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Differences

Compared to “neurotypical” people, I have many traits associated with ASD to varying degrees. These include:

  1. Hypersensitivity
  2. Intense focus on Special Interests
  3. Nonconformity
  4. Impaired ability to form “theories of mind” for other people. This is most obviously manifest as a reduced awareness and understanding of non-verbal interpersonal communication.

Notice that all of these traits are only meaningful insofar as they vary from some norm. So am I suffering a “disorder?” Or am I just “atypical?”

When someone suffers any one of these traits to an extreme enough degree, it certainly qualifies as a disorder. At some point along the spectrum these differences become debilitating. But the first three traits I listed would seem on their face to be assets. They can be, and I intend to illustrate the pros and cons of those traits in future posts.

It is only in recent years, after being formally diagnosed as being “on the spectrum” and researching ASD, that it has become extremely clear to me that many of the differences I have struggled with my whole life are not only related traits, but also shared by other people on the spectrum.

Hypersensitivity: An Occasionally Useful Disability

Hypersensitivity becomes a disability when you can’t shut it off. The inability to selectively tune out stimuli is a key ASD trait.

In isolation it seems like a highly adaptive survival trait. I have pretty keen senses to begin with. But it is my sensitivity to what they detect that is atypical. For example, I will alert to the fact that something has been left in the oven from the smell of vaporizing oil, long before anyone else would typically notice the more pungent smoke … or hear the smoke alarms going off. From the other side of the house I will notice the faint beep of the fridge announcing that someone left the door open.

In more primitive surroundings I imagine smelling or hearing predators or other unexpected hazards no matter what else is going on would always be an advantage. Unfortunately, in my case the sensitivity isn’t limited to saving kitchen appliances:

  • Smell: I find almost all out-of-place fragrances and perfumes to be very distracting. I.e., any smell can be as distracting as a bad smell.
  • Touch: I find most tags sewn into clothing to be very distracting. My son who inherited my ASD is grateful that I can remove them from his shirts. It was a great relief when tagless adult shirts went mainstream.
  • Sight and sound: If a TV is in my line of sight – even peripherally – or I can hear one – even just the faint irregular bass tones transmitted through floors and walls – I can’t tune it out. This one is really bad, because while my physiological senses of smell and touch desensitize (a.k.a., fatigue) over time like anyone else’s, the constant changes in images and sounds of a TV prevent that from happening.

How much of a problem is this hypersensitivity? When I say “distracting,” I mean that they impair and overload my concentration to roughly the same degree that a fire alarm and strobe impairs a neurotypical person.

My capacity to cope with hypersensitivity varies with my mental state and mental energy. On the worst days, in the worst circumstances, it really starts to become like this:

Empathy vs Perception

Contrary to a common misconception, lack of empathy is not the problem with ASD. In fact, ASD is often associated with hyperempathic responses. ASD people may seem unempathetic because they fail to (or simply can’t) pick up on cues that are blindingly obvious to neurotypicals.

For example, if my wife says, “I just lost a client at work,” I can empathize. But if she’s practicing non-explicit behaviors that women routinely use to convey distress, I’m more likely to say something like, “I see that you’re sitting on the sofa doing nothing. Are you tired? No? Are you hungry? No? OK, good, I’m going back to work on my computer.”

Big Bang Theory nailed it in this scene from S10E12:

Sheldon: So my mother thought I was incapable of finding a mate, and my mate thinks I’m incapable of running my own life.

Amy: Not your whole life! I mean, science: You got that. Organizing your sock drawer: you’re the king. But understanding how other people are feeling, that’s a weak spot for you.

Sheldon: I have gotten much better at that.

Amy: Have you? How am I feeling right now?

Sheldon: What the … How should I know!? Excited? Itchy? Give me the first letter.

Why we look away when we talk

Communication deficits are generally characterized by … poor nonverbal communication skills such as lack of eye contact and meaningful gestures and facial expressions.

