Many people with Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) are seen as being egocentric. Or aloof. Or arrogant. There’s a distinctive tendency to focus on one’s own experience, sometimes to the exclusion of everyone else. As one of the hallmark traits of AS, this is a social difficulty that has had a profound effect on my life. In my case, it’s more subtle, but it’s had no less impact than on people like my brothers, both of them social misfits.
I won’t speak to my brothers’ experiences right now–Deep Thought (the younger brother) told me he’d be interested in guest blogging later–but I can speak to mine. I’ve never been a social butterfly, but I can talk to people. Then again, that’s often the problem. I can talk to people. With? Well…I’ve always been a chatterbox. Even when I was little, I could talk an elephant’s ear into oblivion. As long as I had something to tell an audience, I was happy to share every little factoid. This remains true today, albeit with filters. I also liked to ask questions. However, I had little patience for listening once someone answered. This didn’t play well with other children, of course.
Interaction with peers is the bane of existence for anyone who is different. I remember wanting so badly to have friends that I would try to find ways to impress them. Whether it was drawing, getting a popular toy, or trying to show how smart I was, nothing seemed to win me friends. I had the notion that being good at something or having a trendy item would win me favor. In a 2002 paper, Tony Atwood shares a story from his sister-in-law’s past:
In their attempts to make friends, the child’s intentions can be misinterpreted. The author’s sister-in-law explains that as a child she was “longing to make friends, when someone complimented a drawing I had done, I started giving people drawings until someone accused me of bragging – a rebuke I never forgot. I was only trying to win friendship”. (Atwood)
In my case, I didn’t go around giving out drawings too all the children, but I would go around showing my drawings to anyone who would listen. What stopped me wasn’t someone telling me not to brag, but another children who accused me of tracing a horse head I was particularly proud to have drawn. I was crushed that anyone would think I cheated! Although it wasn’t in that incident, I did get the “it’s not nice to brag” lecture at some point. This upset me, of course, as I had no intention of bragging. I just wanted to share things that I did well so that others would like me. If I was good at something, what was wrong with sharing it?
Seeking acceptance is a pattern that has followed me throughout my life and continues today. Fortunately, I’ve learned to hold back when appropriate. Usually. Unfortunately, it’s a difficult impulse to deny. No matter how hard I try, I still fall prey to the urge to info dump when someone shows interest. It’s like any spark of interest grants me permission to go full bore into the subject. This has caused me more than a little embarrassment.
In 2008, I attended the Chicago-North RWA (a Romance Writers of America chapter) Spring Fling writers’ conference. Christie Ridgeway was one of the headline speakers, and a very nice person. During that weekend, I was trying very hard to act like a “normal” person. Choosing my words and topics carefully, letting other people speak, etc. Then Christie said something about horses. I can’t remember what, but I think it had something to do with Del Mar, north of San Diego.
I often forget that there’s a race track at Del Mar–my one experience with it was the outdoor arena where I got to exercise a show horse (hunt seat [English], not race). With that in mind, I launched into an animated, one-sided discussion about riding horses. Poor Christie couldn’t have been nicer, sitting there and listening. In the end, I remembered to be nice and ask a question. To my horror, she admitted she never rode, and that she was afraid of trying to get on a horse. She’d be referring to the Del Mar race course and being there as a spectator. Yeah, my face went red.
You can see how this can be frustrating. No matter how hard I try, I inevitably slip. There are other ways in which I appear egocentric. Besides the drive to talk about subjects important to me, I have to constantly remind myself to show interest in what’s happening in other people’s lives. I am trying to be a better listener, but it’s a challenge. The following excerpt describes this difficulty. I don’t fit every point here, but parts or all of it do apply to anyone with Asperger’s, and many people with ADHD:
Because adults with Asperger syndrome struggle to understand emotions in others, they miss subtle cues such as facial expression, eye contact and body language. As a result, someone with AS appears aloof, selfish or uncaring. Neurologically, adults with AS are unable to understand other people’s emotional states. They are usually surprised, upset and show remorse when informed of the hurtful or inappropriate effect of their actions. Affected people show as much interest as others do in intimate relationships. However, most AS adults lack the social or empathetic skills to effectively manage romantic relationships. A person with Asperger syndrome behaves at younger developmental age in relationships. The subtleties of courtship are unfamiliar and sometimes inappropriate physical contact results. (Leigh)
I’m not going to discuss any romantic situation here, other than to say that I’ve been married for eleven years, and it’s been a rocky ride. Out of respect for Xife, I’ll set aside this aspect of my life for now.
All that said, there are a few things about me that makes some people question whether I have Asperger’s and “only” have ADHD: Empathy, and imaginative ability. With empathy, I have mixed feelings (no pun intended). I am very protective of people I care about. This gives the appearance of me being empathetic. I have also been known to show empathy for people I don’t know, a bigger “strike” against an AS diagnosis. That’s a surface judgement. Why does anyone show empathy to a stranger? I don’t know about other people, but the thing that gets me going for or against anyone is if someone has been–in my opinion–wronged. I hold fast and hard to my view of what’s right, and I hate it when people do things that aren’t right.
When I really think about it, my “empathy” isn’t feeling for the other person so much as reacting to the situation. If I feel joy for another person, it’s because something good and right happened. If I feel anger or sadness, it’s because something bad happened. The thing I wonder is if this is normal. Is it? Or is this atypical? I guess my view of empathy is that you’re supposed to feel something for the person. I’m feeling it for the situation. Isn’t that a big distinction? If not, and if I’m over-analyzing this, I will (cough) humbly let it go.
I’m not going to address my feelings about imaginative play/work, as it’s not germane to this topic. I will write about it another time. Frankly, I’ve always had a big imagination, but not in play. More like wanting to escape into fictional worlds through reading and writing. I can’t say that I remember any role playing other than when my cousin dragged us into playing “house.” It was boring, especially because I didn’t get to have a say in anything.
Thank you for taking the time to read this. Feel free to post comments or pass on the link to this blog. Have a great weekend!
Atwood, Tony. “The Profile of Friendship Skills in Asperger’s Syndrome.” TonyAtwood.com. 2009. Web: 08 July 2010 <http://www.tonyattwood.com.au/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=71:the-profile-of-friendship-skills-in-aspergers-syndrome&catid=44:resource-papers&Itemid=180>
Leigh, Samantha. “Asperger’s Syndrome in Adults Symptoms.” Livestrong.com. 18 April 2010. Web: 08 July 2010. http://www.livestrong.com/article/108614-aspergers-syndrome-adults-symptoms/