Category: Asperger’s


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King T’Challa (played by Chadwick Boseman) and Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright) in Black Panther.

This is a post that my girlfriend Megan suggested I make after I told her about one of my favorite characters from Marvel’s Black Panther film, which I saw a few days ago. Both Megan and I have the Asperger’s trait of having extremely focused, almost obsessive interests in learning about technical things. Even when I was little, I loved to collect and categorize information about geography and astronomy, while Megan would study a specific period of history or the grammar and syntax rules of an unfamiliar language. We both enjoy video games and working with computers.

When I was growing up, I had the niche of being “nerdy” to fit into. I didn’t know anything about Asperger’s, but I knew it wasn’t that unusual to be nerdy and into technical things. But until recently, the “nerd” stereotype seemed to only be applied to boys. There wasn’t much of a “niche” for Megan to fit into aside from being the “shy girl.”

But that seems to be changing! I’ve noticed a number of examples of technically-minded girls in recent popular movies and other media. I think that’s a great trend– hopefully examples like these can inspire more girls to have fun learning about the technical side of things.

 

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I’ve had a tough time getting started on this post. It’s another reflection on the book Nerdy, Shy, and Socially Inappropriate by Cynthia Kim, and this time the topic is bullying.

I’m not sure if it’s difficult for me to write about because I don’t have a lot of personal experience with being bullied, or if it’s just because it’s such an unpleasant topic in general.

What’s interesting about Cynthia Kim’s story is that she experienced bullying from both sides. In elementary and middle school, she was picked on by the children in her class– they made fun of her, took her things, and in one case the biggest boy in class cornered her in a coatroom and kissed her against her wishes. For a while, she didn’t know what to do about it aside from trying to hide.

But eventually, Kim found a different way to respond– becoming a bully herself. If she could focus people’s attention on making fun of someone else, it meant that she was no longer the target. She explains that she was able to identify who to pick on, because they looked just like she used to when she was the target of bullies herself.

I thought there was a very Aspie-like honesty about Kim’s account of becoming a bully. She doesn’t attempt to excuse her own behavior– she knows it was wrong and hurtful– even when she was doing it, she knew it was wrong. It just came naturally to her. And then, as she grew older, the bullying behavior gradually faded away, along with her friendships with the other “mean girls.”

When you’re a kid, both you and everyone around you is learning social skills at the same time, and one of the things we all have to learn is how easy it is to hurt others by what we say and do.

It makes me think of how I probably treated others rudely without realizing it when I was growing up, and later I had to trust that God would give them grace to forgive or to forget my mistakes. I don’t think I ever bullied anyone, but there were certainly times when I felt relieved that someone other than myself was being teased.

One good thing that has come out of Kim’s experiences is that she is able to give a helpful list of why people on the autistic spectrum tend to experience bullying, which can be a problem at any age, not just in childhood.

Traits that make autistic individuals vulnerable to bullying (quoted directly from Kim’s book, with my own comments after each item):

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In her book Nerdy, Shy, and Socially Inappropriate, Cynthia Kim talks about the experience of learning about Asperger’s and seeing how many of the signs were present in her life from an early age, leading to a question: How did nobody notice the signs back then? Asperger’s may not have been defined yet, but she definitely was different from other children her age.

She spent a lot of her time by herself– she felt most content when she could spend hours in her room playing games of Risk and Monopoly against herself, or going on long bike rides around her neighborhood alone.

When I was that age, I was likewise able to entertain myself for hours alone with just a book or a road map or atlas to study. It was hard to shift my attention to something else while I was still exploring it!

Kim writes that another reason she thinks her Asperger’s was harder to spot was an issue that I’ve written about before on this blog: for a number of reasons, boys are much more likely to be diagnosed with Asperger’s than girls are.

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nsicoverOne of the presents on my Christmas list this year was a book about living with Asperger’s syndrome. Nerdy, Shy, and Socially Inappropriate: A User Guide to an Asperger Life was written by Cynthia Kim, a woman who was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome in her forties.

I’ve really enjoyed learning about other Aspies’ stories and experiences, and seeing the similarities to and differences from my own story as a man diagnosed with Asperger’s in my late twenties and still learning about it in my thirties. I haven’t posted much on this blog for a few years, but I have been writing reflections giving my responses to other books like this one– it’s just that I’ve been sharing them with my girlfriend Megan rather than posting them here. It’s been fascinating getting to hear her perspective too, as I’ve never come across anyone else whose thinking patterns were so similar to mine!

I figured that I’d share some of my reflections with Megan as I read Cynthia Kim’s book, but I also wanted to get back to posting on this site, so I figured I could do both at once! I’ll share about the parts of the book that stand out to me as insightful or that make me think of stories from my own life, and others are welcome to post their comments and questions– including Megan, of course! : )

So, I’ll go ahead and look at the first chapter. (One of the things that is annoying about my obsessively ordered brain is that I always feel like I have to write a big introduction to everything placing what I’m saying in context– it’s one of the reasons I don’t like writing.)