They may not pick up on body language or may ignore cues such as eye contact and facial expressions if they provide more information than the person can process at that time. Similarly, they have trouble recognizing subtle expressions of emotion and identifying what various emotions mean for the conversation. (Thanks wikipedia)

When I am trying to formulate a non-trivial statement or argument, or struggling to put a communication into adequate words, I will look away from my audience.

Why? Because I can’t ignore the fact that your face is communicating things, and it takes me a lot of mental effort to interpret what it is saying. By not looking at your face I immediately cut the unavoidable mental load of processing that input, so I am able to dedicate more energy and attention to constructing my communication.

ASD is not face blindness

One friend hypothesized that ASD is associated with face blindness. I took this test for face blindness and got 93% correct, rejecting that hypothesis.

However, if instead of “Who is this person?” that test had asked, “What is this person thinking or feeling?” I would probably score 0.

Recognizing faces and reading faces are distinct skills. In fact, we know that humans have developed specific and large neural regions to subconsciously recognize faces. If the typical brain has circuits to read faces then those circuits are apparently disabled in people with ASD. We at best replicate their functionality using generalized learning and reasoning pathways. I.e., whereas neurotypical people seem to have a GPU for face reading, ASD people have to queue face reading through our CPU, which means that (if at all) it is done at the expense of other generalized mental processing.

The problem with laugh tracks

When I was young some schoolmates tried the “no soap radio” prank on me.  Even though they executed it perfectly, as they asked, “Get it?” I paused and concluded blandly, “No, I really don’t get it.”

The problem with laugh tracks – and live comedic performances – is two-fold: Because I’m paying closer attention than most to the material, I will sometimes laugh out loud before the audience.  (Again, one could imagine this is a beneficial trait to have in a population: While a large group is being lulled into a rhythm, the ASD members stand as objective sentinels.)

TV shows with “sweetened” laugh tracks are the worst.  The audience laughter simply can’t slip into my subconscious.  Every instance is an eruptive stimulus that I have to process.  And more often than not it confuses me.  E.g., “That joke was not that funny.”  Or, “Why are they even laughing out loud at that?”

(Live performances aren’t as bad: I can usually synchronize with the rhythm of a live audience enough that it isn’t constantly jarring.  I.e., I can reconcile how smart or drunk the crowd is with its reactions.)

Good (and Bad) Depictions of ASD on Screen

People who know me well often compare me to Spock, or to Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory. Unfortunately, since I can’t stand laugh tracks, I’ve only seen occasional clips from the latter show. But enough to agree that as a sit-com representation of ASD – and as a caricature of me in particular – Sheldon is very good.

Fortunately there’s no laugh track on the new (and related) sit-com Young Sheldon, so I can watch that, although young Sheldon is more than anything else an absurdly precocious savant, so it’s not a notable portrayal of ASD. Though, to be fair, neither Spock nor Sheldon are explicitly ASD characters.

The Community character Abed is explicitly labelled as having “Asperger’s” (which is now recognized as an ASD), and his quirks are consistent with the spectrum.

I have been asked about The Accountant, and I did not find that to be a compelling depiction of ASD: Both the final script and the actor playing the supposedly autistic character left nothing more than some superficial allusions to ASD. Likewise, after watching three episodes of The Good Doctor I had to stop because its portrayal of ASD traits was too stilted and contrived.

Never mind all that, because if you want to watch a show about ASD you can’t do better than the Netflix series Atypical!* The Atypical character Sam has a more disabling level of ASD, which might make it easier to get right (in general: if you can’t nail the nuance, just turn up the volume!), but watching that series triggered uncannily strong associations with my own experiences growing up on the spectrum. Other ASD people I know agree that watching that show is cathartic.


* At least the first season, which is all that has been released as of this writing.

Blinded by Special Interests

“Special Interests” are a common ASD trait. I have drafted some hypotheses relating special interests to other ASD traits, but first I want to try to explain the term as it applies particularly to ASD. Actually, plenty of people have written quite well about this: Go read this page-one result.

