What is Autism? What is Asperger’s Syndrome? If your friend told you they were diagnosed as a high-functioning autistic person, what would you think they meant?
Several months ago a friend of mine suggested in passing that maybe I had Asperger’s Syndrome. We’d been talking about childhood memories and some of the challenges we encountered growing up and in school. Well, I knew what the severely autistic folks look like and act like, and knew I was not like them. I am smart and have a huge vocabulary and a mind built to learn, understand and study the Universe. I don’t have an easy time building closer relationships of any kind, but I never bothered to worry much about why. If people don’t want to hang out with me in the evenings or on weekends, I’m fine on my own, and I’d hate to be in the way if my friends would rather hang out with other people at those times.
But I have to admit I am different, and always have been. My sisters and brother are too. We are all very smart, and in the right setting we excel and don’t seem at all handicapped mentally or socially, but the signs are there in all of us that we are almost certainly all undiagnosed cases of Asperger’s Syndrome, which is now, for various practical reasons included as a subtype of high-functioning autism in the current DSM diagnostic manual. I doubt that my siblings want to hear this news right now, since most people, including them, know very little about autism and Asperger’s and don’t understand what it means to say one has this ‘disorder’.
Asperger’s Syndrome is an array of psychological differences that may include unusually high sensitivity to sounds, light, or other sensory information, so that some textures of foods or cloth, or sounds that are unnoticed or unremarkable to others cause serious discomfort. I find the texture of wood, cotton, and skin absolutely gaggingly repulsive on my tongue, which is part of why I have avoided the dentist since 2 decades ago. The hum of my refrigerator bugs me a lot, a high pitched whine that insidiously hangs over my life in my apartment and gives me headaches. The flicker of fluorescent tube lights and the high pitched sound they make as they age also really bug me, though most people claim not to notice either one. Asperger’s also includes varying degrees of inability to read and respond to social situations. I feel very awkward and self-conscious at social events of any kind because I never feel like I know the rules well enough to play the role that is expected of me, and I do not have the instinct or intuition that helps most people navigate social evenings with friends or the chaotic, messy, noisy, busy setting of a party or nightclub. I figured out how to mask a lot of this with my role as a music blogger, a mask I used to put on every night before setting out to take photos and network with the music scene’s many talented people. But, whenever conversation turned personal, where I was being treated as myself, Jamie the human being, or worse yet, Jamie the attractive single woman, I froze and had a horrible time working out what to say and how I was received by my companions. Thankfully musicians are often just as socially awkward, but I was still exhausted by the time I got home no matter how much fun I was having, because I was always on edge and acting.
And, while I was covering that music scene for 2 years I made almost no friendships that extended outside the music venue. I only had 3 friends in the entire year I spent in my last apartment who had ever set foot in my apartment, and almost never went anywhere WITH anyone. All my relationships were kept distant, not just by my choice, but because I really don’t know how to make any of those friendships closer and more meaningful. I never have known how to make ‘real’, close friends, though I certainly have tried plenty. Asperger’s makes it tough to be closer to people because people with this syndrome tend to be unable to express emotions in ways that everyone else understands. We tend to just say things straight, rather than being subtle or politic, which is especially problematic for women. Women tend to be socialized to a very complex, nuanced, and indirect style of communication that is parodied and vilified by men all over the world. Men, on the other hand, do tend to say what they mean, more often anyway. But many men expect that I communicate the same way most other women they know do, and they don’t feel so romantic about a woman who acts like one of the guys. Women really don’t connect well to a woman who doesn’t communicate ‘correctly’. None of this is spelled out, though, so people with Asperger’s have to puzzle out what makes their communication style different, and why when they are trying to convey something about feelings, they come across as insincere or cold, and no one around them is likely to be much help.
I am of the opinion that for many people Asperger’s is not necessarily a disorder, just a different variety of human brain that has different strengths and weaknesses, but in our society, which is still so set on conformity, being different is often branded a disorder. However, disorder or not, it is nice to know, when you have always felt different and out of place, that there are others who know exactly how you are feeling about things. I could never explain to my mom why I haven’t learned to drive, but hearing what others with this syndrome say, I know it is not just me, and I am beginning to understand what my intuition has been telling me all along. Telling my mom, “my intuition says that I would be a dangerously unsafe driver and that the stress of driving would be very unhealthy for me’ sounds to her like a cop-out, but telling her that my concerns about how things in my peripheral vision are too distracting, the many cars and drivers and other things going on are too overwhelming, and I fear I won’t be able to sustain concentration long enough to navigate a road in traffic, at least when backed by many others with the same underlying feelings who have tried to make themselves drive, that is a much better argument.
If you don’t know what Asperger’s Syndrome is, you should check it out. Google it and read few websites, check out the various facebook groups about Asperger’s, and if you know people in your family or among your friends who have this syndrome, talk with them and help yourself understand how they experience the world differently. I don’t believe there are many people who are truly normal- we all have our differences- and we all need to recognize and appreciate the way others of our species experience the Universe.