Some people are really surprised when they find out I have Asperger Syndrome.
I have always thought my “oddball-ness” was glaringly obvious, but it seems that all my efforts over the years to fit in have paid off — to a certain degree.
After years of therapy, reading about Asperger’s, observing the behaviour of successful friends and colleagues, and generally learning to mimic “nypicals” (John Elder Robison‘s word for “neurotypicals”, or people who don’t have Asperger’s), I have managed to build myself what I now call my “10-minute social battery.”
This means that, for about 10 minutes in any given situation, I can pass for “normal,” and this is what most people see — and why some of them are surprised to find out I have Asperger’s.
When you think about it, though, many if not most of our social interactions are 10 minutes or less:
- a doctor’s appointment (a dentist appointment is longer but you can’t really talk about frogs or math with metal tools in your mouth!)
- checking in and getting my membership card at the gym (I can think about math and frogs in a spin or yoga class all I like and no one notices)
- lining up and paying for groceries or clothes or takeaways
- talking to a bank or utility rep on the phone…
You get the general idea: I can fake it and pass for “normal” in those sorts of situations. I am also a very polite person, and I have a good sense of humour, and both those things help to grease the wheels for me and get me through to the other side without too many mishaps. I’ve been told I use humour to distract people; that’s probably true too.
And as I’ve been thinking about writing this blog, I realize I’ve also cleverly arranged my social and work life, to a huge extent, around NOT having to socialize with people who will make fun of me. Most of my friends know I have Asperger’s, and the ones I haven’t told (because I don’t know them well enough yet) happen to like my smarts and oddball-ness, as far as I can tell.
As well, I’ve been lucky over the years to have had a lot of social “coaches” — some deliberate (like the friend in Grade 8 who told me bluntly that I walked funny and showed me how to walk normally), and others more by accident or observation: my former father-in-law (really!) treated my ex and me to a lot of nice meals in expensive restaurants, and as I hadn’t had a lot of experience with that, I simply watched what he did (ordering wine, speaking to waiters) and copied it. It worked.
Work-wise, almost all of the jobs I’ve ever done have been related to research, writing, or editing — all occupations that require a minimum of interpersonal contact and that actually reward smarts and a focused, detail-oriented mind.
There are, however, two down-sides to being able to fake it so well. One is, of course, when the “10-minute battery” runs out, which is a bit like holding your breath and suddenly running out of air: suddenly I just can’t fake it any more. One of two things tends to happen: either I’ll have an outburst of “verbal diarrhea” (I got the “chatty” brand of Asperger’s, unfortunately) or, if I’ve been politely listening to the person at the cash talking about their kids or their vacation, I go totally blank. It’s hard to describe, but it’s like suddenly being tired, utterly exhausted, deep down in your bones; all the lights go off and the circuits shut down. You can’t concentrate or contribute anything more. Time’s up, and you just have to get away.
The other down-side is that since I can act normal, people assume that I am normal. This is one of the key conundrums with autism and Asperger Syndrome. Unlike other disabilities – Down Syndrome, say, or cerebral palsy, or having to use a cane or a wheelchair – our condition comes with no visible markers whatsoever. Aside from the small kids whose mums dress them in T-shirts that read “Please be patient. I have autism”, we look like anyone else.
Case in point: I was at an Asperger’s get-together on the weekend and when I arrived at the restaurant, I had trouble finding the group because, of course, they all looked NORMAL.
And this is the Catch-22 of Asperger Syndrome: we look and can (to a certain extent) act normal. But when our “social batteries”, however long they may be, start running down and our Asperger traits come out (whether that be an abrupt departure, a stony silence, or a long monologue about our own interests) we’re often ostracized or scolded or otherwise made to feel wretched. (And unfortunately, we are well-stocked in the “feeling wretched” department; as Asperger expert Tony Attwood points out, Asperger’s is a double-edged sword in that we’re weird and we KNOW we’re weird.) I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard, “You’re so smart — why are you acting so stupid??”
However, all things being equal, I’d rather have a 10-minute social battery than none at all. I’ve worked hard to acquire it and, like a disguise, it allows me to walk among “nypicals” more or less undetected. It allows me to get things done, to work and support myself, and to have friends.
And perhaps best of all, my battery recharges itself fairly simply with some good solid down-time — a cup of tea, a couple of hours of reading or watching TV or a documentary, an exercise class, or walking in the woods. My really good friends know when my battery is running low and happily excuse me to go “plug in” somewhere else for a while.
Autism researcher Francesca Happe sums it up nicely in The Woman Who Thinks Like a Cow, which is a BBC documentary about Temple Grandin: “There are two things we can’t overestimate. One is how hard people with autism work to live in our world and keep to our rules, and to get by. The second is how anxious people with autism are. And the two things go hand in hand.”
It’s hard work, and it drives me crazy that I have to do it at all, but the alternative — isolation, ostracism — is unthinkable. It’s not ideal, but hey, it works for now.