Surviving a Music Festival as an Aspie: Or How I Stopped Worrying About Being Cool

 

Concert with Skyline

I recently attended an outdoor music festival with my daughter, as her “birthday present.” I still can’t believe I agreed to go.

It required flying to a (relatively) distant location, staying in a hotel, and standing / walking in extremely close proximity to thousands of people for hours, on two separate days. Not exactly my favorite type of experience. But my daughter really — desperately — wanted to go; the festival featured several of her favorite bands. And the only way she could was if I accompanied her. (My wife hates massive public events even more than I do. So she was not an option.)

If there’s an experience that exemplifies the challenges of understanding neurotypical social interactions, it’s the massive outdoor event. And this one in particular was mostly populated by adolescents and twenty-somethings, who engage in lots of “rituals” that are too varied and fact-specific to be simply mimicked.

But lately I’ve been feeling more comfortable with interaction at large events. I’ve found I even enjoy parts of it (more on that later).

For example, when I first entered the music festival, a stranger held out his fist as I passed by, and I actually recognized it, albeit slower than most, as a request for a fist-bump. So I obliged. My daughter was bemused: why would a 20-something want to fist-bump her (old) father? But at least she didn’t cover her eyes or look away — you know, the “I can’t believe my father just did something so embarrassing” look. I think she might have even been proud. (But just so the record is clear, the fist-bump was more of an anomaly; the next day, when an intoxicated older woman offered me a bottle of beer, I did not accept; taking a drink from a stranger — and beer no less, which I despise — would be going too far.)

It was actually liberating, in a sense, to be at the festival. By deciding to attend, I had necessarily made a decision to challenge some of my biggest anxieties head-on, facing my fears, the same way someone with a fear of heights (another fear I have) might stand precariously on the edge of a cliff, looking down. (But I would NEVER do that.)

In fact, it was even worse (and therefore better?) from an anxiety standpoint, than I anticipated. It had rained heavily for days before the event, which meant large sections of the venue were covered in thick goopy mud. To approach some of the stages, you had to submerse your shoes in a murky brown paste. In case you think I’m exaggerating:

muddy shoes

I wouldn’t say I conquered any fears; even at the concert, I still made efforts to maximize my personal space and minimize the degree and frequency of social interaction. But still, I participated in an activity outside of my comfort zone. And I found that I enjoyed being surrounded by people (to a certain extent) and I enjoyed the spontaneity (again, to a certain extent).

At 40, I’m so much more comfortable with myself, with my “own skin” as some people say, than when I was younger. That made me happy. On the other hand, being at the concert and seeing so many people in the 16-24 age group brought back memories, many of them painful, of growing up and desperately trying to fit in, to be one of the popular kids. And of outdoor concerts.

I still vividly remember the time I went to a 4th of July day-long outdoor concert the summer between my junior and senior year of high school. I was attending an academic summer school, and even there I made few friends. I was so miserable that I left the event just before it got dark, just before the best part (the fireworks). As I walked to the subway station, everyone was moving in the direction toward the park, except me. It was a metaphor turned real.

Fast forward to the present: As a 40 year old accompanied by his tween daughter, I was now having a much more enjoyable experience at an outdoor concert than I did when I was younger (the age at which people are “supposed” to enjoy those events). It made me happy but was also a bitter irony; I guess it was bittersweet.

And I asked myself: Why was my experience better now? Why was it better at the time in my life when most people hate standing in the sun for hours surrounded by lots of noise and sweaty teenagers?

Perhaps the answer is life experience, a greater knowledge of how the world works and how to be happy in my “own skin.” Maybe it’s also partly that, unlike when I was younger, now I’m not trying so hard to be cool, to be accepted. It also helps to have a wife and daughter who help guide me — who, while they accept my quirks, also aren’t afraid to tell me when I’ve gone too far. And I guess I’m also more willing to take risks now that death’s doorstep is that much closer.

If I could speak to my younger self, the version of me who struggled so much, I would tell him to have his own style … but to choose it carefully and then fully embrace it, and not to worry whether it matches other people’s. I’d also tell him that life will get better; he just has to be patient. And that he should give outdoor musical festivals another try.

Incidentally, if you haven’t listened to songs by Vampire Weekend or Cage the Elephant, I highly recommend them. A good place to start with Vampire Weekend is Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa and Horchata. And for Cage the Elephant, I’d recommend Aberdeen and Shake Me Down. I tried to post a video clip from the festival but it was too large. If you want a sense of what it’s like to see Cage the Elephant live — they put on an amazing show — here’s a clip from a different music festival. Hope you enjoy!

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My Evening with Dr. Sheldon Cooper (But is he an Aspie role model?)

the_big_bang_theory_covers_sheldon_cooper_851x315-851x315I know, I disappeared again. Sorry.

I’ve written about obsession, my tendency to fixate on something and not let go. And that’s what keeps happening: I move from one thing to another, again and again (sometimes things like watches or video games, sometimes concepts like death or quantum physics).

In so doing, I’ve neglected my blog, I think because of my fear I’ll let people down (which, ironically, I have) by not devoting myself fully. Damn you, obsession! This time, I won’t make any promises, but I’m hoping — really hoping — I can keep that obsessive little demon at bay for a while.

