Social Safari

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Ever been travelling abroad and seen things that are normal to the locals, but just leaves you confused and asking why? For me at least, this is what it’s like to have Asperger’s Syndrome (AS). Common things like idle chit-chat about the weather, or those “how are things?” conversations can seem bewildering and pointless. It has been suggested to me to try observing the behaviour of others and learn how to emulate the same illogical and weird behaviour.

 For years I have been watching the behaviour of others and trying to figure out why they did certain things. Statistically those with AS tend to struggle with metaphors and common sayings, such as ‘draw your own conclusions’ as they are viewed only though logic. However, there is a way around these difficulties; some individuals, me included, can use intelligence and experience to work out such phrases. A good way of illustrating this difficulty is best found in Richard Watson Todd’s fascinating book: Much Ado About English, where he points out the illogical and confusing nature of the language. In it he asks he reader to imagine that they do not speak English as a first language and then think about this sentence: “chop down that tree and then chop it up.” I think that people with AS can feel similarly confused when interacting with others, but through watching and listening to others use these phrases has taught me how to infer a meaning through context.

One of the interesting things that I’ve noticed when observing the social activity of others is what I call the female greeting cry. When women meet up with their friends (of either gender) they generally greet them with a high pitch that is noticeable higher than their usual speaking voice. The most plausible hypothesis I can think of for this behaviour is that the change in pitch is an effort to show enthusiasm and excitement to be in the other person’s company. This, therefore, establishes a subconscious empathetic link between the two parties, which is an aid to social bonding. I have also noticed my mum and sister use a higher tone of voice when making important phone calls, but use their regular voices for everyday phone calls. My mum also uses the same higher tone when serving customers when she is at work, so I think that it is used to ingratiate one’s self to strangers.

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I have been particularly interested in this firstly, because I have a fascination with the English language and how it is used by different people, but also because I find it difficult to alter the pitch and tone of my own voice to express feelings and emotions, to the point that people often think that I am either depressed or a robot. I Don’t mind this too much; Marvin from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is both and he’s a much loved fictional character. I am also observing how other people deal with street salespeople and chuggers (charity+muggers) so that I can get better at dealing with them because it’s such a spontaneous interaction.

The focus has also been on me involving myself in more varied social situations in order to learn new ways of understanding and interacting with people. I’ve played for the same cricket team for several years now, but after each game most of my teammates go to the pub for a drink afterwards. So I decided that I could be a valuable experience to go along with them after a game and see what they do there. I’ve never really been a stereotypically macho man. I like sports and Shakespearean sonnets; I like beer and I also like butterflies, so you could say that I like to mix it up a bit. However, I was at a loss as to what to talk about at the pub. The bulk of my teammates’ conversations were about their wives, girlfriends and children, of which I have very little experience indeed. At least on the positive side I managed to have a very good conversation with my captain’s wife about education as she teaches children with disabilities, and we both shared our secret outrage at the current prevalence of apostrophe abuse in UK society as a whole. (Don’t get me started on shop signs!)

My Asperger’s specialist recommended that I observe others so that I can create what he called a ‘social script’. This turns things around to suit my strengths of memory and attention to detail so that I can draw from a varied bank of experience to aid my fluency in social interaction. I fear that there is one major pitfall in this kind of social exercise. I’ve always had quite a reflective and introverted life; therefore there is an ever present danger of comparing myself to others in purely social terms. This will always end with a knock to my self-esteem because my brain is socially impaired. That is not my best skill, but I do have plenty of others, like Einstein said: ‘Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.’

There is also a positive side to it. The more people I observe the more I realise that people are so different, so stupid, kind, confident, unsure, afraid, funny etc. When I worry that I might inadvertently upset someone I should remember that there are people out there that are genuinely sardonic, cold and rude on purpose. Even if I make social mistakes and I come across as being arrogant I know in my heart that I’m not and that I can learn from my mistakes and put it into practice next time.

 

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Being Wrong with Authority

“Logic, my dear Zoe, merely allows one to be wrong with authority.”†

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One of the first things I had to tackle after I found out that I have Asperger’s Syndrome was to understand how I think about everything. It was like having to step out of my mind and observe it from the outside, looking in, like being in a brain zoo.

To my surprise I was made aware by the specialist who diagnosed me that my brain is highly logical. This was quite a shock because I write poetry; I’ve got a degree in English Lit and I’m generally quite creative. He explained that because someone with Asperger’s Syndrome such as me can find the world a very baffling place we use logic to apply a sense of order to an otherwise unordered existence. He also told me that because my condition is moderate/severe, but I have an above average intelligence it is likely that I have to scrape by without anyone realising that I’m autistic. I logically work out some social situations and devise plans on how to conduct myself through them, and the ones that I couldn’t work out, e.g. loud parties and making friends, distressed me so much that I developed an aversion to them that bordered on social phobia.

To give an example of this I will the use a now slightly dated British expression that still gets used in my family, which is to get the needle. If someone gets annoyed we say that they’ve got the needle about something. I’ll tell you how I know what that means – it’s a fifty-fifty split between context and logic. To start with I was able to work it out because when I saw that someone got annoyed and someone said that he/she had got the needle I linked the two together. However, what really helped me to understand the metaphor is how, without realising it at the time, I used logic to form a hypothesis. Firstly, apart from amongst sewing enthusiasts, people in general find needles upsetting, as I found out when was inoculated at school and I saw the reactions of my classmates. Also needles are sharp, quite dangerous and made from cold hard metal, all of which are negative things that can be logically grouped with the negative feelings of annoyance or distress. So in short, to have the needle is to feel bad.

Inevitably my logical way of thinking extended to how I thought about and understood others, which, to be honest, is where it’s most likely to come unstuck. I have always found the behaviour and motives of other people difficult to decipher. This is one of the three ‘Triads of Impairment’ that are at the heart of Asperger’s Syndrome, which any reliable assessment for the condition will be looking for. They are the difficulties of:

  • Social & Emotional
  • Language & Communication
  • Social Imagination

This means that I find it extremely difficult to predict the behaviour of others, especially when they act irrationally. The best I can do is to use a memory of a social situation that may have been similar and use what I learned from that to make informed decisions on how best to act.

The best example of how this affects me is when I bump into people who try to persuade you to buy something or donate money to charity. The primary problem is that it is an interaction that I haven’t had time to prepare for. My mum tells me that I should say I’m not interested and keep walking but to me each time is different as the person may say different things in a different way depending on their personality and what it is they’re selling/collecting money for. Usually I struggle to say anything to them as they rattle off their prepared argument as to why I should care about the polar ice caps or my credit rating. My standard approach is to listen to what they have to say and then say that I’ll visit their website. I suffer because, due to my Asperger’s Syndrome, I don’t handle being put on the spot very well because I can’t think of what I should say quickly enough.

Although, having an impaired social imagination also has an upside. Being really logical helps to keep you from panicking in emergency situations and because it makes it difficult to emphasise with others it makes me hate telling lies because it relies on understanding what another person would or would not find believable. So there you have it ladies – there’s some boyfriend material in that somewhere, I’m sure.

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†Quotation and photo from Doctor Who story The Wheel in Space by David Whitaker (1968)