One of the things that learning about Asperger’s syndrome has helped me to recognize about myself is how rule-oriented my mind is.  It’s been that way for as long as I can remember– I have sought clear instructions, and have felt extremely uncomfortable and unsure whenever I didn’t have them.

I have a vivid memory of my introduction to the game of kickball in recess in first grade; I was probably six years old.  (In case you aren’t familiar with it, kickball is similar to baseball, except with a big red rubber ball that you kick instead of using a baseball and a bat.)

Most of the time at recess, I kept to myself and played on the swings or paced around the playground thinking.  But on this day, we were doing something different.  The teacher told my class to line up and split us into teams.  I was gripped with fear– this was a sport, with rules!  My classmates seemed to know where to stand, which way to run, and what to do if the ball came near without being told.  How would I know what to do?  I knew nothing about sports; it didn’t help me at all to be told that it was “like baseball.”  By the time the game started, I had completely disintegrated into tears.  “I don’t know how to play!” I wailed over and over.

Looking back on that situation now, I realize several things I didn’t know then:

  • There was nothing wrong with not knowing how to play kickball.  I was only six years old, and I had never played it before!  It was nothing to be ashamed of; I was not disappointing anybody.
  • I was surrounded by people who could teach me how to play kickball!  My teacher offered to, as did some concerned classmates, but I was inconsolable at the time.
  • It was only a game, and the point was to have fun.  (I think this point only comes with the perspective of age; when you’re six, playing a game is serious business!)

My panic over not knowing the rules made me too much of an emotional wreck to actually learn them.  Thankfully, within an hour or so, I had forgotten all about my meltdown (the day seems really long when you’re a first-grader).  And I did eventually learn to play kickball, and I had a lot of fun doing it.  (It helped that I was one of about ten outfielders and didn’t have to worry about the ball coming my way very often!)  🙂

But the feeling that I didn’t know “the rules” continued to be a thread in my thinking throughout my life (and honestly, it continues to persist).  New situations of any sort were scary because I felt sure that I would make some awful faux pas that everyone else knew to avoid, but I didn’t, for some reason.  I remarked to my parents more than once that I wished I had an “instruction book” for what to do in every situation I might face when I left to go to college.  Had I missed something?  I didn’t feel ready to go.  And the fear returned when I came close to finishing college and realized I didn’t know much about the workplace.

This feeling of not knowing some set of “unwritten rules” that others know without being explicitly taught is apparently common among people with Asperger’s.  This was one of the things that seemed to speak to me the most strongly when I first started learning about the syndrome.

I came across a really interesting document online written by a person with Asperger’s.  It was a “rulebook” for life– an attempt to create the very thing I had wished I’d had!  In this case, the writer was a lot more bold than I had been; rather than tending to hide from new situations, he had gone out boldly, knowing he was going to make a lot of mistakes, but he was going to learn from them.  And the rulebook reflected that.

A lot of the rules were things that I had learned about social situations, but I had only learned them by being told or by thinking logically about them.  For example, the rulebook said that if you are an adult (and especially if you are very big or tall), running along the street of a town or city will make people nervous unless you are in an exercise outfit.

Maybe you are just running because you like to run, and there’s nothing logically or morally wrong with running.  However, it’s an unwritten rule in our society that children run along the street, but adults don’t, unless 1) they are exercizing, or 2) there’s some sort of emergency.

The thought process I’ve just described may sound very odd to someone who doesn’t have Asperger’s.  (I don’t know; does it?)  Maybe it’s hard to believe someone would need to consciously think about that.  But it is only by thinking through a logical process similar to the one above that I came to the conclusion that running in an unexpected place could alarm people.

(Come to think of it, I just remembered being read a story in elementary school that mentioned children running and adults walking, and the teacher even added a brief explanation that adults don’t run as much as children.  Maybe that’s how I learned it!)

Somehow I don’t think my brain will ever stop being rule-oriented.  But it really helps me to know that it works that way.  I can pray for the courage to overcome my fear of not knowing the rules, and thank God for the things he has already taught me.

I’ve got a few ideas for other posts on the topic of rules, so I should be able to make some more posts soon!