Sunday, July 12, 2015

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Aspergers

I recently had a brief encounter with a young kid who has Aspergers Syndrome. As an adult with AS, I found myself reflecting on all the awkward and frustrating life lessons that would certainly occur for him between his current age and reaching mine. I'm pretty sure he doesn't see it coming any more than I did. Wouldn't an instruction book or an Intro Class be handy? I really wish that as a child, teenager, and even as an adult, someone who knew what it was like could've given me a heads up. 

That is what I'm doing today. Here is my advice, expectations, and tips 'n tricks for that kid (any "that kid", really) with Aspergers. This is just my experience. Maybe it only applies to me. Maybe it applies to you or someone you know too.

1. Make eye contact. 
It is not a natural thing for some of us to do, and can be a very natural thing for some of us to avoid. But I've found that it is essential for success in some circles. No matter how uncomfortable, look into the eyes of people you are talking to, especially if they have some kind of authority or seniority over you. Even more importantly (and significantly more difficult), make eye contact when they are talking to you. This makes a huge difference to neurotypical (NT) people. What is merely a comforting act for us, can be interpreted as "being ignored" or "distraction" by them. I spent a lot of extra effort forcing myself to do this early in my career and I noticed an immediate difference in the way people spoke to me. It was very difficult, but all these years later, it is mostly a habit to do so. I still don't like it, but it's mostly effortless these days. Now I just have to find the other end of the scale and avoid awkward staring...

2. Not everyone will understand. 
Like depression, AS can easily fall under the heading of an "invisible illness" (though I don't consider it an illness). The way we think, the things we struggle with, and even the emotions we feel are basically hidden from everyone around us. Most of it is not obvious or can easily be written off as eccentric behavior. It would actually be simpler if this condition came with blue skin or pointy ears. Basically any physical, genetic trait that tells people, "this is real". But that isn't the case. This world is filled with people who just won't understand. When I try to describe what it is like, even I think it sounds weird and I've never really been able to accurately do so because I have no frame of reference for what it is like to be NT (aside from a few decades of observation). That is the problem for the NT folks too. They have no frame of reference for having a mind that functions differently. And if they don't understand, it's okay. They don't have to. There is another reaction that you are going to experience beyond not understanding too. Some people will simply not believe you at all. You're making it up. You're exaggerating. You're being a hypochondriac. Let me tell you that no matter the temptation, do not try to make them believe. They don't need to and you don't need them to. This is your life and it does not require justification or validation. Yes, it is frustrating having a big part of your life written off as fantasy, but to fight it will only make it more frustrating.

3. There is little comfort to be found in other people with AS. 
When you are part of a unique group or a minority, it is natural to want to seek out other people of your kind. I have done this on a couple of occasions. I went to two different Adults with Aspergers Social / Support Groups a few years apart and in different cities. Truth is, it wasn't comforting at all. It was a little frustrating, in fact. The problem is that we are very sensitive to all sorts of stimuli and easily lose interest in things that aren't part of a personal fixation. We also tend to have a lot of noisy and fidgety behaviors. Put simply, we all do the things that annoy each other most. Imagine tying a bunch of noisy and stubborn mules together and hoping they'll all move in the same direction. It just doesn't work out smoothly. I'm not saying you should avoid other Spectrum folk. Just be prepared for the possibility that it may not meet your hopes and expectations. And when it comes to romantic relationships, the idea that people with AS should only be with other people with AS is not realistic. My spouse is a very patient NT. If he were as quirky as me, we probably wouldn't have lasted very long. Maybe you'll have a different experience.

4. Do what you need, not what people think you need. 
Throughout school, my teachers were always on my case for not taking notes. They assumed it meant I wasn't paying attention. Taking notes has always been an issue for me because of the way my memory works. I remember the source of learning better than the documentation of it. In other words, if I take notes, my memory is of the act of writing the information down instead of what the teacher said and meant. I then end up with a bunch of notes that have no context or meaning for me later. I learn best by simply listening or watching. What I eventually learned is that I needed to ignore other people's expectations of me and do things my own way in order to succeed. Eventually, that success will prove out your personal methods to those that matter. In the end, results will please people better than people-pleasing will. Do it your way when you can.

