“I Will Change It!”

The stereotype of people with autistic spectrum disorders is that they don’t like change. Whilst this is true for some – including me – it often depends on which kind of change.

The green spaghetti man is from 1979 Doctor Who story City of Death. Scaroth is the last of his species the Jagaroth because unlucky chap accidentally blew himself up and the rest of his race. He only survived by being splintered through time, living multiple lives throughout human history.

The story is driven by Scaroth’s attempts to build a time machine to go back millions of years to change what he did so that his people survive. The twist is that the explosion that killed him started all life on earth, so the human race will perish if the Jagaroth don’t. This is the kind of moral dilemma that makes me love Doctor Who.

Watching it again recently I realized that sometime I feel like Scaroth, and not just in the having autism is like being from another planet way either. Ever since I was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome about 14 months ago I have wanted to go back and change myself so that I didn’t have the condition. It may be true that my higher-than-average intelligence; my honesty and my diligent attention to detail are likely to stem from it, but I still felt like I did. I would have traded those traits to spend weekends with friends, to have a girlfriend and to be generally more outgoing. It seemed to me that being clever and thoughtful didn’t amount to much if I was never close enough to anyone to share those qualities with.

However, thanks to some incredible people who have supported me such as my local Autism Advice service, my mentor at uni and my job coach I have learned to be more proud of myself. They have shown me that some people long to have the kind of gifts that I’ve been given, It’s just that because I’ve lived a life that is quite distanced from others I haven’t realized that other people can’t remember that Charles Dickens died in 1870; that Queen Victoria loved curries or what a dactylic trimeter is. Most of all they have show me that there are people out there who find it interesting! I just thought that my family’s disinterest in these things represented the population at large.

But does this mean that I shouldn’t change myself? No it doesn’t. William Blake once wrote that ‘The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, & breeds reptiles of the mind.’ I have always been a firm believer in keeping as open a mind as I can to different possibilities. Therefore if there are things about having Asperger Syndrome that I don’t like, I can’t change my having the condition, but I can change what I do about it. Like Scaroth I had one roll of the dice and won’t get another, but instead of lamenting the snakes (or chutes), I should rejoice at the ladders that will take me to the finish. For example, I have started a social discussion study group at my university. The focus in on our work, but I also had an ulterior motive in putting myself into some social interaction with my peers. All the time I am looking out for possible ways to interact and socialize with others, instead of think of reasons not to as I did before. The benefit we have now is that in the world of social media we can keep connected with others much more easily.

In the end Scaroth was brought back to earth (literally) by a punch from Duggan, the seemingly hapless detective. An incredibly complex plan that has taken many years and millions of Francs to formulate has been scuppered by a firm dose of reality. Whether that reality is that you can’t stand around soliloquising your evil plan and not expect to get punched, or that you can’t change having Asperger Syndrome they are quite similar. Both show that you need to be in touch with the real world, or the real world will get in touch with you when you least expect – and it’ll probably hurt.

Me and my Brain

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I have decided to make 2014 the year that I move my social life up a gear. It’s not an official new year’s resolution, but I need to make some progress in the friend department. This won’t be easy because I’ve only just started getting a handle on what I think friends and friendship are.

Firstly I will seek out advice from local institutions on how to make friends and socialize with people. I’ve been making some progress with social stuff, like making sure I don’t talk too much and to not just answer but to ask questions as well. This way the person I’m talking to will have a chance to talk about themselves, which is good because it stops me talking about myself too much.

One of the biggest obstacles I come across is how social behaviour is not innate to me, but learned, or in my case not learned yet! It goes like this:

ME: “Right! I’m going to go to new places and make friends with people”

BRAIN: “Where are you going to go then?”

ME: “Uh… dunno. Isn’t it your job to think of that?”

BRAIN: “…”

ME: “Well, isn’t it?!”

BRAIN: “Sorry, I’ve got nothing.”

ME: “Okay, we can work around that, which people do we know that we could socialize and make friends with?”

BRAIN: “How about… um, what’s her name?”

ME: “Who?”

BRAIN: “You know, the one with blonde hair.”

ME: “You’re not really doing this very well either are you?”

BRAIN: “Charming. I’m the first one you turn to when an essay needs writing and this is how you talk to me?!”

And it goes on like that for quite a while.

In short, telling me to go out and make friends is like telling me to speak Swahili. It won’t happen overnight; firstly I need to find out more about what it is, where to go to learn and then how to do it. It frustrates my parents as they see my diagnosis with Asperger’s as pointless because it’s been almost a year and I still don’t have much of a social life. They don’t see the small victories that I am putting together, such as plucking up the courage to reach out to people on Facebook and by text to see if they want to go out and do stuff. They just don’t seem to understand how that’s a big deal for me.

I’m going to look for clubs and other places where I can meet and socialize with new people. Any tips/suggestions in the comments below would be greatly appreciated.

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♞ Sixty-Four Squares of Uncertainty♖

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How Life Imitates Chess is a book written by Garry Kasparov, the greatest chess player ever and recently I’ve been thinking about how true his title is. I know that it’s a bit clichéd that someone with Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) should like chess, but it does fit my world view to a surprizing degree.

Chess, in itself, isn’t very complicated:  you move the pieces – some moving differently to others – to trap your opponent’s king piece. Where it gets complex is the different strategies and counter-strategies. The way I see social interaction is that it’s a bit like a game of chess; it’s not about just knowing what you plan to do, but trying to guess what the person opposite is going to do too. For people without AS knowing what the other person wants from a conversation, or why they have asked a certain question in a particular way comes as natural as yawning. But for me this is not the case, it’s as though I have to uncover their feelings and motives like a detective from a dime store detective novel.

Problems can sometimes occur when I apply my own internal logic to someone else’s behaviour. In chess I would move a certain piece after considering every possible logical response that can be made in response. I may move a piece in a plan to make the opponent move a certain piece in reply and capitalize on that. However, they move a piece that I wasn’t expecting them to, that may scupper my plans, forcing me to readjust quickly. The difference here between the game and social interaction is that I can alter my chess plan a lot more easily than I can after making a mistake in a conversation.  It might be that I don’t even notice the social faux pas that I have made and I end up, instead of losing a game, losing the offended person to them not wanting to talk to me again.

One part of chess strategy is an exchange of pieces, or a calculated sacrifice, where certain pieces are lost in order to gain more valuable pieces in return (google relative chess values to see which pieces are worth more) and thus gain an overall advantage. This is another way in which life is like chess, especially considering life with AS. It is a condition that makes being in your comfort zone very comfortable indeed and makes it easy to avoid compromise by shunning the company of others. Just like you may sacrifice a chess piece in order to gain a more valuable one, sacrifices must be made with AS in order to benefit in the long term. It is difficult and scary to go to new places and meet new, different people, but, trust me on this; the fear is small potatoes compared to the crippling loneliness of solitary life. When I used to hide away from social life I eventually ended up depressed. One morning I pulled back the curtains and the first thought that crossed my mind was if jumping from that window would end my suffering, and it was what spurred me on to seek help.

Chess has often been likened to great militaristic battles of wits such as Cromwell Vs Charles I, Nelson Vs Napoleon or Monty Vs Rommel. However with AS there is often a battle of wits going on over where to stand at the bank, what to talk about at a party or what order to eat things in at dinner.Image

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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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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