Category: anxiety


This post contains spoilers for the plot of the computer game To the Moon.  If you don’t want to be spoiled, play or watch the game!  Otherwise, keep reading.  This post looks a bit more at one of the game’s most interesting characters, River.  (“River” is a popular name in sci-fi, isn’t it?  You also have Firefly‘s River Tam and Doctor Who‘s River Song, both of whom are also very interesting people.)

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To the Moon screenshotThanks for reading my introductory post about the computer game To the Moon!  This post will start to get into the details of the plot in earnest, so only continue reading if you don’t mind finding out what happens in the game.

My girlfriend Megan has already written over a dozen posts reflecting on her reactions to the game and how it relates to Asperger’s syndrome, and they are really neat!  Her posts are a lot less spoilerish than mine, so you can check them out if you want to learn more about the themes of the game without being spoiled about the details of the plot.

Megan seems to have less trouble expressing her thoughts in words than I do; I usually have to have all of the details laid out in front of me before I feel like I can say anything.  With that in mind, the spoilers begin below…

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So, what is it like to have a girlfriend with Asperger’s?  To put it simply, it’s incredibly awesome!  It’s been a lot of fun sharing stories with Megan about growing up feeling a bit different from everyone else and realizing how much common ground we have.

Like me, Megan was the smart, shy kid in her class and tended to spend a lot of time thinking silently to herself.  She has intense areas of interest (languages, Japanese culture, manga, Biblical word and topic studies, and a host of other creative projects that can occur without warning!) that she pursues with a tireless focus and gleeful joy.  She loves her friends, but being in social situations– even ones she enjoys– can be very draining, and it takes quiet time spent by herself to recharge.  (I can’t count how many times I’ve messaged Megan saying “Sorry I wasn’t online for a while; I was taking a nap,” only for her to respond “Me too!”)

The first time Megan came to visit, we went for a walk around the neighborhood together and talked about all sorts of things.  That’s when I began to notice something interesting.  Ordinarily in this situation, I would be devoting a lot of my energy to coordinating my body language, facial expressions, and trying to maintain some rhythm of eye contact in order to give the correct appearance of being attentive.

But in talking with Megan, I started to lapse back into my more natural habit of letting my focus remain on the path ahead of me, or drift off into the distance as I chose my words.  I would still look over at Megan and smile (how could I not?), but I stopped worrying about how my natural expressionless, unfocused face would look and just talked.  I knew that Megan would understand, because I noticed she was doing the same thing!

The feeling of peace that came over me as I settled into this pattern was amazing.  I had never realized how much energy and worry I had been putting into social interaction all these years in order to appear more “normal.”  I suppose I was finally “being myself.”  When I needed to pause to think of how I wanted to complete a sentence, Megan never interrupted me, always patiently waiting for me to find the words.  It was wonderful!

What makes me even happier, though, is that I thought I saw the same transformation in Megan.  When we first picked her up at the airport and immediately went to lunch, I could sense a little tension in Megan’s voice and mannerisms– she spoke quickly and softly, with the same slightly exaggerated nodding motion that I always use when I’m afraid people will think I’m not paying attention.  But during dinner that night, after we had all had a chance to rest, Megan spoke more slowly and confidently, sharing her knowledge on a lot of fascinating topics while displaying a delightful range of emotions.  I was so happy to see that she felt comfortable with me and my family.

I don’t know if that was how I came across when I was talking to Megan, because the fact is that– for once– I wasn’t paying attention to how I looked or sounded; I was fully focusing on what I was saying and whom I was saying it to.  But I felt at peace.

All of this seemed to point toward a happy possibility– that Megan and I are both made better by the mere fact of being together.

 

Sensory overload is one of the most common struggles for people with autism or Asperger’s, but as with most things, it looks a little different for every individual.  My friend Megan had a really good post on her journal in which she listed the sensory inputs that she finds comforting and the things that lead to sensory overload.  I also like the point she makes about how being so sensitive is not all bad; it also means that we can find a lot of joy and comfort in simple things.

Anyway, I thought I’d use the same format she used to describe what sensory overload is like for me.

What sounds are comforting?

