My brother got his diagnosis first. (I’m not going to talk about him very much, because he is intensely private and would kill me.) When I got my diagnosis five years later, in 2006, my psychiatrist was so excited she was practically salivating: “Asperger’s siblings!” I didn’t stay in therapy very long. It was boring, and I was uncomfortable being told that my personality was actually a categorical “disorder.”
Since then I’ve had a weird relationship with Asperger’s. I’ve been secretive about it, downplaying the role it might play in terms of my character. But at the same time, I feel this intense magnetism toward other so-called “Aspies,” wanting to befriend them and protect them and be their champion.
Asperger syndrome exists on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. It is characterized by broad social impairment. There are usually a lot of factors contributing to this impairment, which may include: difficulty interacting with others, lack of demonstrated empathy, difficulty interpreting social cues, and rigid habits/obsessive interests (often mistaken for obsessive-compulsive disorder). It can be difficult for people with Asperger’s to make friends, which is why Aspies are often mischaracterized as being antisocial. Many Aspies yearn deeply to have friends and only retreat into loneliness after repeated failures to connect with people.
There’s been a recent emergence of Aspie-types in the media, which tend to perpetuate the idea that all Aspies look like this:
Aspie characters—rarely diagnosed but strongly insinuated—are often dramatized as being sociopaths (the new Sherlock), humorous robots (Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon), or severely traumatized people (Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). Abed from Community is pretty cool, at least until season three when his character becomes ridiculous. The original Abed is a good example of a (possible) Aspie who is neither crippled by shyness nor obsessed with science, two qualities that are often associated with the syndrome.
One challenging aspect of understanding Asperger’s is that it hasn’t been studied much in females and is in fact believed to manifest itself differently in girls versus boys:
At first, the above passages, courtesy of a resource I like, may seem sexist, but from comparing my brother and myself, they also seem to be somewhat true. I do have a knack for imitating the behavior of people I find to be charming and effervescent. My brother, however, seems unable to do this. He is more limited by his extremely introverted personality. He is less able to be phony and flirtatious, less able to make others feel comfortable in his presence. He is fundamentally incapable of being fake. It’s a quality that I really admire in him, though not one that I envy. I think the inability to be fake can make life really scary. So much of daily life involves programmed, polite interactions: ordering a hamburger, making a phone call, being “likable.” Fakeness can protect you like a coat of armor—without it, you’ll be gutted every day. I don’t know why I have this armor and he doesn’t. I don’t like to think that girls are simply better at being fake, and so it follows that Aspie girls are better than their male counterparts at concealing their condition. But why, Asperger’s? WHY?
It really kills me to see other Aspies floundering in this world. There are so many social codes that penalize us in truly immeasurable ways. I’d like to share some stuff I’ve learned about Asperger’s, so that if you have an Aspie friend, you can reach out to them. And if you’re an Aspie yourself, maybe this will help you.
Being brave in social situations.
It’s true that many Aspies are terribly shy and anxious about socializing. When the psychiatrist told me she thought I had Asperger’s, I immediately said, “No way. I’m very nosy and bossy.” My psychiatrist replied that some Aspies, particularly girls, compensate for their social awkwardness by doing precisely that—being bossy and attempting to control social situations rather than simply participating in them. Well didn’t she just have an answer for everything!
That said, I think I have identified the secret to finessing social encounters without having anxiety or resorting to bossiness. It works for shy Aspies and non-Aspies who are shy, so I’m going to share it with you: ASK QUESTIONS. That’s all! Just ask a billion questions. Where did you get that scarf? What’s your middle name? Have you ever been to Africa? Most people are thrilled by the opportunity to blather on about themselves. And all you have to do is sit there and come up with more questions to ask. Beware the occasional person who will try to turn the questions back on you: “Have you ever been to Africa?” If you don’t want to answer, I suggest just saying whatever pops into your mind. (Many Aspies find it awkward to talk about themselves.) People may disagree, but I feel confident saying that minor lies here and there don’t really matter. Only on TV do people get all dramatic, like, “YOU LIED TO ME, YOU’VE NEVER BEEN TO AFRICA!” Of course, you can always be honest. Just say, “I don’t like talking about myself. I’d rather learn about you.” Even though that last part might be a lie—you’re not necessarily fascinated by this person, you’re just trying to survive the conversation—it’s still a good tactic.
I recommend forcing yourself to attend social gatherings. Then, if you’re not having a good time, leave. Attend, leave. Attend, leave. It’s all about practice. I know that one of the worst feelings is being trapped in a social situation with no idea how to extricate myself. But my reward for going to the party in the first place is that I allow myself to rudely leave whenever I feel like it. So just get up and walk away. Say, “Bye, I’m leaving. Thanks for inviting me.” If your friends are true friends, they will find your abrupt behavior endearing rather than rude. That said, you have to watch out for our common enemy: the person who says, “Awww, don’t go! Please stay!” This puts us, the Aspies, in the incredibly uncomfortable situation of having to insist that we’re leaving despite your protests. Non-Aspie readers, please never be this person at a party. I know you think you’re being nice, but actually, you’re torturing us. Aspies tend to flounder in conversations that serve no purpose other than to be “polite.”