Some key points about ASD special interests that are consistent with my experience:

  1. Special interests may look like obsessions. A “geek” is likely an ASD person with a special interest.
  2. “I don’t really get to pick my interests. They pick me.” (This is something I said to my wife years before we had any significant knowledge or diagnosis of ASD. But apparently it’s a common refrain for ASD.) I may be able to choose between a few possible interests at any given time, and under pressure from my wife I try to steer them into constructive – even profitable – vocations … while they last. But there’s no telling in advance how long one will last or how deep I’ll dive into it.
  3. They serve as a sort of mental refuge.

I bring up that last point in particular because in answering a comment to Why we look away when we talk I realized there’s an exception to the standard mechanisms for coping with the cognitive loads associated with hypersensitivity and non-verbal perception: Self-induced overload.

Normally, cognitive overload leads to a melt-down. But when I overload myself with a special interest it’s actually comforting. In fact, it can even allow me to preempt – and hence shut down – the hypersensitivity and coping mechanisms that otherwise drain my mental energy. Ah, but what does that mean for those around me? If I’m successful, I’ve entered an unusual state of blindness.

If you find yourself in a conversation with an ASD individual and they are looking you straight in the eye as they talk about something in detail, two things are likely:

  1. They are talking about a special interest.
  2. Their mind has stopped any effort to attempt to read non-verbal communication from you.

This is a trite situation: a geek is rambling on about something that nobody cares about, and despite plain indications that his audience is not interested he keeps going. So here’s what’s happening: The geek has ASD, and nothing short of explicit verbal communication is going to convey what other people are thinking or feeling. He can’t “take a hint” because, in that moment, he can’t perceive a hint. If you don’t want to indulge his special interest, the kindest thing to do is to say with clear, direct words something like, “I understand this is a special interest of yours, but right now you’ve exhausted my interest in it. Let’s do something else.”

Nonconformist

There is something fundamental to ASD that I will refer to as “nonconformity.” It goes deeper than the superficial behaviors that result from being oblivious to non-verbal communication. In my case, it is more like a disposition that often rises to the level of inability to accept implied norms, heuristics, or assumptions.

If something isn’t explicit, I prefer to disregard it. This sounds like a natural extension of the filtering mechanisms one has to develop to cope with ASD hypersensitivity. I don’t know if it is.

I will admit that my nonconformity sometimes has a defiant aspect to it: I.e., if pressed I might concede, “I suspect there is social norm that applies here, and I would guess it is this.” But then I will conclude, “Hey, if nobody can be bothered to make it explicit, I’m not going to bother to comply unless I am given or can find a compelling reason.” And no, “Everyone else does it” is not a compelling reason. If anything, that’s an argument for increased skepticism.

In fact, I have an innate mistrust and fear of crowd behavior. If “everyone” is doing something I prefer to stay to the side. Sometimes it’s sort of like I imagine a sheepdog feels: “OK, they’re all massed or queued up having a good time, but I should be on the perimeter ready to fight, flee, or sound an alarm.” Granted, that might be a rationalization of a coping mechanism: even if I can tap into “crowd energy” for a moment I will eventually be overwhelmed if I stay in a crowd.

I’m going to develop this nonconformity theme in coming posts. But as an anchor, here are two trivial examples from my childhood:

  • I always buttoned the top button on my shirts. Long-sleeved shirts bothered me, so even in the dead of winter I preferred short-sleeved polo-style shirts. The reason I buttoned the top button? I couldn’t form a theory in which a functional button was put on a shirt but never meant to be used. When my parents and teachers discouraged the practice because it made me look “weird,” that almost reinforced my decision: After all, everyone else could be wrong, and since nobody else could articulate a reasoned argument as to why the button was there and the top corners of the collar should be left sloppily splayed back, they probably were wrong! It was more orderly to button all the buttons, and so that’s what I did. (Was I bullied and outcast in grades 3–7? Yes, I was.)
  • At school lunchtime we would be herded into a cafeteria with our packed lunches. Mine would always have a sandwich in a plastic bag, and at least one other plastic bag with veggies or a snack of some sort. Now, elementary school is not a paragon of hygiene in general, and I preferred not to touch my food with unclean hands. The obvious solution of holding my sandwich through the very plastic in which it was packed evolved into pulling the plastic of the bags fully over my hands to increase my dexterity without contaminating the food. So by the time I was done eating, I would have a plastic bag inside-out over each hand. Again: my parents and teachers argued that any benefits in hygiene were not worth the derision inevitably heaped upon me as “the kid who wears plastic bags on his hands to eat.” I disagreed: Everyone else was stupid for ignoring my clever and effective solution and continuing like animals to handle their food with unclean hands.
Think Outside The Box? I don’t even see a Box!

