Sunday, May 26, 2013

More on Assholeperger's Syndrome

I have read the rather sterile explanation that people with Assholeperger's, I mean, Asperger’s syndrome, “suffer from an inability to interpret other people’s intentions and feelings in social situations.”  Although this might seem like a minor obstacle to deal with, I have seen first-hand how the results can be devastating to personal relationships.  I recently realized how a one minute incident that happened 15 years ago may have profoundly affected my life.  In 1997 my wife and a group of her peers were in a business meeting when I stopped by on my way home from work.  I decided to interrupt briefly to touch base with her about something.  When I looked into the room to try and get her attention my wife’s mentor and best friend looked up and said, “Everything is falling right into place today.  Here’s our plumber!”  She turned to me and said, “We have a stopped up toilet for you.”  Everyone looked at me and broke out in laughter.  I was caught off-guard and I started to panic.  She had made a curious statement that seemed to amuse everyone but I wasn't sure what she meant by it.  In that moment I was in the spotlight and I didn’t get the joke....or had she asked me a question?   Everyone was waiting for my response. 

As my autistic brain attempted to take her words literally it occurred to me that since I was in fact a plumber, everyone must have thought I had shit on me.  The joke was that a toilet was stopped up and in walked the guy who had shit on himself already.  “I don’t DO toilets” I said.  “I do construction.  I don’t even have a plunger.”  The woman replied, “We have a plunger you can use.”  Still puzzled I said, “But I can’t operate a plunger any better than anybody else.”  Motioning up and down with my hand I said, "You just go like this."  Everyone stopped laughing and looked down at the table.  It got real quiet.  I was so bewildered by what was happening that I left the building.  My wife followed me outside and, after scolding me for embarrassing her, returned to the meeting.

I immediately began to realize that I had made a mistake but I couldn’t figure out what had happened until I recalled the previous incident that had made me so self-conscious that day about being a plumber.  I had stopped at a store after work and saw a man from church that I thought of as one of my best friends. When I reached out to shake his hand he recoiled from me and said, “I’m not going to shake your hand until you explain what that IS all over you.”  I looked down at myself and realized how dirty I was.  I began to explain: “The greenish color on my hands comes from handling copper.  I washed them already but it takes a lot of scrubbing to get it all.  The black on my shirt is from the tar that coats the cast iron pipe that we install.  The mud on my pants is just...well...mud.”  My friend relaxed and said, “Oh, okay” as he stepped closer and shook my hand.  I didn’t take any offense at his misunderstanding but it did make me think.  I had noticed times in the past when professional people that I knew from church didn’t acknowledge me when I said hello to them.  This only seemed to have happened when I was on my way home from work and I had suspected that my ‘Sunday’ friends just didn’t realize that they knew anybody that got dirty at work so they hadn't actually looked at me closely enough to recognize me. 

That day when my friend refused to shake my hand, I began to be conscious of the fact that some people might think I work in sewage and it made me feel bad.  I began to think that people were either embarrassed of me or embarrassed for me so they just tried to avoid me when they saw me in my work clothes.  That was one reason I felt so uneasy stepping into that meeting after doing plumbing all day.  When I was told: “We have a stopped up toilet for you.”  What I heard was: “You have shit on you anyway.”  I thought that was the punch-line that made everyone laugh at me.  When I said: “I don’t DO toilets.  I do construction.”  I thought it was clear that I was trying to find the polite way of saying, “I don’t have shit on me. It’s just dirt.”  The words I chose didn't convey what was in my slightly autistic head very well and in hind-sight I'm sure that I came across as uncooperative and “too good” to plunge a toilet.  I had what I now recognize as an “Assholeperger’s” moment.  For lack of a few minutes to process what was being said, I had just damaged my relationship with the entire group of people that were to become my only friends for many years to come.

