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Saturday, July 23, 2016

Postscript to the Second Three Stories

In the closing remarks of my last post, I had said that I would explain the significance of the second three stories posted as they relate to living on the Autistic spectrum, and why I chose to post them together.

Most, but not all of the stories in this book I am working on will provide a real life illustration of at least one aspect of life on the spectrum. Many of the stories will illustrate the same aspect more than once, which I hope will enrich the reader's understanding of our makeup and will better enable the Neurotypical reader to recognize instances where they are likely dealing with someone who is on the spectrum. Of course, this is not merely a book about Autism or Asperger's, but rather is a book about my life in which I attempt to illustrate what it is like to live with Asperger's. So I will include details and stories which I think are interesting or relevant to the overall story I am trying to tell.

These three stories illustrate the following behavioral or mental characteristics often associated with Asperger's:

  • Delayed processing of spoken words.
  • Literal interpretation of spoken words.
  • Obsessive thinking or general stubbornness. 
  • A tendency to not look to the experiences of others in forming opinions.
  • A tendency to think in extremes.
I will now try to explain how the stories illustrate thee things.

Delayed Processing of Spoken Words

One thing that often happens when others are speaking to me is that there will be a delay between me hearing what they are saying and reacting appropriately to what was said. Sometimes this delay can be a few minutes long, so that many people will assume that I wasn't listening to them, and may become annoyed or angered. In truth, what was usually happening was that I either got distracted by another stimulus (i.e. something I felt, smelled, tasted or saw) in that moment, or I was so engrossed in what I had processed just a few moments before that my brain has not had a chance to catch up. This is particularly the case if someone is describing something to me that conjures up vivid images in my mind. Sometimes, I can get so fixated on what my mind has imagined in actively listening, that my ability to process what the other person is continuing to say in real time is inferior to what a neurotypical is capable of. Other times, if I am focused on something and someone tries to talk to me I will often try to listen while continuing to do whatever it was I was doing before they came along. However, this rarely works out well, because I just do not have the ability to listen attentively and focus on something else at the same time. I actually doubt that many people do, which is why most neurotypicals in that situation will either stop what they are doing and pay attention, or they will indicate that they are too busy to talk and suggest that the person come back another time. But we Aspies do not like to switch gears, and often don't know how to tell someone to come back, so we try to do both, with often unfavourable results. 

In the story about the Strange Roof, I referred to the incident with Marcel where we found the abandoned fort/clubhouse with all the neat stuff inside. In this case, I became so engrossed by all the stuff we had found that I really did not process Marcel telling me that he would sic the bears after me if I didn't come home with him when told to. I kind of acknowledged that I had heard something and what I heard was "It's time to go soon.". So I just continued on doing what I was doing, which was looking over all the neat things that we had found. But then, within just a couple of minutes, my brain had processed the second part of what Marcel had said and by the time I turned around to respond, he was gone. That was when the panic set in. This brings me to the next aspect. 

Literal Interpretation of Spoken Words

It is a relatively well known fact that people on the spectrum tend to take things that they hear literally, being naturally unable to detect sarcasm, to tell when other people are joking, or to detect social situations where someone is trying to be gracious and does not mean what they say. Over time though, as we are exposed to more and more situations, we can learn to remember to recognize the real meanings, so that eventually we can learn to detect sarcasm, or jokes. The third category of what I will call "social pleasantries" are much more difficult for us to navigate, and some of my stories are about situations that arose when I took some of these pleasantries literally. Some examples:

  • "We should do lunch sometime" - most of the time what this really means is that the interaction felt awkward and forced for the other person, but they are too nice to adopt the Bill Lumburgh approach of "Yeeeaaahhh. If you could just go ahead and never bump into me in public again, that would be grreaat. Mmmkay?"
  • "How are you?" - need I say more?
  • It's not you, it's me" - It took me years to realize that it was always me. 
In the second story, I think that even most six or seven year old boys would instantly recognize the impossibility of Marcel going and seeking out a hungry bear, explaining to said bear that I was misbehaving, describing what I looked like and that bear coming after me. But somehow, it seemed completely plausible to me in that moment, and so I panicked. Over the years, I have learned to develop my critical thinking skills to the point that I am much better at recognizing BS when I see it or hear it. But I am still occasionally fooled by stuff that most people wouldn't be fooled by. 

Obsessive Thinking And General Stubbornness

The second and third stories illustrate two obsessions that I grappled with during my teens and early 20's:

  • The pursuit of a relationship with a woman.
  • The pursuit of the highest possible grades in my studies at school.
For most people, neither of these two things would be pursued to obsession. Most people would agree that it is a wonderful thing when you can connect with and form a relationship with someone that you are compatible with. However, most well adjusted people will avoid those who want to be in relationships for their own sake. Likewise, most people at school or university would agree that getting good marks is a laudable goal, but very few would destroy their mental and physical health in pursuit of those grades. 

