Category: small talk


Just a quick post while I continue to work on others…

I’ve been really enjoying attending a young adults Bible study in my area. In addition to Bible study, we have had game nights and other informal gatherings, and it’s given me a chance to work on my social skills. In general, the group is very relaxed, which is a big help to me. We took Myers-Briggs tests, and found that most of us in the group were introverts.

Before a Bible study a few weeks ago, though, I was reminded how faceblindness can be a real obstacle to making friends. I thought I was doing okay at small talk with a young woman; she told me her name and I told her mine. I told her about how one of my daily tasks was watching our three dogs, and trying to get my physics editing done in between letting them in and out. She told me about her two beagles, and said she thought our grouchy old Welsh corgi sounded a bit like them.

It was a nice conversation, and it would ordinarily be something I could refer to the next time I talked to her, but then I walked to the other side of the room to get something to eat. When I walked back to where I was, I realized that not only had I forgotten the name of the woman I had been talking to– I couldn’t even remember which of the women in the room she was! Just moving to a different place was enough to make me lose the context I had been using to identify her.

So… the next time I see her, I might end up having the same conversation over again, because I can’t remember who I already told about my dogs! I think I was focusing so much on listening to her and responding with sentences that make sense (both things I don’t want to neglect, to be sure) that I didn’t remember to come up with some way of identifying her, since I don’t have the automatic face-recognition system that many people have.

I think it explains why making friends at college at more than a superficial level was tricky for me. Oh, well. I think I will eventually learn who people are if I keep attending the group– it will just take me longer than most people! : )

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Hello again, readers!  My perfectionism has created a lot of writer’s block recently.  I have about five posts in various stages of incompleteness, but I find myself looking at them and saying “Who wrote that?”  Let’s see if I can get things moving again on the general topic of Asperger’s in adolescence.

A while ago, I posted about how I was worried about becoming a teenager because I thought it meant I would be rebellious and fight with my parents all the time.  Thankfully, that didn’t happen.

But there were changes in my thinking and behavior that I didn’t expect.  One of the most significant was this:

I became more aware of other people, and of the fact that they were aware of me.

Hopefully I’m not overstating things, but I believe I honestly didn’t care what my classmates thought when I started elementary school.  They were just other kids, after all, and I usually followed the rules about sitting quietly and keeping my hands to myself better than they did.  I took my cues for how to behave from my teachers or whoever was in authority.   I was taught to be polite from an early age, so I hopefully wasn’t rude.  But I saw no reason to be bothered by the fact that I kept mostly to myself at recess, for instance.  Comparing myself to those around me didn’t usually occur to me.

That gradually began to change as I got older, though– I began to think about the fact that my classmates had interests, thoughts, and feelings of their own.  I suppose that means I developed my “theory of mind.”

Looking back, I think one reason that I wasn’t caught totally by surprise by this was that I had one good friendship from early on in elementary school– in first grade, I became best friends with a boy named Ryan.  I think it started with something as simple as him choosing me to help him pass out papers to the class for the teacher, but I am very thankful he so easily accepted me as his friend.  We sat together at lunch and talked about our favorite TV shows and video games, and we stayed over at each other’s houses several times.  In addition to being fun, it meant that I actually developed a few social skills.  : )

Social interaction gets much more complex very quickly as you get older, though.  I had learned how to make friendships on a childlike level based on mutual interests, but there began to be a quality to the conversations of my classmates that I found very hard to connect with; they talked about things I understood very little about, like popular music and sports.  They joked about things I didn’t know how to laugh about.  If I tried to participate in the conversation by doing what had worked for me as a child– copying how other people sounded– it felt horribly awkward, as if it wasn’t me speaking.  So I mostly kept quiet and listened.

I eventually realized that I had gone from feeling more mature than most of my classmates (because I was able to handle the rules and schoolwork of elementary school so easily) to feeling like I was much less mature than they were.  I began to think of myself a lot differently.

I’m not sure how much of this discussion is revealing things about Asperger’s syndrome; it very well may be that this is just a part of growing up that everybody goes through– understanding that you have weaknesses as well as strengths.  Whatever the case, I had a lot more to learn about both.

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.

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My family recently finished watching through the Harry Potter movie series, and I thought I’d write a bit about my favorite character in the story, Luna Lovegood.  As far as I’m concerned, Luna steals every scene she’s in.