 By the time my wife came out of the meeting, understandably upset with me, I had decided that I was going to make an apology.  I explained to her how I had totally misunderstood what was being said and how bad I felt about my reaction.  I told her that I wanted to come by the next day and apologize to all of them together and explain what was going on with me.  My wife softened her attitude, hugged me and said, “You don’t need to apologize Guy.  I told them the whole story and they understand.  They said they are sorry too.  Everyone likes you Guy so just forget it.”  So I never apologized and I let it go.  I was relieved to escape the ordeal it would have been for me to address a group of people that I did not know very well and explain what had gone on in my head.  I didn’t know anything about Autism or Asperger’s at the time but I knew that my brain didn’t quite work the same as everyone else.  I think that is why it was always so hard for me to “fit in” or feel like part of a group.  I was thankful to have my wife, my only close friend, to help me repair the damage when I made a fool out of myself.  If it weren’t for her intercession, I might never have truly felt like I was an accepted part of this group either.  I had no idea what had really just happened though.  It would be years before I understood how this incident defined who I was in the eyes of these people.  It will be a while before I can tell the rest of this story.  It's just too painful to actually post here.  Let me just conclude for now by saying that I was never really "part of the group" in part because I hurt someone's feelings so badly that day.   

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Half-assperger's Syndrome

 I have always realized that I’m not quite like everyone else.  When I was young I thought of myself as a “deep thinker” and was sometimes told that I was being “too serious” for my age.  I have never had the feeling that I fit into any particular group so I tended to pursue my own interests and ignore the world around me.  I studied astronomy as a child, photography as a young teen, and guitar/song-writing as an older teen.  Unlike a more typical child though, my interests did not lead me into an appropriate social circle.  For example, I never took a music or photography class.  I never joined a camera club or tried to form a band.  The number of songs that I have composed is actually greater than the number of people who ever heard me play one of them.  As strange as it may sound, I crave being around people but I can’t handle being the center of attention.  I would occasionally fiddle around with my guitar in front of someone that I was completely comfortable with but nothing would throw me into more of a panic than when someone at a party would announce that I was "really good on the guitar" or something to that effect and ask me to play.  When everyone turned to look at me I would feel like I was going to faint and I would stammer trying to excuse myself in some self-depreciating way.  "Oh...I really don't play much...I can't..."  The embarrassment was excruciating for me and I know I must have embarrassed the person who had asked me to play.  In my day they would call this kind of situation a "buzz-kill."  Now that I recognize how this condition relates to the social anxiety that plagues people with AS, I finally have a name for it: Half-assperger's Syndrome.  In so many ways I could teach myself anything that I became interested in but something that I could not explain would prevent me from progressing past a certain point. 

 My Halfassperger’s was not always a result of social anxiety though.  When I was young and there was no recognition of Asperger's in the school system, I was often told that I didn't try hard enough.  Many times this comment was directed at my hand-writing skills.  Throughout my school years I believe that I was penalized by about one letter grade for being sloppy.  I learned from an early age no matter how hard I tried, I would disappoint my teacher.  One year in elementary school my teacher asked me privately if I had "some physical handicap" that kept me from being able to write neatly.  I told him that I didn't think so.  He said that if I wasn't handicapped then I would have to practice writing during recess until I got better.  I agonized over having to remain at my little desk when the other kids got to go outside.  I think he eventually realized that I was doing the best I could because he allowed me to return to the playground after a few days. 

