processing as well, although that is not our preference. And when we do it, we can still remember all of the details. But NTs cannot remember the details, and they get cluttered up with all the emotional reading into the message that they do. Thus, at least as it appears to me, they can't think through the whole idea.

It is like we live in two different worlds.
It is true that Aspies do not see the olive branches. But it is equally true that he NTs do not see the beauty of our minds. They are too impatient to be able to see it. They cannot see that the bush burns but is not consumed.
Think about it.
A person would have to stop and observe for some time to see the detail of nonconsumption.

When we do not come across immediately with what they want, they dismiss us.
Thus, the dominant female described above dismissed me, even though she knows nothing about the Continental Congress except what I described, and she does not know what I know about the Constitution, or what I know about the enlightenment philosophy upon which it is founded.

NTs seem to narrow normal down to match that incomplete big picture they construct immediately. Lacking the memory for the detail that Aspies and others with different minds retain in our peculiar way of processing, they often miss the infinite diversity in infinite combinations that is ever before them. NTs walk "sightless among miracles."

That's the heartbreak of it. That's every bit as much of the heartbreak as is our Aspie blindness to the olive branches the NTs extend. In some ways, I think, NTs are just as blind to us as we are to them. But since our diverse minds are invisible to them, Aspies are the ones that are labeled with a disorder, with being different. We are the ones "pretending to be normal."

As Robinson, himself an Aspergian, writes about Tim Page's encounter with the heartbreak:

"Tim’s story illustrates that reality with clear and moving prose. Even when he’s been with people, much of his life has been spent alone. He was always smart, but like me, I wonder what it’s been for. His book shows that genius has its benefits but it’s not a formula for happiness or even general life success. You’ll wonder if his extraordinary abilities are a cause or a result of his isolation. Or are they just more facets of a unique mind?"

NOTE: My unique mind often causes me to see the glass as not only just half-full, but dusty and cracked as well. I must remind myself that things are likely not nearly as bad as I think they are.


silvermine said...

Hmm. My husband loves to give me every last detail of weird parts of things before he tells me the big picture. Huh. :D

Anyway, I am *very* detail-oriented, but I require top-down, not bottom up. It's like I need to know the whole picture before I know where to put the details.

For example, if you were describing building a house and you started telling me where the couch in the living room will be, before I even know which rooms are on the second floor, or how big they are, I would probably interrupt and ask about the other rooms. It just doesn't make sense to me. I can't process the details that I'm not ready for. I want to see the whole blue print of the house, then we can talk about the details of each room. It's just the way I put things in my mind.

My husband, on the other hand, will start in the middle of the story (which also bothers me -- I'm a very beginning-to-end kind of person) and give me intense details of the middle of the story... which once again, I can't put into any context, because I don't know how it all started.

My son is the same way. Teaching him is going to be... interesting. ;) I would love to grab a book and go beginning to end and not miss a thing, but he's just not like that. :D

I *love* his details, I just like them in a certain order. :) I'm one of those people who like powerpoint slides and tables of contents, because it gives me a roadmap to what's coming, so I can process better. It *helps* me focus, unlike most people.

On the other hand, I'm also a huge introvert, but I'm incredibly good at sensing other people's feelings and such. I just still have trouble interacting with them and dealing with social niceties.

I am generally an excellent technical writer and communicator, simply because I understand both the techy programmer types *and* the marketing people/customers who have trouble interacting with them. I also can organize a manual better than most writers, because I am wired to categorize things. I still can't resist sorting games with my kids. (Actually, that's why I need the blueprint of the house first -- to properly categorize! :D)

Anyway, I would rather hang out with the programmers. ;)

christinemm said...

I think there is another element you are not considering that causes NT people such as those in your meeting to do what they do.

It goes like this.

