I’d like to share a funny clip from one of my favorite TV shows, Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Data is an android who wants to become more like a human.  In this story, two of his friends are getting married, and he wants to be ready to dance at their wedding.  He has heard that the ship’s physician, Beverly Crusher, knows how to dance.  Logically, she is a good person to ask for a dancing lesson.

(This clip also includes a short scene at the beginning involving a misunderstanding, but I’m mainly interested in the long dancing lesson scene in the middle.)

As an android, Mr. Data’s brain is an incredibly powerful computer that is excellent at recognizing and reproducing patterns.  He only has to see something once to learn it, and he has a perfect memory, so he will not forget.  That’s why it is so easy for him to learn to tapdance; all he has to do is copy Beverly’s steps.

In some ways, my Asperger’s brain can be a bit like a computer, in that it learns most naturally in a step-by-step process.  (I don’t have the advantage of Data’s perfect physical coordination or memory, though, so learning to tapdance would be nowhere near that easy for me!)

But when it came to learning to dance with a partner, even Data’s supercomputer brain was having trouble keeping up!  Why?  Because it is still using step-by-step procedures to describe how to dance, and every new thing Data has to keep track of means that the procedure has to become more complicated.  In the course of this scene, he learns that he needs to

  • move his feet along with Beverly’s
  • not step on her feet
  • lead the dance
  • improvise new steps
  • do all this without watching his feet
  • not hold Beverly too tight
  • smile; look like he’s enjoying himself

And this doesn’t even mention trying to talk to the person he’s dancing with!  Each one of these things multiplies the complexity of the program Data’s brain uses to describe how to dance.

I sometimes wonder if this story was written by someone familiar with Asperger’s (of course, back when this was written, they probably wouldn’t have known what it was called).  I think it provides a great example of how it’s possible to be super-capable in an area that many people find hard, but to have great difficulty with something seen as “easy.”

Beverly was surprised that Data had so much trouble dancing with a partner when he learned tapdancing instantly.  But Data’s procedure-based thinking doesn’t lend itself to learning to dance.  A good dancer isn’t consciously thinking about any of the things in the list I gave above; at some point, it becomes innate and the dancer relies on intuition and emotion to stay in step.

That can be a very difficult leap for a person with Asperger’s to take; my brain wants steps and procedures to follow.  And keeping track of all of the steps and procedures to participate in something like a conversation or a dance can be absolutely exhausting!

What else was Beverly surprised that Data didn’t know in this scene?  He didn’t know that tapdancing isn’t usually done at weddings!  The thinking that led him to ask Beverly for a lesson was totally logical, but the possibility that people could mean different things by the word “dancing” didn’t occur to him.

One thing that is admirable about Mr. Data in his quest to become more human is that he doesn’t let embarrassment discourage him.  (Of course, not having emotions may give him a bit of an advantage there.)  If he gets something wrong, he just adjusts his thinking and tries again.  It can be a lot harder for those of us with emotions to risk embarrassment when we’re trying something new, but sometimes it’s the only way to learn.  It helps a lot to have patient teachers like Beverly in this scene, or like many of mine in real life.