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Monday, November 5, 2012

Speaking My Mind

When I was eleven years old, I teamed up with another homeschooled friend to do a creative writing project. The project was to draw a make-believe animal and then write a set of instructions for another student to follow so that she could draw the same picture without having seen the original picture. I loved both writing and making art projects, so I was ready to have fun with this assignment.

I put a lot of effort into my picture, using my ruler and compass. The head of my pretend animal was made by tracing around a Jolly Rancher, so that the head was rectangular with the twisted wrapper sticking out on either side for ears. I could see my friend was working just as diligently on her assignment, though we kept our pictures hidden.

My strong Asperger's traits came to the surface when it was time for us to exchange our sets of instructions and try to draw each other's animals. We were working on opposite ends of the table, and when my friend saw that I was drawing her animal incorrectly, she wanted to explain and show me how to do it. "No, you're not supposed to help me," I objected. "I'm following your directions exactly, but they're not clear enough. I'm just interpreting them differently. That's why we're supposed to practice writing instructions."

So many years later, I can still remember the hurt feelings that showed on my friend's face. I had a definite attitude of having done a better job than she did, and I even commented that my animal was cuter than hers. I can understand now how rude and unkind my comments were, but at the time, what I cared about most was that her drawing turned out looking almost exactly like my original, proving that my instructions had been well-written.

As an Aspie, it was natural for me to act this way, but that didn't make it right. My perfectionism and desire to follow the rules of the assignment to the letter may have helped me get a good grade in this assignment as well as many others. However, I put my friend's feelings at a much lower priority.

I think at that time, I was capable of thinking ahead to how she might feel at being told her project did not turn out as well as mine. But I forgot to think ahead, and just spoke my mind, letting her know that her work did not come up to my perfect standard. I don't know whether I ever apologized to my friend, but I will invite her to read this post, so she will know that I am sorry, and that I learned something from the experience. I learned that pride is not pretty, and although my Asperger's traits may provide an explanation, they are not to be used as an excuse.


Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Attention, please!

"Sharon Rose, you didn't say good-bye to your father. He said good-bye to you three times, and he was waiting for you to respond! You couldn't look up from your new school supplies that you just bought even to look at him and say good-bye? What if he got in a car accident today and was killed and you never saw him again? How would you feel then?"

This was a scolding from my mother when I was about 14 years old. It made an impact on me. I still have forgotten to greet people hello or good-bye many times since then, but at least now I realize how important it is simply to go through those standard greetings. I do so now for the sake of making people feel good about how I relate to them.

Why was it so hard for me to simply say good-bye in response to my dad? The quick answer is: "because I have Asperger's syndrome." My mom and dad and I learned about Asperger's syndrome several years after this incident. Although my mom and dad also have many of the traits, the ironic thing about Aspies is that many of the same things we do (or forget to do) ourselves still annoy us in other people.

Although Aspies can also have attention deficit disorder, in my case, the opposite is true. Did you notice that when I forgot to say good-bye to my dad, I was focused on opening a newly purchased package of school supplies? I was so interested in what I was doing, that I found it very hard to drag my attention away. I have read in Dr. Valerie Gaus's book Living Well on the Spectrum about how Aspies often have an "on/off button" for directing their attention to any given input. Other people seem to have a "slider" for adjusting how much attention to give to various competing inputs. While it is generally seen as a strength to be able to concentrate for long periods, when this concentration interferes with simple responses to the people around us, we Aspies lose out.

Another reason I did not say good-bye to my dad was that I did not interpret his facial expressions, voice, and mannerisms quickly enough to know what to do to make him feel better. I honestly did observe that he wasn't smiling, that his voice was low but insistent, and that he swayed back and forth as though hesitating to go away, waiting for a response from me. But only after my mom scolded me did I realize what all that meant. It meant he didn't like being ignored. None of us do.

I was surprised to learn from a video lecture by Tony Attwood that one way he diagnoses Asperger's syndrome is by calling the child's name and seeing how long it takes the child to respond. Aspies often do not immediately answer when they hear their names. I identified with this trait, remembering how exasperated my parents used to get when I would look up from reading a book and say dazedly, "Were you talking to me?" Even though they had called my name before telling me something, they would have to start over, because I had not tuned in to the voice that spoke my name.

