“Uhhh…”

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Don’t you just hate it when you have something really important to say, but your mind just goes blank? With Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) this seems to happen, to me at least, all the time. But it seems to happen most often when I am trying to describe a social situation. When I meet with my disability mentor and try to describe social situations that have gone wrong for me as an example of my problems the words don’t come very easily. This is particularly frustrating as I am reasonably articulate with an adequately voluminous vocabulary.

It is most likely tied up with my shortcomings in terms of my social imagination, which is a common part of AS and autism generally. Basically it means that whilst I have a perfectly average conventional imagination, e.g. imagining stories and original thinking, I do not know how to understand and sometimes even explain the actions, thoughts and motivations of others. This diminished empathy is sometimes called mind blindness.

It’s hard to give an example of this as trying to makes my mind go blank, but the specialist who diagnosed me has a test for this. He asked me to picture myself in a happy place. Most people can do this, whether it is under a waterfall, at the beach or in a leafy forest. I could only remember a happy place I had been to before; I couldn’t imagine a place out of thin air, whereas most people can think of a new place on the spot.

This also makes predicting social situations that are new to me, with new people or in new places very difficult indeed. I cannot put myself into someone else’s frame of mind, I’d give you an example, but what I’d come up with would probably be of little help.

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“I am he, and he is me”

Having Asperger’s Syndrome(AS) is a bit like having a part of yourself you can’t control, which always turns up at the moment when you’re trying be cool and in control of things. Seeing as some previously lost episodes of Doctor Who have been found in recently in Nigeria I thought a Time Lord flavour would be appropriate.

In the programme’s 10th anniversary story The Three Doctors the then current incarnation of The Doctor, Jon Pertwee (1973) is being faced with a dangerous enemy who seeks to dominate the universe: Omega. Just when he is trying his best to seem in charge, and come up with a game plan to save everyone an alternate version of himself literally pops in to say hello. In the story the current Doctor is, at least to begin with, quite embarrassed about the part of himself he would rather keep quiet and not get in the way. This is how it can feel to have AS a lot of the time. You can be in a social situation that you’ve rehearsed or practiced time and again, but then something unexpected happens. A new person arrives, or a change of location or maybe the other person you’re with decides to talk about personal social things like relationships, or inviting you to a party.

However, you shouldn’t feel guilty or stupid, but to bluff your way through it as best you can and remember what happened so that you can learn what to do next time. The most important thing for me to remember is that Asperger’s is a part of me, just as much as my skin colour or fingerprints. It makes me who I am: different, not defective.

Knack to the Future

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No one can really tell the future. But regular people can intuitively know what will happen in certain situations a lot easier than someone with Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) can. Even if knowing what to do when going somewhere for the first time or meeting new people cannot be worked out in advance, most people can react spontaneously in a heartbeat, whilst someone like me is still trying to work out what I should be saying.

Although, this is not an exercise in self-pity; AS is a difference, not a disease. If you got diagnosed with diabetes, you wouldn’t lament constantly over the loss of your doughnut privileges. It’s important to assess what’s important, make a plan, and get on with the rest of your life – low sugar alternatives are available, as there are adjustment to be made to suit AS.

When I talk to people without Asperger’s they seem to think that it’s absurd to think that regular people can tell the future because it comes as natural as swimming stroke does to a fish. One of the problems that those with AS have are a lack of social imagination, this is best explained like this – imagine you’re in an audition for a play at a theatre. It’s a solo audition, you know the names of the characters, but there are no lines to speak, and it is up to you to improvise lines on the spot.  You do not know your character’s back story or their motivation, but unlike improvised drama and comedy, there is a right answer that everyone judging you already knows and getting it wrong will make you seem at best a bit weird, and at worst an uncaring idiot.

It’s the Asperger’s that makes it a solo audition, because it inhibits your ability to infer how you should act and react, it isolates you socially. Therefore those without AS can read the body language and facial cues of the other players and decide if their character should act angry, sad, elated etc because they are plugged into a social web of sorts.

This often leads a large amount of stress and unhappiness when getting used to big changes in life for people like me. This has been the first week of classes for my new course at college, and I often find myself, most probably unnecessarily, being seriously worried about the future. Will I be good enough? Can I handle the work? Part of this will be down to the traumatic time I spent as a trainee teacher, and another is down to human nature, as I am likely to not be the only student on the course who feels this way. However, it is because of my AS, which keeps me from plugging into the shared social web, that impedes me from realising what my peers are thinking and feeling, unless I ask; I’ll have to wait for an appropriate opportunity.

Anticipating the behaviour of others and understanding their motivation in what they are doing also falls into the same problematic vein. This means that situations like teaching, policing, and other spontaneous jobs would be very difficult for me indeed. However, if, like me, you have a strong logical bent and well honed attention to detail it can be used to help understand people and situations where others understand instinctively. It just takes a lot of conscious brain power, which can get quite tiring if you’re doing it almost constantly like lots of people with AS are. In my experience a person’s hands, clothing and hair can tell you a lot about what kind of person they are.

Rough hands suggest a manual job or hobby. Those with short, well maintained fingernails can suggest a job where they make regular physical contact with others, such as nurses and physiotherapists. A t-shirt suggests that they value comfort and aesthetics in equal measure. I have found that women who are sensitive about their weight or body shape often wear black as the colour lessens the visibility of the outlines of their bodies and hides their profiles. A complex hairstyle can show that they pay attention to detail, as a scruffy hairstyle can indicate less of a concern for personal appearance, or a lack of time to prepare due to poor timekeeping, or an unforeseen change to their daily schedule.

As with the vast majority of logic there are flaws but I think there is still a case for it as long as it isn’t taken for bona fide scientific certainty. But it does provide a guideline and alert me towards how a person may be feeling and to react accordingly. That’s the closest I’ll come to telling the future, as I’m definitely no Sherlock!

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