  • Rain on the roof.
  • A breeze rustling the trees.
  • The normal background noises of nature– frogs, insects, and birds.
  • An album of familiar songs that I know by heart.
  • An instrumental passage or guitar solo that rocks so much I have to turn the sound up, close my eyes, and nod my head (hopefully when no one is watching!)
  • A cat’s purr.
  • Silence.

What sights are comforting?

  • Maps.
  • Systems that use symbols and/or colors to organize things or convey information (especially if the color choices make sense).
  • Simple graphics using straight lines and bright colors.
  • Complete sets (of elements, constellations, countries, planets).

What textures are comforting?

  • Cold, smooth, clean surfaces.
  • A couch where I can stretch out and feel that it is there from my head to my toes.
  • A car or bus window when it is cold outside and I can press my head up against it.
  • A purring cat curled up on my chest/stomach.
  • Holding a smooth, hard game piece like a domino or a shogi tile, feeling the grooved patterns on it.

What spaces are comforting?

  • The edge of a room, with a sturdy wall I can lean against and feel that it is there.
  • The arc of a swing.
  • A hiding place.
  • A beautifully and logically designed game board.
  • The golden ratio.
  • A wide open place that is uncrowded and safe, where I have room to move and I know I am allowed to move.

What smells are comforting?

  • Waffles (or really any good food) cooking.
  • Approaching rain (ozone).
  • Autumn smells (fallen leaves, wood burning).

What tastes are comforting?

  • Pasta (texture as well as taste)
  • Cinnamon Life + Honey Nut Cheerios (the meal I have eaten more times than any other)
  • Mint Oreos in milk
  • Key lime pie with graham cracker crust

What are some of my favorite places?

  • Our cabin at Penn’s Creek, especially waking up in my bedroom feeling refreshed after my only lucid dream, when I decided to fly after I realized I was dreaming but didn’t wake up immediately.
  • On a cruise to Alaska, the quiet corner of the ship’s lounge my family found to talk, play games, enjoy hot tea, and watch the scenery pass outside.
  • Some parts of my football website (the few parts that are up to date!)
  • Places that aren’t real!  Red Brinstar in Super Metroid and the underwater glass tube, Snow Barrel Blast in Donkey Kong Country, the Tiger’s Claw (Wing Commander I), the Shire and Rivendell in Tolkien’s books.
  • The basement of our house when it is cool and quiet.
  • The tire swing at our house in Danville.
  • Being at home with the whole family around a warm fireplace while it rains or snows outside.

What things trigger sensory overload for me?

  • Having to navigate an unfamiliar place.
  • Multitasking (except for a few specific exceptions, like following multiple games in sports).
  • A lot of people talking at the same time, especially if some of them sound angry, frustrated, or upset.
  • Situations with a lot of rules that I don’t know or understand (or where I am expected to “just know” what to do).
  • A lot of bright lights from different directions in a dark area (especially driving through a city at night).
  • Signs, messages, and arresting images everywhere that don’t have any rhyme or reason (like a shelf of books or CDs in a bookstore; every cover is trying to get me to look at it by being the brightest, the most different, or the most shocking).
  • Portrayals of infinity.
  • Situations where I can’t find a place to stay out of the way and observe.
  • The feeling of chalk dust on my hands.
  • Being covered with dirt, mud, or sand.
  • A blaring television or radio that no one else is paying attention to.
  • Emotional overload.
  • Sometimes, I experience sensory overload after the fact– I’ve managed to negotiate a social situation or other challenge successfully, but as soon as I’m back home and able to relax, all of the stress comes crashing back in on me.

How can I tell if I’m approaching sensory overload?

  • My muscles tense up.
  • I find it hard to concentrate on work or fun activities.
  • I get a headache (sometimes a migraine)
  • I have an overwhelming urge to escape the situation I’m in, as soon as possible!

What happens when my senses are overloaded?