Nonconformity is a challenge: Social conformity is a heuristic that vastly reduces the mental load on an individual. “Do whatever everyone else is doing” is a lot easier than constantly asking, “What should I do, and why?”

However, having stubbornly nonconformist members is an adaptive advantage for a complex social group: If nobody challenges norms, the group will invariably develop sub-optimal and even dangerous group behaviors.

Recent years have seen an increasing awareness of how this “outside-the-box” mentality is not only a business advantage, but also associated with ASD.

Joe Antenucci has a good summary of this in his post Why Peter Thiel Thinks Asperger’s Is A Key to Succeeding in Business. Quoting billionaire entrepreneur Thiel:

“One of the strange things in Silicon Valley is that so many of these successful entrepreneurs suffer from a mild form of Asperger’s or something like that. And I always think of this as an incredible indictment of our society: What sort of society is it where, if you do not have Asperger’s, you will pick up on all these social cues that discourage you from pursuing creative original ideas.”

Antenucci offers this accurate elaboration:

Thiel is referring here to one characteristic of people with Asperger’s. Most of them have little sense of unspoken social norms or how to conform to them. Instead they develop a more self-directed worldview. Their beliefs on what is or is not possible come more from themselves, and less from what others tell them they can do or cannot do. This causes a lot anxiety and emotional hardship, but it also gives them more freedom to be different and experiment with new ideas.

The truth is that if you want to start something truly new, you almost by definition have to be unconventional and do something that everyone else thinks is crazy. This is inevitably going to mean you face criticism, even for trying it. In Thiel’s view, because those with Aspergers don’t register that criticism as much, they feel freer to make these attempts.

Yes, Elon Musk is Autistic

Tim Urban did a book-length blog series raving about Elon Musk. I imagine that when a writer is given full access to a successful billionaire, raving is to be expected. But in the last of the four-part series Urban marvels at length about the unique way Musk thinks. I, in turn, marveled that Urban didn’t know that’s how all* ASD people think. (So as fanatic view of an ASD mind by a good neurotypical writer, it’s informative.)

As one of my friends who read the series summarized it to me: “You’re just like Elon Musk. But without the money, the success, and the accent.” Yep. 😦

When Peter Thiel lauded the entrepreneurial value of ASD nonconformity, his former business partner Musk was probably one of the examples he had in mind.

Now I’m not sure if this particular “I have to reason everything from first-principles” nonconformity is characteristic of all ASD, or just of “very high-functioning” ASD individuals. Because when you’re so smart that you tend to be right often enough, it becomes reasonable to conclude that, whenever possible, you should form your own theories and defer to your own reason.

In seventh grade I had a “critical thinking” class. For one activity we (all being “honors track” students) were separated into groups of four to try to solve a large, difficult problem. The explicit purpose of the exercise was to confirm a theme of the class: that through collaboration we could more effectively solve hard problems than we could individually. Unfortunately, it was not long before I reached some sort of impasse with the other three students in my group (at least one of whom was certainly on par with me academically), to the point that one of them was brought to tears by my stubbornness. To resolve the conflict, the teacher then allowed me to break away and work on the problem myself. Later in the week, after all the groups had submitted their solutions, she was asked whether any group had fully solved the problem. To her credit, she admitted, “One person did.” Since everyone but me had submitted solutions as groups, the unintended result of the exercise seems to have been: Working in a group might help with hard problems, but if you’re very smart and stubborn, you might do even better on your own.


