Lack of ability to understand inference

It sometimes astonishes me that I can totally miss the point of a conversation that the rest of the participants in that conversation understand perfectly. Like a lot of people with Aspergers, inference and hidden meanings trouble and confuse me a lot.I often find myself watching a TV programme and being completely surprised by the result of a storyline and then finding out that other people who have watched the same programme aren’t surprised at all!I seem to miss out on a whole layer of meaning that other people pick on effortlessly. It’s as if my brain just can’t process it!

This of course leads to issues in daily life. Many times I have been given instructions with inferred meanings and then been chastised for not following these instructions when I did exactly as I was verbally told but didn’t pick up on the subtleties of what was being communicated to me.Just as I can’t understand how people pick up these hidden meanings so effortlessly, other people can’t understand how I don’t pick up on them! I think that this is a large part of what makes communication so frustrating for both people on the spectrum and those around us too.

This lack of ability to understand inference and hidden meanings also means that I don’t pick up on social manipulation the way other people often do. It has to be explained to me for me to be able to see why someone is behaving in a particular way or coming out with a particular rhetoric. This often leads people to assume me as naive (which in itself is a great shame if not understanding social manipulation is seen as a disadvantage but that’s another issue!) These things just don’t enter into my head and I am often shocked at how much of someone’s motives I missed once it is all explained to me.

Oddly enough, I am more likely to pick up on inference when I am reading. I don’t know if this is because it is a solid, predictable format rather than being muddled by noises and faces or whether I can predict how a book is going to end because of how others in the same genre have ended but I can often pick up on someone’s intentions in a novel where I can’t in a TV programme or in real life.

I have a final plea to readers of my blog who are not on the autistic spectrum. Please keep it simple when communicating with someone who you know to be on the spectrum. Be clear and concise and request exactly what you want from us. Please don’t be offended if you don’t make instructions very clear and we end up doing tasks wrong. Try and think why we might have ended up doing the task wrong-maybe rephrase the instruction. It doesn’t matter how intelligent or educated someone with Aspergers is-they can still have specific problems with understanding inference and hidden meanings-please don’t make them feel bad about it. If you do phrase instructions clearly, you will find that the majority of people with Aspergers will do anything that’s asked of them (within reason of course!) You just need to give us that chance. I would be interested to hear the views of other people on the spectrum too as to any issues failing to get hidden meanings has caused them. I look forward to hearing from some of you.

What the tragic death of Elspeth McKendrick can teach us about Aspergers

Last week, while on holiday, I read a news article that instantly had an effect on me. The article reported the suicide of Elspeth McKendrick, a sixteen year old girl whose primary reason for committing suicide was her struggle to accept her diagnosis of Aspergers.

The reason why this had such an effect on me is because the way Elspeth was described by her parents and teachers describes perfectly the way I came across at that age. The similarities are uncanny. I was also a prefect at school and I have always loved reading. Like Elspeth, I like to stick to the rules and make sure other people do too and, also like her, I have a so called “black and white” way of thinking. Being so obsessed with something that you wake up at night and spend the rest of the night awake to indulge in this obsession is also something I am familiar with. I have spent several hours at night when I should be sleeping reading endless articles about TV shows I have been obsessed with over the years as well as other topics which I have been obsessed with. I have used my phone to Google various topics of obsession at 5 am in the morning! Like Elspeth, I don’t fit society’s narrow stereotypes of what someone with Aspergers “looks like” or behaves like.

Elspeth’s tragic death has led to a lot of debate on Aspergers forums, both on Facebook and elsewhere. I have read comments from some people who blame her suicide entirely on other peoples attitudes towards Aspergers. I personally don’t take that view. Yes, other peoples attitudes towards Aspergers can have a huge impact on the way that someone with Aspergers views their diagnosis but I also think that, even with the most supportive family and friends in the world, as Elspeth had, the nature of the Aspergers mind can make depression highly likely. A lot of us are over thinkers and can ruminate on dark thoughts over and over again. The nature of the condition is fixation and obsession-sometimes our minds fixate on unhealthy and negative thoughts and this can often lead to a downward spiral. I have had some horrendous depressive thoughts over the years. Some of these I can pinpoint as being down to certain events but others come out of nowhere and are just as intense as the ones that have an identifiable trigger.

That said, I do think the article highlights how negative perceptions of Aspergers can be. As a diagnosis, Aspergers acts as an explanation for some of the quirks and eccentricities of our personalities. It’s not something separate, an “add on” that we can take or leave depending on our mood that day (although sometimes I wish it was!) It’s part of who we are and it sounds to me like this is what Elspeth struggled to come to terms with. I do think that not enough is done with people post diagnosis to reiterate this to them and to support them with the process of accepting Aspergers as part of their neurological makeup. Elspeth’s mother had exactly the right idea with buying her the book about Aspergers and talking to Elspeth about famous people with the diagnosis. Unfortunately it seems that Elspeth just couldn’t cope with the emotions that the diagnosis led to and I can certainly empathise with that-I have gone through the same process. I was lucky enough to be diagnosed at the age of eight but, during my teenage years in particular, I found it very hard to accept my diagnosis and I did go through a couple of years when I hated the word “Aspergers” and would try to avoid the topic. Elspeth’s struggle to accept her diagnosis is not unusual among people with Aspergers and, tragically, not everybody survives this struggle. I believe what might help is if different types of Aspergers were given more attention online and also in society in general. The manifestation of Aspergers in Elspeth was completely different than the way it manifests in some other people on the spectrum and yet there are few websites that openly speak about how different Aspergers can be in women and girls. It’s time for the world to realise that Aspergers is a multi faceted condition that has many different manifestations but is still Aspergers.

The second thing that the tragic death of Elspeth can teach people about Aspergers is that, contrary to popular public and medical opinion, we do desire friendship and we do have a desire to fit in and to belong somewhere. I have read peoples individual accounts of being told they can’t have Aspergers because they have friends or because they turned up to the appointment with their husband or wife. Certain professionals believe that having Aspergers means that you are incapable of forming close relationships and therefore, if you are married or have one or more friends, you can’t have Aspergers. This is not only incorrect-it is also incredibly damaging. I have been in a relationship with my boyfriend for almost six years and am blessed with a few close friends but that does not mean that my social interaction is flawless or even decent-it just means that I am blessed with having people in my life who don’t judge me on that. There are lots of people who see us as loners and solitary but most of us are not that way by choice and desperately desire companionship. This is one area of the condition that urgently needs recognition by professionals-don’t assume that we are incapable of having the normal human desires for friendship and belonging. It was this part of Elspeth’s story that affected me the most-she was so similar to me in terms of feeling like she didn’t fit in. I remember listening to the song “Shooting Star” that featured in the movie “Hercules” for the first time and thinking about how it illustrated my life perfectly. There is one particular lyric that talks about the star being “an awful lot like me” and then goes on to say, “Cause he knows he doesn’t quite fit in-he’s longing to know why”. For a lot of people with Aspergers, that is our reality-going through life, knowing that we don’t quite fit in. Even when we have intellectually learned the social rules of society, they don’t come naturally and so fitting in is always difficult. What we need to remember is that, like the Shooting Star in Hercules, we are special. We are talented-Elspeth was talented. People will remember her for being eccentric and what everyone needs to realise is that there is nothing wrong with being eccentric. The world needs all sorts of people to function and never let anyone tell you that being eccentric is a bad thing.

Most of all, I hope that Elspeth rests in peace. She was an amazing girl who just struggled to come to terms with her diagnosis. Regardless of all the debate raging at the moment, we need to remember that a sixteen year old has tragically died and we need to respect her story, even if you have never felt the way that she did.