In case you’re not familiar with the series, Luna Lovegood is a wizarding student attending Hogwarts one year behind Harry Potter’s class.  She isn’t introduced until the fifth story in the series, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.  It’s not difficult to believe that we never saw her before year 5, though, because she mostly keeps to herself, and no one wants to talk to her because she seems very strange.

Luna’s mother died when she was nine, and her father, Xenophilius (literally “lover of strangers/strange things”), is the editor of a paper called the Daily Quibbler, which is the magical equivalent of those tabloids they used to have in supermarket checkouts with front-page stories about Bigfoot being kidnapped by flying saucers.

No one takes such things seriously, except apparently Luna, who is always talking about magical creatures that no one (not even wizards!) has ever heard of and making other observations that seem to come from nowhere.  She tends to speak in a soft monotone and stare with a distant, almost expressionless gaze.

Luna (Evanna Lynch) introduces Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) to a thestral.

Does it surprise you when I say that a lot of Harry Potter fans with Asperger’s syndrome or autism can see a bit of themselves in Luna?  She is often mentioned in discussions online about fictional characters who may be “Aspies.”

Such discussions almost always become quite tricky.  Even moreso than with a real person, a fictional character is shaped by the reader’s own perspective– he or she originally exists in the author’s imagination, but then each reader’s imagination “fills in the blanks” in its own way when picturing a character.

J.K. Rowling did not explicitly write the character of Luna Lovegood as a person with Asperger’s.  But because she is a good writer, she created a character with a distinct personality that is also familiar in many ways.  It’s an interesting balance– Luna seems like someone you might meet in real life, in large part because she is entirely different from any specific person– just as every individual is unique.  (I told you it was tricky.)

The nature of Asperger’s syndrome itself makes the prospect of “diagnosing” a fictional character even more nebulous.  Asperger’s itself is just a label for a set of traits that are often observed together– actually, not unlike a story.  It defines a rather blurry category, but the traits themselves do not describe any person exactly.  Nor does every person with Asperger’s look, think, or behave the same.

All of this is meant to explain that I’m not trying to argue that Luna Lovegood has Asperger’s syndrome.  I think that people in a lot of different situations can identify with her.  What I’m more interested in is describing the aspects of Luna’s personality and behavior in the movies that I identify with as a person with Asperger’s (and perhaps also a fairly quiet/shy person).

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Tuesday was another travel day.  We took the Eurostar train directly from London to Paris.  I remembered reading about the completion of the Channel Tunnel (or “Chunnel”) when I was a kid, and how some Britons weren’t keen on the idea, since they rather liked being on an island.  One of my classmates had a bit of fun with the train staff by asking them “Are we in the Chunnel now?” when we passed through a small tunnel less than 5 minutes after leaving the station.

Apparently the train attracts strange characters, but we didn’t see this guy (naughty language/British humor warning).

The trip provided us with time to practice a few simple French phrases.  My Mom and Dad had gotten me a French, German, and Italian phrasebook, and I wanted to at least try to make an effort to communicate in the proper language.  I tried to use the phrase “un bon vin blanc” (a good white wine) to remind myself how the nasal vowels were pronounced.  I made sure to practice saying “Excuse me” (Excusez-moi) and “I’m sorry” (Pardonnez-moi) in each language, because I was sure I would make plenty of mistakes and would require people to be patient with me.

I think the most complicated thing I ended up actually saying was “Je voudrais…” (point to food) “…s’il vous plait.”  (I would like [that], please.)  Thankfully for me, I didn’t run into a situation where I couldn’t get by speaking English– everyone I interacted with spoke English much, much better than I spoke any other language.  It was humbling to be in a culture where to be multilingual was normal and expected, and to realize that I would not be much help to a visitor who didn’t speak English, since it was the only language I knew.

We arrived in Paris that evening.  I think we spent a while waiting at the station for our bus and doing things like getting currency exchanged.  It was getting late by the time we got to our hotel, which I’ll say more about in the next post.

I drive from Danville to Bloomsburg, along the same path the school bus took me for twelve years. The trees crowd in beside the road, and it feels so quiet– I’m amazed at how little traffic there seems to be. I guess I’ve gotten used to Cincinnati. But this definitely still feels like home.