*At least like me. And apparently Elon Musk.

Aspies do not lack empathy!

I noted this earlier, but apparently it warrants repeating because there is a persistent and pernicious stereotype that autism is associated with a lack of “empathy.”

Yes, “individuals with autism have a reduced ‘theory of mind’ ability, which is what allows us to perceive [what] others think and feel.” But at the same time, as this study in Nature concluded: ASD individuals tend to offset this alexithymia with hyperempathic responses to that which they do perceive.

To put this in more salient terms: I may not pick up on non-verbal hints that you are upset, or, having detected those, easily intuit why you are upset. But this perceptual deficiency is counterbalanced by heightened empathy, which means that when I do understand your suffering I feel more distress than a neurotypical.

I noted in a recent comment that I really don’t like horror movies. I hypothesize (and would love to confirm) that this aversion is a common trait of ASD, and that it stems from hyperempathy.

The Burden of Self-Reliant Reasoning

I have already touched on the ASD character trait of self-reliant reasoning. For example, I noted (while humbly comparing myself to Elon Musk) that “I have to reason everything from first-principles.” The same underlying trait produces marked nonconformity. So far I have mostly focused on benefits of this disposition.

But it certainly has its costs and drawbacks. It is hard work to go through life questioning everything! There is a significant cognitive burden associated with “starting from scratch” and constructing a sufficient model or process for things that other people are able to just accept or intuit. And this isn’t just a matter of principle or abstract ideas. It also applies to both mental and physical skills.

The first day of Spanish class in grade school, I asked something like, “Does Spanish have an alphabet like ours?” A number of my peers turned to scoff, “Duh, it’s the same alphabet!” Of course that’s not exactly correct, but more to the point: This sort of thing happens all the time. I feel like my whole life I have been blacklisted from some orientation program that everyone else gets to attend where they are given the answers to fundamental questions that I have to ask explicitly.

When it comes to physical skills, growing up I typically did exceptionally poorly the first time I attempted any novel physical feat. Where many neurotypicals can “just do it” or “don’t overthink it,” I have a hard time not imposing a conscious overlay to proprioception. (The fortunate upside is that, after gathering some context from initial trials, if I can construct a good mental model of the intended skill, I can then pick it up faster and better than many people who rely on trial, error, and intuition.)

I was recently talking to a friend about the importance of applied vs. book learning. “Nobody learns to swim by reading a PowerPoint presentation.” Well … I think I would have learned to swim more easily if I did have a good PowerPoint on swimming! Here is a trivial example that is more than superficially illustrative:

I had two separate adults try to teach me to operate a manual car transmission. I didn’t understand what the clutch was doing, and probably neither did they. These teaching sessions were the most inefficient way for me to learn how to operate a clutch: All my teachers could say were things like, “Too fast,” or “Not enough power.” It was like trying to teach someone who doesn’t drink to mix a perfect martini. Blindfolded.

If I had first been given a description of how the clutch works mechanically, and perhaps a few good heuristics for operating one, I could probably have figured it out on my own. I certainly would have learned it much, much faster than with those two teachers.

To this example, my friend responded, “Your teachers clearly learned how to drive without knowing all the mechanics. Besides, how much more do you need to know about the clutch than that it engages and disengages the gears?”

My answer: If a person has memory then obviously with some amount of trial and error they can learn to smoothly engage the transmission. They will then be able to operate it without understanding anything about what the clutch does. However, if you change the conditions they will probably have to run a PID learning loop again. For example, if they don’t understand why given accelerator/clutch inputs result in a smooth launch from a flat road, a hill-start is a new problem. And a different car with a different engine and clutch-pedal engagement is a new problem. Of course, some people learn and generalize very quickly through trial-and-error processes.

I, on the other hand, began with the knowledge that “the clutch connects the engine to the drive train,” and so spent my first two sessions trying to reconcile that basic fact with the reality that the clutch pedal is not a binary mechanism. E.g., “OK, I’m on the throttle, the engine is revving and therefore making torque, so now I want to engage the transmission, so I release the clutch and … why does it keep stalling?! What do you mean ‘release it slower?’ Why? At which point in its travel? How can I tell what the correct release speed is? And how can I relate that to the throttle input?” Eventually I would have created a mental map of clutch release speed vs throttle position. (If I did that in writing then you might appreciate how fine a line there is in many cars between “stall” and “lurch.”)