Today’s post, though, is in fact about an object of my obsession, most people’s favorite sit-com, “The Big Bang Theory,” and in particular, the character Dr. Sheldon Cooper (played, amazingly, by Jim Parsons).

It’s become conventional wisdom that Sheldon is an Aspie, even though the writers have denied it. This is not a novel topic, I realize. Others have posted intelligent and insightful blogs about Sheldon and Asperger’s, including here, here and here. But I’m hoping my perspective advances the conversation.

Let me explain the title. One of my feverish aspirations (i.e., “dreams”), for the past year or so, was to see a taping of “The Big Bang Theory.” Ever since I became aware of the show — and I was a latecomer in that regard, sadly — I’ve obsessed over it. I watch it just about every day. Sometimes even multiple episodes in the same day. I’ve even gotten my wife and daughter hooked, which, given their TV show preferences, is no small feat.

The next logical step was to see it in-person, as it’s being taped. It was a realistic plan, unlike many of mine, since I live within a relatively short drive of the Warner Bros. studios in Burbank. (I should clarify: it’s a “short” drive outside of rush hour, which, in LA, lasts from 6:00 to 11:00 am and 2:30 to 7:00 pm.)

I tried to get tickets so many times. Just as Sheldon, Leonard, Howard and Raj clicked the refresh button over and over to get Comic-Con tickets in one episode, I did too, using multiple computers and smartphones.

Finally, one day, I succeeded, but I was able to get only one ticket, and it was “standby,” meaning I’d have to wait in a line for hours and hope few VIPs showed up that day. I’d also have to calculate what time I needed to arrive to maximize my chances of getting a ticket, again, like the BBT guys (although hopefully with better success). But I was not deterred, and after about five hours of waiting, I got in. (I’ll include details about the experience in a future post.)

So that’s how I spent an evening with Sheldon. Okay, perhaps “with” is an overstatement. But I was in his vicinity, at least, and I think at one point he may have looked at me.

But back to the primary topic: Sheldon and Asperger’s.

I would agree Sheldon has Aspie characteristics. That’s beyond doubt, with examples provided in the links above and some compilation videos like this one. And much of the time, he does seem to act as one would expect a person with Asperger’s to act: he doesn’t understand social conventions (and has to memorize them); he interprets statements literally and is bad at noticing sarcasm; he has trouble reading emotional states and interacting with other; he engages in many rigid routines (the three-time door knock is probably the most well-known); and he gets fixated on a subject and will converse about it at length regardless of whether others in the room are interested; and he has great difficulty seeing the world from the perspective of others. (I identify with all those traits.)

But, despite these limitations, he’s often quite adept at conversing with others, at coming up with quick witty retorts, at using humor to make light of situations (and with good timing and delivery), and at joking around with friends and colleagues. (Here’s a good compilation.) One of my favorite examples, which includes all of these things, is the scene where Sheldon is attending a lecture by famous string theorist Brian Greene.

Don’t get me wrong: it gives me great pleasure to see Sheldon use humor. It’s extremely entertaining and makes him an engaging, intriguing, interesting character. In fact, it’s probably what redeems him (in the eyes of many) for his insensitive behavior.

But there’s the rub. I suspect that many people, especially in the neurotypical community, love Sheldon not so much because of his insensitivity but because he’s so funny. It’s human nature to want to be in the company of those who make people laugh, and to look past those people’s “bad” traits. The problem is, most Aspies are not that funny.

On the contrary, what makes Aspies so unique and valuable to society (at least in my opinion) is their earnestness and loyalty, their intellect, their ability to focus and concentrate on a single subject for great lengths of time and ignore all distractions, the unique perspective they bring to all types of issues. Aspies are not known for their humor. (But if anyone feels differently, by all means, please post a comment.)

My concern is that the character of Sheldon, who, after all has his lines written by some of Hollywood’s top comedy writers, has set too high a bar. I worry that people will expect that when they interact with an Aspie, he or she will say something insensitive … but then follow up with a witty retort or a joke. But most likely, there will be no follow up; it will just be the insensitive (but truthful and insightful) comment.

But maybe my fear is unfounded; maybe people understand that Sheldon is just a TV character, and that Aspies they encounter in the real world aren’t as funny or entertaining. I certainly hope so. Even with the risks Sheldon poses, I am grateful for his creation.

By the way, the episode I saw taped (a couple weeks ago) airs today. If you watch Big Bang Theory, you probably don’t need to be told to pay attention to Sheldon’s lines. But just as a “head’s up,” watch for Sheldon’s lines when he walks into a “fusion” restaurant with Penny. His insensitive but brilliant biting humor is at its very best.

Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

This is not a full post (or even a quarter post) but, well, an apology for my extended absence. I will write a lengthier post with an explanation (of sorts). In the meantime, I appreciate those who continued to follow my blog, comment, etc. I will start posting again, soon, I promise!

In the meantime, I’ve changed my header as a clue to part of the reason for my blog vacation. How can you be mad at me with such a face staring at you? 🙂

Incidentally, while I have a number of topics in mind, if anyone has a suggestion for a future post please let me know. Thanks!

Asperger’s and Mimicry or Imitation — My Experience

Even butterflies do it

Copycats!

