Asperger’s and Social Cues From Television

Aspergers-TelevisionGrowing up, I remember being mystified by a lot of social interaction.  At the time, of course, I didn’t know what Asperger’s Syndrome was or that I likely have it.  Instead, I felt like the only outsider who just didn’t "get" how people interacted.  I turned, to some degree, to what seemed to be a great resource for displaying human interaction:  Television.

On television, I could examine people interacting in various different scenarios without having to actually be a part of those situations.  I could be a dispassionate observer, making mental notes of how to act when similar situations came up in real life.

Of course, television is a pretty poor guide for human behavior.  People get away with things on television that would be completely inappropriate in real life.  On television, you can play a horrible prank on your teacher and everyone laughs as she looks forlorn at the camera.  Cut to the next scene and there are no consequences.  Do something similar in real life, though, and you’ll quickly find your way to the principal’s office.

Luckily, I was too timid and unsure of myself to ever emulate outrageous stunts from television.  I also quickly realized what a poor guide it was and figured out a better guide: college.  Being forced to live in a social environment 24-7 for months on end (and free from the socially deterring effects of bullying) exposed me to a wide variety of social lessons.  It was a time filled with great highs and terrible lows, but it was a period during which I learned a great deal about human interaction.

Cut to the present and NHL.  Recently, NHL has been emulating some behavior he saw on a television show.  On the show, the action led to a bout of "canned laughter."  Unfortunately, NHL seems to have taken this to mean that, if he does the action, he’ll get laughter as well.  In reality, it’s only getting him in trouble.

I’ve tried talking with him about it – telling him that characters on TV do things that real people can’t do.  I even gave some examples from the same show.  I’m not sure if it sank in or if he’ll try the action again, but I’ve tried my best and will have the talk with him again if needed.

Sadly, the best way for NHL to learn about social appropriateness and interaction is with trial and error.  This means that he will make mistakes.  Many of them.  Even with my help.  I only hope I can help him avoid the worst of them and figure out quicker how to act in social situations.

Asperger’s and the Emotional Cage

aspergers_emotional_cage_small_watermarkedHaving Asperger’s Syndrome can be challenging in a lot of ways.  Many of them involve dealing with the neurotypical world and its strange (to those on the spectrum) ways and rules.  Things that neurotypical individuals take for granted can be mysterious for us Aspies.  A big challenge I’ve recently realized can be the expression of emotions.

Some people will look at those with Asperger’s and mistakenly think that we don’t have emotions or that said emotions are less than our neurotypical counterparts – at least until said emotions explode out.  These people are horribly, horribly wrong.  If anything, people with Asperger’s feel emotions more deeply.  I’ll often find myself hurt about something for days while the other person has forgotten about the incident ten minutes later.  The trouble is that Aspies often find themselves unable to express those emotions.

Think of an Aspie’s emotions as being hidden behind a big sheet of tinted, sound-proof glass.  You stand on one side and the Aspie’s emotions are on the other side.  Through the tinted glass, you might be able to make out some shapes on the other side, but you won’t see it clearly.  Meanwhile, the Aspie on the other side is trying desperately to communicate how he or she feels.  Talking doesn’t seem to work and small movements seem to be lost on the other side as well.  Big movements might work, but lack any form of subtly.

An observer on the other side of the glass might mistake the lack of small movements/sounds for a lack of emotions – until the Aspie makes big movements or big sounds that get through the sound-proof glass.  The neurotypical observers are surprised but the Aspie is frustrated.  It’s like living in an emotional cage.

Personally, I’ve recognized this tendency with me since before I heard about Asperger’s Syndrome.  My go-to method for conflict resolution is keeping quiet.  I’ve always done this because I’m afraid of becoming so upset that I shout something that I don’t really mean.  I’ve found that NHL – who is obviously less adept at expressing his emotions having had less time to practice – is prone to this.  He’ll get upset over an issue (say, being made to go on a family walk when he just wants to play video games) and will shout things like “I hate you” and “I’m going to kick you” instead of calmly discussing his feelings.

Outbursts aside, however, I’ll often plan out arguments in my head.  I’ll lay out reasons why I feel a particular way, what the person did to make me feel this way, and the resolution I’m looking for.  The arguments are all there in my head, but when they come out of my mouth they get garbled and are less than persuasive.  It’s like being able to imagine a perfect drawing in your head but only being able to draw a stick figure – and a poor one at that.

It’s not just my own emotions that I have trouble with but expressing empathy for others’ emotions.  Plenty of times, B will have something going wrong, she’ll look to me for sympathy, and will find none.  That’s not because I have no sympathy for her.  I do, but I just don’t have the words to express it.  I’m standing behind that tinted-glass cage screaming how I feel but all that comes out is a muffled “sorry.”  I’m frustrated because I can’t express how I feel and B’s frustrated that I’m not showing sympathy for her situation.

Interestingly enough, I feel much more at home expressing emotions in writing.  There’s no immediate pressure to put the perfect words to my feelings.  I can write, delete, and rewrite how I feel before sending it on to the recipient.  It’s no wonder that I feel more at home in the online world than in the “real” world and that I feel more social on social media than when face to face.