  • I try to get away, become (even more) quiet, and try to be inconspicuous.
  • My stimming behaviors, like toe-walking, rocking in place, swinging my legs, and biting my nails become more pronounced.
  • I appear to “zone out,” avoiding eye contact with everyone, instead focusing on something in the distance or on nothing at all, the “thousand-yard stare.”
  • My speech becomes very nervous; I speak faster, more quietly, and less clearly.
  • I have a harder time listening and retaining information.
  • With strangers, I may freeze or operate in slow motion, perhaps giving the impression that I am stupid or impaired.
  • With people close to me, I may become impatient and grumpy, snapping at them (apparent from my tone of voice; I may say “Okay, thanks,” but my tone of voice says “Stop talking to me and leave me alone!”

How can I prevent sensory overload?

  • Learn my capacity for sensory bombardment; accept the fact that it is less than most people’s and that I need to choose which things I participate in.
  • Give myself permission and allow time in my schedule to stay at home and rest.
  • If I’m in a situation that could lead to sensory overload, plan ways that I can take breaks, such as going for a walk by myself or sitting and reading during an optional activity.
  • Have others who know me well, that I can go to for help when I start to feel overloaded.

What’s in my sensory emergency kit?

  • Headphones and an MP3 player with all of my favorite music on it.
  • A puzzle book (especially cryptic crosswords).

How can I recover from sensory overload?

  • Time by myself, not talking to anyone.
  • After that, someone to talk to.  🙂
  • Taking a nap.
  • Taking a hot bath.

How do I know when I’ve recovered from sensory overload?

  • I no longer have a headache.
  • I am able to be around other people and enjoy their company.
  • I can get work done; I can be creative again.

What things cause you sensory overload, and how do you deal with it?

Earlier, I wrote about how I was afraid that becoming a teenager would turn me into a rebel and make me fight with my parents.  That didn’t happen.  But my thinking did change.  Looking back, I think that was when I first started dealing with “the voice.”

It was a voice that would remind me of all the times I had messed up, when I had looked silly, when I had hurt someone’s feelings.  Being reminded of a mistake felt like reliving it– even years later, I would look back and shudder about the smallest misunderstandings.

It was a voice that told me to pause before speaking up, reaching out, or taking action.  What if I made a mistake?  Better to stay silent and hidden.

It was a voice that told me whenever something bad happened, to assume it was my fault.  “I’m sorry.”  I felt like I needed to apologize for everything– it probably was my fault somehow.

It was a voice that told me to compare myself to others and that I wasn’t ready for the challenges ahead– I didn’t know how to drive (or want to learn how), I didn’t have a job, I didn’t like to go out with friends, I’d never had a girlfriend, I didn’t know what I wanted to do after I graduated.  And before I knew it, it would be too late to learn.

I want to be clear about this– when I talk about hearing a “voice,” I don’t mean the sort of voice that a person with schizophrenia might deal with, where you can’t tell for sure if what you’re hearing is a real sound or coming from your mind.  (Also, I know almost nothing about schizophrenia aside from the fictionalized portrayal of it in the movie A Beautiful Mind, so my concept of it may not be very accurate.)

See, I knew that the critical voice that plagued me came from my own mind.  It was my own voice, the voice of my fears.  As I said in an earlier post, part of growing up was that I became more aware of other people, and of their awareness of me.  And that caused me to be more careful about what I did and said.  But my rule-oriented mind took it to the extreme.  And it tended to create a vicious cycle, because the more I hid from potential failure and embarrassment, the more I feared that I was leaving myself unprepared for the world by not trying.

To greater and lesser degrees, every day since then became a fight against that voice in my head– usually subtle, but sometimes exhausting.  I could fight it by distraction, or by applying myself to a task that I really enjoyed.  Better still, I could fight it with other voices– the voice of God’s Word telling me that I was forgiven, my sins had been paid for, and God was in control of my future.  The voice of the Holy Spirit assuring me that I was a beloved child of God, and the voices of my family echoing that same unconditional love.

One of the greatest things about God is that he is so near.  I don’t have to make a journey to talk with him.  I don’t have to go through a series of mental exercises to make my thoughts acceptable to him.  He is as close as my own thoughts at all times.  Just by remembering that he is there, I can turn any time of distress and doubting into a prayer.  This didn’t make the struggle go away, but it meant I never had to struggle alone.

Hopefully this post makes some sense; I don’t intend for it to be a “woe is me” post.  I’m trying to be honest about how I see my life and development.  My next post will be on something more fun and less serious.