Viceroy and Monarch

Within the past two years, around the same time I realized I had Asperger’s, I had a parallel realization. Actually, it was so sudden, I think it fairly qualifies as an epiphany: I often mimicked the speech and related behavior of others.

It was unconscious and not apparent to me at the time. But now, looking back at many years of social interaction, I apprehended that if I was talking to a person who spoke slowly, I would often speak slowly — even though words usually leave my mouth like bullets from a machine gun. Or, if he or she said “um,” “you know” or other filter words a lot, so would I. If the person had a strange cadence, pausing every several words, I’d do that too. Same for people who cut sentences short, left the last word trailing off, who spoke with a rat-a-tat delivery, or who over-annunciated, contorting their lips into dramatic postures. I even added regional accents to my speech sometimes, to match the speakers’. Whatever the person’s delivery, inflection and cadences, I would often adopt them as my own, for the duration of the encounter.

And it wasn’t just speech, the imitation included body language and other speech-related behavior too. Of course, I didn’t, or couldn’t, engage in this behavior in group settings (who would I focus on?); it had to be one-on-one. And even then, I didn’t always do it. But I did it a lot.

I can’t pinpoint the exact day I discovered it, but I remember what I thought: I’m a chameleon. The realization was kinda cool but mostly freaky and troubling. If it was true, if I only echoed the speech and behavior of others, how could I know what my “true” conversational style was? Did I even have one? (As a side note, I’ve been successful in debate and other forms of public speaking, but in those arenas, there are effectively rules about how to speak — annunciating words clearly, using hand gestures a certain way, etc.)

Chameleon

Is this me, metaphorically?

The good news was that because my imitation only happened one-on-one, I figured I should be able to discover my “true” style by examining past group interactions. I didn’t participate much but I did participate, at least minimally. So I thought about those interactions, and concluded I did have my own style, it just was often hidden. If I had to summarize it, I’d say I spoke quickly, tended to stop briefly at the end of clauses, often trailed off at the end of sentences, because I assumed others knew where I was headed logically, or what I meant. And I naturally used “big” words (as others put it). I certainly had the classic Aspie characteristics of talking too much, too quickly, passionately and loudly when the topic was dear to my heart.

I also researched the topic of mimicry/imitation and found some references, such as here and here. And I learned there’s even a term for it, at least when used in a certain narrow context, echolalia. The few sources I found seemed to suggest it was more common in women. A female Aspie even did a detailed survey of women to see how common the trait was.

These sources also indicated the mimicry was not limited to one-one-one interactions but was more general in nature; Aspies often adopted the mannerisms of peers, family, friends, even people on TV. And here’s something I found really interesting: Aspies didn’t necessarily mimic people of the same gender. Sometimes, women imitated men or men imitated women. The survey I mentioned above found that 41.93% of female Aspies said they copied the behavior of both genders. And as Tony Atwood, one of the leading experts on Asperger’s, explained: “A boy with Asperger’s syndrome may notice how popular his sister is with her peers. He may also recognize that girls and women, especially his mother, are naturally socially intuitive; so to acquire social abilities, he starts to imitate girls.”

When I saw that last bit of information, I couldn’t help thinking that, maybe, the observation applied to me. (Oh no.) I never thought of myself as feminine, but on the other hand, I wouldn’t say I was an exemplar of masculinity either. I mean, I played lots of sports and did reasonably well, but I wasn’t one of those macho guys who punched other guys in the shoulder, uttered a curse word every third word, watched football and drank beer, and ogled or hit on any attractive woman who walked in the room. Maybe I had been picking up behavior cues from women, not realizing they were gender-specific.

Now, I know gender is largely a social construction, or many think so anyway, and I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with a guy engaging in what is typically considered “feminine” behavior. But in my case, I did it unknowingly, not as a deliberate choice. Now that I’m aware of my tendency to mimic, I can control it, decide what behaviors I want to copy, and which I don’t.

I should add that, as my psychologist later pointed out, everybody, even neurotypicals, engages in imitation to a certain degree. Ironically, it’s a form of empathy (ironic because Aspies are often said to lack that trait.) The difference with Aspies, as I understand the scholarly research, is the degree of imitation.

I still struggle with the question of what / who is my true self. I guess everyone does to a certain extent, but for me, and other Aspies I presume, the trouble is the lack of “rules.”  There are no rules for how to behave when conversing with others — whether to curse (and how much), whether to talk a lot or a little, whether to tease others, how sensitive to be to others’ feelings, whether to make statements I suspect will be seen as inappropriate, what to talk about, who to talk to, when to engage in conversation, when to walk away, how friendly to be and to whom. These all involve choices, and for me, someone who doesn’t have an intuitive feel and likes to approach decisions rationally and deliberately, they are difficult to make.

One of the most profound things I’ve learned, although it sounds like a cliche, is that I should never behave a certain way just because others are. Of course, there are certain social norms that should be respected, like the criminal laws (although even there, you have to know what activities, like speeding, jaywalking and gambling, people routinely engage in, and society condones, legal prohibitions notwithstanding). But for the most part, behavior is a choice. And I suppose it’s liberating to realize, finally, that I get to decide who I am … even though it means I have many tough decisions to make.