I’m going to the park for my 13-year class reunion. Why 13 years? Because we’d never had a reunion before, and we wanted to have one. I worry a little that I won’t recognize some of my classmates. That could be embarrassing.

But as they arrive one by one, I know them instantly without a doubt! This so rarely happens to me anymore even with people I know well. It really feels nice.

Eight of us were able to make it out of a class of 26. I’d say that’s pretty good, considering how many of us have spread out all over the country and how many are busy with family and job obligations.

I get to meet their spouses and children, and I do my best to remember their names, but it will take me a while. I’m thankful that I’ve had the chance to learn some of them from Facebook.

We talk while the children play on the playground– there are so many stories to tell. I stand in between two conversations, listening to both and smiling. My friends are so very much the same people I knew from school. They’ve been to some amazing places and lived through some tough times, but God has preserved what is good in each of them.

I don’t think I have a lot to add myself. My experience is still mostly as a student. I’m still trying to find a career, still hoping to start a relationship with someone.

I probably seem a lot like I did when we were all in high school. I lagged behind socially then– at a middle school or elementary level– and as a result, I didn’t interact much with my peers. Now, I’m probably up to a college or high school level socially, but I don’t always feel fully a part of the adult world.

When someone asks me what I’m doing currently, I stammer and pause for a bit as I try to answer. A nasty part of me is telling me “You don’t belong here. You don’t have anything to talk about,” but I know that’s not true. We go out for drinks, but I haven’t developed a taste for beer or wine, so I order soda. I hope they don’t think I’m looking down on them by not sharing a drink– it’s such a symbol of friendship.

Before I came to the reunion, I was worried a little about negative thoughts like these, but they are no match for the joy I feel. I sit and listen to all the stories as my friends share– about meeting their husbands and wives, about funny or sad things at work, about pregnancy and childbirth and picking names for children and the unpredictability of two-year-olds. I imagine that my parents had conversations like this about me when I was little. I hear how God has blessed each family and prepared them for the things He brings into their lives. Everyone’s story is different, but also the same.

I realize that I have grown in thirteen years. When I was a senior in high school, I was afraid to drive a car. Today I made two trips by myself, and I enjoyed them. Even though social interaction is tiring, I am seeking it rather than avoiding it– planning my weekend around it and learning how to get enough rest in between so that I can be fully present and part of the conversation.

I wonder if my classmates know what a blessing they have been to my life– both those who are there and those who could not come.

At times, others find it hard to believe that I have Asperger’s just from observing me. I think some of this may be due to personality– my strong desire to avoid confrontation has likely kept me from clashing with others.

But there was another big difference in my life, the people around me. In so many of the stories I read online about people with Asperger’s, their years in school are not remembered fondly. Stories of bullying seem almost universal, and in a lot of cases, the best advice people can offer is “Wait until you graduate; it will get better.” I read about people who still deal with the effects of bullying decades later.

I wonder if my classmates know that they are proof that it doesn’t have to be that way– that kindness can have just as much of a positive impact on a life. None of us knew about Asperger’s, but anyone could see that I was different in some ways, lagging behind in others. But I wasn’t given grief for it. I was just given friendliness, time, and a safe place to grow.

I hope they know.

I’m working on Flash homework right now, so I don’t have as much time as I’d like to comment, but I came across a fascinating site yesterday.  It’s an autobiographical account by a 35-year-old woman with Asperger’s syndrome about her experiences as a young child, going to school, growing up, and looking for a place in the world:

My Asperger’s Syndrome Story

Like me, she grew up before anyone knew about Asperger’s, which in her case led to a lot of misunderstandings and hardships when her behavior just didn’t seem to make sense to those around her.  Some parts of her story are very sad, but I think she tells it very well.  There’s a lot in it to think about, as it relates to both children and adults with autism.

I’ve been wanting to describe a little more about my own experiences growing up (a process I’m not done with yet!).  Reading this account again makes me thankful for parents, teachers, and classmates who were willing to let me do my own thing or overlook my weirdness at times; I was spared a lot of unnecessary hardships because of the kindness of others.

I hope I can post more soon!

A few days ago, I got to see some of my classmates from Cedarville again for the first time in quite a while.  One of my friends was getting married, and it was a lovely wedding in which God was honored.

