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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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)