For all your Aspies out there, male and female, do you think you mimic the behavior of others? And does it bother you?

Even frogs do it ... or are they toads?

Even frogs do it … or are they toads?

“Mary and Max” or: how odd can an Aspie be?

Mary-And-Max Aspies for Freedom

The other day my wife and I watched the stop-animation (i.e., claymation) film “Mary and Max.” It’s about a little girl living in Australia, Mary, who becomes pen-pals with a middle aged New Yorker named Max. The opening credits claim it’s “based on a true story.”

My wife usually refuses to watch stop-animation films, but for some reason, this one appealed to her. I suspect it’s because Max has Asperger’s and I told her so — she sometimes tries to figure me out by studying the behavior of fictional Aspies — but she denied it. I had a bad feeling when I saw that the Aspie, Max, looked like a human version of Shrek. But viewers gave the movie four full stars on Netflix (a rare accomplishment, as any of you Netflix viewers know) and besides I like claymation, so I said ok.

My wife really liked the movie; me, not so much. I’ll admit it was very creative, and different, and certainly entertaining. So I can’t say I hated it. But something about it bothered me: Max, even for an Aspie, was really odd.

Right off the bat, there’s his appearance — the human Ogre thing. He’s physically quite revolting, even in clay. Aspies are often awkward, nervous, and stressed out by social interactions, and he definitely was all that. But where in the DSM-IV does it say that Aspies, or people with autism generally, look like Halloween creatures?

I also can’t avoid mentioning his, um, girth. Now I know weight is a controversial topic, and lots of people struggle with weight issues. But Max isn’t just slightly overweight or even obese. He weighs 350 pounds. And that’s just at the beginning of the movie! By the end, he’s gotten considerably fatter (“wider,” as the movie puts it). I would guess — did they weigh the clay? — he was about 450 lbs. by the end. It’s no wonder, considering his diet — mostly “chocolate hot dogs,” chocolate bars nestled inside hot dog buns. I forget the exact number but one day he ate over 30 of them.

Someone reading this might be thinking, but the movie’s based on a true story, so what was the writer supposed to do? Well, it turns out that, in an interview, the writer, Adam Eliot, admits he fibbed a bit when he characterized it as “based” on a true story. He now says the term “inspired” is more accurate. But I’m not even sure that’s right.

The names are of course made up, but so are basic attributes of the characters. Turns out “Mary” is actually a boy — in fact, Adam Eliot based that character on himself. And it wasn’t Mary who wrote Max but the other way around. Also, Eliot wasn’t 8 when he started the correspondence; he was 17, almost an adult.

There are more fundamental differences. One of the key commonalities between Max and Mary was that they were loners, without any friends, shunned by the outside world and misunderstood. Mary was even suicidal at one point. But in real life, Eliot (i.e., Mary), though he claims in some sense to be “different,” was not bullied as a child and had plenty of friends. So that part was false as well. Even Max’s typing his letters was inaccurate — the real “Max” handwrote most of them.

SPOILER ALERT:

Eliot also says, quite significantly in my opinion, that the real pen-pal “looks very different” than Max. I take this to mean, although Eliot doesn’t explicitly say so, that, unlike Max, his pen-pal is not morbidly obese, doesn’t not eat chocolate hot dogs, is not hideously ugly (does Eliot even know what he looks like?), did not win the lottery and use his winnings to buy chocolate, did not kill a sidewalk mime when Max’s in-window air conditioner landed on top of the mime’s head, and was not institutionalized for eight months for a nervous breakdown. (It’s not surprising, then, that the real “Max” wasn’t very pleased to see how he was represented in the movie.)

In other words, and here’s why I supplied so many details about the movie, the writer made the Aspie far stranger than he actually is!

Why did he do this? I can’t claim to know his motivations, but here’s what I think — he used his Aspie pen-pal as nothing more than inspiration for a fanciful story, sort of a dark fairytale. That might be all right, except that for lots of people, this is is one of their first encounters with Asperger’s. In case anyone misses it, Max is identified as an Aspie in the movie’s description and at one point even wears a t-shirt identifying himself as such.

Now, I don’t necessarily agree with the media’s “Sheldon Cooper” characterization of Asperger’s either. (This excellent post dispels any doubt Sheldon’s an Aspie.) Sheldon, whom I’ll write about more in-depth in another post, is sort of the anti-Max. He’s brilliant, funny and endearing, and according to my female co-workers, quite handsome. (At last year’s “White Elephant” gift exchange, a cardboard cutout of Sheldon was “stolen” several times — it was the most popular gift!) But either extreme gets it wrong.

I realize Max (and Sheldon) is just a fictional character, and hopefully, most people can tell the difference between fiction and reality. But why couldn’t “Max and Mary” have featured an Aspie who was more, well, normal? Trust me, I’ve lived in New York, and your garden variety New Yorker is plenty strange as is.

Update (7/9/2013): Another blogger has published an interesting list of movies that feature Aspies, including “Mary and Max”:  http://aspiegirls.wordpress.com/2012/12/28/2-movies-where-one-or-more-character-got-autism-or-aspergers/

Disengaging or: Does it matter how many people attend my funeral?

