How I've Coped with Aspergers
My Asperger Syndrome requires me to put a lot of work into basic social interactions
If I could be comfortable in social situations and make eye contact without wanting to scream - if I could understand what emotions people around me were displaying (without having to play Wild Kingdom of the humans to decipher them) automatically - if I could come off as an articulate and intelligent human being instead of as a slightly dim weirdo - if I could express my emotions verbally and make the right facial expressions without thinking about them - it would be my wildest dream come true.
But for me and many of the rest of the people in the world with Asperger's Syndrome or high-functioning autism, we'll just have to settle for making things work for us the way that we are. To get by, we need to consciously learn what others seem to be born knowing.
Society has thousands of unspoken rules that most people pick up with little training. It can be hard to explain to people who are not on the autistic spectrum that these things they do almost unconsciously can be hard work for others.
I'd like to share some of the things I've learned to help me get by in the world. It is my hope that this may be of help to you as a person with AS or as a friend, parent, sibling, teacher or coworker of someone with mild autism.
Please read this before continuing.
Disclaimer: I am not a licensed therapist or medical professional of any kind. I am simply a person who has Asperger Syndrome. The purpose of this page is to give insight to people wishing to understand more about AS on a personal level - to help them understand more about what it's like to have an autism spectrum disorder. None of the suggestions on this page are intended as replacement for advice from a medical professional.
Scripts and Role-Playing
Having a plan for as many situations as possible helps me to get along
I don't know what works for other people with Asperger's or other types of autism but for me, creating my own 'scripts' for all sorts of situations is the biggest help of all. I've never naturally known what I was supposed to do in social interaction but from observing people, I've figured a lot of it out.
I've heard people who don't have advanced etiquette training feel similarly when faced with a high society event or dinner - probably because it's all arbitrary rules come up with in the Victorian era and not socially or psychologically 'natural' to anyone. The way they learn to get along is to study the expected behaviors and to duplicate and practice them. I have just done that with most everything.
The very first real job (that didn't involve picking up dog crap or picking vegetables) I got was a telemarketing position. It made the idea of 'scripts' for various life situations click in my mind. You see, telemarketing companies give new employees a script of what to say first followed by 'if/then' kind of statements such as "if the client says x, then say y" - this was gold for me!
I think it would be of great benefit for children on any part of the autistic spectrum to be taught what the appropriate action is in as many situations as possible to help them create their own life scripts. Role-playing seems like it would be great for this.
The Problem with Eye Contact
I've found that people think that your level and type of eye contact directly reflects your integrity and worth. Maintaining normal looking eye contact is vital in our society. Inability to simulate normal eye contact makes it difficult to get a job, keep or get clients, hold a conversation, or to not be treated as dishonest.
Eye contact is and always has been very difficult for me. With the difficulty most autistic people have with eye contact I find myself wondering why we are stereotyped as having no emotions or empathy. For me, eye contact is hard because the emotions it causes are overwhelming. True eye contact may terrify me, make me panic, or make me feel an unidentifiable emotion so intense it makes me cry.
To get around this I have to try to objectify a person's eyes. I have to see them as body parts rather than as "windows to the soul" otherwise looking at them will provoke emotions too powerful for me to handle gracefully. I do this by focusing on parts of the eye - sometimes the lashes, sometimes the pupils or iris, and sometimes the blood vessels in the white of the eye. Sometimes I mentally identify those parts as I look at them. Natural eye contact isn't fixed, people don't stare or glare right at each others' eyes, focused on a single spot. So it makes it look more natural if I change focus on the different parts of the eye and alternate looking at parts of the eyes with glancing down to the person's lips. Looking at lips when spoken to is what comes naturally to me.
Really, I Don't Get It, Say What You Actually Want
Stop hinting and say what you really mean.
I don't take hints.
For example: Someone says, "Can the television get any louder?"
I reply, "Yes, it can."
I don't know when you are hinting so you might as well be frank and honest with me. So if you want me to turn the television down, just ask me to, don't try to hint that it is turned up too loud and hope I will divine what you want.
I've mostly given up on trying to figure out when people are trying to drop a hint to me. When I do that I tend to see hints where none exist or misinterpret actual hints. So the way I cope with it now is to ask the person if he is hinting if he says something that otherwise makes no logical sense.
My partner says, "I'm cold sitting here on the love seat by myself."
I reply, "Are you hinting at something?"
Because, logically, if he's really saying he is cold he would either grab a blanket or ask me to bring one, or go put on a sweater or something, not just tell me he is cold and then do nothing else about it. So, yes, he was hinting that he wanted me to come and snuggle. But now he has learned not to hint most of the time.
Some people will think I'm being mean when I say that I don't take hints in those words so I tend to say, "I don't understand hints so if you would like me to do something, please ask me instead of hinting." So you can make the lives of people on the autistic spectrum (and probably your own as well) easier by not trying to modify their behavior with hints. It seems passive aggressive anyway so maybe it's just a better way to communicate overall?
The Most Useful Book I Ever Read - Peoplewatching, by Desmond Morris
Peoplewatching by Desmond Morris is one of the most valuable books I've ever read. In it, Morris identifies, analyzes, and minutely describes expressions and normal human behaviors. From studying this book, I have learned to mimic many human behaviors and expressions, I daresay almost flawlessly.
I recommend it highly to any adult with Asperger's Syndrome or anywhere on the autistic spectrum. I read it before I was an adult but many people do not allow their children access to books that discuss sexuality or sex signals. Part of the book is dedicated to flirting and unconscious displays of sexual attraction. Parents may want to read it though because it gives the most in-depth descriptions of normal human behavior that I have ever seen and it might help them teach their children how to use normal body language. It is also rich with illustrative photos and diagrams. I think the material about flirting is especially important for teens to know because it is all too easy to accidentally mimic flirting behavior when one does not intend to.