Anyway, I gave up at that time, and only a few years later, after I had read somewhat about how the clutch is a friction plate that variably slips depending on how tightly it is coupled, was I able to get behind a standard transmission and quickly learn to operate it well.

What’s the Attraction of Crowds?

I think I understand the attraction of “crowd energy,” because on occasion I have experienced it. But is that something that you get waiting in lines? Being packed together in mass transit, or on city streets or in busy stores? I assume not, but I recently realized that crowds may also offer two other attractions:

  1. There is a sense of safety in crowds. (Though I believe that sense is misplaced.)
  2. Neurotypical people can probably relax their minds in crowds. E.g., if you join a mass of people you can give yourself over to “the wisdom of the crowd” and not worry or think very hard about what you’re doing. (Not that you have much of a choice….)

I, of course, have different reactions.

“Strength in numbers” may be valuable during primitive warfare or frontier survival, but at the scale of modern society I only see crowds as a bad sign: In a crowd you are at the mercy of “mob dynamics” and mass logistics, both of which can shift faster than you can escape the crowd. (Perhaps this is why I dislike cities.)

Consider the “queue,” whether it be a line of cars or a line of people trying to enter a venue. For me, a line isn’t a crowd I can mindlessly join and trust that I’m taking the best course to whatever waits at the end. I wonder whether it’s on track. If there’s a problem at the front, will people even notice? Will they send word back, or take appropriate initiative to seek help or attention? (We know from crowd psychology that the answers to these questions are likely to be “no!”) Just because all of these other people are content to stay in queue, do they value their time as much as I do? Have they even considered that question? Is not the presence of a line prima facie evidence that something is not working correctly? And why is that person behind me standing so close? And is that jerk seriously about to cut in line?

My Place on the Spectrum

A large body of ASD research exists on “empathizing-systemizing” (E-S) theory, which examines the following two traits:

  • Systemizing: the drive to analyze, understand, predict, control and construct rule-based systems. Presumably this focus has several benefits: By deriving the underlying rules that govern a system one can predict its behavior. Also, constructing systems gives one deterministic control over them.
  • Empathizing: the drive to identify another person’s emotions and thoughts, and to respond to these with an appropriate emotion. Presumably this allows one to understand, predict, and control one’s social world. (This trait is often referred to as building “theory of mind,” since it is distinct from what we commonly consider empathy. It is probably best to think of it as a social or interpersonal analog of “systemizing.”)

Principle proponents of E-S theory are Simon Baron-Cohen and Sally Wheelwright out of the University of Cambridge. They have developed popular tests to assess SQ (Systemizing Quotient) and EQ (Empathizing Quotient). These measures are not sufficient to diagnose ASD, but when EQ and SQ are marked in two dimensions, significant clusters appear, as shown on this chart from one of their papers:

Neurotypical females tend to exhibit more empathizing than systemizing (Type E), and neurotypical males exhibit the reverse (Type S). ASD adults tend to fall into the “Extreme Type S” quadrant.

A few years ago I was professionally diagnosed with ASD (confirming what everyone who has had to live with me already knew). I’m also an outlier on the Autism Research Center’s standardized tests: Both my EQ and SQ are higher than 90% of ASD subjects. (However, my EQ is only at the 30th percentile for neurotypical males, and at the 10th percentile for neurotypical females. Meanwhile, my SQ exceeds the 99th percentile of neurotypical subjects.) So by these measures I am “atypically atypical.”

Non-Verbal Communication Problems

Two generations ago psychologist Albert Mehrabian popularized the “7-38-55 rule” to emphasize how much (neurotypical) interpersonal communication can be non-verbal.

This “rule” has been overapplied in popular literature, but it is terrifying for aspies like me who are largely blind to nonverbal communication and who depend almost entirely on words for communication.