As a freshman in high school I had a wonderful biology teacher named Mrs. Jarrett.  She required us to take notes "like a real scientist does" as she went through the textbook and used an overhead projector to illustrate the concepts that we were learning.  Our notes counted for 50% of our grade while our quizzes and tests counted for the other 50%.  I enjoyed her class and I learned a lot but I barely passed.  Each grading period she would point out that I had made an A or a B on all of the pop-quizzes and on my test but that my notebook was sloppy and that I had hardly taken any notes.  She explained that accurate and legible notes were important in science because we all build upon each other’s observations to solve difficult questions about our world.  She seemed hurt to tell me that she had to give me an F for that part of my grade.  Mrs. Jarrett was so frustrated with me because she really wanted to give me a better grade.  She implored me to just write down what she talked about during class and use better handwriting so that she could actually read what I had written.  "What is so hard about that?" she asked me, so I explained: "When I try to write about what you are saying I have to look down at my paper.  When I look up at you again I don't know what you just said and I miss what you are showing on the projector.  I have found that if I look at the pictures and listen to every word that you say, I can understand everything and make a good grade on the test."  I went on in my know-it-all way by saying, "I think that it is more important for me to learn the lesson than to write more notes and miss half of what you are saying."  That explanation made perfect sense to me and I thought it should make perfect sense to Mrs. Jarrett too.  Unfortunately it did not.  Either my Half-assperger's or my half-assed attitude left me with a D+ for both semesters and a D+ for the year. 

I knew that my poor grade did not accurately reflect my understanding of biology or my true intelligence in general.  Two years later I was sitting in study hall while a girl beside me was filling out a practice final exam for her advanced biology class.  I noticed that she had answered a few of the questions wrong and I couldn't resist correcting her and explaining to her what the teacher would be looking for in her answers.  She glanced over at me suspiciously, referred back to her textbook, thanked me, and then wanted to know how I knew the answers to her exam.  I told her of my disappointing experience with Ms. Jarrett and her emphasis on note-taking in first year biology class.  The girl commented that notes were not a part of her grade and suggested that I should take the class.  So I signed up for advanced biology the following year.  I assumed that it would be an easy class for me to pass.  I was in for a rude awakening though.  Because of that D as a freshman I wasn't allowed to take advanced biology during my senior year.  I ended up taking physics instead (and passed that class with an A) but I ended up with a cynical view of how the educational system “graded” me. 


Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Arts of Conversation, Reading People, and Picking up Chicks

When I was in I was in my early twenties I lived for a while in a south Florida studio apartment that had been fashioned out of what had once been the carport on the side of a single family home.  The man that lived in the house beside me was a musician.   One evening he came over to introduce himself and let me know that he could hear me through the wall while I was plinking around on my guitar.  His first name was Gail, he was about eight years older than me, and he played old standards in a lounge at night.  We quickly found that we had at least two common interests: jazz and girls.  He told me that we could find both at a place called “The Brass Rail” on the inter-coastal waterway in Ft Lauderdale.  He asked me if I wanted to go check it out.  I told him that I didn’t have much experience with hanging out in bars and I could never think of what to say to women that I didn’t know.  He said that I would do fine if I just followed his lead so I agreed to go. 

When we got settled in with our drinks at the end of the bar, Gail began to scan the room and tell me about the female prospects that he saw.  He pointed out the tourists and explained how they were often looking for a “one night stand.”  He pointed out a group of locals and for some reason commented that they would not want to talk to us.  I tried to keep a pleasant smile going as I wondered if I was sipping my drink at an appropriate pace.  I knew that I was shaking a little and I hoped that no one noticed.  I was beginning to think that my friend was as scared as I was when it came to approaching women when he nodded toward two ladies at a small table.  “They are waiting for someone to buy them a drink.  Come on.”  I followed him to the table where he asked them if they were waiting for us.  Nodding at each other they stood up.  One of them held her hand out to me and in a very animated southern voice said, “My name is Fawn and this is my friend Jade.”  I took her hand and mimicked her tone by saying: “My name is Guy and this is my friend Gail.”  Everything turned awkward for a moment before the woman apologized and stated that they were actually waiting for someone else.  Back at the bar, Gail scolded me saying:
 “I can’t believe you said that!” 
“Said what?”
“That we are Guy and Gail!”
“But that’s our names.  What was I supposed to say?”
“Not ‘Guy and Gail’ and the way you said it made us sound like we are a couple of [gay people].”

