Friday, June 3, 2011

Wrestling with Aspergers


Light-Headed Thoughts

I have Aspergers Syndrome. It is not a formal diagnosis -- few psychologists will give an adult a formal diagnosis, I’ve discovered. It was not a diagnosis when I was young -- I was intellectually brilliant, but also eccentric and odd. I would not look at people when they talked to me, or me to them. I had a ‘funny’ walk (which the military and martial arts repaired). I had a mind like a steel trap, read stacks of books, and was miles ahead of my classmates. My parents were urged to put me ahead a grade or two (they refused). I was told I had the highest “IQ” in the school, then scolded for being a ‘B’ student. But I was too socially awkward to be in any of the cliques, and was mercilessly bullied -- so badly that I chose to go into the military to escape this environment -- and learned a trade.

It’s been quite a revelation --both good and not-so-good- in deciphering who I am in relation to having Aspergers. I’m still ‘me’ -- but my personal image has shifted significantly -- parts coming into sharp focus, lights coming on, and other parts drifting into shadow -- remaining unfathomable and mysterious. I am going to touch on some of these things in this and future posts. Perhaps if you are a ‘neurotypical’ (NT) person, it might help you to understand how people like us perceive things.

One very major area of both mystery and enlightenment is my difficulty speaking in an articulate manner spontaneously. Don’t get me wrong -- I can speak, and make ‘small talk’ -- but after that, I’m in the weeds. (People and things really don’t interest me as much as ideas do.) It was much worse when I was younger and oblivious to it -- but now that I am older, and cognizant of it, it is still an issue. Realizing that I have this deficit, and that it was probably responsible for more than a few unfortunate (even harrowing) setbacks in my life, is sobering. It’s also been responsible for my inability to defend myself when under pressure, stressed, or angry. When I am in extremis, I sometimes lose the capacity to speak at all -- the words vanish -- and bullies took awful advantage of this. It has made me very avoidant of situations where I might find myself stressed and needing to make myself clear. In these situations, I often find my words disregarded, ignored, or -- worst of all -- misinterpreted. It has made me very leery of speaking up in certain situations.

Even worse, my inability to be articulate in stressful situations has habituated some colleagues into believing that I do not have any real intelligent input. Colleagues of this stamp will ignore what I have said, step on what I am saying, or interrupt me. What is worse is that these colleges will repeat what I have already said, as if my ideas were their own, rendering me effectively invisible. Sometimes, this appropriation of my ideas are repeated by others. The irony is that I am often highly praised by people who do permit me to speak properly, in my own time.

When I can rehearse, or ‘script’ what I must say, or better -- write it down as I am doing here -- I come through with brilliant clarity. People understand me, people listen. People interact. I am in control of my part of the conversation. I did quite well at sales using this technique. I knew what I was selling, was very familiar with the behavior patterns, flow and conversation branches, and was in ‘my’ element.

But when I am out of my element -- in the wildly tangled and noisy environment of the NT world -- I have to silence all the accompanying noise to find the true thread. Trying to parse conversations in the wild would be the NT equivalent of trying to pick out a conversation in a roaring storm. If my cognitive apprehension was a master control board with all the elements in various channels -- all the fader controls would be set on ‘max’, rather than at the various nominal levels that an NT takes for granted. It makes dealing with novel situations quite difficult. I try to remember this, so my life does not become a familiar rut, but it makes some aspects of being in the NT world (like travel, crowds and shopping) almost painful. Unfortunately, this is their planet, not mine. Mine would not be so loud and vulgar.

But ‘noise’ is not something that most NTs deal with -- it’s normal to them -- they’re attracted to it, and they can tune it out effortlessly. They can read the people, the mood, ignore peripheral actions or conversations, figure out if a conversation is literal or rhetorical… it’s all hard-wired (those sliders again!). Not for me. I have to figure everything -- and everyone --out ‘by hand’, first parsing, then systematically ‘silencing’ things that are not conducive to my understanding of the situation. Until I do that, all the ‘little things’ rule: I’ll notice someone’s perfume, hear the small noises in the room, wonder if they’re talking about abstract or concrete things, parse the timbre of the voices, wonder if what they’re talking about is important… And if it’s a problem they’re trying to solve, a whole new noise source comes into play as I ‘chase the stick’ trying to solve the problem. And if I have to say something before all this is mentally nailed down, I am in trouble, because trying to cue up something coherent to say adds even more noise (and stress) to the already overloaded processing I am doing.

I am, like many Aspies, a systemizer, that is: very adept at seeing patterns in the flow of things. So I see things -- even my own comprehension and response to this problem -- as a system problem. In this particular system (my head), part of the problem is all this high-end processing and parsing is happening at once, and at a very high level, bogging down my ability to respond, because everything has equal cognitive weight until I silence it. NTs do not have this problem- -- they do this unconsciously and instantaneously. One might say that they don’t even perceive it, which might count for all the myriad annoyances I experience and they don’t (like the noise dogs make).

The other problem is the bottleneck that is created when I have to punch through all that unnecessary noise, grasp the gist, then respond naturally. I like to reply to things clearly, but that level of coherence takes longer to compose, edit and articulate. Often, the conversation has moved on to something else, or worse, they’re waiting for me to speak (when they do). And instead of the articulate, nuanced, and precise reply they want, they’ll get a muddled muddy mess. And often, my understanding of an item is so detailed and in-depth that my answer might be out in left field --to the listeners -- because they haven’t gotten to that point in their grasp of the problem yet. The latency between my understanding the pattern and flow of what I am talking about and my ability to articulate it is vast, sad to say. When I am understood, I tend to leave people in the dust. They have to struggle to get to the same point in understanding that my intuitive leaps have gotten me to. It often places me in awkward spots -- I know the solution to a problem before they have diagnosed it, but I cannot show them what it is because they do not grasp the way that I think, and I cannot properly articulate it in a way they’d understand. My internal process and their external apprehension are totally opposite.

So, I stay silent.

But not always. That same deficit -- the need for long processing times, also permits me to gather a very nuanced big picture of things. When I do that, my ‘after action’ inputs are brilliant. So is the dry wit that goes along with it. In fact, as I have aged, my capacity for the witty riposte has grown-- it is the one area where I am not muted, where there is no noise -- where thought arises spontaneously without effort. Because I have that picture -- I can craft a humorous comeback that brings down the house. It’s a great defense mechanism, too- -- a way to disperse bad energy, bail out of a sticky situation, or change the power dynamic.

But it isn’t easy living in a world where the ‘rules’ are hard-wired, and there is no manual to figure things out. In many ways, it really is a ‘wrong planet’. And bad as it is for males, it is even worse for females, because we hide it better. All I can say is that, as you get older, it does get better.

Part of it is learning what NOT to do, say, act, and the other part is something that hasn’t really been studied -- and that is the effects of maturation on the Aspergian brain. My own personal theory is that we have many more connections to make, and they are not automatic, but they DO get made, and we can pass for ‘normal’ in most cases. The sheer number and depth of connections in our brains makes it a longer process. I know that in my twenties, I was still pretty much a kid, cognitively. In my thirties, I started using my pattern recognition skills, and those deepened significantly in my forties.

Now, in the beginning of my fifties, I am looking to see how the changes of maturity and menopause will affect my cognitive functioning. And now that I have accepted the fact that I do have Aspergers Syndrome, I will learn how that affects my perceptions.