After the wedding, we went to the reception, which was held in the church’s gymnasium, and I found where my Cedarville friends were sitting and sat with them.

Have you ever been annoyed with yourself because you were in a time that should have been joyful and fun, but you were in a gloomy mood for no good reason?  I think that sort of happened to me.

As I think back on it now, there were a few things that were working against me.  To begin with, a wedding is the type of occasion that tests a lot of areas that I am weak in.  Making sure I am ready to go to the wedding requires using a lot of those executive functioning skills that are often tricky for Aspies.  I needed to make sure I had planned out what I was going to wear, what I needed to bring, and especially when I needed to leave in order to get there on time.  Driving increases my stress level a little more, and being in a social situation by myself bumps it up another level.

(What a whiny person I’m being!  I’m making it sound as if it’s such a hardship to do things that are a matter of simple courtesy.  This is part of the reason I’m annoyed with myself.  The fact is that it wasn’t that hard– I was glad that my friend invited me to her wedding, and I wanted to be there to share my best wishes for her and her husband.  I have a love/hate relationship with social situations in that part of me tries to avoid them, but I think deep down I really want to spend time with other people, and I almost always feel better after I have, even if it’s tiring sometimes.)

But the thing that seemed to mess up the meeting with my Cedarville classmates the most was unexpected– it was because I had a lot of trouble hearing what they were saying.  I mentioned that the reception was held in a gymnasium.  With so many people in a room with a basketball court for a floor, the echoing sounds of people’s voices in the background made it really hard for me to understand what my friends were saying.

It made me wonder if I’m losing my hearing.  I do like to listen to music a lot– is it possible the music is too loud?  Or is this more likely due to my brain processing sound input differently?  I have a difficult time tuning out background noise.

Whatever the case, I tried to have a conversation with each of my friends from Cedarville, but I wasn’t able to follow the larger conversation they were having as a group.  It got me thinking about how back when I was still going to Cedarville, I often felt the same way– not that I couldn’t hear what people were saying, but that I just didn’t know how to participate in the conversation on the same level as my friends.  It was sort of like being behind an invisible wall.  I wonder if it seemed to them like I was pushing other people away.

When I was talking to each of my classmates, I asked about how they were doing and what they were up to since graduating from Cedarville.  They are a bunch of really neat, talented people!  But it made me think about how little I knew about each of them even when I was still at Cedarville.

Anyway, sorry for making such a gloomy post.  I suppose that the positive side of this story is that it means I am getting a little better at interacting with others than I was ten years ago.  Otherwise, it wouldn’t have been such a shock to think back to how I was then.

This is another attempt at the sort of post I have a lot of trouble writing, an update about how I’m doing. It occurs to me that one of the traits of Asperger’s is speaking like a professor, and most of my posts are in the form of lectures rather than casual conversations. I’ve been really gratified that people have been reading my posts about autism and Asperger’s, and I hope that they are helpful and informative (and I hope to write more).

But my overall idea for this blog is for it to be just like anyone else’s personal blog, where I can write about things that I’m doing or that are on my mind– so that might result in some abrupt changes in topic (like when a Star Trek review shows up in the middle of a series of posts about autism!)

This week I’ve been preoccupied with a lot of thoughts about friendship– trying to figure out what it means to have a friend and to be a friend. I said in one of my earlier posts that I felt like it was easy to make friends when I was a kid, but it got harder as I got older and felt gradually more socially disconnected from my peers. Now that I’m an adult, I feel like it’s harder yet again, because I am no longer in a similar situation to many people my age. A lot of my contemporaries are starting or growing families, which totally reshapes a person’s life. Others are pursuing various goals in school or work. And some, like myself, are not quite sure what they are doing, but are hoping to figure it out soon! So it’s not as simple as when I was in school and the people around me were in the same classes.

I think it’s also a challenge to make friends because it naturally requires time and energy, and most people’s lives are quite busy. Mine isn’t quite as busy right now, but I often struggle with a shortage of energy– it can be draining physically, mentally, and emotionally to venture outside, so it’s not exactly as if it’s easy to make friends with me.

Some of that goes along with being an introvert– that means that I expend energy when I’m with people and need time by myself to “recharge”– from what I understand, for most people it works in reverse?

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