A common Aspie trait is an extreme intolerance for attire that is encumbering, itchy, or binding in any way. My brother wears the same loose T-shirt, khaki pants, and Teva sandals all year round, even when it’s snowing. For me, it can be frustrating to look at pictures of Arabelle and Marlena. I envy their style and flair while knowing that I wouldn’t last an hour in most of their outfits. For an Aspie-friendly look, I recommend the bag-dress-plus-temporary-tattoo combination. The pleasing bag dress will hardly come into contact with your flesh, while the temporary tattoos express your tastes and save the ensemble from seeming unimaginative.
Finding a best friend.
I think it’s vitally important for everyone to have a best friend—one person with whom you’re NEVER fake, who totally gets you, and whose company you value completely. Groups of friends can be fun, but I fear they ultimately fall or drift apart, so it’s important that you and your best friend can stick together. Abed has Troy; you need someone, too. Just as there is a certain Aspie personality profile, I have identified and charted a complimentary Aspie BFF profile. (Note: because Troy is a he, and my own BFF is a he, I will be referring to the Aspie best friend using the pronoun “he.” I don’t intend this to be limiting to anyone else.) Here is how I believe the traits of the Aspie and the ideal Aspie BFF compare:
Ego: As with many Aspies, my ego is the size of a small planet. So I need a best friend who can absorb some of that ego. I don’t mean someone who has self-esteem issues. On the contrary, an Aspie’s best friend needs to be fairly resilient and steady, or else we might inadvertently crush him with our lack of sensitivity. What I mean by a smaller ego is someone more tolerant and easygoing than me, and who is willing to go along with my particular ways.
Analytical tendencies: I love to analyze everything. I’ll analyze a hot dog stand or my landlord or a complete stranger. My best friend and I love going on ask.metafilter.com to read about the juicy problems of strangers and then spend a whole evening analyzing them. As an Aspie, I need someone who is as analytical as I am, and who can hold up his end of the discussion, or else the friendship will start to feel unfulfilling. This is true for every analytical person, not just Aspies. It may feel novel and refreshing to be around people who don’t feel compelled to deconstruct things the way we do, but once the novelty wears off, we’ll be stuck with this person who just doesn’t get how fascinating ask.metafilter.com is.
Empathy: Aspies are often called out for being kind of careless with other people’s feelings. I had a friend in college who told me that he’d decided to stop confiding in me, because I always “lectured [him] like a teacher instead of listening like a friend.” I remember balking at him, like: “DON’T YOU WANT MY BRILLIANT ADVICE?!” That’s when my best friend stepped in and pointed out that I was treating my friend’s situation like a Dear Abby question, while also making it all about ME. So that’s why it’s useful for my best friend’s empathy level to be higher than mine, so he can explain why everyone is mad at me. But it shouldn’t be too high or I’d seem like a tyrant in comparison.
Judgement: Like many Aspies, I am very judgey. I even manage to be extra-judgey because of my particular upbringing: my dad is an actual judge, and my mom is a beautiful society lady who abides by every etiquette rule. As a result, I tend to think that everyone is weird or insane (Why is she wearing that? Why did he say that?). It can be exhausting. That’s why my best friend needs to provide a more open-minded, flexible dynamic. He teaches me new things, shows me new ways of life, and gently explains the perspectives of others. This way, people don’t seem as crazy and abhorrent, and life is better.
Life can be better, and I think that knowledge is the key—knowledge of who you are and the lifestyle that you require to be comfortable and happy. This goes for everyone, not just Aspies. Do you need a peaceful atmosphere? Go live in the Yukon with Sonja. Don’t feel peer-pressured to move to the city. Do you need routine? Surround yourself with people who respect that routine and who don’t make fun of you for being a stick-in-the-mud. This sounds really obvious, I know, but in practice it can be confusing, especially when the person you wish you were is completely different from the person you actually are. Serve the needs of the actual you, not the fantasy you. The fantasy me is a very outdoorsy girl who sleeps in a hammock and spontaneously frolics in the sun. Trying to be that person is just futile, though, because the actual me is an Aspie who needs routine and temperature control and a contoured sleeping mask. It was hard to let go of the fantasy me, but once I did, I was happier. Being fake with other people can be useful, but you should never be fake with yourself. What I really want to say is this: Aspie or not, it’s up to you to be the champion of who you are. ♦