Many people have already made up their mind what they want to see happen either in a conversation or in a meeting. For some this involves power issues, they want a certain outcome. They don't care for group concensus to buy in to what they want. Thus the goal of the meeting is a formality to get to the end decision. They are wrapped up in getting through the meeting to get the end decision they want. If they can lure in some of the attendees to buy in with their idea then they are happy. They know not everyone will buy in to their idea. And a major thing they don't care about is what the opposers think or feel or why. Often people want to quickly silence opposing voices and to cut to the chase of getting the outcome they want.

Not everyone wants to discuss and think and analyze and see each other's viewpoint and come to a consensus.

Do I need to remind you of a certain someone recently elected to public office who claimed change and to work with both sides of the aisle? When the real deal is to just push through what he wants and to silence opposing voices? Or to label those not in consensus with terrible accusations and labels and names.

I have a feeling that before the meeting even began the leader knew what outcome they wanted and you were not in the plan. Thus whatever you have to say is unimportant to them.

Another thing, what you hoped others would understand and learn from what you said---they may have different goals and interests and just may not want to dialogue on the topics that were important to you.

These types of issues are common even when everyone involved is NT. It is really about personality and humanness and flaws and selfishness and narrow mindedness and many other traits that sometimes are irrelvant to whether someone is NT or has AS or any other neuro condition.

I know it stinks to feel misunderstood.

I know it stinks to want to talk about something and to have engaged discussion but sometimes it is hard to find someone also interested in that dialogue. It's a fact of life (NT or not NT).

Hang in there.

And don't forget sometimes people are just jerks...or stupid...or closed minded or all of the above...

Anonymous said...

Heh, heh...I got a 35. My dad has some Aspie traits. I think part of my "Aspieness" is environmental: our family of five was very insular. I didn't have much opportunity to engage with other people because we never did. My dh says, "I find the way you look at your feet when I introduce you to people endearing, but sometimes they look horrified." (I don't notice) And then the conversational boat sinks, unless the people I've just met and I have an interest in common. I get along really well with my violin students, but I never did the "mob scene" (group classes) well, because I don't have enough attention to spare for more than three people at a time, and even that's hard. One of my friends has a six year old, and she's always reminding the child to "Look at so-and-so's face to see if she's still having fun." That sort of "intervention" would have worked wonders for me, because I'm not insensitive to people's expressions; I just don't notice...

Better stop before I fill up you comments with any more socially inept stuff, lol!


Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Silvermine: I generally like to put my details in some historical context. For example, if I am talking about the Continental Congress 2009, as I was last night, I will begin with a description of the original one in 1774. Although I have trained myself to keep that background brief, some people get impatient because they don't want the background. However, in the middle of things, I tend to connect up ideas in a way that seems logical to me, but some people have difficulty following it.

Christine: I agree with you, except that that NT behavior of coming to the meeting with a foregone conclusion in mind is enough to drive most Aspies screaming for the hills! From our perspective, what is the purpose of a discussion if the conclusion is foregone? Why waste our time and psychic energy? It's hard for an Aspie to deal with more than a few people at a time. Why inflict that on us if the decision has really already been made?
In the case of my meeting though, I was bringing the idea to them. And I know my Aspie tendencies had something to do with the outcome. I do agree with you that I am not in the dominant woman's plan. I have been dismissed as good for getting a course together for the group, but that's all. But I think it's because she thinks I'm odd and not that bright. NTs tend to think of intelligence as a verbal trait.
However, oddly, that woman is not the leader or even one of the officers.
Part of me just wants to ditch this group, but every person is important to the overarching goal, which is to get as patriots as possible to support the CC2009.

Deborah, I don't mind at all if you fill up my comments with social inappropriateness. I love quirky people. And they tend to like me, too. I like your take on it all.

christinemm said...

Hi Elisheva,
RE you said: " that NT behavior of coming to the meeting with a foregone conclusion in mind is enough to drive most Aspies screaming for the hills!"

Sorry to learn of this but it is a fact of life. I learned this while working in my career for a small business (doctor's office) and a corporation (HMO) and also when elected to a public office (town council). Being an elected official I was forced to attend meetings to discuss policy and budgets and the conclusion was already decided. I also had to be at public hearings to "listen" to the public where their input was not relevant as the decision was already decided. And I was told by my party how to vote when my job technically was to represent the citizens living in my district.

