I don’t remember how I first heard about Asperger’s Syndrome; probably in a film or some other entertainment media, but those usually depict a very one-sided view. I came into contact with the complexity of the behaviours and characteristics associated with AS during my studies of psychology long after I noticed that I seemed to function differently from most people around me.
At first, I thought I was psychopathic, because the most striking difference I noticed was the processing of emotions – mine and others’. One of the prevalent symptoms of psychopathy is a lack of empathy and understanding of feelings in others. “Understanding” in this case means “knowing how they feel”, the causes, behaviours and consequences associated with these feelings are understood very well and used to manipulate people in order to gain the highest possible benefits for oneself. I know that I can be very manipulative and so I studied the other characteristics of psychopathy but I soon found many discrepancies, for instance the shallowness of personal relationships and the disregard of other people’s opinions. I do care very deeply about people that are close to me – right now a total of five – and I put their happiness above mine, usually, but I do not care about people not close to me. But even if I do care, I have difficulties to actually understand what they feel, and why, I found myself unable to empathise in the original definition, I empathise emotionally if their emotions are accessible to me.
I know how certain situation impact on certain people and I know the appropriate reactions to these feelings, theoretically, but practically I only understand the momentary situation after thorough analysis. I am a good listener and, probably due to my detached viewpoint, often have a calming, rationalising effect on someone who is upset or scared. But this pragmatical approach can also get me into conflicts if someone is looking for true empathy for comfort and I am unable to provide that. I learned to identify these situations but I still struggle to overcome my initial impulse to investigate and dissect the situation and feelings scientifically to find a solution. I then tend to switch to a behaviour that most would associate with calming a frightened animal – stroking the fur/hair, saying comforting things in a low voice, etc. – because, to me, that would be the most comforting behaviour, if I was distressed.
I identify and connect with animals better than with humans, anyway. My best childhood friend was my cat who sadly died when I was 17 and I still consider it to be the most painful loss I’ve ever experienced. I also connect as much emotions to my stuffed animals as I do with any other friendship and I still remember and grieve over all I lost during the course of my life – more than over many friends I lost. I’ve never given them names, though, they have non-verbal identity concepts which are hard to explain. I assume my connection with animals and objects is better because they don’t cause me any distress in interactions. All humans do, just to a varying degree – even my parents. It is just that for them and my best friends the enjoyment outweighs the stress most of the time and my capability to socialise is not consumed so quickly. But even there something I am unable to do is meeting someone spontaneously. I need time to prepare myself for interactions.
Usually, however, interacting socially equals a stressful and cognitively demanding activity to me. I am constantly analysing their behaviour and talk, look for patterns, compare it to other situations I experienced and decide how to react and what to say. I then compare the reaction with what I anticipated and go on from there. If the reaction is totally different from what I expected, I am lost. If there are more than one or two people I usually don’t say much unless it is a topic that interests me very much. I then have difficulties letting other people say anything and usually I’m not listening but waiting for a break in their word flow so I can say something about that again. That might be the reason why I often don’t remember other people’s opinions about something we talked about. Again, this is not true for people close to me because they in themselves, by being the person they are, present something that interests me. I usually don’t engage in socializing on my own accord and I can be perfectly happy if I don’t see anyone or don’t speak to anyone for days.
These are my main characteristics that I found to be repeated in descriptions about people with Asperger’s Syndrome to a more or lesser extent. I consider myself lucky to be able to use intellectual analysis to compensate for my lack in social intuition and I attribute most of that ability to the fact that I grew up with eight adults as the only child, that my parents are very open-minded and always let me be myself and partly also that I went to a Montessori elementary school rather than an ordinary school. These factors contributed greatly to my social abilities although they could not induce a sense of intuition, instead they gave me a large social vocabulary with which I can now analyse interactions and situations.
There are, also, all the little behavioural oddities that I display and which can often be found in descriptions of other individuals with Asperger’s and about which I found out when I read more about the syndrome. Here are a few examples: I have always been fascinated with water in any phase, especially with the (deep) sea and the combination of water and light. One of my first really good paintings was a bottle and a glass of water with some spilled drops on a wooden table and I remember staring for an hour into a Volvic bottle in the sun because I loved the way the bottle and the water fractured the light. I have always had unusual interests as a child, I started to speak and differentiate words from 9 months onwards, I taught myself how to read in kindergarten and I developed a fascination for Russia and the Russian alphabet and later poisons when I was in elementary school.
I have some behaviours that could be called motor tics, for instance, I tend to stand on the outer edge of my feet and walk on the balls of my feet when I’m not wearing shoes; I flap my arms up and down when I am waiting or thinking about something while standing, I rock back and forth when I’m concentrating or I don’t feel well and I chew on my lips most of the time. There might be some more behavioural oddities I am not aware of.
Also, I am very sensitive towards certain sounds, for instance a broken pencil or a felt-tip marker on paper or a knife scraping on baking paper make me feel sick. I can hear sounds people around me don’t notice and I can see rather well in the dark. I am also rather sensitive towards smells I dislike and I am unable to eat something of which I do not like the smell. I notice when something I like was put together with something I don’t like the smell of and I cannot eat it any more. However, I love good smells, my favourite being the olive&jasmine candle by Muji, and I love to surround myself with things that smell good. I have a greater tolerance for chemical smells and sometimes I even like some of them that others dislike but most organic bad smells are repulsive for me.
Of course, I have no idea if not everyone is functioning like that and other people just don’t find this odd but I’ve always noticed that there was something blocking exchange with other people around me. I suppose it could be considered as an impairment if I craved social contacts and belongingness, because I don’t know how to achieve that. I am just lucky that I don’t miss what I lack. The discomfort I feel when I am amongst people can be avoided by avoiding groups of people and that is fine with me.