Like me, Cynthia Kim grew up before anybody had defined Asperger’s syndrome or knew anything about it.

For the first few months after learning about Asperger’s I spent a lot of time playing “What if…?”

What if I’d been diagnosed earlier? What if I’d been given the type of supports and accommodations that children on the spectrum receive today? Of course, it’s impossible to know how my life would be different.

I’ve certainly thought about those questions myself. To be honest, though, I have a hard time imagining myself growing up a different way than how I did. If I had known I had Asperger’s, I might have been less hard on myself for the social skills I struggled to learn. But I fear that, if I’d had that Asperger’s label to fall back on, I might not have tried as hard to achieve what I did while I was in school. By God’s grace, I had a wonderful group of classmates who accepted me as I was, even when I was a bit strange, and that bore fruit in a wonderful senior year when I finally opened up to forming friendships with them and found that I enjoyed it! Would that still have happened if I’d thought of myself as “autistic” rather than just “smart, shy, and awkward”? I don’t know.

At the same time, those labels of being “smart” and “shy” affected the way I thought about myself all the way on into adulthood. I really identify with Ms. Kim’s description of her internal reasoning about growing up:

Because I was quiet and did well academically, the adults in my life attributed my difficulties to extreme shyness and timidity. I’d grow out of it eventually and all of my problems would be solved. That explanation carried me into adulthood, where in the back of my mind I was waiting to magically outgrow my social and communication difficulties.

[…]

Decades passed and there I was, still waiting for someone to give me the secret handbook that would explain all those social nuances the people around me seemed to instinctively grasp.

Wow; that is exactly how I felt! I even told my Mom I wanted an “instruction book” that would tell me how to be an adult, because I was nearing the end of my school years, and we still hadn’t covered it.

The assumption is that the shy, quiet boy or girl is just maturing mentally or physically faster than they are socially, and before long, they will “catch up” and it will all even out. That can be true in some cases; all you need to do is be patient, and time will solve the problem.

But in my case, the difficulty I have with social skills are due to the way my brain is configured– it is a learning disability. That doesn’t mean I can’t learn social skills, but it might mean I will have to find a different way of learning them, and using them might never feel quite “normal.” I’m still working on that every day, and it’s not because I’m dumb or lazy!

It’s taken several years for me to “unlearn” the thinking I’d built up that my struggles were my own fault– thankfully God and my parents have been patient! It’s really been a rewarding time of learning and growing for me. I think another quote from Kim describes this sort of thing well.

Since discovering that I’m on the spectrum, I’ve been blogging about my experiences, processing what it means to suddenly be autistic at 42. In a way, I’ve been forced to relearn how to be me. All the things I thought were broken or defective or weird about me? It turns out they’re perfectly normal for people like me. Even more exciting? There actually are other people like me. Lots of them.

I felt like I spent a while after my diagnosis trying to figure out who I am in light of it. And I’ve had the joy of meeting one of those other people like myself. I’m so thankful I met Megan– I’ve learned so much from her and had a lot of fun at the same time!

Anyway, hopefully it won’t be too long until my next book reflection.

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.

 

In my last post, I said that I had some “new and awesome things” to tell you about.  Well, the biggest thing that has happened to me this past year is that I have met a young woman named Megan, and she has become my girlfriend!  Like me, Megan is a Christian diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome.  We actually met through this blog and started a discussion about our shared experiences with Asperger’s that spread to all sorts of topics.  Over the past several months, we’ve been able to travel to see each other a few times and meet each other’s families, and we have had a wonderful time together.  Megan has been such a blessing to my life, and I thank God that we met!

I’ve been thinking for a while about what I want to say about my relationship with Megan on this blog.  In online discussions between Aspies, the topic of “How can I find a girlfriend (or boyfriend)?” is understandably one of the most frequent and earnestly asked questions among young adults with Asperger’s.  Loneliness can be such a nagging, wearing thing to deal with.  Of course, I have sometimes wondered whether a message board full of people who struggle with social skills might not be the best place to get relationship advice!  😉

In truth, it might not be much different from advice you’ll find anywhere else on the Internet, or in the world in general, though.  There are people who think they have relationships simplified to a formula, a set of steps that is guaranteed to work.  There are plenty of people who’ve become bitter because of past experiences and will try to tell you why “All women/men are the same.”  There are those who will try to convince you that if you don’t hurry and conform to a specific pattern, you will be “too late” and forever undesirable.