All in all, having Asperger’s can be frustrating to all involved when it comes to expression of emotions.  Aspies can easily be misunderstood and thought of as having no real emotions when the opposite is true.  We Aspies feel deeply but just can’t find the words to express those feelings.  The next time you find yourself dealing with an Aspie, keep this in mind and be patient as they try to express themselves from behind their emotional cage.

NOTE: The “Asperger’s Emotional Cage” image above is composed of four emoticon images by nicubunu that are available from “Laughing Face“, “Crying Face“, “Loving Face“, and “Question Face.”

Social Anxiety vs. Crowd Patience

crowdsThere’s an odd little interplay that results when I go out somewhere.  If we’re going to a social situation where we’ll be expected to converse with people I don’t know, then I’ll get nervous and want to leave.  If, however, we’ll be packed in somewhere with a bunch of strangers who we aren’t expected to talk to but whom we have to put up with while waiting in line or while going from point A to point B, then I tend to be fine.  I call it social anxiety versus crowd patience.

When it comes to conversing with people, I have very little patience.  This has nothing to do with the people I’m talking to, mind you.  It’s just that talking to people makes me nervous.  I have to remember their name, past conversations we might have had, talk about topics I may or may not have an interest in, and keep in mind all of the social rules that come naturally to those who don’t lie on the autistic spectrum.  I might be sitting there talking, but mentally I’ve bolted for the door and am halfway down the stairs.

(Side note: I’m constantly amazed how B can recall conversations months or years later.  In general, I have a very short conversation-memory. Who I talk to about what tends to fade quickly most times.)

However, crowds don’t seem to present much of a problem to me.  This is actually quite odd as people with Asperger’s can find crowds an overwhelming sensory experience.  However, while there might be chaos all around me, I can usually filter it out and hyper-focus in on what I’m doing at the moment.  I just regard people as moving obstacles to avoid when walking or to wait behind if on line.  Social expectations are low.  So long as I don’t cut in front of anybody or knock anyone over, I’m fine.  I don’t need to know the name or interests of the person in front of me.  It’s perfectly fine for me to retreat into my own head and ignore everyone walking around me.

All my "crowd patience" goes out the window if the crowd is a party, however. Parties aren’t about impersonally navigating past people to get to a destination. They are social events and all of those conversational social rules apply. Furthermore, I can’t just treat the people around me as if they were faceless obstacles. Anyone near me is a potential conversation. The entire situation quickly moves from uncomfortable to overwhelming.

This doesn’t mean I *WANT* to leave, mind you.  In fact, I often *WANT* to join in but the more I join in, the more uncomfortable I feel until I *NEED* to leave.

The give-and-take between my social anxiety and crowd patience can make outings quite "interesting."  Will the activity tend towards the impersonal crowds enough that I will be able to put up with it?  Or will it be social enough that I’ll begin to get nervous?  Add in NHL’s social/sensory concerns and anxiety and it’s no wonder why our social calendar can be tough to manage.

NOTE: The crowd image above is by ainlondon and is available via

The Upside of Asperger’s

Often, Asperger’s is portrayed as a condition that has nothing but negative consequences.  Those "suffering" from it have trouble socializing, can be overly preoccupied with interests, and are rigidly confined to preset schedules.  However, there are many things about being an Aspie that are good as well.

What some people see as having trouble telling other people’s meaning, I see as being drama-challenged.  Oftentimes, people will take someone’s actions, read into the meaning behind said actions, and then pass judgment on that person.  They declare why those actions were not socially acceptable and how the person should change in order to fit into their idea of what is allowed.

I, on the other hand, often don’t see these "hidden meanings."  I take people at their word unless they prove untrustworthy.  (Even then, I’ll often give them a second or third chance.)  I don’t tend to hate people even when I probably should.

Part of this might be naiveté on my part or never-ending optimism, but part is my inability to see the subtle nuances of social interactions.  The social world, as I understand it, is much simpler than how others see it.  While, this might not match up with reality, I think I prefer the simple, trusting view to the "what did they really mean when they said that" perspective or the "that glance had this hidden meaning" vantage point.

Asperger’s also brings with it a tendency for honesty.  I find it very hard to lie.  Small lies are ok, especially if there’s a good reason behind them.  ("No, I haven’t bought you a birthday present and it certainly isn’t hidden in the room over there.")  However, the bigger the lie, the harder it is.  Oftentimes, the truth just spills out of my mouth before my brain has the chance to veto it.  Like the time when, while trading my old car in for a new one, I mentioned how we thought the old car’s transmission might be going.  There was no reason to say that, but it was the truth and the salesman HAD asked why I was looking to buy a new car (in what I all-too-late realized was just small talk).  I don’t know if that affected the trade in value that I got, but it couldn’t have helped.

Still, on the bright side, B can be sure that I’ll never lie to her about anything important.  On the rare occasions that I’ve tried, it feels like the truth is burning inside of me and inflating like a balloon.  It is only a matter of time before it comes bursting out.

