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.

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?

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.)

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.