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Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Superpowers and Not So Super Powers

Anyone who knows me well or even just reads most of my blog entries knows I have Asperger's syndrome. I've made a few posts over the years on facebook about this subject and I feel the need now to do a post about it here. It's not meant to be just about me, though. My goal with this one is to promote awareness and provide some understanding.

When you speak to someone about the condition who knows more than a little about it, one thing you'll likely hear someone often is that when you've met one person with Asperger's you've met one person with Asperger's; meaning this: There are similarities between all people with it but it also can manifest very differently from person to person. One Aspie [person with Asperger's] may be extremely anti-social or even completely non-verbal, go into utter panic mode when routine is broken and yell and scream when something bothers them or be heavily developmentally delayed. Another, however, may be extremely intelligent and high functioning, but have the social skills of a gnat. Yet another may not be as bothered by disruptions in routine and be very independent and capable, but have extreme difficulty putting thoughts and feelings into words that accurately and tactfully convey the message.

There are several different degrees of the condition. The most common (although not universal) symptoms I am aware of are
  1. Either non-verbal or excessive, burdensome verbal communication, 
  2. Great irritability and loss of capacity to function properly when something familiar is altered or routine is unexpectedly changed.
  3. More developed intelligence and/or creativity within a very limited area of interest that surpasses most others in the same demographics as the Aspie.
  4. Extreme difficulty understanding social cues and reading between the lines in a conversation and 
  5. Heightened senses or sensitivities in one or more areas.

There may be more but I'm no psychologist (although I do like psychology) and wouldn't be able to come up with a conclusive list of typical symptoms in the moment. I can't speak for anyone with Asperger's but myself, but as a part of my efforts to help others understand what it's like and thereby encourage more compassion and comprehension of what to expect from and how to help one of us, I can at least explain what it's like for me. Some of our abilities feel superhuman to us and some it feels utterly crippling so I'll try explain some of the differences there as well.

If you've ever seen the movie Fight Club (which I actually don't recommend), the most memorable quote from it might be "First rule about Fight Club. Never talk about Fight Club." In my mind, the exact opposite is true of Asperger's. "First rule about Asperger's. Talk about Asperger's." So here we go.

Symptom numbers 1 and 4 go hand in hand for me, I'm obviously on the talkative side of number 1 that and it often gets me into trouble. Something you should know first is that I. LOVE. PEOPLE. I really love people, easily, always, with a depth human words can't explain, especially when they reciprocate my expressions of love (friendly, familial or romantic). Whether they do or not, the "superpower" behind this is I can focus on how much I care about a person so much that even if I am absolutely livid at them or terrified, I feel emotionally incapable of blocking them out. I care enough to think "I'm so scared/hurt/angry at them but the thought of not making this right and helping them feel better scares/hurts/frustrates me even more." This causes problems with how hard I try to resolve contention between me and anyone else. The harder I try to resolve it the more overwhelmed they feel.  Another reason my talkativeness gets me in trouble and becomes not so super is frequently because of how much I try to "fix" what I'm saying. I feel everything I feel so strongly that I perceive a constant need to keep readjusting my wording, tone and body language to make sure my ideas and intent are being conveyed to someone else flawlessly so there is no room for misinterpretation.

I grew up in an environment where I was often misunderstood because my lack of tact and sense of social cues. I was, therefore, often bullied in school for coming off as weird, rude or breaking social "rules" that I either didn't understand or thought were just plain stupid. Out of desperation to correct my mistakes, my efforts to make up for my unintentional tactlessness were often in excess, overwhelming others and driving them further away from me emotionally. This still happens today and I struggle with it every day. On top of this, when I'm doing my best to listen to people when they talk to me, more often than not I have to look away from their face in order to really take in what they are saying. I process spoken words like a computer analyzes a chess board. I almost always completely miss body language and facial expressions and therefore, according to my wife, miss 90% of what they are saying. I get so focused on words, their definitions and how they fit together with the tone of voice to gather the meaning and intent of what I hear that anything they communicate with their body or face

As for number 2, have you ever been working on something so intensely and with so much deep focus that if someone says "hello" to you it throws you completely off? You know, when you're "in the zone"? Well I get "in the zone" with every single thing I do to the point where I literally forget to shower, sleep and eat, even when I'm hungry. Who do you know that can literally skip a meal only because they were so focused what they are doing that they could "turn off" innate impulses for the sake of their masterpiece? This "superpower" proves both super helpful but also extremely dangerous.

