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?

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“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/

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.

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.