Cover of "The Thing About Life Is That On...

Inside: learn the many ways your body deteriorates on the slow, but inevitable, march to death! 

I realize the title is a bit morose. Why am I already thinking of my death? Don’t worry: I’m not suicidal. It’s just that it gives me more serenity to think of death — more specifically, my inevitable death — than to avoid it. I don’t obsessively think about; I just imagine it from time to time. The “Western” view sees that as strange. But in Buddhism, there are meditations that require practitioners to visualize their dead body in its casket or examine corpses in various states of decay. I’ve tried it several times (imagining my dead body, not examining corpses) and it’s more comforting than you’d think.

My view might be influenced, ever so slightly, by a book my wife gave me which I recently read, David Shields’ aptly-titled “The Thing About Life is that One Day You’ll Be Dead.” It’s part anecdotal, about the author’s Nonogenerian father, but mostly about the steady march of death and profound transformations that occur daily in our bodies. He cites lots of data, none of it good news. But somehow, the exhaustive descriptions of shrinking, shriveling, softening and drying are, paradoxically, life-affirming.

By now, if you hadn’t several paragraphs ago, you’re probably asking what this has to do with Asperger’s. I myself wonder that same thing. (That was a joke. And not a very good one, since I had to explain it with a parenthetical.) The answer is, within several months of being diagnosed with Asperger’s — in other words, about a year ago — I started to, well, disengage with the social (interpersonal) world around me.

Here’s what I mean when I say “disengage.” I rarely go to parties. I hardly ever invite people to my house. I go to few social functions, unless they involve co-workers. I even closed my Facebook account (I guess it would be more accurate to say I put it in abeyance, as Facebook really discourages permanently deleting one’s account). I rarely contact old friends. My social circle has grown smaller.

Instead of socializing with the outside world, I spend almost all of my time interacting with the inside one. I am fortunate to have an amazing wife and daughter, who give me lots of love and attention (although recently, my daughter has started texting so much I sometimes am tempted to send her a text even when she’s sitting next to me on the sofa). They are, quite simply, the focus of my life.

Part of why I’ve chosen, at least for now, to disengage from the non-family social world is because of discoveries I made during sessions with my psychologist (I’m not sure he would approve). After diagnosing me with Asperger’s, he would frequently ask me, “What do you want?” As in, what do you want out of life? In other words, do I want to have more friends? Do I want to be more social? Do I want to “network” more? Or could I care less?

I watched so many TV shows over the years where the characters have a reasonably large group of close friends they see every day (and often live next door to, or meet up at the same coffee shop every day, for some strange reason), that I came to believe that’s-how-people-are-supposed-to-live. Fast-forwarded to its chronological extreme, the goal seems to be to have as many people as possible at one’s funeral. But my psychologist pointed out the absurdity of such a measurement. What does it matter how many people get dressed up and congregate near my dead body? I won’t be alive to see it!

Perhaps you already knew the idea of how many friends one has at his funeral was absurd. But stepping back from funerals, what about the focus on milestone birthdays or other occasions for celebration? The point is, it often seems like the quantity of one’s friends is supposed to say something about the person. How many people show up at a 40th, or 50th or 60th birthday? How many go to that person’s wedding, or that of their children? And of course: how many “Facebook friends” does he or she have?

But, I now realize, the number of one’s friends is irrelevant. The point of friends, or anybody or anything in life, really, is to make you/me happy. Happiness is the goal (Aristotle said it thousands of years ago).

So, I guess you could say I’m experimenting with the idea of having fewer people in my life who I count as close friends and who I interact with on a regular basis. I still have work friends, and old friends I occasionally hear from, other family members, tennis friends and other locally-based acquaintances.  But the overwhelming focus is on family and solitary activities.

I don’t know how it will turn out — the experiment isn’t over yet. But one thing I’ve discovered is that I no longer fear not having “enough” friends. I’m learning to value what matters to me, rather than what others perceive to matter. And that, to me, is the most life-affirming.

Speed kills

speedKillsAdNSW

 

As a political junkie, I often think of campaign adviser James Carville’s famous motto / catch-phrase during the 1992 presidential election: “Speed kills.” He meant that campaigns must strike quickly and respond quickly to attacks from the opponent. And that’s exactly what he did. The message is: move fast … or lose the race, literally and metaphorically.But the speed that makes me most anxious is the speed of social interactions. It’s ironic, because I have an overactive thyroid which accelerates many physiological processes. But as an Aspie, I am slow to process, and to respond to, the words and body language of others.

You know how every school or office has a “clown,” the person who, in a group setting, always delivers a witty retort that makes everyone laugh? Well, I’m the anti-clown. I’m the one who thinks of a response several seconds (or minutes) later. By then, the conversation has progressed. My response isn’t necessarily glacial or tortoise-like. But it’s slow enough to be a problem in social settings, where information is being communicated at lightning speed.

The vast majority of communications, and responses thereto, happen extremely quickly and almost imperceptibly. When a person is talking, very little is communicated through the spoken words themselves.  A UCLA psychology professor famously claimed words account for only 7% of the message communicated. While the research behind the 7% claim has been criticized, there’s wide agreement that words are only a very small part of interpersonal communication.

