I’m Different. Deal With It.

 I sometimes get people telling me I’m weird. As if I don’t know. I’m happy to be different: it makes me individual, it makes me me. It’s 2 or 3 years now since I discovered that I have Aspergers Syndrome. I find it useful that the condition has a name: it allows me to explain to people why I’m different. Notice that I say different. I’m not broken, it’s just that my brain isn’t wired the same as the average person’s.

Several aspects of my behaviour mark me out as different: I tend to interpret things literally (to the perennial annoyance of my wife), I have great difficulty starting conversations or keeping them going, I can’t handle confrontations and either just stop interacting totally or blow up, I don’t tend to show emotion and so get labelled as “cold”, I usually dislike being touched…

I’ve learned that taking things literally can be used for humorous effect. I’ll answer either-or questions with “Yes” from time to time: it’s always my first reaction in any case but I’ve learned to interpret a lot of the things people say to get at their intended meaning and I reckon I’m reasonably good at it now. I can still get flummoxed by metaphor and simile especially when it’s unfamiliar. One thing that hinders me is the visual aspect of my interpretation: if somebody says that they’re “on fire” when they’re hot I’ll picture them literally in flames and then get momentarily confused when they evidently are not.

I tend to find literal interpretation is a benefit when doing cryptic crosswords to the extent that I sometimes take longer to work out why a clue is supposed to be cryptic than I do to solve it. The flip side of thinking literally is that it is reflected in the way I speak. I rarely generalise; it’s the same with analogy: the exceptions are too glaringly obvious to me and I feel obliged to explain the limits. I think this just confuses people so I try to avoid it.

I have numerous problems with conversations. One of the biggest is that if I’m not interested I won’t concentrate on what people are saying and just sit there looking blank. And then somebody will direct a comment or question towards me and I’ll either miss it or have to explain that I wasn’t listening and don’t know the context. On the other hand when I am interested and have something to say I don’t understand the rules for inserting my comment. Usually I will wait until I think somebody has finished their turn and start mine, only to have somebody else start talking at the same time, so I stop and miss the opportunity. I really believe that having some token that gets passed to each participant when it’s their turn would improve the “art” of conversation.

I try to stick to one-on-one conversations about subjects I know. Even here I’m not on safe ground. I find that people interrupt me or change the subject: this might be a sign of boredom or lack of interest but I can’t tell and they don’t explain. I am told (by my wife) that I am long-winded when I try to establish the background before getting to the point. The trouble is that I have to do it this way because if I don’t then I think that people might misinterpret what I’m saying because they could be missing some information. It confuses me when I hear people talking about a subject at a high level without mentioning the detail. How can they be sure that they have the same mental model of the subject under consideration?

I find it next to impossible to put feelings into words. As soon as somebody starts talking about emotion or asking me how I feel I get tense and nervous and start to clam up. Most people assume that I’m unemotional because I don’t express how I feel; the truth is that I can’t usually even describe it to myself. I know happy, nervous, afraid, frustrated, angry, sad. And “neutral”. My rest state. To be honest, I almost never stop to analyse how I feel: I just don’t think about it. If I’m busy doing something then emotion isn’t a factor. I can think back over it at some point later and I might think “Wow! That was great!” (or not) but at the time I’m not conscious of my emotional state.

Confrontations overload me. Well to be honest it’s anything that overstimulates one or more of my senses. It can be shouting or certain loud noises, it can be light that’s too bright, it can be a claustrophobic feeling from being in the midst of too many people or in too small an enclosed space. But not every time. There are times when I can handle it without any problem. I just don’t know in what situations I will have a problem. But confrontations in particular are impossible to handle. It’s the combination of proximity, emotional content and volume. I just shut down and can’t think about anything other than wanting to be somewhere else. So I can’t get into a heated argument: the other person will be ranting away and I’ll just stand there. Strangely this winds my wife up even more: I think she should know better after 10 years…

The touching business is a tricky one. Even I haven’t figured out the rules yet. There are times when I am hypersensitive to any contact and just instinctively flinch. There are certain parts of my body that I can’t stand to be touched at any time: mainly around my throat. Other times I’m OK with being touched. I can handle it better if it’s reasonable pressure and over an area of at least a few square inches. Light touching with fingertips is right out! That just irritates to the extent that I usually have to rub the area that was touched to relieve the sensation; otherwise it can tingle for several minutes afterwards and can make me shiver. Not pleasant.

My life is built around routines, mostly beneath the level of consciousness. I have trouble adjusting to any disruption to these routines: I get stressed, sometimes to the point of meltdown. One trigger for meltdown is where I am expecting a particular thing and I get something different. When I was growing up my mum and I went to a cafe and I asked for a meat and potato pie. My mum cut the pie into quarters! That was at odds with my expectation: I had pictured the pie whole, and I couldn’t handle it being cut. Instant meltdown. The symptoms of a meltdown vary but can range from a full-blown tantrum, shouting or screaming and hitting/throwing things in the worst instances, right down to an uncommunicative sulk, often lasting for hours. The trouble is that I can’t explain what’s going on at the time: I’m just reacting subconsciously. And if I try to explain later somebody who doesn’t understand my condition dismisses the cause as trivial and accuses me of overreacting hugely.

I used to exhibit autoecholalia: I would repeat out loud the last thing I said, over and over, completely oblivious to it unless somebody passed comment. I guess the comments started bothering me because although I still often repeat my last words I now do it silently and it rarely gets noticed. I also talk to myself when I’m focused on some task. Occasionally gets me a funny look in the office but I’m that deep in concentration I rarely notice. Besides, the software business tends to be used to eccentric behaviour.

I have a tendency to fidget. This is “stimming”: providing sensory stimulation to myself that I find calming. It’s subconscious; I’m not usually aware I’m doing it. It usually takes one of these forms: tapping or stroking myself, usually hands/arms or face, tensing and relaxing my jaw muscles, or some form of rocking motion.

Quite a list of symptoms. Reading this you may wonder that I can function among “normal” people at all. My usual strategy is to keep to myself as far as I can and try not to be noticed. Obviously some of my behavioural traits do draw attention but I have got into the habit of generally ignoring the reactions of people around me. I tend to stick to environments that I know well and feel comfortable in: this reduces sensory overload. I mix with people I know rather than going to new places. Where I can’t avoid interactions with people I don’t know I have developed the strategy of playing a role: I guess it’s another example of a routine or ritual, but I have my “software developer” role for talking to technical people, my “barman” role for when I’m behind the bar, and so on. I can even talk to strangers on the phone as long as I have a clear goal and a plan for how the interaction will progress.

So in conclusion I have got to the point now where I can get by from day to day and even cope with some of the spanners life throws into the works. Some things still throw me, and I doubt that I’ll ever get the hang of conversation. But I don’t mind. It’s not important to me. I’ve got my hobbies to keep me amused.


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