I’ll finish with a couple of quotes from The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis that hint at how this struggle will end.  If you’re not familiar with The Screwtape Letters, they are written as a collection of letters from a demon named Screwtape, whose nephew Wormwood is assigned as the tempter for a young man.  These sections come from the last letter, in which we learn that the young man was killed in a bombing raid, and Wormwood has failed in his task:

“How well I know what happened at the instant when they snatched him from you!  There was a sudden clearing of his eyes (was there not?) as he saw you for the first time, and recognised the part you had had in him and knew that you had it no longer.

Just think (and let it be the beginning of your agony) what he felt at that moment; as if a scab had fallen from an old sore, as if he were emerging from a hideous, shell-like tetter, as if he shuffled off for good and all a defiled, wet, clinging garment.”

And:

“Defeated, out-manœuvred fool! Did you mark how naturally—as if he’d been born for it—the earthborn vermin entered the new life? How all his doubts became, in the twinkling of an eye, ridiculous?

“I know what the creature was saying to itself! ‘Yes. Of course. It always was like this. All horrors have followed the same course, getting worse and worse and forcing you into a kind of bottle-neck till, at the very moment when you thought you must be crushed, behold! you were out of the narrows and all was suddenly well. The extraction hurt more and more and then the tooth was out. The dream became a nightmare and then you woke. You die and die and then you are beyond death. How could I ever have doubted it?’

“As he saw you, he also saw Them. I know how it was. You reeled back dizzy and blinded, more hurt by them than he had ever been by bombs. The degradation of it!—that this thing of earth and slime could stand upright and converse with spirits before whom you, a spirit, could only cower. Perhaps you had hoped that the awe and strangeness of it would dash his joy. But that is the cursed thing; the gods are strange to mortal eyes, and yet they are not strange.

“He had no faintest conception till that very hour of how they would look, and even doubted their existence. But when he saw them he knew that he had always known them and realised what part each one of them had played at many an hour in his life when he had supposed himself alone, so that now he could say to them, one by one, not ‘Who are you?’ but ‘So it was you all the time.’

(I have heard that conversations about dreams are one of the most boring things you can talk about.  Be warned; I’m going to be testing that idea in this post!  🙂 )

The world in my dreams is much bigger than the real world.  I mean that in a literal sense.  I often dream about places that are familiar to me, but they are almost always larger and more complex than the places were in real life.  That’s one of the few things I think the movie Inception portrayed accurately about dreaming (at least until they decided to skip the maze concept in favor of an action scene– that was too bad).

Houses go on and on, with room after room opening into one another.  My high school building has twice as many floors as in real life, and there are hallways you can only get to by going through a classroom.  My church has back stairways leading to endless dimmed passages.  My rural college becomes a city college, where instead of walking to class I am driving through traffic over hills and through tunnels.  Everywhere I go, I am finding new places I didn’t know about– professors’ offices in the basement of the library, underground shopping malls that are miles across, museums holding everything imaginable.  The journey from home to grad school takes me over huge mountain passes (even Texas has somehow become Alaska).  Sometimes I dream that I have to drive my way through a tangle of overpasses and underpasses or even jump over a river using an incomplete bridge.

Even things like familiar television shows and video games take on an enlarged, alien appearance in my dreams.  I always recognize them, but after I wake up  I realize I was imaging things that never existed– Star Trek didn’t cover a span of 100,000 years (as much as it may seem to some people!) and there was no Super Mario game with a thousand levels.

These dreams aren’t unpleasant– often I enjoy exploring these places.  As in real life, I don’t usually interact much with other people in these dreams; I either just wander or try to make my way to some appointment.  It’s too bad I can’t remember them very well, because they would make pretty neat settings for stories.

If I had to guess about why I dream this way so much, it probably has something to do with the feeling that the real world is always just a bit more complicated than I can understand, requiring a bit more of me than I feel like I can keep up with.  Maybe my overcautious mind magnifies my circumstances, and I get to see that in my dreams.  Or maybe getting to explore a larger world while I’m asleep makes the real world seem like not as daunting a place.

