Lent Day 23: Life On The Autistic Spectrum

Fr Robert Barron’s Lenten Reflection talks about how humanity is spiritually broken and that everyone is in need of help.

Today, I had a short conversation with my mother about autism and after thinking things over, I decided to make that the topic of this post. WARNING: LONG POST IS LONG!

Backstory time!

Around 6th grade, I was taken out of class to take a series of tests. I didn’t understand what was going on, but given that I liked taking quizzes in teen magazines at the time, I thought I was taking some kind of elaborate personality test.

Fast forward to my sophomore year of high school. One of my classmates did a report on Asperger’s Syndrome. As she presented her report to the class, all of the symptoms she listed started to ring bells for me. Although my teacher cautioned me against self-diagnosis, I asked my parents as soon as I got home. And it turns out that I was diagnosed with Asperger’s back in 6th grade.

For those who don’t know, Asperger’s Syndrome is part of the Autistic Spectrum. What makes Asperger’s Syndrome different from other variations of autism is that Asperger’s Syndrome (or AS for short) is a lot more high-functioning. Social interaction tends to be physically exhausting; non-verbal signals are hard to pick up. The thought process of an Aspie (one who has AS) tends to be logical and literal, even when things aren’t logical or literal. However, that does not mean that Aspies don’t understand sarcasm, metaphor, analogy, or satire. Heck, my own thought process relishes on making analogies. Taking things literally is just the default mode for Aspies. 

Here’s an example from my personal experience: One time, I went to dinner and found that there was no place set for me. I saw my lack of place seating as a sign that I was left out from the dinner. That wasn’t the case, but that was my thought process at the time.

Another aspect of Aspies is that aspies are said to lack empathy. THIS DOES NOT MEAN THAT PEOPLE WITH ASPERGER’S ARE SOCIOPATHS. THE MEDIA’S SPECULATION ABOUT THE SANDY HOOK ELEMENTARY SHOOTER IS JUST THAT: SPECULATION! Aspies just assume that everyone feels the same way they feel and when something contradicts the Aspie’s perspective, it’s hard for the Aspie to adjust.

Think of it like this: An Aspie’s brain is like a script that he wants to follow to the letter. Non-Aspies tend to improvise with the script, which throws the Aspie off balance because he prefers to go with what the script is saying.

Aspies also have problems showing their emotions. It’s sort of extreme. They either have the best poker face in the world or they make over-the-top expressions and say what they feel outright like a drama queen.

For me, this applies to romantic relationships. I totally fail at them because a) I find myself attracted to personality and intelligence first before looks, b) it’s hard for me to tell when a guy is attracted to me, and c) my past experience with “dating” consisted of me always assuming something about either the guy I dated or the relationship based on unrealistic expectations and teenage hormones. I was super-awkward on my first date and part of the reason things didn’t work out was because I had no idea how to interact with the guy, who was a shy person. (Mixed messages don’t help either, but that’s another story.)

Another trait that Aspies are said to have is an “obsession” with something, which is another way of saying that they know a lot about something obscure or some kind of hobby. That fixation does not become the only obsession and for some Aspies, the object of their fixation tends to change over time.

I have a lot of things that I am interested in, but one thing consistent from 6th grade to now is that I always wrote about whatever I loved and sometimes tried to analyze what I observed. Words, writing, making connections, and analyzing are my obsessions. Even though I don’t read books as often as I did as a kid, I still find myself analyzing things I watch or read and watching other people analyze a work. And like some Aspies, the things I obsess over have changed. As a 6th grader, I obsessed over Japanese anime. In high school, I obsessed over Jane Austen. As of right now, my latest obsession is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But underneath all of these obsessions was still the desire to write about them, make connections, and analyze them.

 There are physical “tells” as well as social “tells” to Aspies. Speech issues are one of those “tells.” How an Aspie talks depends on the person. I tend to speak too loudly and tend to talk fast. Other Aspies are overly formal or have a monotone voice. Again, a desire to be over-the-top to compensate for lack of social fluidity can happen here. One other thing that falls into this category is the tendency to explain what they’re trying to express. For me, this comes in the form of me constantly apologizing for my behavior if I find it to be out of the norm or awkward.

Some Aspies have problems with motion and motor control. It’s one of the reasons why I don’t play video games. My hand-eye coordination isn’t geared towards that. However, I took dance classes and I don’t recall being overly clumsy as a teenager, nothing beyond the norm anyhow. However, it could be a lot worse for other Aspies. 

Finally, one major thing that identifies an Aspie is the tendency to avoid eye contact. Even though I feel that I have overcome a lot of the things applied to Aspies, I still struggle with this. Although I have studied TV, film, and took acting classes, I still hate ending up in a room of strangers and having to make small talk. When I was a kid, I felt afraid to look at people in the eye because I was afraid that lasers would come out of their eyes and kill me. (Why yes, I did grow up watching the X-Men animated series.) 

But the point is that as far as I’m concerned, I am still struggling with my autism. It’s a lot better than it was back when I was a kid, but my conversation with my mom made me realize that I am still trying to figure out which parts of me belong to the autism and which ones don’t. I refuse to define myself with a label, but that doesn’t mean rejecting my diagnosis. 

For those who are reading this who don’t have autism, I will say this: Don’t diagnose or label people who you see behaving awkwardly or strangely. Wait for that person to be open about it if they so choose to. And if they don’t say anything, just treat them like you would any other normal person, If you think you autism but aren’t properly diagnosed, find a psychiatrist and undergo testing. Don’t diagnose yourself. It’s a very dangerous thing.

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