Let me be completely clear on this - Peoplewatching is not about autistic behavior, it is not about autistic people, it is about the behaviors of average people, the people most people with AS are trying to mimic.
They have books that tell you all about watching birds but this one tells you all about watching people. It also explains and illustrates a wide variety of body language and facial expressions.
In relationships, I have found no way to pass for normal.
I can pass for normal (or neurotypical as the politically correct would say) in shallow, superficial interactions. But I cannot pass for normal in friendships or interactions that I've never experienced or learned about before. Friendships are so hard because no one wants to admit that there are rules, that there are expectations, or that there are conventions for friendship. It is a minefield I find almost impossible to navigate. Sometimes it seems to me that the problem is not just my ignorance of unspoken conventions but people's unwillingness to believe autism is real or to accept me as a person with AS (and all that it implies) if they do.
I have found a partner and a couple of close friends who accept me as I am. They are treasures beyond words.
I think the only way people on the autistic spectrum can have real, loving relationships is to be completely honest with people in the friend arena and to not try to pass for normal with them. If a person can't get past the way you are naturally, then the relationship is doomed before it began. This is a tough thing to deal with because the number of people who will understand that you are autistic and also willing to accept the inconveniences and communication issues that come with it is very small. My experience suggests to me that my personality and my idiosyncratic quirks make it hard for most people to enjoy my company on any deep or prolonged level.
So not only is it extremely hard for me to reach out to someone for friendship, it's a lottery as to whether or not the person I've reached out to is appropriate and capable of being my friend.
One thing I'd suggest to fellow Aspies is that I've had much better luck finding friends among people who are outside the norm in some way themselves.
Learning Facial Expressions
Facial expressions don't often come naturally
I used to have a great deal of difficulty understanding facial expressions, a problem not uncommon among autistic people. By purposefully learning the emotions most people associate with common facial expressions I can now identify facial expressions.
My "aha moment" came when I was reading through art books. I found a book on drawing cartoons which included pages of cartoon renderings of human facial expressions and body postures - all clearly labeled! It gave me a wonderful base from which to learn what emotions are associated with what facial expressions and body postures. From there, I sought out similarly labeled photographs so I could see actual faces portraying different emotions.
Using flash cards with facial expressions on them would probably be very helpful to children with AS and others with difficulties recognizing expressions.
Flashcards for Facial Expressions and Emotions
Photos of actual human faces identifying the emotions being expressed could help you to accurately identify the feelings of others based on what their faces are doing.
Aspies and the Medical Community
Medical professionals are not always as educated as one would expect
It would seem like members of the medical community, being well educated and familiar with various medical conditions, would be better than average at dealing with patients with Asperger Syndrome. But in my experience, they are not.
I have had a hard time dealing with medical professionals, apparently because my voice doesn't make the expected changes when I'm in pain and I don't always make noises when I get hurt. This has led to me getting sent home untreated and accused of drug seeking behavior - once with a broken ankle (which required surgery to repair) and once with a broken wrist and thumb.
My advice is for people with AS to bring a non-autistic advocate along with you to the doctor whenever possible. I've found that while many medical professionals will not believe or understand a person on the spectrum they will believe that person's non-autistic companion.
We have them just like you do
Don't buy into the idea that people on the autistic spectrum don't have strong emotions or don't possess empathy; we aren't sociopaths, we're just emotionally illiterate and we can learn.
For me, it's an issue of 'noise' - any emotion that is too 'loud' is confusing and frightening. I may seem emotionless at times but it's just that the way I express or contain my emotions is in a language foreign to yours; they are present, intense, and sometimes overwhelming.
I want to make it clear that while I have strategies that help me get by in the world of normals, I do not get by well or gracefully. I do not get by without a great deal of pain and misunderstanding. I am not cured. I am still autistic and always will be.
My Pet Peeve Regarding Asperger's Groups
People with Asperger's are Often Excluded!
In trying to compile a list of resources for people with Asperger's and/or high-functioning autism I discovered something I find quite disturbing; autistic people are often excluded from AS support groups, classes, and workshops!
Workshops, groups, and classes given titles like "Living with Autism" or "Coping with Asperger's" are almost always 100% material for caregivers and relatives. From the descriptions of such offerings one often finds that people on the spectrum are not welcome to attend. Workshops and classes for autistic adults seem to be nearly non-existent. It's as if groups, classes, and workshops for diabetic people excluded all people with diabetes!
If the whole point of these groups, classes, and workshops is to make life for people with autism and life for their caregivers better, wouldn't it make sense to remember that the autistic people involved are actually people and that they are some of the people most most affected by their autism?
- Aspergers Adult Support
A facebook community for adults with Aspergers or high-functioning autism.
Asperger Syndrome doesn't miraculously disappear at age 18.
Do You Live with Asperger Syndrome?
Do you, a friend, or family member have Asperger's or do you work with people who do?
Difficulty recognizing people is fairly common among autistic people
I'm much more likely to recognize a person by his or her voice than by his or her appearance. I purposely work on memorizing particular faces by looking for quirks like moles, scars, freckles, differences between eyes, or unusually shaped teeth so I can recognize new acquaintances later on.
To more easily accomplish this I will often look for (or take) a photograph that I can study. I often "cheat" by taking cues and identifying markers from the person's body or posture, too. I admit that I feel like I've hit the jackpot when someone I meet has a major distinguishing characteristic such as having a big visible mole or birthmark or some other unusual and obvious physical characteristic. I'm just glad that I'll easily recognize them the next time I see them.
I think I could have learned this skill very early with coaching from an adult on how to see differences in a face and how to memorize faces. It would have saved me a lot of awkwardness and a lot of social errors. Normal people often become very upset when someone cannot recognize them.