My parents had explained to me from an early age that I was growing every day, too slowly to see, but that after a number of years, I would eventually become a grownup like my Dad.  That was a good thing, I thought!  My Dad was the smartest person I knew.

Like most children, I was asked “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, and like most children, I had some pretty funny answers to that question based on whatever interested me most at the time I was asked.  When I was fascinated by road maps and traffic signs, I thought that I’d like to be the person who makes all of the stop signs, street name signs, and exit signs.  There must be someone who does that, right?  Well, then, maybe I could be a cartographer.  That was a person who made maps.

When I was fascinated by learning the bones and organs of the human body, I thought I might like to be a doctor just like my father.  He took me to work one time and showed me an actual skeleton they had there for medical students to study (I guess?), and I amused my Dad’s coworkers by pointing out and listing the names of all of the bones I had learned.

When I was fascinated by learning about the stars and planets, I thought I’d like to be an astronomer.  Then I could write the books I enjoyed reading so much.

But as I began to get a little older, I started hearing some things that made me worry.  My aspie brain was constantly taking in information from what I heard people say, from what I read, and from what I saw on television.  I learned that before I became a grownup, I would first become a “teenager.”  And I didn’t think I wanted to be one.

Why?  Well, the first thing most people seemed to say about teenagers was that they didn’t get along with their parents.  I heard it wherever I went.

Adults would warn/tease their friends with young children: “You think being a parent is tough now– just wait until they’re teenagers!”

At a Christian concert, the singer joked about how it’s hard for parents to watch their children grow up and leave home when it seems like the time goes so fast, but that God had provided something to make it easier for parents to let go:  “It’s called the teenage years.”

In stories and TV shows about families, the teenage characters always seemed to be either arguing with their parents or trying to get away with something without their parents knowing.

Teenagers often seemed to be portrayed as a bad influence in morality tales for younger children. (And in the 1980s and 1990s, even some of the most mindless children’s shows tried to present themselves as morality tales!)  If a story was about the evils of alcohol or drugs, or just trashing the house with a party while your parents were away, one of the first signs of trouble was getting the “big kids” involved.

It’s pretty silly, but I began to dread becoming one of these teenagers.

I didn’t want to fight with my parents!  I knew that the Bible said that children were supposed to obey their parents.  Besides, I liked my Mom and Dad!  I decided that I would try my best to make sure that I wouldn’t become rebellious.  (The idea that I thought I was in danger of turning into a rebel is actually pretty funny now, knowing my personality.)

[I just thought of an interesting tangent I could follow here, but I’m going to try to save that for another post, because this one is taking me too long, and I’m ready to be done with it!  🙂 ]

I don’t know why I didn’t talk to my parents about my fears until much later (when I realized I hadn’t turned into a monster after all).  Even then, I spent a lot of time thinking to myself, trying to figure things out.

I wonder if other kids worried about growing up the way I did.  Hopefully, most people are not as literal-minded about it as I was.

There’s a neat story I want to share with you.  I’m remembering it second-hand, so I might not have all of the details right, but I can explain the gist of it:

A while ago, my parents were visiting a church while on vacation.  The guest speaker was a pastor from a sister church in Africa.  One of the things they remembered from his message was that he spoke proudly about his teenage children, who were seeking to honor God and help others in whatever they did.  He said that he was dismayed by how much he had heard the idea expressed in America that teenagers are lazy or a burden or always up to trouble.  God can use anyone at any stage of life, and we should not let ourselves or others be defined by human labels and categories.

That’s such an encouraging message!  I think it’s important to realize that even when an idea seems universal in our culture, that doesn’t mean it’s correct.

CBS’s 60 Minutes ran a segment about face blindness last night, and I figured I’d share some thoughts about it.

If I could add captions to the movie, that would be fun, but I don’t know how to do that.  So I’ll try writing a running commentary according to the time index of the video.

Part 1:

0:10  It’s been a while since I watched this program.  Goodness, they are being dramatic, with correspondent Lesley Stahl giving her introduction from an endless black void with a creepy picture hovering behind her!

