Archive for May, 2010


One of the blessings of being diagnosed with Asperger’s is that it has caused me to read the reflections of others who are on the autistic spectrum online.  Sometimes a person will describe how they feel in words that make me look at my own life from a different perspective.

That was the case in a message board discussion I read a while ago about social anxiety.  Someone had asked what it felt like, and one poster responded that they could be walking on a sidewalk past people just going about their days, and it would feel like trying to walk across a stage with a huge audience watching their every move.

I suddenly realized that I felt that way nearly every day whenever I walked from building to building on a college campus.  If there was anyone around at all, I would need to concentrate on where I was going to step, where I was looking, the look on my face, whether to say anything as I passed them– that’s what made just walking around outside so draining.  I was so used to feeling like that, that it had never occurred to me to use those words to describe it, though.

It occurs to me that I have never really struggled much with “stage fright.”  I was in a lot of church and school plays when I was a kid, and I even sang a solo in one of them.  I don’t think the crowd made me nervous when it came time for the first performance, because I had practiced plenty of times, and I had a script to follow.  When the play was over, though, I found a dark, empty room and hid in it– it took my family a while to find me.  At the time, I didn’t even know why I did it– it just felt right– but I think it was because I didn’t want to face all of the people who were going to talk to me and tell me I did a good job.  That was not something I had a script for.

I’ve also heard that for a lot of people, one of their greatest fears is having to speak in front of a crowd, with some ranking it ahead of death on their list of fears.  Giving a speech in one of my classes can be stressful for me, but only because I am worried about the task of organizing and delivering the speech itself.  It’s similar to having to write an essay; it has nothing to do with the fact that an audience is watching.  I’m not a particularly good public speaker, because I don’t usually pay any attention to the audience; I just deliver my “lines.”

Could it be that I have not struggled much with stage fright because I feel like I am always on stage?  If I’m in a group of people and we are asked to introduce ourselves one by one as an icebreaker, I have trouble concentrating on what anyone before me says because I’m trying to improvise my “lines” on the spot and make sure I remember them when it’s my turn to speak.  Sometimes I have to plan out my “stage directions” before I get up and start to do something, or else I’ll get confused and end up turning around a couple of times.

I find these kinds of observations interesting, but they are almost never universally true of all people on the autism spectrum.  Some Aspies have posted that they struggled greatly with paralyzing stage fright when they were in a play as a child.  I’m sure there are also plenty of people who have never had trouble with stage fright but are not on the autistic spectrum.

But overall, I found this an interesting line of thought.  What is the solution to this problem?  It might be easy to say that this shows I put too much weight on what other people are thinking.  I ought to be chiefly concerned with God’s view of me.  I’m sure that’s true, but I don’t think that entirely explains why I feel self-conscious at times.  I may perceive the presence of other people in a different way than others do.  Perhaps I just need more practice, or more improvisational skills, and one day I’ll forget I’m acting?

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I’ve really been enjoying the classes I’ve been taking in Web programming this year.  We’re starting to get into material I’m less familiar with, like more advanced Javascript, SQL, and Unix, but a lot of it seems to make sense to me intuitively.  It’s great not to have to struggle with writing essays or even worry about being assigned one.

Though I’m sure the material seems boring to a lot of people, I’m actually finding the classes exciting– I’m learning the codes and commands that lie behind the scenes and create this place called the Internet that we are using right now.  This is goofy, but I sometimes feel a little bit like I’m in a class from Harry Potter.  I mean, just the other day we were learning about were-claws.

Okay; actually, it was a “WHERE clause.”

There has been one class that has been causing me some stress, though, because it’s been a bit unpredictable.  It’s a class in Javascript, a programming language that allows you to make the content of a Web page change based on what the user does (within certain limits).  The material is very challenging, but I was actually enjoying working on the homework because it was like trying to solve a puzzle.  It took a while, but I was able to figure it out.

A lot of the other people in the class had trouble even getting started on it, though.  Everyone was pretty negative about our textbook.  So our teacher changed the homework assignments to group projects.

In general, I don’t like group projects.  In this case, it’s especially hard because there is no opportunity for my group to meet outside of class, and the class time is entirely taken up by the lecture.  It doesn’t lessen the amount of work I have to do to make the homework a group project, because I have to do the whole assignment if I want to learn the material anyway, and figuring out a way to divide the work up fairly is more work.  The big project for the end of the quarter was already going to be a group assignment, so all this does is introduce uncertainty into something that was originally fun.

I didn’t want to say anything because it would have been rude.  Yet again a scene from a Harry Potter movie comes to mind.  (Sorry– My mind easily gets stuck on things; wait a while and it’ll be something else.)  There is a cute moment at the end of The Chamber of Secrets when headmaster Dumbledore announces to the students that all exams are canceled.  Everyone cheers wildly, except for young Hermione Granger, who looks shocked and then starts to pout.  She lives for the exams.

Of course, it’s very likely that it’s better for me to have to deal with something I am weak in– group projects– rather than getting to do something I enjoy because it comes naturally.  Our teacher said that employers are more interested in your ability to work and communicate with other people than your knowledge and skills.  This is often intended as an encouragement to students who are struggling with a topic, but I’m afraid it’s just the opposite for someone with Asperger’s.

It would be easier if I were better able to help others who are struggling.  In the last class, one of my classmates asked me how I approached the material, because she was finding it difficult to learn what she really wanted to know about Javascript.  The book gave her the lines of code to enter in order to create a specific program, but that wasn’t the same as understanding why the program worked and how to use that knowledge to make your own program.

I tried to explain how I read the book and thought about each part, but I wasn’t able to come up with anything she could do that she wasn’t already doing.  I want to help others understand things they are struggling with, but I felt pretty useless in this case.

It seems like this is a case where I have an unfair advantage because of the way my mind works; I sometimes wish it wasn’t that way.