Archive for January, 2010


One trait that often comes along with Asperger’s is a very literal mind. In my mind, words tend to correspond to specific concepts, and the construction of a sentence is a lot like the building of a mathematical formula– it’s meant to communicate (usually) one particular thing.

Of course, language is much more complicated than that. Sometimes two completely distinct concepts are represented by the same word. Often, the same word can have different meanings depending on the context of the words around it or the context of the entire conversation. And there are endless ways to play with this capacity for words to mean different things– poetry, metaphor, puns are all possible because of all this. And if the words are spoken out loud, things like vocal inflection and facial expressions can influence the meaning as well.

I think it’s likely that all children get confused about an expression they haven’t heard before, but Asperger’s can make it easier to miss some of the contextual signals that clue people in about what a person means. A manager at CNN who has Asperger’s shared an example of this from her elementary school days:

“In first grade, whenever someone made a mess in the classroom, the teacher would ask a student to get the janitor. The student would come back with Mr. Jones (not really his name), who carried a broom and large folding dustpan. When I was asked to get the janitor, I looked all over the school and reported back to the teacher that I could not find it. After all, the person was Mr. Jones, so the janitor must be the object, right?”

That’s very logical thinking! I have a couple of funny examples of my own literal thought processes from when I was the same age.

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Ugh– writing.

I had to write a short summary paper for one of my classes this week, and I ended up making it way harder than it needed to be. It only needed to be two pages long, but I ended up losing a lot of sleep and not even covering everything I was supposed to in the paper.

Thankfully, it’s over with now. I don’t know why that seems to happen regardless of whether the hardest thing I have to write is a huge research project or a one-page paper. Writing a paper is messy, like finger-painting or sculpting with clay or something. You never reach a point at which there’s no more you could do. Math or programming is more like building with Lego blocks– you remain distinct from the pieces, and you are done when all the pieces are gone.

A while ago, I was eating at a restaurant and a friend noticed that I was working on a cryptic crossword puzzle book I got for Christmas. If you’ve never heard of cryptic crosswords, they are popular in Britain and work by disguising each clue in “cryptic” language that seems to be talking about something else but is actually a very literal reference to the answer, provided you think about it in the right way. For example, the clue “Large mixed drink” has the answer “LAGER,” which is both “large mixed” (mix up the letters in “LARGE”) and a “drink.”

Anyway, my friend asked if the puzzle book was a way me to keep from getting overwhelmed by the sensory input around me in the restaurant. I hadn’t thought about it before then, but I told her I thought she was right. It really does help me to have something specific and familiar to focus on when I’m in a busy or unpredictable environment.

Really, it’s the times when I am just waiting with nothing to do that can be more tiring for me to deal with. It’s hard to keep my mind from getting impatient and running away thinking about what I’m going to do next if I’m waiting for others to make up their minds where they want to go, or if people are just “hanging out” and I don’t know how to contribute to the conversation. The crossword puzzle gives me a way to focus that mental energy.

My other “survival method” is listening to music. If I really feel overwhelmed by the input around me, it really helps to have my MP3 player with me (provided it isn’t out of power, like it is about half the time). I might listen to my music if other people are stressed and I feel stressed just listening to them, or if I’m just not interested in whatever others are talking about. (Or if I just want to listen to music! I don’t want people to think that every time I use my MP3 player, I’m trying to shut them out!)

Listening to music can help me to focus on the task at hand, if it’s something like math, editing, or programming. Music is usually too distracting for me to listen to while I’m reading or writing, unless the music has no words.

Music also seems to help in one other very stressful situation for me– driving. I don’t like to drive and find it a very draining experience, because I potentially need to be alert and aware of everything on the road. (At the same time, I need to make sure I am paying attention to the right things and ignoring mere distractions, or else I will become overcautious and annoy the people behind me by doing things like waiting too long at traffic lights.)

It doesn’t seem to make sense that listening to music and singing along with it would help me to drive, but I think it actually does. Perhaps my focus on the music provides a baseline, a point of reference for me to keep an equally steady focus on the road as I drive, or perhaps it preoccupies an overactive part of my brain, leaving me with the right level of attention to drive cautiously without worrying? I really don’t know. I do know that singing along with music in the car is the main thing I enjoy about driving. (And if I approach a situation that looks especially unpredictable, like a busy, complicated highway interchange, I stop singing, turn the music down, or even turn it off so I can devote more attention to it.)

As usual, I don’t know for sure that these mental processes are typical for people with Asperger’s. It seems likely that most people’s minds work this way, but perhaps they are a little better at narrowing their focus voluntarily without needing to use something like music to do it?

Back to posting after a long break

Hi! I’m going to try to get back to posting on this blog again soon. In case you are wondering, there are a number of reasons for the long gap in posts:

  • My Web Programming classes have been keeping me busy.  I have really been enjoying them, and it’s been good to get back into a daily and weekly schedule and to get more experience driving and interacting with people.  But it is very tiring, and I find that I can usually only write when I don’t have much on my mental to-do list.
  • Between being a big football fan and making a website about football as a hobby, a lot more of my free time gets eaten up by that during the football season than other times.  The football season is almost over, which is partly sad for me, but at the same time, it may mean I can write more posts here!
  • I was having trouble coming up with things to write about.  The series of posts about the definition of Asperger’s syndrome and the one about theories of autism gave me a good structure to write about, but I wasn’t sure what to do after that.  To be honest, I still don’t have a great idea for more posts, but I do have more experiences to write about now that I’m back in school.

So, anyway, thanks for reading my blog– it’s good to be back!