(I was going to tell a story from my days as a volunteer politician when I went against the party line & the public was on board with me but decided to keep the story confidential.)

After that I swore off being in politics. I don't want to be a pawn for a party.

The thing that Silvermine talked about is in a test whose name I forgot, the corp I worked for gave a test to management of their something-style. It told if the person wanted end request first then background info, or start off with beginning & tell long tale of their point of view before giving the request at the end, or if they like a direct short communication or long beat around the bush communication. The managers had a graphic sign w their result on their desks facing out so that those coming in to talk to them would change their communication (oral) to say it the way the manager likes to hear it. This was seen as 'working together' and a way to have both parties feel it was a win/win situation. Sorry I can't remember the test name.

One more thing. If an Aspie hates accepting the way some people are that we have been discussing, I'll share that the majority of NT people who get all of this about other people, communication etc., in order to survive, just give up and let go of the attempt to control the situation. This is called picking our battles. We choose when to fight for our cause and when to not expend the energy, when it would be futile. We figure out with what people our efforts are a total waste of time or if we try to do that thing we want, if we will alienate ourselves and make our overall situation much worse. Sometimes to keep in another's good graces we have to silence ourselves, keep quiet, not engage, and not fight every battle. This is what makes others able to tolerate us more and keeps us in a good light for when we really need it or want it.

The nonfiction books about negotiating and communication and getting to a win/win situation and other books in the business section of the bookstore teach people how to get more savvy with communication that will help them in the workplace. This surely could also help Aspie's. Much of the info anyway if applied to everyone in one's life would make things better, including personal friendships and also romantic relationships and marriages.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Christine: I'm sorry you had such a rotten time of it with politics. I sat in a meeting last Saturday--I was there to promote the Continental Congress--and had the Republican County Chair tell me that the only way we can be successful is to all become Republicans. I would have laughed in his face given the current state of the Republican party, except that it would have broken all the NT rules.

Instead, I responded with a few choice quotes from the founders about the dangers of the two-party system.

I believe that both parties have become self-serving, and that their operatives will do anything to win. They don't care about the people they represent nor do they care about the Constitution. Many of these Pols would sell-out what they claim to be their greatest values to keep their power. I have no respect for them, and I am therefore not suprised by their behavior.

But that is not my concern in my blog post. My point is that although Robinson is right, Apsies do have a certain mindblindness towards the NT world, so do NTs towards Aspies. It works both ways.

What is terminally annoying is that Aspies have the gift of seeing the big picture but do not understand all of the social games that the NTs play. Speaking for myself, I sit in some of these wearisome meetings and wonder why NTs have to waste so much time pretending that what they are doing has any relevance at all to what they have decided a priori.

Anyway, the point of this post is not that I was misunderstood--that goes with the territory of my neurological wiring. The point of it was why I was misunderstood.
Some things I am aware of and work to change. But some things that are problems for others are things I like and will not change.

I think there are many good things about neurodiversity that NTs could learn from. But they are usually too busy trying to make us over in their own image to learn from us. That's their problem. It is not mine. Maybe I ought to recommend that they read some books about how to tell themselves the truth about what they are doing in their game playing.

Kaber said...

thanks- we are not doing anything different than before (unschooling) It's how we have always schooled- but it is actually quasi-unschooling. sort of. I guess if everything we do is what we have decided as a family works for us and aren;t listening to 'ehat the professionals say we should do' then it is all unschool maybe. I have just never labeled it as unschool too often.

Chuck said...

Perhaps what you describe as a portion of the burden of being an Aspie is what was once given the alphabetical title of Type A personality.

If so, I can relate as I have rushed headlong before folks have finished their thoughts, feeling that I had grasped what they intended to communicate. I guess you might say that I faked myself out in doing so.

Anyway,I'm almost old enough to have been a delegate to the Continental Congress, but even if qualified I would have chosen you AND I would choose you now over some of the carbuncles on the butt of life that caused such consternation for you.

