Wouldn’t it be fantastic if Aspergers had an off switch sometimes?

Disclaimer-this is my personal view. I apologise sincerely if it upsets or offends anyone but, as I have mentioned before, there are highs and lows of living with Aspergers and this post is addressing some of the lows in an honest manner. 

Sometimes I wish that Aspergers had an off switch. Not one which would permanently switch it off as there are parts of my Aspergers that I appreciate immensely, such as my strengths in long term memory and language, but a switch which meant you could turn the Aspergers off in certain situations where it does more harm than good. One example, indeed the one that brought about the idea for this post, is over thinking and paranoia. Like a lot of people I have met, both on and off line with AS, I am a huge over thinker. I often spend hours thinking about how a certain situation could have gone differently if I had behaved in a different way. My mind reaches fever pitch thinking in a repetitive loop about situations which have left me feeling awkward and/or guilty. This may be triggered by one specific circumstance but, once my mind is in that loop, other situations from years ago start popping up for me to mull over as well. Quite simply, it is exhausting and mentally draining and it leaves little time for productive thoughts and actions. I know that people without Aspergers can also be over thinkers but, in my case, I believe it’s the Aspergers that has brought about that particular personality trait in me. 

I also wish that I could turn it off in the workplace sometimes. Again, not permanently, as I firmly believe that, if I didn’t have the experience of growing up with this condition, I wouldn’t have the insight that I do into why some of the students with classic autism behave the way that they do in certain situations, such as situations that cause sensory overload or situations that cause immense frustration. However, sometimes it would be nice to be able to multi task at work without getting flustered and making stupid mistakes because I am on the phone but can hear someone talking in the office as well. I work very well when I am doing one task at a time. I love to just get things done and then move on to the next thing. That’s how I work best but, sometimes, I wish I could focus on more than one task at once without getting agitated and panicky. 

Finally, the other situation in which I would love to turn it off temporarily is when I’m meeting new people. I often get misunderstood by people who don’t know me. I know everybody gets misunderstood at times but, at the risk of sounding self pitying, it tends to happen a lot more to those of us with Aspergers and other conditions on the autistic spectrum. With friends and family, I socialise well, although my eye contact can still be off at times. I can act relaxed around them because they know what I’m like and see my positive sides as well. With strangers, unless they work in the same area that I do, with children or adults with learning disabilities, in which case I can instantly chat to them for hours about work, I find it very hard to talk to them and get to know them. If I am with friends or family or my boyfriend, it is not so bad as I can follow their lead in a conversation with someone I don’t know but, when I am doing it on my own, I just fail at it completely. I am not saying that I wish I could be the most popular person on the planet but I would like to be able to make conversation a bit more easily. 

Obviously Aspergers has it’s strengths and I don’t wish for this post to make anyone else with Aspergers feel depressed. Aspergers doesn’t have an off switch and we have to learn over the years the best strategies to enable us to cope with our daily lives but sometimes, just sometimes, I wish there was an Off switch. 

Lack Of Eye Contact As A Culturally Contextualised Problem

I know that the title of this post is quite wordy but this is a topic that has always been of interest to me so I thought it would be good to express my views on it here.

When I was a teenager, I remember reading in an encyclopedia that, in Japanese culture, it is considered rude to give someone direct eye contact as it signifies that they are not worthy of your respect. I remember thinking to myself that maybe I should emigrate to Japan when I was older as there, I wouldn’t stand out too much and my lack of eye contact would be seen as the norm. There are other cultures too where eye contact is viewed in a completely different way than it is in Europe and the United States. (http://blog.joytours.com/2012/12/20/the-role-of-eye-contact-in-different-cultures/) (http://womeninbusiness.about.com/od/businessetiquette/a/making-eye-contact.htm)

 I guess, when I travel to these countries, I will have an automatic advantage in that I naturally find it difficult to give eye contact so, rather than having to remember that the people in the country I am travelling to view eye contact in a different way and having to purposefully avoid direct eye contact with them, I just behave in the way that is normal for me whereby I don’t make eye contact with strangers. 