I think everyone recognizes there are non-verbal aspects to communication. But I don’t know if their speed is fully appreciated, or how many of them happen simultaneously. The term “body language” is often used. When it’s unpacked, though, it turns out there’s a lot to communication that the listener must process to understand the speaker.

There’s the way the words are spoken: their tone, pitch and emphasis, whether the statement is ascending or descending, the volume, the speed, how much the speaker articulates. And there’s the face: how the eyebrows move, the eyes’ gaze, the shape of the mouth, the movement of the eyes. And we can’t forget the arms and hands (positioning and movement of the arms, movement of the fingers, what part of the speaker’s body she touches, whether she touches and listener and where), or the feet (tapping, etc.) or the shifting of the body, proximity to the listener, and so on.

Aspies, myself included, are notoriously bad at reading all these non-verbal forms of communication. I’ve gotten better, now that I learned the “rules,” at least for some things, like rolling of the eyes, the “eyebrow flash,” tapping of the feet and folding of the arms.

But here’s the thing: even now that I know a lot of the non-verbal cues, I often process them too slowly, kind of like how a computer overwhelmed with commands, exhibits “lag.” I know the obvious signs of impatience (blank stare, folded arms, tapping feet, rapidly nodding head) But conversation, particularly in group settings, involves so much more, and it’s-all-happening-at-the-same-time.

Neurotypicals also forget, I think, that our environment is composed of nearly an infinite number of stimuli. We unconsciously filter out all but a select few. But Aspies tend to filter out a lot of the socially-related ones, whereas we notice many things that most people probably find boring and irrelevant — maybe the shape of the computer keyboard, the arrangement of cabinets in an office, the number of cars in a parking lot, discolorations in the carpet, unusual colors or shapes. By observing and processing these things (which don’t involve interpersonal interactions), our personal computing power is necessarily slower to observe and process other things (which do involve interpersonal interactions).

One-on-one, I’m now usually able to process non-verbal signals with sufficient speed. In fact, even my wife and psychologist — two of only five people who know I have Asperger’s — say it’s almost impossible to tell I’m an Aspie from one-on-one conversation. But add a bunch of people into the mix, and it’s a different story.

The problem is that when, for example, ten people are sitting at a table for a meal or other social gathering, the amount of non-verbal communication increases (almost) exponentially. Now, it’s not just about reading body language but figuring out who to read it from, and when. It’s information overload. I think this explains, in part, why many Aspies get mentally and physically exhausted from being with large groups of people.

Information overload and exhaustion. That’s probably as good a place as any to end this post. (Not a very smooth transition … but then I’m an Aspie.)

I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts (and tricks, if you have any) on processing non-verbal cues. Or speed. Or both.

Obsession (Not the Fragrance)

The word “obsession” reminds me of those Calvin Klein TV commercials from the 80’s. You know, the ones featuring a beautiful couple gazing passionately at one another, in the shadows, and ending with the woman whispering something mock-profound, like: “Where do I end and you begin? Obsession.” (If she really doesn’t know, then she’s got some serious identity issues.)

Obsession is a word I know well, and not because of Calvin Klein. I also am familiar with “obsessed” and “obsessive” and “obsessive compulsive.” I know these words well because, well, I become easily obsessed. It’s (only a little) comforting to know it’s a trait I share with other Aspies.

The object of my obsession changes. Not day to day, but more like year to year. I’m not someone who, for example, devotes his life to building model trains. I don’t think I could devote my life to anything. With me, I get deep into a subject, and it’s like I sink my teeth into it and can’t let go. Or a better metaphor would be that my teeth get stuck and I’m forced to chew and chew and chew until I’ve finally devoured the subject, to the point that no one wants to hear anymore about it. Ever. Again.

Over the past year, my obsession has been tennis. (Were you surprised, given my last post?) That includes not just tennis players, but tennis tournaments,  techniques (I’ve spent MONTHS practicing my “kick” serve), strategy, the history of tennis, ranking the greatest players, and perhaps most of all, tennis racquets (or as some prefer, especially those who have a pathological hatred of the French, rackets).

For the uninitiated — and that includes close to seven billion people, I’m guessing — there are hundreds of models of tennis racquets. Thousands, if you include historical racquets (I can tell you about the development from wood to metal to graphite to present day graphite blends, if you’re interested … which you’re probably not).

Different racquets have different characteristics: flex/stiffness, size of the face, how “headlight” or “headheavy,” the size of the beam, the length of the racquet, their swingweight. And then there are the strings, which are as important as the racquet. There’s multifilament and the newer polyester and nylon strings. But the gold standard is still natural gut. (It’s not cat gut, by the way, but cow gut. I’m not sure which is more disturbing, but it smells when it’s wet — ponder that.) Besides the type of string, the tension is important too; pros, and even casual players now, use everything from super loose (45 pounds per square inch), to being so tense the strings frequently break (75 pounds per square inch). If that’s not complicated enough, most players now use a hybrid mix of two types of strings … which often have different tensions!