0:45  As you might expect, the report mostly focuses on some of the most extreme examples of face blindness, because… well, that’s more dramatic!  My own face blindness is not as severe as most of the examples they will talk about in this segment.  (Also, while face blindness is often a trait of autism/Asperger’s, many faceblind people are not autistic.)

I have never had trouble recognizing my close family members or myself in a mirror.  And I was able to recognize my high school classmates right away at our reunion. But I’ve spent years with those people where I saw them on a daily basis and spent time getting to know them.  I start to have trouble with people I only see from time to time.

1:20  This is something I’ve always wondered about 60 Minutes.  Do they make sure that the stopwatch is always at the right minute and second based on when the commercial breaks come, or do they fudge things a bit?  It looks like the watch is running about 20 seconds fast here, but I think that’s because they cut the “Tonight on 60 minutes…” part out of the video.  What?  Oh, face blindness. Sorry.

2:00  I have at least some facial recognition ability, because I can recognize most of these celebrities.  And the ones I have trouble with are possibly due to unfamiliarity with the celebrity rather than face blindness.  But this is easier than real life facial recognition, because 1) I already know it’s a celebrity, and 2) the faces don’t move or start to wonder why I’m staring at them.

2:22  This camera shot is a more accurate representation of the task in real life.  All those faces going by– how can I pick out the ones I’ve seen before?  Do other people’s brains really do that automatically?  If so, that’s amazing!

3:20  There’s no “Aha!” moment for me when the faces go from upside-down to rightside-up.  It’s just the same image flipped.  Most people don’t have to turn their heads to read words that are printed upside-down, do they?  It’s the same for me with faces– if I don’t know them upside-down, I won’t know them rightside-up.  But flipping the image seems to cause instant recognition for Lesley Stahl.

4:00  Those poor people… I feel terrible for me too.  (Just kidding.)  : )

4:45  When you don’t automatically recognize faces, you use context to help you keep track of people.  If I understand what Dr. Novotny is describing, she can become familiar with a person as her current patient, but when they step outside into a crowd of people, their context is completely changed.  Now they are just one of many people visiting the hospital.  She might remember that the patient was a young woman with medium brown hair, but now there might be three other people in the room who fit that description, and if she makes an assumption, it could be wrong.

5:08  This is a nightmare scenario for me.  I would have to ask for the coworker’s e-mail address or try to text them, because even if he tells me his name, I will probably not recognize him in a different context.

Whenever I arrange to meet someone, I am usually not looking for a face I recognize.  I am looking for someone who fits the general description of the person I am meeting (age, gender, skin color, hair color, hair style, etc.) and who appears to be looking for me (by making eye contact or smiling when they see me).  Until I am sure who they are, I hedge by pretending to recognize them in a way that is hopefully also plausible as simple friendliness if they turn out to be someone I don’t know.

6:00  This exact thing happened to me with a friend who changed her hairstyle between school quarters.  She no longer had her hair in a ponytail, and that was enough to make me unsure that she was the same person until she greeted me by name!

I don’t experience quite as much dissonance as Jacob Hodes appears to, though.  If I saw a person change their hairstyle in front of me, they wouldn’t “disappear.”  I know they’re the same person because they haven’t gone anywhere.

8:00  The interview with artist Chuck Close is probably my favorite part of the segment.  I think he does a good job of explaining the thought processes a faceblind person uses to identify people, and showing how you can still be good at recognizing people by paying attention to details.  I think I also recognized the picture of Leno by the chin and of Tiger Woods by the lips.  I thought Tom Cruise was Doug Flutie, though.

Until I read about face blindness, I thought this was how everyone recognized faces.

10:00  I can echo what these people are saying.  The idea that most people have a mechanism that instantly and automatically “labels” faces for them seems as weird and unexpected to me as face blindness appears to be to Lesley Stahl.  Half the people I know say they are bad with faces, so I just figured I fit into the same category.  Maybe I do, and it’s a spectrum like autism rather than a sharp divide between “normal” and “not normal” the way the segment makes it appear.

11:05  Thanks, Ms. Stahl.  What a cheery thought!  (sarcasm)

12:00  I haven’t had the experience of not recognizing my own face, but I don’t really need to recognize it very often.  I mean, when I look in a mirror, the person in the mirror is going to be me, right?  Other people stay on my side of the mirror.