I find it fascinating that European cultures place such a huge emphasis on something that is actually incredibly invasive. For me, I find eye contact incredibly intense, particularly when it is anything more than a fleeting glance. I have taught myself a huge number of strategies over the years to improve my eye contact because I know how avoiding eye contact makes people think in most Westernised countries. To me, these stereotypes make no sense but I know that’s how other people think so I have had to give the appearance of making eye contact. Why do people see not looking someone in the eye as a sign that they are untrustworthy or have something to hide? Logically, how does that work? To me, it’s more a sign that eye contact makes that person feel hugely uncomfortable and that they are struggling to fulfil some arbitrary cultural expectation because they know how they will be viewed if they don’t. I would never doubt anybody who struggled with eye contact because I know what it’s like. I know that sometimes it can be physically painful to hold someone’s gaze. I know that the eyes are the most expressive part of a person and, often, there are just too many messages in those eyes for someone on the autistic spectrum to look at them and speak to someone at the same time (oddly enough, when it comes to silent staring contests, I do very well, often beating my fellow contestants, but that is a predictable game and involves no speech). Why is it seen as so hugely important in our society? Respect takes many forms and I would consider myself a respectful person even if I don’t always give people the required amounts of eye contact. 

One question I have always held in my mind is, if lack of eye contact is seen as a key indicator of autism in Westernised countries, is the diagnostic criteria different in countries where avoiding direct eye contact is the norm? The Western world’s obsession with eye contact means that people are quick to notice the child who won’t meet their eyes and constantly speculate as to why this is the case. Is it treated as such a problem in countries  which don’t insist on seeing direct eye contact as the norm? It is a question I have always wondered and maybe someone living in a culture that doesn’t place such an emphasis on being able to look into someone’s eyes could answer that for me. It is quite depressing to think that a lot of the negatives associated with Aspergers, such as difficulty finding and keeping employment, are caused, in some part, by people holding on too strongly to the stereotypes of why someone would avoid eye contact and not giving them a chance to progress past interview because of this and that, if we were living in another society, avoiding eye contact in a job interview might actually be seen as deeply respectful and rewarded with a job offer. Funny how the world works, isn’t it?

On a less serious note, I watched a programme about cats recently where the narrator mentioned that cats find direct eye contact threatening and that’s why they tend to blink a lot to greet familiar people. One more reason why I’d love to come back as a cat one day! 🙂

The Social Interaction Versus Mental Wellbeing Dilemma

As I have mentioned before in this blog, those of us with Aspergers have to learn social skills the same way that the average person learns intellectual skills. As a 27 year old, I have had many years of learning social skills and I am fortunate in that I can get by pretty well with the social skills I have learned. I can make and attend my own doctors appointments and I can cope very well with every predictable scenario that I get involved in. If there is a conversational rule that has to be stuck to in a certain scenario, I am fine and most people who don’t know me would probably be unlikely to realise that I have a social and communication disorder  because I have memorised the route that the conversation will take and I play my memory back and recite the same words as I did last time. This is how we come across as functioning adults.

However, as these are intellectually learned social skills, they disappear when I have the misfortune to be tired, ill, anxious or stressed. Currently I am suffering with hayfever which mean that my eyes and nose are constantly streaming, I have a constant headache as a result of my congested sinuses and my ears are blocked, again due to sinus congestion. Antihistamines have little effect. I feel extremely lethargic and this affects my social interaction as well as other skills (you’ll probably notice that this blog post isn’t written as well as some of my others because my brain doesn’t work as well when I am ill). When I feel as ill as I do, I am unable to maintain social interaction to the standard I normally can do. I know that a lot of people lose the motivation to socialise when they are not feeling at their best but, with me, it’s not a case of not wanting to socialise-I physically can’t because I lose the ability to recall the social skills that I have learned. As a comparison, I could ask someone who’s not on the autistic spectrum to think about how difficult it would be to hold a conversation in a foreign language that they have a good knowledge of usually but that is not their home language when they are extremely tired. Most people would probably agree that they would find it very difficult to string their sentences together in this other language because of the way that tiredness has affected their ability to recall this language and speak it coherently. For me, this is what happens with my social skills. Social skills are a foreign language to me, one I have worked hard to remember and use in everyday life but one which does not come naturally. When I am forced to interact socially when I am not in the best state, I find it extremely difficult and any bystander would probably see me as rude because I tend to speak as little as possible and avert my eyes because I don’t have the energy to maintain eye contact.I would go so far as to say that it damages my mental wellbeing when circumstances force me to interact when I am not in the right mood-it often puts me in a stressed mood for the rest of the day. 