5. Earplugs, sunglasses, and tagless t-shirts are your friends. 
This is probably the first thing you'll work out on your own. There are a lot of tools out there to help turn the world of stimulation down a few notches. I always tear the tags out of t-shirts because they itch so badly. I rarely tuck my shirt in because the wrinkles are distracting. I wear sunglasses when I drive (even when it isn't sunny) because it improves my concentration. I wear earplugs to sleep because it eliminates the sounds that grab my attention. On that topic, I found that playing music or the TV to fall asleep actually kept me awake a lot longer. I also have some noise reduction earplugs that I've worn in noisy restaurants (Buffalo Wild Wings can be a nightmare for me) to help me concentrate on the conversation at my own table. Find tools that make you more comfortable and use them as much as you need.

6. Every interaction must have an opposite and equal reaction. 
Read the book Games People Play. I read this in a college Sociology class and it changed the way I see the world. It is basically an instruction book for human interactions and the ideas are so beautifully simple. Everything that another person says or does to you must be responded to with an equal action. If they say hello, you must say hello back. If they smile, you smile. If they ask you a question about your life, you must respond with interest in theirs. Basically, one person starts the exchange and it continues in equal measure until the other person speaks or acts last. Following this simple equation will go a long way toward ending awkward encounters and causing confusion. I still do this basic conversational math in my head when talking to strangers to this day.

7. Impersonation and acting.
This is really two tricks. The first is best explained by example. I used to have a job that required me to talk to strangers on the phone, and to this day, that is still one of the highest anxiety triggers I have. I was actually having a very hard time at that job because of this issue until I noticed something one day. I overheard the guy in the office next to me. He said the exact same phrases over and over when talking on the phone and he sounded so comfortable with it. The next time I had to make a call, I said his phrases and impersonated his tone. And it worked like a miracle. There were no awkward pauses or confusion on the call for the first time. My point is that if something is hard to wrap your mind around, just watch carefully what other people do and impersonate it. Don't do their accents though. That just makes it weirder.

The second trick here is acting. I did a lot of performance in my youth and discovered a secret. When I'm acting, none of the rules that govern my brain apply. AS people are ruled by rules and it can be hard to break them. It's also very hard to lie, even when it is best to do so ("does this dress make me look fat?"). The reason that acting got around this for me is that the character isn't me. I can do whatever I need to because the character can. They are not bound by my anxieties and insecurities either. Acting gives me super-confidence. I can speak to a huge crowd of strangers better than a small group of friends this way. These days, I use that concept in business a lot. There is a character version of myself that I play when I need to that is not held back by my social issues. It is my favorite life cheat.

8. Sit at the center of the table. 
This is a trick that I've only started employing in the last few years. At business meetings and social situations like dinners, I always try to sit in the center of a long side of the table. The social anxiety that comes with AS makes this seem counter-intuitive, but it actually makes things a lot better. Sitting at the end makes it far too easy to disconnect socially, but the main reason I avoid it is for hearing. One of my biggest autistic struggles is filtering out noise and concentrating on a single voice. At the end of the table, my attention is easily grabbed by the conversations all over the restaurant equally. By sitting more centered, it guarantees that most of the time that people are speaking, they will be facing in my general direction. This makes it easier to focus on the right voice because it makes it slightly louder than everyone else in the room. I find that I am naturally more of a participant just by doing this simple thing.

9. Learn meditation.
My particular AS recipe comes with the symptoms of muscle tics and the over-stimulation-triggered "rain man" meltdown, that in my case, looks a lot like a kind of seizure. As a teenager, I would have these episodes 2 to 5 times a day, sometimes lasting for hours each time. These days, it happens a couple of times a month at worst and rarely lasts very long. Meditation gave me the ability to control it to this level. I was taught biofeedback (basically an extra scientific version of meditation) as part of my early treatments and it allowed me to calm and redirect stress as needed to keep the episodes at bay. If you have any sort of physical stress reactions, this is an important tool to learn (in any form).

10. Observation is your super power. So is pissing people off.
You don't see things the way other people do. You will also notice things that other people won't. The finer details and discrepancies are obvious to you. This can make you really good at all sorts of jobs. Use this super power, but use it wisely. You can quickly become known among your peers as a detail-oriented person who is great with error-checking and quality control. You can also quickly become that guy who points out what everyone else is doing wrong. That's not what you want to be. I can't tell you how to find that balance, but you must find it. And it is different for each group when dealing with peers, subordinates, or supervisors. Don't hold back the things you see, but always point them out with kindness. You'll figure it out.

That's all I've got. If this helps you or someone you know, that makes me very happy. If it doesn't, well maybe it just gave you a little insight into how I tick. Feel free to pass it on and let me know if you have any tips or advice I should know. After all, I'm still figuring this all out too.


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