The only silver lining is the practical application of this knowledge, that is, it helps me choose a racquet, or should in theory anyway. But what it’s done mostly is make me question whether my racquet or strings (or grip, or vibration dampener, or anti-sweat gel or whatever tennis-related thing I’m obsessing over) could be better. I’ve tried out about 40 different racquets over the past several years and only recently did I find what I think might (I cautiously say “might”) be The One. So, to a large extent, it’s knowledge just for knowledge’s sake. It also leads to new obsessions, like the one that is supplanting tennis (but that’s for another post).

Obsession is also distracting. Not distracting to me, but distracting to what I’m supposed to be doing, whether at home or work (or, in the past, at school). I’ve read Asperger’s books pointing out that being obsessive can be a positive, because detail-oriented people who can focus on a single topic for long stretches without interruption are often valued. In other words, obsession is actually less, not more, of a distraction. That view was recently validated when German software company SAP announced it’s actively seeking to hire Aspies. And I find some truth in it: every group, family or enterprise needs different personality types to function effectively. But for me, it’s a perpetual struggle to hold back the obsession demon, to concentrate on all the many work or home tasks I’m supposed to, rather than the particular subject I want to. (Case in point — I’m at work, and yet writing this blog; in the interest of full disclosure, though, I don’t have much work to do today.)

I’m not sure if, on balance, my obsessive nature is a positive or negative, although I’m leaning toward the latter. But I also know that fighting it only makes it worse, and makes me unhappy. So I try to manage my obsession the best I can, to let it run free until it (hopefully) tires itself out. There’s also the pharmacological route. But that too is for another post.

Hmm. Maybe my next obsession should be time management techniques.

(Any thoughts on techniques to manage obsessions are welcome.)

Roger Federer as the anti-Aspie

 

The man they call GOAT

The man they call GOAT

I recently* fulfilled a longtime dream: watching, in person, a match featuring Roger Federer. Federer is the tennis equivalent of Michael Jordan, Michael Schumacher, Pele or Babe Ruth, in their respective sports. In tennis, Federer is almost universally considered the Greatest of All Time; he is, as they say, the GOAT. In a sport where competition for the #1 rank is fierce, he held the top spot week after week, for four and a half years. (And he only dropped to #2 because he encountered a younger, left-handed Spaniard who, it turns out, is the greatest clay court player of all time.) Federer holds almost every record, and if that isn’t enough, he speaks four languages including perfect English even though it’s not his first language. But what I find most unique about him is something else: the way he moves on the tennis court.

Some commentators have said he performs tennis ballet; I agree. When he moves, his hands, feet, head, torso, legs and neck move in harmony, seemingly with only the tiniest of effort or exertion. He is always balanced, composed, ready. His

Roger Federer

Roger Federer (Photo credit: Daryl Sim)

movement is the epitome of efficiency: nothing is extraneous. He doesn’t use the standard wind-up to the serve that most players do. He doesn’t bounce the ball 20 times like Novak Djokovic. He doesn’t tug at his shirt or shorts like Raphael Nadal; he doesn’t have special rituals or nervous tics. He doesn’t even sweat, or so it seems. There’s a rhythm, a geometry, to his movement which commentators have actually diagrammed on dry eraser boards. Every match, he plays with grace.

Then there’s the way I play tennis: off-balance and inconsistent. My success does not come from harmony, rhythm or balance. I muddle through and scrap for every point. I expend effort, I sweat. A lot. My feet do not always work in tandem. When I bounce the ball before serving, it doesn’t always go where I want it to.

Although it’s not an official diagnostic characteristic, I’ve read that many Aspies have poor motor skills and an unusual gait. Some studies point to poor muscle tone. My deficit in this regard wasn’t so severe that I couldn’t use pen or pencil (although my handwriting was, and is, as bad as any doctor’s). But it was certainly a deficit, and I was aware of it

While this may seem a non-sequitur (and maybe it is — I have Asperger’s, after all), I see parallels between poor motor skills and poor social skills. Both require a type of instinctual dexterity. Most people take for granted the ability to carry on a conversation. It comes naturally to them. They don’t need to think, ok, first I should ask the other person how he’s doing, then transition to an interest of theirs, talk about myself, ask about gossip, all the while glancing, but not staring, at the person’s face.

But that’s how it often is for me and I suspect other Aspies. I have to diagram the conversation in my head, at least much of the time. I have to think of contingencies — what should I say if there’s silence? What is appropriate and not appropriate to talk about? And during the conversation, I wonder if I’m talking too much. Is their body language — a strange term for us literal-minded Aspies — communicating that they’re interested in what I have to say, or that I’m putting them to sleep? Maybe they’re signaling they don’t want an exegesis about string tension used on tennis racquets and how it must be modulated for the stiffness of the racquet and the material of the string. Maybe?

Turning back to sports, for an Aspie they are a mixed bag. Sports often mean jocks, who, before, during and after the game engage in banter with their teammates. Actually, “banter” is probably too soft a word — it’s often more like verbally and physically abusing each other. (Especially anyone who would use the term “banter.”) So Aspies are disadvantaged in this forum by physical AND social awkwardness.

On the other hand, if you can get past the motor deficiencies, sports provide structure and rules. You know exactly what is allowed and not allowed, what causes a “foot fault,” when a ball is “out,” how to keep score, who serves and who receives. For that reason, I was often happiest as a kid playing tennis and other sports. There’s a calming, zen-like quality to physical activities that are governed by rigid rules and require single-minded dedication, and for which one is rewarded based on objective criteria.   