Finally, what some see as being overly preoccupied with interests, I see as an ability to dive deep into things that you like.  Others might read a book, but Aspies can totally immerse themselves in the tale.  Others might watch a TV show, but Aspies can tune out the rest of the world so that the only thing left is the screen.  Others might study a subject, but Aspies devour every aspect of it.

I think the best example of this tends to be when B and I watch Doctor Who.  Even though I’ve seen the episodes before, I become transfixed.  I can’t type on the computer or look away.  If I get interrupted, I have an overwhelming need to rewind and rewatch the entire scene again.  I have to see every visual and hear every line.  Even if I can recite the entire show by heart, I need to totally "zoom in" on it.

Meanwhile, B is knitting or crocheting right next to me while watching.  Oftentimes, I wonder if she’s even watching at all.  After all, she doesn’t express concern when the Daleks arrive.  She barely raises an eyebrow when the episode’s bad guys threaten to wipe out humanity.  She certainly doesn’t cheer when the Doctor saves the day using only his brain.  This is the difference between watching the show and hyper-focusing in on it.

Perhaps this hyper-interest was best summed up by geek-extraordinaire Wil Wheaton.  During a recent convention, a woman asked him to tell her newborn daughter why it was so awesome to be a nerd.  His tale of delving deep into interests struck a nerve with me.  (Excuse the shaky-cam.  The mother taking the video was so touched by Wil’s words that she completely didn’t realize her shot wasn’t perfectly still.)  What he said about being a nerd is equally applicable to those with Asperger’s.

Though our view of the social world may be very shallow, Aspies tend to love things deeply and intensely.  Yes, Asperger’s brings with it many challenges, but it also brings many rewards.  If I had the chance to suddenly become neurotypical, to toss aside all of the stumbling blocks that Asperger’s put in my way, I don’t think I would.  Asperger’s isn’t something I suffer from.  It’s part of who I am.  While it might have held me back in some ways, it has also, in many other ways, lifted me up higher than I could have gone had I not been an Aspie.

Obsessions and Asperger’s Syndrome

Dealing with NHL’s Asperger’s traits has more than it’s share of challenges.  One of the more frustrating aspects is the tendency of NHL to fixate on something.  Be it a task or a specific item, NHL will obsess about it until he drives us crazy.

His latest obsession is his weight.  Thanks to shuffling a few things in the bathroom, the scale was available for use for the first time in awhile.  Of course, as with anything new (or "newly available"), NHL and JSL had to use it.  The difference is that, while JSL tried it once and was done with it, NHL kept weighing himself over and over.  He was clearly obsessed.

Now, this obsession had nothing to do with weight loss.  He wasn’t seeing himself as overweight and needing to drop some poundage.  That thought never entered into his head.  Instead, this was a purely numbers-based obsession.  He weighed a certain amount two hours ago, would his weight be different now?  What about in an hour from now?  What about after eating a meal?  What if he was in his PJs instead of his clothes?

We needed to act fast to help him get over the obsession, but simply banning the scale wouldn’t do.  That would just make it a forbidden item and he would try to sneak in weighings.  He’s bad at sneaking things so he’d be caught and get in trouble.  That wouldn’t stop him from trying, though.  Instead, I set up rules to use the scale.  I told him that he could weigh himself once a month, on the first day of the month, with either his mother or me present (so he couldn’t weigh himself, claim he hadn’t done so, and get in a second weighing).  I gave in to one more request of his – one bonus weighing on his birthday.  Hopefully, this will turn stepping on the scale from a minute-by-minute update into a monthly routine (or better yet, something he forgets all about in a month’s time).

nuclear-warOf course, NHL isn’t the only one who can be obsessed.  I often have to fight my own obsessive tendencies.  A few weeks back, I recalled a card game I used to play called Nuclear War.  You would draw a hand and use the nuclear weapons you drew to obliterate your opponents’ population.  The twist was that a played that lost all of their population could wage one final strike by launching everything in their hand at anyone and everyone.  Often you’ll end games with nobody left alive.

How does this relate to obsession?

Well, after I remembered this card game, I tried to think of where I put it.  I knew I had seen it recently, but couldn’t recall.  Too late, I was obsessed.  I couldn’t stop thinking about it.  When I tried, it was like there was a little me perched on my shoulder talking to me.

"Where could that be?  Maybe in the attic.  You should really go check in the attic."

I’d try to ignore the voice of my obsession, but it would continue.

"I know it is 10pm at night, but if you’re really quiet you could sneak up there with a flashlight and look.  Come on.  Just go up there and rip apart a few boxes looking for it.  It’ll only take one hour – three tops…."

Even if I was out of the house, a portion of my brain would be mentally searching the house to remember just where I last saw the game.

Thankfully, the other day, I happened to glance over to a spot I had passed a dozen times and spotted the case that the game was in.  I was now able to end my obsession and get on with my life.

Until the next obsession hits, however.

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