Moe by Michael Firman (click to visit webcomic)

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Let’s go back to the scene in the carriage from early in Order of the Phoenix.  After getting off to an awkward start, Hermione tries to recover the conversation by commenting on Luna’s necklace.  “It’s a charm, actually,” Luna responds, then leans forward.  “It keeps away the Nargles.”

There are a few seconds of silence that seem uncomfortable for everyone but Luna.  Finally, she pronounces, “Hungry.  I hope there’s pudding.”

The scene that just unfolded is actually a good example of what a conversation with an Aspie can be like.  (Or at least, I can certainly remember having conversations that went that way with classmates my age.)  It may not seem like it, but I think Luna is trying her best to politely participate in the conversation in this scene.

It can be a challenge to keep a conversation going with an Aspie.  Hermione actually started out really well by commenting on something literal and specific, Luna’s necklace.  The intense focus on details that tends to come along with Asperger’s means that, as long as the topic is something I have “data” about, my mind almost instantly brings up a catalog of information to answer with.

It’s a lot trickier to come up with an answer to a question that’s more open-ended, like “What’s going on?” or “How is your day going?”  (First, I need to remind myself that these questions usually don’t literally mean that the other person wants to know everything that’s going on in my life.  Then, I need to select an answer that matches the level of depth the other person actually wants.)

Assuming I’m not stumped for something to say, there are still a couple of pitfalls that can derail a conversation at this point.  One is to give a response that answers the question but doesn’t suggest anywhere for the conversation to go.

For example, suppose someone messages me on my computer asking “Hey, what are you doing?” and I respond “I’m going to watch a movie.”  I have answered their question directly and fully.  If it were a question on a test, I should expect full credit.

But look at it from the other person’s point of view.  Now they don’t have anything specific to respond to!  They could try again with a different question, but at some point they will start to wonder whether my closed-ended response really means “I don’t want to talk right now.”

A better response might be something like “I’m going to watch Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.  Have you ever seen that one?”  Providing more information (and especially asking a question) tells the other person that I want the conversation to continue.

The other extreme can happen if the conversation turns to a topic that falls under an Aspie’s specific area of interest.  “Finally, we’re talking about something I love!” I think, and a ten-point lecture begins spilling out in a burst of enthusiasm.  This has a tendency of scaring the other person away.

Getting back to the scene, Luna’s special area of interest is magical creatures, particularly ones that most people don’t know about or don’t believe exist.  She spends a lot of her time thinking about them.  In explaining the purpose of her necklace, she brings up the topic of Nargles, which she could surely spend quite some time talking about.  (She suspects they have been stealing her possessions.)

If I had to guess, Luna has already discovered that most people aren’t interested in hearing about creatures that they think are figments of her imagination or made up by her father’s silly tabloid.  It’s part of why they tease her.  Even though she could surely regale Harry, Ron, and Hermione with all sorts of fascinating facts about Nargles, she holds back from saying more.  I think this is either because she has been made cautious by previous experiences of trying to share about her strange obsession, or because she is trying to be polite by not dominating the conversation.

In either case, Luna’s caution proves justified, as none of the others is interested in hearing about more creatures that quite possibly don’t exist.  They’re uncomfortable saying any more because they don’t want to hurt Luna’s feelings by letting her know how strange she seems to them.  And so the group falls silent.

Continue reading

(Sorry about the long delay between posts; I had a great deal of this one written a few weeks ago, but I forgot to save my work before my computer’s batteries ran out, and whenever that happens, it takes me a while before I feel like writing again.  I am also planning to get back to posts that deal more with Asperger’s syndrome again once I’m done talking about my class trip.  Anyway, thanks for reading my story; let’s go on!)

On Monday, we got on a bus and set out for Munich, which is about 350 miles south of Berlin.  Some of my classmates were excited about the prospect of seeing the Autobahn, Germany’s famous highway system that has no speed limit under certain circumstances.  (The speed rules on the Autobahn have gotten more strict in recent decades than they once were; it now uses electronic signs to adjust the speed limit and number of open lanes based on the amount of traffic and to warn of accidents blocking the road.)