It's dangerous when it comes to sinful impulses of the natural man (see Mosiah 3:19 in the Book of Mormon) but wonderfully helpful during scripture study, cleaning up the house, writing music, blogging :) and practicing piano. The biggest not so super social problem with this for me is when I'm super involved in what I'm doing and something with my wife's pain goes haywire or someone arrives at our home unannounced or whom I had just forgotten was coming or something like that. Nothing around here is ever boring, but we still manage to keep things at least predictable enough for us to keep our sanity and when something "throws a wrench" in our plans or, for me, interrupts something I'm super zoned into, I have a really hard time dealing with it emotionally. You should have seen the last time we had to go to the hospital unexpectedly. It has taken me almost 10 years to get to the point where I can even remain in a somewhat rational head-space while getting everything she needs ready for us to go, whether by ambulance or just riding there.

The "superpower" behind number 3 comes in when I am hyper-focusing on one of my niches. My wife sometimes gets annoyed and tells me how badly I need to 'change the channel' from these four things: Religion and Religious Literature, Technology, Music and Movies (especially sci-fi, marvel and dystopian). When I get zoned out in any of these areas, I retain what I am learning, comprehend what I'm doing and perceive it all in context of my life so clearly that others often get annoyed with the intensity of my excitement about it. I see hundreds of gospel parallels in everything I see and hear and understand how all the individual details of the principles shown therein would most effectively and optimally fit, enhance and enrich the greater whole of life and reality. Sometimes I feel like my heart is going to explode with wonder and joy when I see things that clearly. The only not so super part of that is when I "come back down to earth" I almost never know how to put what I now understand into words that won't offend or sound like gibberish to the listener and still accurately represent what I know, think and feel. I often tell my wife and my closest friends that english (or any mortal language) is stupid because none of it is sufficient to explain how I really feel, what I really understand and what I'm really thinking.

I wrote a historical fiction yet to be published called The Stripling Warrior about the 'might-have-been' son of Abish (see Alma 19:16 in the Book of Mormon) as he grows up to fight in Helaman's army of stripling warriors (Alma 53, 56-58) and there's a part in there where I snuck in a little sci-fi where two of the characters accidentally find a way to communicated their thoughts and feelings to each other telepathically and directly from heart to heart without audible words or facial expressions. I have felt for a long time that that kind of communication, when God shows us how to do that, is the only way I'll ever be able to show people what I'm really thinking and feelings.

When I'm trying to discuss something I'm quite passionate about and someone disagrees with my perspective I immediately feel an insatiable urge to understand their contrasting viewpoint and, more importantly, find out what our different viewpoints have in common. In my efforts to do this, I have to have all other distractions silenced. In the case of number 5, in our place the TV is usually on just for noise if Lorraine isn't watching a cooking show and I have to have the TV and sometimes even the AC turned off just so I can even focus on what she's saying without being overwhelmed by too much information at once. I often get way too easily confused about what someone might mean by a phrase that could be taken, like, 5 different ways and 3 of them are really mean so I have to find out which way they meant it and that doesn't often go well. I hate shows like Dr. Phil because he always lets people talk over each other and argue about the stupidest things. There's rarely any "one person at a time" or "speak calmly or don't speak" or anything else that is actually conducive to a civilized conversation. I get overwhelmed extremely fast when one person is talking over another.

Another helpful analogy that paints a picture of Asperger's is a brain that processes small pieces of information so fast and so in depth that too much stimulus from too many different directions at once is totally overwhelming. If a computer had Asperger's syndrome, it would probably have a few TB of RAM, a 5 PB HD and processor that runs at several TeraHertz. You'd only be able to run 1 program at a time, perhaps with one more running idly in the background, but you could accomplish more with that one program in 5 minutes than most other computers could in a day. If a car had Asperger's you'd have more horse power, better fuel efficiency and navigation system than most other cars, but less than average handling and really shoddy brakes.

When it comes to emotions it's a similar thing. We can do a lot in some areas and not much in others. Sometimes we appear to have very little empathy or concern for others opinions and feelings, but this is not true at all. As one person on Tumblr put it, "We lack cognitive empathy: the ability to predict others thoughts and intentions, including the ability to "read between the lines" during communication. We have plenty of affective empathy: the ability to share another person's feelings with them. We have plenty of compassionate empathy: the desire to help others (although we may not always know how). Many of us have [FAR] too much affective and compassionate empathy which can be overwhelming for us." The good part about this for those without it who have difficulty with our quirks is that we never have a hidden agenda. There are no "lines" to read between in our verbal communication. We mean what we say, which is why I'm always correcting myself to make sure my wording is 100% accurate. Communicating online is so much easier for me because I can see what I've said and adjust it all I want before hitting 'send'. I can't do that in verbal communication. But seriously, honesty is paramount for us (unless we are scared to tell the truth for fear of being misunderstood).

In a nut shell, we love. We love A TON. We just don't always know how to direct that love the right way or express it in ways others understand and we almost never have ulterior motives.