As I said, we Aspies typically don't even like this kind of treatment from each other. I have an Aspie friend who is very skilled at the computer, and I respect my friend for that skill. But when I can't get my friend's attention dragged away from the computer (even to say good-bye to me!) I still struggle not to have my feelings hurt. If you're an Aspie, or trying to teach or train an Aspie, just remember that people thrive on attention. We like attention ourselves, and we owe our friends and family attention too.


Friday, June 15, 2012

Barbie Bummer

While watching a video lecture by Tony Attwood on the topic of Asperger's syndrome, I received new insight on an experience I had in childhood. Tony Attwood describes part of the way he diagnoses or rules out Asperger's syndrome in children. He reads the child a story about a little girl who really, really wants a puppy for her birthday, but instead she receives a book. In the story, the little girl smiles at her parents and says, "Thank you. I like the book very much." Tony Attwood explains that when he asks why the girl in the story would say that, children without Asperger's know immediately that it's because she wants to be nice to her parents and not hurt their feelings by saying she was disappointed not to get a puppy. Children with Asperger's, says Attwood, can come to the same conclusion, but only after thinking it through carefully. This example shows the Aspie preference for openness and honesty over shielding other people's feelings from being hurt.

This example brought back a memory of a time when I received a gift I didn't like. As I remember, the gift was not from a relative but from an acquaintance of my parents, a lady I never saw again. I don't believe it was Christmas or my birthday either, so the fact that I was getting a gift at all made me excited. I had more than the usual anticipation in opening my present, and I really didn't have a clue what it could be. I just didn't expect it to be a Barbie doll. But it was. And I hated it.

For most seven-year-old girls, a Barbie doll like this one would bring ecstatic joy . . . but for whatever reason, I didn't want any more Barbie dolls. I did not have a large collection and seldom played with the ones I had. I played along when visiting other little girls who wanted to "play Barbie," but I'd rather have played almost any other game instead.

So I was disappointed. The next thing I knew, the nice lady who had given me this unwanted toy was asking, "Do you have one already?"

"No," I stuttered. "I don't have one already. Thank you very much." At that point, my mom started enthusing over the gift for me, and all I had to do was nod and attempt to smile when she said, "Ooh, isn't she pretty, Sharon Rose? Look at her sparkly gown and long, blonde hair!"

Of course, I had been ready and willing to say, "Thank you very much," when I opened my present. I knew enough to be polite when receiving a gift. And I actually wanted the lady to think I was happy with my present. What shocked me was that she realized I was disappointed in my gift without my saying so. I guessed by the way she asked if I already had the same doll that she could tell I was unhappy, and she was trying to guess the reason. I didn't like her knowing I was disappointed when I hadn't said so.

It was the first time I can remember realizing that my face communicated my feelings.



Sunday, May 13, 2012


The question, "How do I feel?" brought back to mind another experience from my elementary school days. I kept this memory alive through the years but I think this is the first time I bothered to put labels on the emotions I felt at the time. I felt embarrassed, shy, disappointed in myself, and afraid to admit I had made a mistake. As it turned out, none of those emotions were necessary, but they influenced a choice I made.

It was an ordinary day at school - fourth grade, I think - except that I would not be going home at the end of the day. My mom had arranged for me to spend the night with some friends of hers. Their two daughters were several years older than I. In fact, the eldest girl would be driving us back to her house, so she must have been at least 16.

I remember we stayed after school for a softball game, and then we got into the van and drove off. The girls were busy talking to each other, and I did not need much attention. I was content to be left to think my own thoughts on the long drive . . . until I suddenly realized that I had left my overnight bag at school. I was horrified at my mistake, and my thoughts spun round and round while I stared at the floor of the van where the bag should have been. I knew it would make sense for me to speak up and tell the driver, in case she wanted to turn around and go back for my bag.

But somehow, I couldn't make up my mind to tell her. My feelings of shame were intense, and I didn't like to think about what reaction I would get if I admitted that I had been forgetful. Now that I think about it, fourth grade was a time when I forgot my milk money, forgot my field trip money, and forgot to have permission slips signed. (My mom says she was the forgetful one, but I forget now whether or not it was her fault.) Forgetfulness got me into trouble. So maybe that's why I was too nervous to speak up. After all, as an Aspie, I wanted to be perfect. I prided myself in being mistake-free!

Besides, I was a very quiet child and seldom initiated a conversation, even with my own classmates. To interrupt the driver's carefree dialogue with her sister would be rude, wouldn't it? That thought kept me even more tongue-tied.