There have been a lot of specifically Christian relationship trends during my lifetime:  During junior high and high school, the main advice was “Wait and go slowly; better safe than sorry.”  Then in college it was “Dating is unbiblical; you should only date someone if you want to marry her.”  Then, “Not enough men are taking responsibility; stop being afraid to take the initiative and ask a girl out.”  Then after college, “Too many people are waiting too long to get married!  What’s going on?”

(For my part, I was so withdrawn from social activity in general that I would shake my head and laugh at all of these trends as they zipped by.  If you’ve been on zero dates, it’s all pretty theoretical, isn’t it?)  🙂

Ugh; I feel like I’m getting far away from the point of this post.  Anyway, now that I have a girlfriend for the first time in my life, I feel like I should have some sort of wisdom to impart to those who want to know how to go about finding one.  Except I really don’t.  Honestly, I’m probably more surprised by this situation than anyone else.  I still get a stupid grin every time Megan calls me her “boyfriend” because it sounds so strange!

The only thing I can say is that long before I met Megan, I’ve always taken comfort in the idea that I don’t have to become what “every woman” expects in a man.  I don’t have to meet the expectations of every woman in the world, or of anyone on a website, or even every Christian writer who’s published a book about the topic.  I reject the idea that all men or all women are the same, anyway.  In the end, all that matters is pleasing God, and if it’s His will that I meet a woman to be my girlfriend, wife, whatever– then what I need to do is love *her* as the individual creation– the bearer of God’s image– that she is.

That’s an awesome task.  And it’s an exciting one!  I don’t know what God ultimately has in store for me and Megan, but He designed each of us down to the most intricate details of our hearts and minds, and I trust that He has the best in mind for both of us.  A boyfriend-girlfriend relationship between two Aspies might very well be expected to look a bit different from one between two neurotypicals.  And it will be different again because of the two unique people that Megan and I are.

I’m sure that I have a lot to learn, and I look forward to sharing some of our experiences here, in hopes that they will be helpful or at least interesting!  Thanks for reading.

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?

There’s a line in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation that I always liked.  It’s from the episode “Ensign Ro,” which introduces the character Ro Laren, a young Bajoran Starfleet officer who is a bit of a rebel.  She was serving time in a detention center because of an incident in which she didn’t follow orders and several Starfleet officers died.  Ro is released from detention to help the Enterprise crew with a mission involving the Bajorans.  She’s made to feel less than welcome on the ship, and she’s not thrilled about being there.

Inexplicably, Captain Picard’s old friend, the wise bartender Guinan, decides to become Ro Laren’s friend whether she wants it or not.

Guinan: Am I disturbing you?

Ro:  Yes.

Guinan:  Good. You look like someone who wants to be disturbed.

Ro:  I’d rather be alone.

Guinan:  Oh, no you wouldn’t.

Ro: I beg your pardon?

Guinan: If you wanted to be alone, you would’ve stayed in your quarters. The only reason to come here is to be among people.

Later on, after Ro does hide in her quarters and Guinan still tries to start up another conversation with her, the two women have this exchange:

Ro:  Why is it that every time I tell you something, you tell me I mean the exact opposite?

Guinan: Because you’re one of those people who’s got their poles reversed.

Now, I’m definitely not much like Ensign Ro (I’m pretty far from being a rebel), but I often find Guinan’s assessment of her amusingly fitting for my own life.

As a kid who grew up going to church, Christian school, and a Christian college (all of which I’m thankful for), I’ve had the chance to listen to more than my share of sermons, messages, and advice.  Generally, people want to help warn children away from the things that they think are most likely to mess them up.  So you’re much more likely to hear someone talk about the importance of working hard on your schoolwork than you are to hear them talk about how to make friendships and have fun with people your own age.  Because there are plenty of cases of people regretting not taking their studies seriously, but kids automatically know how to have fun with each other, right?

But what if you “have your poles reversed,” and doing schoolwork comes naturally to you, while making friends is hard?  For a while, you’ll probably think you’re doing even better than most of the people around you!  But eventually, you might feel that you missed out on gaining the social skills and experiences that other people take for granted.

Similarly, it’s common to hear a lot of messages warning against thinking too highly of oneself, of becoming prideful.  But what if your wiring is “backwards,” and the way you fall victim to pride is by tearing yourself down, expecting you will mess something up, and keeping track of your mistakes?  Like an undead enemy in an RPG, what’s meant to be healing can actually poison you (and even weirder, what others think is harmful may actually be what you need most!)  Weird analogy, I know.  🙂

I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m complaining, because I actually think it’s pretty neat to be this way, now that I understand myself a little better.  Sometimes I feel like laughing, because from where I stand now, the process of maturing mentally, socially, and spiritually is almost like a battle against conventional wisdom.  It’s kind of like my “homework” is to spend time making friends with people, and my “chores” are to look for reasons to be positive about who God made me to be and to enjoy the good things he gives.

I have a hard time complaining about homework and chores like those!