In the second story about me losing my virginity, my obsession for the attention of women started with my desire to experience sex. Because I had experienced this before having developed a normal intimate connection with a woman, it altered my very view of what healthy intimacy was. Without understanding what was happening, I was consumed by a desire to experience a better feeling than I had with the woman in the hotel room. Where many neurotypicals in that situation would conclude that either they weren't ready to be having sex, or that sex with prostitutes actually sucks (no pun intended), my conclusion was that I just hadn't been with the right woman

Beyond that, I was also witnessing my fellow teens forming relationships with one another. It seemed like the perfectly normal thing to do and like most people on the spectrum, I wanted to be normal. So my solution was to try and obtain or experience, what I thought others around me were experiencing or doing. The problem though, was that I never stopped to consider what makes other people want to be in relationships in the first place. I did not realize that it often takes several casual dates for someone to assess compatibility, so when Sarah, in the second story broke off our relationship, it seemed almost like a betrayal to me, rather than a completely innocent attempt by her to end the relationship once he had determined that we weren't compatible. I took it completely personally, which I guess it was, but in retrospect, I can see that Sarah did not intend to hurt me. However, a growing sense of entitlement that took hold over me would not allow me to accept her wishes at the time.

In a sense, while I thought I wanted to share intimacy, what I was really doing was objectifying the targets of my affection. I was taking, rather than giving. This is why all these years later, I cannot even remember what Sarah and I talked about. The only thing I can tell you about her is that she loved baseball and the Chicago Cubs. In contrast, I can remember a lot of deeply personal details about my first two wives, even though my first, Lea has been dead since 2010 and we broke up in 2000 - over 16 years ago. Granted, we were together for almost a decade, whereas Sarah and I only shared a few weeks together. But my approach to my relationships had changed by the time I met Lea, which is why I think I was able to share real intimacy with her. At the time that the third story took place, I felt a very serious lack in my life at not having a steady girlfriend. I really felt like there must be something wrong with me, since it seemed to me like every other guy had one. Of course, that was not true, but to my mind at that time, it was. 

The obsession over grades was borne out of a desire to be respected, if I could not be normal. Back in grade school, I noticed that several of my classmates, who were also the top students in my class, were treated especially well by the teachers. They were generally taken at their word and usually believed in situations where it was their word against someone else's. So it seemed logical to me that getting good grades was they key to being respected. And so, without further consideration, my decision was made: I would do whatever it took to be the best student I could be. I would make my family proud. That decision was made when I was 11 years old in grade 6. For the most part, I was extremely successful, having some of the highest marks in high school and university, when I finally did graduate with an overall GPA of 3.99 out of 4.33 in April 1994. However, I never considered the possibility that this pursuit could be taken too far and that there was a point at which the extra accomplishment was probably not worth the sacrifice. 

This logically leads to the next two aspects. 

Not Considering the Experiences of Others in Forming Opinions or Making Decisions

I was pulling all-nighters on a regular basis at university and camping out in the AQ, and I was the only one! Most people would notice that nobody else was doing this and would think "gee, maybe I should take it a bit easier. Maybe I don't really need to memorize every single history reading word for word. Maybe I am not meant to study for 16 hours a day, every day." But not me. It never occurred to me that I was doing anything wrong. Last year I walked away from a lucrative position that I had as a partner of a mid-sized Toronto accounting firm. I was set for life basically. I would have made a guaranteed $150,000+ per year for as long as a wanted and I walked away. I did it to start my own business buying and selling postage stamps to collectors.  If someone had told me not to do it because either their business had failed, or they knew someone who started their ow business and failed, I would think "It was unfortunate for them". But I wouldn't think for a minute that it had anything to do with my own chances for success. I have heard from countless sources that most small businesses fail and yet that did not, in any way deter me. 

Yet, when I look around me I see many, many people living lives of quiet desperation in which they have given up on their dreams and instead of living, they are merely existing.  Why? I think it is because most people are very heavily influenced by the experiences of other people. Being in tune with others and learning from their experiences is seen as tapping into a collective wisdom, a social consciousness. I will consider the experiences of others, but I will not assume that someone else's goals are the same as mine, and for that reason, I do not typically look to the anecdotal experiences of other people when forming my opinions or making decisions about things. This is both a great weakness, but it has also proven to be a great strength. It is one personality characteristic that I have noticed is shared by many others on the spectrum that I have either known personally, or that I know of. 

By the way, I am told that almost mot writers fail to get their first manuscripts published, and yet here I am with something to say that I think other people would be interested to read. I may be wrong, but I hope not. 

A Tendency to Think in Extremes

In most of my pursuits I have always gone for extremes, and it is only recently that I have started to mellow out and adopt the attitude that less extreme is perfectly ok. In the second story, I felt this crushing guilt and shame for having sex with a prostitute for months, and then after confessing to my mom, I felt almost nothing at all, once my conscience was clear: two extremes. In the third story, I felt that life was pointless if I had no hope of getting Sarah back and my grades fell. For me it was either total victory, or total defeat. This extremism affected nearly every aspect of my life through my 20's and a about half of my thirties. By my mid-thirties, I began to realize the folly behind this way of thinking, and so I began to develop some self-awareness at this point. 

However, it is an ongoing battle and with the new business, not falling into old patterns is difficult and requires me to be constantly vigilant and open to listening when my current partner Steph notices that I am slipping back. 

So this hopefully sheds some more light on the significance of these stories to the overall story of my life with Asperger's. These two stories set the stage for much of what was to  follow for the next 15 years or so: past my first life with Lea and well into my second with Kay (not her real name). 

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