As one indicator of this chasm: I feel like I lose almost nothing by communicating via telephone as opposed to via video or in person. (In fact, the only datum I think I can glean from being able to see a counterparty is, “Are they visibly distracted by something?”) So for me the nonverbal/body-language element of communication is negligible.

I am not oblivious to tone, but like many aspies I don’t think I am as attuned to its nuances as are neurotypicals. I can get more information from someone talking than from reading a transcript of what they said, but I don’t feel like it’s much more. So if in the extreme a neurotypical communication distribution can be 7% words – 38% tone – 55% nonverbal, then I imagine my default communication distribution is something like 80% words – 18% tone – 2% nonverbal.

And it gets worse: At least in my case, non-verbal communication deficits go in both directions!

For example, I am told that the “first impression” I make on others is, above all else, one of smug arrogance. But those who get to know me well eventually realize – and marvel – at how inaccurate and unintentional are that and other of my superficial impressions. (To clarify: I might legitimately be characterized as arrogant, but not in the way I come off at first.)

I am told that I smile and laugh at inappropriate times. This really gets me in trouble. Even with my wife who knows that a wide range of reactions, emotions, and intentions can produce pretty much the same wry smile on my face: Confusion, bemusement, fear, dismay, remorse, contempt, amusement, irony, sarcasm, jest, surprise…. I still have to remind her when we have emotional conversations, “Just listen to my words!

Systems as Coping Mechanisms

“Systemizing” is a common ASD trait, and I happen to be an extreme systemizer.

I have come to see systemizing as a compensation mechanism: The only way to justify and mitigate the burden of self-reliant reasoning is to create systems. I take the time to figure out the “best” or “correct” way to do something, and then I always do it that way.

Examples:

  • What to wear? I don’t want to ask myself this question every day. I prefer to find the single most practical pants and shirt that satisfy my work requirements, and then buy enough copies to last through a typical laundry cycle. They might come in different colors, but that’s rarely of interest to me: I just wear whatever happens to be at the front of the clean queue.
  • What to eat? I do love good food, but I don’t want to routinely spend mental energy on keeping myself fed. I become anxious if there is uncertainty about the availability or cost of sustenance (whether that be to purchase or prepare). So I have a list of dry cereals that make an easy and adequate breakfast for me. (I stockpile those when I find them on sale.) And for years I’ve fallen back on PB&J for lunch – using the exact same bread and spreads from Costco whenever possible.
  • How to load the dishwasher? This tends to be a non-trivial (NP-complete!) packing problem: For any particular dishwasher and set of dishes, there are many sub-optimal loadings which reduce capacity and/or prevent the dishwasher from cleaning everything effectively. I come up with relatively good loadings … and am continually confused when my wife and kids fail to see or follow those patterns.

It’s easy to see how systemizing could produce behaviors that resemble OCD. In fact, a key reason that I might be considered “high-functioning” instead of “impaired” is that my systems are functional and effective.

I have a tooth-brushing routine that takes about 5 minutes. Why? Well, I was first impressed around the age of seven when I was given some of those dye tablets that you can chew to stain plaque. I did what I thought was a thorough brushing and then chewed one, looked in the mirror, and couldn’t believe how much I had missed. So I modified my brushing accordingly. A few years later I happened to have a toothbrush in my mouth while I was watching a show and after 10 minutes of haphazardly brushing I realized that my teeth felt as smooth as when I left a professional oral hygienist. From then on I didn’t feel like I had brushed my teeth until I had that same clean-all-over feeling. It took some work, but I came up with a brushing habit to reproduce it.

So yes, I take five minutes each night to clean my teeth, but it’s habitual – i.e., there is no ongoing mental load associated with it. And it is effective: I recently visited a dentist to have a chipped tooth patched. It was my first visit to her, and I told her that I hadn’t seen in a dentist since I lost dental insurance five years prior. When she began to inspect my teeth, she marveled and called in her hygienist: “Diane look at this. He hasn’t had a cleaning in five years. But there’s no calculus anywhere!”