Haang in there.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Hey, Kaber! It's just sooo good to hear from you again. We unschooled for a while before we called it unschooling, too. And ours wasn't actually orthodox unschooling either. I think we should get to a point of freedom in which we can just have fun with all of this crazy terminology and go on with our lives.

Chuck! So glad to meet you face to face yesterday. I think of Type A and B personalities as, well, personality types. Sure, wiring has something to do with it. But Aspergers goes deeper. It is completely different wiring that creates a certain mind-blindness. NT means Neuro-Typical, that is someone whose wiring is (broadly speaking) normal.
And thanks! I am hanging in there. And more than that.
I just need to embrace the fact that I am not and never will be a politician. Funny, but when I was in high school I actually wanted to be a philosopher. And by gosh and by golly, that seems to be what I am! At least, I am more that p-word than I am a politician.

Anonymous said...

I guess it's a matter of perspective: I'm not finding "normal" any more restrictive than it was when I was growing up in the sixties and seventies. We may be defining more people outside "normal", but we've always treated a fairly large subclass of people as if they were in need of some kind of "improvement", or, worse yet, as "untouchables". As a child I felt the chilling effect of those who would dictate how I talked, how I moved, how I interacted, what I should study. As an adult I experience a personal intellectual freedom (and its expression) limited only by my, er, limitations, and I can see that I've been at least partly successful in transmitting that to my children. It's never been my impression that the ordinary folks of Darwin's day were more likely to be basing their decisions on the application of logic to the facts than those of today. My unschooled kids have been reading about England in the time Cromwell and the Roundheads and the Salem witch trials and the Constitution's restriction of basic rights to a fairly small class of citizens, and if ever reason ruled, it hasn't been in the past few hundred years. I think this country's diversity is one of the forces that keeps those who would make it more homogeneous (far from a new pursuit) awake in their beds at night, wondering: what am I doing wrong? At least I would hope so...


Crimson Wife said...

I have a close relative in his/her 50's whom I'm pretty sure has high-functioning Asperger's but no formal diagnosis. I wish I could give him/her that book you mentioned but I can never predict how he/she will react to things. Would he/she find the book interesting & helpful or would he/she get offended at my implying that there's something wrong with him/her?

You'd think having known this individual my whole life, I'd be able to guess but I simply can't understand the way he/she thinks a lot of the time...

Crimson Wife said...

Okay, I took the AQ test and scored a 21, which is above the average for NT's of 16. However, I'm an introvert and many of the questions on the AQ overlap with that. I hate meeting new people, and am terrible at making chit-chat at large social gatherings. I flat-out refused to participate in my sorority's Rush Week activities one year (I was having a dispute with the chapter president but that was just my excuse).

But when it comes to recognizing facial expressions, I actually scored highly on a test that was given as part of a psychology class I took.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Crimsom Wife: If the relative is Aspie s/he will probably like the book, and any grumpiness about being given the book most likely will have origins in 1)something unexpected happening--e.g. not expecting the book or 2) any sense that the book is being given because you want to change that person. If you are planning to give the book, tell the person to expect it and when, and let them know that you thought s/he'd enjoy it, but that if not, it's perpectly okay with you for him/her to pass the book on to someone who will.

Since there is some similarity in wiring between an introvert and those with AS, being introverted would probably raise one's AQ. But even those with a clearly Aspie AQ (above 32), do not always experience clinically significant life problems. (All DSM diagnoses require that the person's ability to function in every day situations be impaired).
Nevertheless, the test is a very useful screening device for AS and HFA. A diagnosis requires more involved testing an analysis.

Then there are those of us who are not formally diagnosed, but do find ourselves compensating for Aspie tenencies.

Headmistress, zookeeper said...

Oy. I scored a 37. I do not think my aversion to people in person tilted the results a bit.

I was going to say, "And so does my impatience with social chitchat and mindgames,' but that's kind of like a color blind person saying, "The fact that I cannot distinguish red well tilted the results of the test on colorblindness," isn't it?