Having Asperger’s Syndrome is like driving a car with a stickshift transmission: it means that everything most people do automatically, I have to do manually.
When you drive a vehicle with automatic transmission, you barely have to think about driving, other than keeping your eyes on the road: the vehicle shifts gears without you knowing it, moving you smoothly from first to second and so forth as you travel.
When you drive a stickshift, though, not only do you have to pay attention to the road, but you need to listen to the engine, feel the vibration in the gas pedal and watch your tachometer (the dashboard instrument that tells you how many RPM your engine is turning) to determine when to change gears. Then you need to push in the clutch pedal, press the gearshift into the new position, and release the clutch again.
Similarly, for “neurotypical” people, or those without Asperger’s, things like conversations, business transactions and day-to-day social interactions are conducted more or less seamlessly. You call the hairdresser to make an appointment, you stop off at the grocery store on the way home from work, you get through a day of meetings and office work or whatever it is you do, and maybe you meet your mate or some friends for dinner or a drink afterwards.
And you do it all without really having to think about how you’re doing it.
When you have Asperger’s, most of what you do has to be broken down into bits, analyzed, and a decision made about how next to respond. When I have a conversation with you, for example, I am watching your mouth and the space between your eyebrows and the muscles in your face to see whether you’re happy, sad, angry or upset. I’m also watching your hands and certain aspects of your body language, and trying to listen to the tone of your voice to determine whether you’re being sarcastic or not. It’s sometimes easier to do this in groups because if other people are laughing, for example, that’s usually my cue to laugh too.
When I’m doing the talking, I remind myself every so often to look at you and determine whether or not I’m boring you to death or being irritating — again, it’s a “binary”, “if-then” sort of thing: Is the person leaning away from me, crossing her arms, looking at her watch or sighing? If so, then stop and say “Well, that’s enough about me…” and ask her something about herself.
In a business situation, or one that’s more challenging that just day-to-day interaction, I do something I call “templating” — if I don’t know how to respond to something (say, a criticism of my work, or an unfamiliar person coming to the office) I think of someone I know who does these things well, and imitate them. In my case, I have two “templates” — they are both managers I’ve worked with in the past, who dealt wonderfully with difficult people.
So now, for example, if my current boss tells me he didn’t like my work, I can’t just tell him to go soak his head (the way I might do, jokingly, with a friend who was being a pain). I’d be fired. So I take a breath, remind myself I’m in a business environment, and then respond in the way Lisa or Lillian would probably respond to him, even using their words. It takes a LOT of practice (because AS impedes your ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes) but it really works, and a lot of psychologists and AS specialists teach this technique to help people improve their social and business skills.
Over the years I’ve learned to do all of these things more or less seamlessly, the way you get better and better at driving a stickshift (well, unless you’re really crap at it). When I first learned to drive as a teenager, I popped the clutch almost every time I attempted to drive the car. It was terribly frustrating.
Similarly, I have bored a lot of people to death, or annoyed (or puzzled) them by talking on and on about something I love (cats, for example, when I was small), or talking in a cartoon voice. (I spoke like one of Roger Ramjet’s “Solenoid” robots for years… “Mmm, buzz-click…I would like a sandwich, mmmmm, buzz-click!”) I did it because I was nervous, but had absolutely no idea that I was being irritating or inappropriate. These are the sorts of things you learn over the years, sometimes the hard way.
(When I was in Grade 7, I actually got in a whole lot of trouble one day because I completely misread a teacher’s tone of voice. He was a popular teacher who also happened to be the vice-principal, and a small group of us were clustered around him out in the playground talking and having fun. A friend told me to show him my “Donald Duck” imitation, which I had just learned to do, and — stupidly — while I was quacking away I threw in a naughty word. He was not amused, and told me to come see him after school for detention. But he was smiling as he said it, and my friends were laughing, so of course I thought he was joking.
I was also a very well-behaved kid who had never, ever gotten in trouble at school, so I suppose that was part of the reason I didn’t think he was serious. So imagine my mortification the next day when I was summoned to his office, via the classroom loudspeaker, and bawled out for skipping detention!)
Anyway, to finish with the “stickshift” analogy, if you drive in a car with me now, you probably won’t notice me shifting gears (unless that’s the sort of thing that interests you). Likewise, if you’re having a conversation with me, you probably won’t notice me “computing” what to do or say next, or working the “clutch” in my head. It comes more or less naturally now, although it’s still exhausting — my engine is usually a bit overheated by the end of the day and I need to go home and put my brain in “park” for a while.
The important thing to remember is that Asperger’s is a syndrome that largely affects how a person communicates. Genetics plays a role in how things pan out as you get older, as do circumstance, education, upbringing and motivation. And like most things, the ability to communicate, or “drive,” improves with practice — this goes for “Aspergians” and non-Aspergians alike, of course. (And isn’t it ironic that one of the most memorable lines in Rain Man, which was about a man with autism, is “I’m an excellent driver”!)
Me, I like to think that I started out lurching along in a 1969 Volkswagen bug with a burned-out clutch and holes in the floor, and am now sailing along in something much nicer and shinier. Every so often I grind the gears or take a speed bump a bit too fast, but for the most part I get where I need to go.
And maybe some day I’ll be driving that Mercedes convertible I’ve always wanted….