Order and Control as Coping Mechanisms

It takes mental energy to deal with hypersensitivity.  A major theme of my life has been creating systems and refuges that reduce that intrusive mental load and allow me to focus more on the things that I want to. (Also, my life would have been much easier if I had discovered earlier than a decade ago that ADD medications help a great deal in this struggle.)

Sometimes creating my own stimulus is a way to deal with distracting stimuli. If I can overwhelm my senses with something that I control, that’s better than suffering the weaker stimulus I can’t control. To a point: Sensory overload is exhausting no matter what.

For example: Distracting sound has been a life-long annoyance. I have frequently tried to drown it out with white noise (and brown noise, and pink noise), but that has its limits. If I don headphones playing music with which I’m familiar, that can cover most noise distractions, but it’s still tiring. I can sort of tune out familiar or monotonous sounds, but not completely, and not always. Hence, the ability to create and control spaces where I don’t have to suffer distracting noise is of great value to me.

I have always taken solace in having a “castle:” some place and space I control – whether it’s my home or even my own dorm room – and to which I can retreat. I know that in my castle, I can keep the things I want and need, organized in a comfortingly familiar order.

Do you enjoy travel? Few things provoke more anxiety in my mind. Part of what makes travel or new excursions especially difficult is the uncertainty of when and how my needs will be met. Are we going to get stuck overpaying to eat at mediocre restaurants, and ripped off for transportation? Waiting? Delayed? In crowds? Can I opt for 40 lashes instead? As a traveler I am at the mercy of systems and conditions I not only can’t control, but for which I can barely plan. And on foreign ground I have no castle to which I can retreat.

Atypical Marriage Challenges

So how does a nonconformist control freak fare in marriage?

Even before I met my former wife, people who knew me wondered if I would ever find a woman willing to put up with me. And people (including me) who know my wife still wonder how or why she stayed married to me for so many years. As I understand it: I can be difficult to live with, at least in part because of my zealous reliance on systems and standards of my own contrivance, enhanced by blindness to non-verbal communication.

So how did I end up married to an amazing woman? As she sometimes explains it: I “tricked her.” I don’t disagree with that, but I emphasize that I did not do so intentionally: The problem is that people can be Special Interests. And when I became interested in my future wife, it didn’t matter to her that I was “a little weird.” Compound the blinding passion of an early romantic relationship with the focused attention an aspie brings to bear on his Special Interest: Detecting the atypical traits that will strain a life together under those conditions is like trying to pick out sunspots while staring directly at the sun.

I don’t think the challenges in a long-term ASD-NT marriage are different in kind from those of typical male-female marriages. At least in my case, it’s more a difference in magnitude. Remember this chart? It is with good reason that ASD is often classified as an extreme “male mind.”

All marriages face turbulence as the honeymoon phase winds down – the sun dims, and its spots become visible. In our case this phenomenon was magnified when my Special Interests, perhaps inevitably, began to wander. To continue the metaphor: My bright “Special Interest” light stopped shining directly into my wife’s eyes.

She says that I am not “emotionally supportive.” I don’t entirely understand what that means, but I know enough of my limitations to believe her. I gather that I was never “emotionally supportive” in the neurotypical sense. Rather, the intensity I brought to bear on her when she was my Special Interest could not be distinguished from neurotypical “emotional support,” and so it concealed the fact that I don’t provide or even grasp what that is.

But it gets worse: Review my posts on hypersensitivity and then imagine the effects of introducing the chaos of young children into my space and routines. Kids destroy ASD coping mechanisms when those mechanisms are needed most. With kids in our life, the mental energy reserves I had previously used to support my relationship with my wife were simply gone. She had to confront the previously unknown extent of my differences at the same time she most wanted a neurotypical husband.

Just as most couples struggle with the end of the honeymoon phase, most marriages are strained by having kids. Unfortunately, at least for my wife, those hardships were exacerbated by the concomitant discovery of atypical traits in her spouse that present their own challenges. Darling: I’m sorry.

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