I was bewildered and I didn’t know what else to say.  Gail paused for a moment and began to explain slowly: “Couldn’t you see that those women were playing a game with us?  They weren’t telling us their real names and they didn’t want to know our names.  When she said that her name is Fawn you should have said that your name is Buck.  When the other one said her name is Jade, I could have said that my name is Rock.  Do you see what I mean?  You just made us look stupid Guy.”  I was amazed that Gail could read the people in the room like that and I was sorry that I had messed up our chance to sit and talk with those women.  I had thought that they were quite pretty even though they seemed to have too much makeup on, and the one near me smelled like a flower.  We finished our drinks and then left.  My neighbor never asked me to go out drinking with him again.  

Monday, March 4, 2013

Excuse me....are you my friend?

A comment that my family often makes about my childhood is that I could put with a ridiculous amount of maltreatment from my peers without taking any apparent offense.  My sister recalls a time that she saw a boy kicking me repeatedly in the hallway at school and I just did not respond in any way.  When she asked me what was going on I shrugged her off saying, "Oh nothing.  He’s my friend.   He's just messing around."  She didn't accept that explanation because he was kicking me so hard but being two years younger than me she didn't know what to do.  I don't remember that incident but I do recall a similar situation.  When I was about ten years old I went out into the neighborhood where my grandparents lived and saw a couple of boys that I had played with the summer before.  They were under a tree with five or six other kids that I didn't know at all and I just walked up to them.  I don't remember exactly what happened next except that they all started making fun of me.  Then they proceeded in turns, one or two at a time, to beat me up.  At the first blow to my face my vision went blank.  I didn't know what I should do.  I couldn't run and I couldn't fight.  I remember trying to get them to stop by saying something like, "Okay...okay... that's enough."  This went on for several minutes and I had no idea how to extract myself from the situation. 
Luckily my older sisters happened by, rescued me, and took me back to my grandparents’ house.  As they doctored my bloody nose and cleaned me up, one of my sisters asked why I wasn't fighting back.  I replied: "Because they are my friends."  She was puzzled.  She went to great lengths to explain to me that if kids are beating you up they are NOT your friends.  I didn't get it.  Not only could I not read between the lines, I couldn't even read the lines.  I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t understand that something had gone horribly wrong in that situation though.  It was a traumatic experience for me to approach some kids with the intention of finding someone to hang out with on a summer day and end up being beaten for no apparent reason.  I just felt like there had been some kind of mistake that I didn’t understand.  I didn’t have hard feelings toward those other boys.  I just didn’t know why it had happened or what I had done wrong.   

I have found that, even as an older adult, I have trouble with the concept of friendship.  As a part of the initial process that my psychotherapist used to help me understand how I might be a little different than a more "neuro-typical" person, she asked me to tell her who my friends were.  I listed my closest friends first and then went on to comment on the people that I had lost touch with when they or I had moved on to another job or to live in another town.  In a very gentle way she began to explain to me that there was something wrong with my list.  She said something like: "Those people are not who I'm asking about. You're calling your wife your best friend.  She is a friend in a way but that's different.  If you were having trouble dealing with your wife, who would you be able to talk to about that?  That person would be a friend.  In the same way, your son is not really your friend, your daughter is not your friend, and your son-in-law is not your friend.  These people care about you because you are a part of their family but they can't really be your friends." 
I assured her that I did understand what she was saying and that my family was just sort of my "inner circle" of friends but I had other friends.  For example, in the past I had always considered whoever I worked with at the time as being my friends.  I explained that since I had worked from home for the last nine years I had lost touch with them.  I still had friends during those years though among the people at my wife's school.  We went to their parties and to their weddings and they came to our daughter's wedding.  I described some of them and, one by one, she said: "No…that sounds like your wife's that's your wife's that's your wife’s friends’ husband."   I felt a little uneasy because I could see where this was going.  We finally got to the point when she said, "I want you to think of it like this: Other than your family, who have you known for a long time that you could call if you needed a really big favor or if you had a problem and you just needed to talk?"  "I don't have anyone like that" I said, losing my composure in the process.  That's when I had to admit to her what I had known when we began that exercise.  I didn't really have any friends and I didn't really know why.