But if I’m honest, I harbor the hope that one day, I’ll hit a shot, just once, as beautifully as Roger.

There's never been a tennis player as graceful as Federer

There’s never been a tennis player as graceful as Federer

* I’m using the term “recently” somewhat loosely; much time elapsed between writing and publishing this post (I wasn’t at the French Open, unfortunately).

** Both photos were taken with a Nikon D3000, Nikor 55-200 f/4-5.6g VR zoom lens.

My first post — why I created this blog

From a young age I’ve known I was different. I just didn’t know how. On paper, I lived the “American dream“: Ivy League school, high-paying job, nice house, beautiful family. But despite my successes, I felt I was being held back by something, a deficiency, I couldn’t articulate. I studied hard and worked hard, but I didn’t advance like many of my colleagues, didn’t have the extensive networks they had, or the ease of developing business connections and friends. I knew I was missing out, but why? Was it something I did, or perhaps didn’t do?

Growing up, I was often called “socially awkward” or “anti-social.” And it was true (anti-social in the literal sense, i.e., not socializing). But only in my mid-30’s, after hearing my mother tell me for years her suspicion my father had a condition called “Asperger’s,” did I think, after researching it, maybe the label applied to me. I basically diagnosed myself, and had it confirmed by a psychologist who specialized in Asperger’s. Finally, at age 38, I knew exactly how I was different.

But, unlike many adults who have received a diagnosis, mine hasn’t made life easier. Before my diagnosis, I had some rudimentary understanding I was different. But now that I know my social deficits, I’m hyper-aware.

I think of movies like The Usual Suspects or the Spanish Prisoner or The Sixth Sense, where, in the end, the protagonist suddenly views past events through a new lens, uprooting his fundamental perception of the world. I now know why my classmates voted to impeach me as 5th grade class president. I’m guessing it had something to do with my frequently referring to my “authority” as president and reminding them of school rules, like standing quietly in line (at the time, I thought I was doing them a favor). I also know why I didn’t go out on dates in high school and, sadly, why I’ve lost so many friends over the years. Finally, it makes sense.

But unless someone invents a time machine in the near future (which they won’t, because, time being a constant, they already would have invented it), those events are frozen in time. There’s no way to repair the harm I caused by my ignorance of basic social norms, the unwritten rules most people instinctively know but we Aspies must learn from scratch. As someone already predisposed to depression, it’s not the most life-affirming realization.

There’s another way I feel like an outsider even in the world of Asperger’s. I’ve told almost no one of my diagnosis. The only people who know are my immediate family, and even they are skeptical, because while they may recognize my oddities, their understanding of Asperger’s is shaped by the archetypes portrayed in the media. I don’t seem like “those people,” like my father, for example. If there were an audition for Aspies, my father would get the part. Growing up, when my family went to a restaurant, my father would get up and walk out when he was done eating. If two people were conversing, my father would abruptly interrupt to say something that had no relation whatsoever to the conversation. When we were at the mall, he would walk up to strangers and ask them about politics. If there was a video game demonstration, he might push aside the little boy waiting for a turn. Or approach dark-skinned strangers and ask if they’re Mexican, and speak to them in Spanish, using the handful of words he knew (like BO-nas DEE-as). Here I was, an Aspie, and even I knew he was violating basic social etiquette.

I haven’t told others I have Asperger’s because, well, I fear how they will react. I have significant responsibilities in my job, and it’s important that people trust my judgment, without questioning whether it may be skewed by the perceived defect of an autistic condition. Ironically, one of my duties is advising clients on what “reasonable accommodations” to offer people with disabilities, including, in some cases, those with Asperger’s. If I disclosed that I too have Asperger’s, would it be a conflict of interest for me to advise? As an Aspie, I think I can be trusted to be objective even in such circumstances, but I don’t know if my clients would agree.

The other day I read an intelligently-written blog by an Aspie which included advice that, if someone inadvertently offends a friend by making an inappropriate comment or otherwise violating a social norm, she can make amends by saying, effectively, “Oops, sorry, I just had an Asperger’s moment.” I don’t disagree with the advice, but it assumes the diagnosis of Asperger’s has been disclosed. That is not the case for me (and many others). I have lived, covertly, with Asperger’s for decades and while transparency may provide certain advantages, right now, I consider them outweighed by the dangers of disclosure. I suspect other Aspies are in the same situation. For good or bad, Asperger’s is a condition that, in many cases, can be hidden from the public, unlike, say, a physical impairment. It is the Aspie’s choice, and a delicate and complex one, whether he or she chooses to disclose.

I am writing this blog partly to vent frustrations but also to share my observations and experiences, with the hope that other Aspies, and their families, will share as well and that it can be a symbiotic environment where everyone advances, even if just a tiny bit. I’d also like to teach the world to sing … but that’s for another day.

I welcome comments, even if the poster disagrees with every word I’ve written. As an Aspie, I have very thick skin … metaphorically, I mean 🙂

P.S. In case you think you might have Asperger’s, here’s a test developed by one of the world’s leading experts. It’s not 100% conclusive but pretty close.