This is one of the areas where I feel those of us with Aspergers are misunderstood the most. People don’t understand the intellectual approach that we have to make towards learning enough social skills to survive in society because it is alien to them. To most people, being able to socially interact with other people is as natural as breathing. Even when my friends without Aspergers are going through a tough time emotionally, they still manage to interact socially on a basic level with other people. I guess the other factor here is that most people can hide their true feelings and still interact with others. When I am stressed, it is not uncommon for me to remain silent for an extended period of time even when there are other people around. I know that they probably consider me to be rude or stand offish but I just cannot force myself to interact. In my opinion, this is one of the most disabling aspects of Aspergers. We do know that we need to interact to live in society but our neurological makeup only permits us to interact with people in a “normal” way when we are in a certain state of mind.

I am sure that there are people with Aspergers who can interact better than I can just as there are other people with Aspergers who have more issues with social interaction than I do. I have come across people with Aspergers who live completely solitary lifestyles with extremely limited interpersonal interaction. For me personally, I am too much of a people watcher to opt for such a lifestyle but I can understand why certain people opt for it. Above everything else, I urge my readers who aren’t on the spectrum to try and think how hard it is for us and please don’t assume that we are just being rude or difficult when we can’t speak with you-sometimes our brains are just too overloaded with other issues that are going on in our lives and we just don’t have the energy for interaction. It is not a personal rejection-it’s just one of the more disabling aspects of this condition.

Reasons why people with Aspergers make great friends

Disclaimer-this blog post is based on my personal experiences of Aspergers Syndrome and thus will not resonate with everyone but I thought a positive blog post was needed so decided to write something on the theme of friendship. I know that the below list is not true for everyone with Aspergers because we are all different but it is true for my particular symptoms of Aspergers and those of several people with Aspergers who I have met offline.

As mentioned before in a previous blog post, Debunking The Myths, it is often assumed that people with Aspergers do not make good friends. The media has a tendency to portray us as self obsessed and boring but, in my experience, this is not the case and I am going to make several brief points as to why people with Aspergers can make great friends. 

1. A lot of people with Aspergers are incredibly loyal and stick by their friends through the good times and the bad. We genuinely appreciate the beauty of friendship because we struggle with making friends. Friendship is serious for us, not something that can be abandoned at will.

2. We may struggle with making friends but, a lot of times, we have no problem in keeping them. We may need more alone time than the average person and we will have days where we feel overwhelmed by life and may shut ourselves off from those around us but we will always come back to our friends.

3. People with Aspergers have a tendency to be honest, straight talking people. We will give you our honest opinions and help you out wherever we can. We can be trusted to always remain true to our friends.

4. A lot of people with Aspergers love deep conversations. We enjoy researching our subjects of interest and can often have expert knowledge on our chosen specialist subjects. This is NOT boring-it can open up other people’s minds to niche subjects that they have probably never even given consideration to. We are passionate about our topics of interest-I can easily pass three hours or more talking about various neurological conditions and disabilities. I personally love seeing people so passionate about a subject-this world needs more passion and enthusiasm,

5. We understand the need for alone time and personal space so will have no issue with leaving people to their own company when they desire it. We won’t press you for an explanation-we will just accept it and leave you be.

6. We see the world from a unique perspective. Accepting our friendship means you can begin to understand that perspective a little better.

7. A lot of people with Aspergers have a strong sense of justice. We like the world to be fair and will always ensure that we treat our friends the way we would like to be treated.

8. We have a tendency to keep to strict routines and arrangements. Therefore, we are unlikely to change plans at the last minute and let our friends down.

9. We tend to have a quirky sense of humour so can introduce our friends to this too.

10. We tend to have good long term memories so won’t ever forget what our friends have confided in us.

This is not, of course, to say that you have to get on with us because we have Aspergers. That would be a foolish thing to say. All I am saying is, if you meet someone with Aspergers and fancy getting to know them, don’t let the Aspergers put you off. It is only one facet of what makes our personalities so try and make that friendship work and you may be pleasantly surprised at how good we are as friends.