As one might suspect, riding a bus on the Autobahn is not very different from riding a bus on a highway in the United States, except that the speed of the cars passing us may have been faster.

I talked with some of the other football fans in the class, sharing the results and scores of the games I could remember seeing the previous day.  I observed that while obviously soccer is the most popular sport in Europe, Germany seemed to be the country most receptive to American football, based on the fact that all but one of the NFL Europe franchises had ended up moving to Germany.  (NFL Europe no longer exists, though, so obviously it didn’t catch on that much.  The teams were all pretty terrible anyway, being made up of players who were trying to make it onto an actual NFL roster.)

About 50 miles out of Berlin, we stopped at the smaller town of Wittenberg.  It was there that Martin Luther, a priest and teacher of theology at the university, published his Ninety-Five Theses in 1517 and started the Protestant Reformation.

I saw the church building where, according to one of his students, Luther nailed his document to the door so that everyone could read it.  There was a paper printout of the Ninety-Five Theses stuck to the door still.  Of course, it wasn’t the same door as was there in Luther’s time.  In fact, the entire building had burned down and been rebuilt at some point over the intervening 500 years.  I was reminded of the old story about the farmer proudly declaring that he owned the very hatchet that had once belonged to George Washington– only the axe head had been replaced three times and the handle four times.

Still, it was amazing to see the spot where such an influential moment in church history (and world history, really) took place.  I thought about the story of Martin Luther’s life.  After surviving a terrifying thunderstorm in which he cried out to God for help, he vowed to become a monk.  But he found that nothing he could do– hard work, sacrifice, even punishing himself– could take away his fear of having to answer to a perfect, holy God.  Every selfish thought, every careless word, every wrong motivation was an offense against God, who required perfect obedience arising from pure love.  Luther would spend hours confessing his sins until his fellow monks were weary of him. He was terrified that he would leave some forgotten sin unconfessed, and the more closely he scrutinized himself, the more sinfulness he found.

Luther found comfort in reminding himself of Christ’s sacrifice for his sins.  A Bible verse that greatly influenced his thinking was Habbakuk 2:4 (which is quoted in multiple places in the New Testament), “The just shall live by faith.”  Luther could never earn salvation by trusting in his acts of repentance; rather, God had provided the perfect sacrifice in Christ and called Luther to look to Him in faith.

Years later in Wittenberg, a traveling friar named Johann Tetzel was raising money for the church by selling indulgences.  For doing the good deed of donating money to the church, the purchaser of the indulgence received a guarantee that the punishment for his or her sins would be lessened.  People could also purchase indulgences on the behalf of relatives or friends who had died, in order to shorten the time their loved one would need to suffer for their sins in order to become fit to enter heaven.  Tetzel was a fiery preacher and a good salesman, and he was very good at stirring the emotions.

In his Ninety-Five Theses, Martin Luther argued that Tetzel’s preaching was in conflict with the teaching of the Bible.  He didn’t disagree with the importance of repenting of one’s sins– in fact, he stated that “the entire life of believers” should be “one of repentance.”  But Tetzel’s promises were leading people to trust in their own deeds and the effectiveness of the indulgences he was selling rather than in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.  Luther quite boldly took the leaders of the church to task in his document, accusing them of allowing Tetzel to preach these things because it was an effective way to raise money.  His stand caused him to make enemies in the church, and it would end up putting his life in danger, but Martin Luther continued to write about trusting in God’s grace for the rest of his life.

Inside the Wittenberg church, our New Testament professor led us in singing Luther’s most famous hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”  “I’ve always wanted to do that,” he said.

We made it to Munich that evening after stopping for dinner at a restaurant that had something similar to a buffet.  The bread in Germany is so good!  I used my nonexistent German skills to ask for food by pointing to it and saying “Das, bitte”.

I think I was trying to say “This, please,” but I may have been saying “The, please.” and I probably wasn’t even using the correct form of the article.  My phrase book basically said “der, das, die— use whichever one you want.  People will still know what you mean.”

Also, they will probably not confuse you for a native speaker of German!  The servers were very kind, smiling when I would say “Danke schön.”