I waited it out till we pulled up at the house, and the driver saw for herself that my bag was missing. I remember that she did all the talking about how it was a long way back to school and that she would ask her mom what to do. Then her mom did some more talking, told me I could borrow a nightshirt and use an extra toothbrush, and that my bag would still be where I had left it tomorrow. So I felt relieved and stopped worrying. But this memory stayed with me as an example of how my feelings, intense and unnamed, could override my rational mind in decision-making.


Thursday, April 12, 2012

How Do I Feel?

The other day, I was sorting through the school papers my mom had saved from my elementary school days. Knowing what I now know about Asperger's syndrome, I was amazed to see how plainly Aspie traits showed through in the journal entries I wrote when I was just 6 years old. If you'd like to look over my shoulder at the essays I wrote in answer to my writing assignments, you'll see that I was slowly learning how to describe my own feelings in various situations.
  • March 1990
    I remember when I couldn't tie a bow. I could tie a knot, but I couldn't tie a bow. I learned When I was 3, but I forgot. Then I learned again, when I was 5 or 6. My mother taught me. She punched holes in cards and put yarn through. Then She tied it in a bow and showed that way. Then I did it. I don't remember how I felt when I leared to tie a bow. To me sometimes learning is exciting and sometimes it isn't.
  • April 1990
    One time I shared something with my grandfather. I don't know what is was, but can explain it. It was something like a candybar with icecream inside. My grandmother cut it and we each had half. I'm not sure but I think my grandfather and I were happy. Peaple have shared jumpropes with me lots of times. I hope you've shared something with someone. Did you? Good!
  • May 1990
    The parts I liked about the Walkathon were the water fight, the ice cubes, and the wet wash cloths. What I didn't like about it was it was a long way and my feet were hot and tired. When I got to the end, I was inbetween happy and exited and exuasted. How did you feel? What did you like and not like?
  • June 1990I've won games before. I've won Dutch Blitz before. I'm happy when I win! Before we play I feel a little nervous. I like winning! Do you? I do!
The above entries were written in response to prompts in my spelling book, and apparently the question, "How did you feel?" was repeated in these prompts. Please notice that I had to practice answering this question before I realized that "how I felt" might be something worth paying attention to.

I still struggle with remembering that other people don't automatically know how I feel, even after I explain the events that make me feel the way I do. And I'm still not sure why it's supposed to "help" if I tell people how I feel. What does that DO exactly? I wonder . . .


Friday, February 24, 2012

No Borrowing Without Asking

I've written up some embarrassing Asperger's moments earlier in this blog, but they were from my childhood. I think now's the time to include anecdotes from my college days.

During my first semester in college, I commuted from home, which was hard because I have low stamina and get fatigued quickly. When it came to staying after class time for concerts or play rehearsals, I was aching for a place to rest. I tried to make do by finding a welcome among the ladies who were dorm residents.

One day, the dean of women issued a notice to the commuting students. The letter requested that we not help ourselves to the dorm rooms, citing an instance where a student came back from class and found a commuter student napping in her bed. Put like that, it sounded crazy . . . till I realized I was the student who had borrowed the bed. I did personally know the student whose bed I took a rest in, but my mistake had been in taking another dorm girl's word for it that "she won't mind if you take a nap in her bed." Apparently, she did mind, because after I woke up, thanked her for the use of the bed, and went about my business, she must have reported the incident. Mine was an honest Aspie mistake. Once I knew what the rules were, even though it made it harder on me - still having nowhere to lay my head - I napped in a library chair with a jacket for a pillow from then on.

Another friend of mine handled a similar situation differently. She and I wore the same size clothes, and after lending me an outfit one day, she told me, "Sharon Rose, you can borrow clothes from me any time - whenever you need an outfit to change into and you don't have time to run back home, okay?" I thanked her and tucked that offer away, ready to draw on it at a moment's notice. The moment came a few weeks later, when I decided to stay past suppertime to attend a concert that I had just found out about that day. I knocked on the door of the dormitory, was let in, and although my friend was not there, I helped myself to a dress in her wardrobe. When she came in to the concert and sat next to me, I gave her a happy grin, and said, "Does this dress look familiar? I borrowed it from you, just like you said I could. It's so nice of you to lend it to me!"

She nodded, but the next day, she took me aside privately, and said, "Sharon Rose, I actually felt uncomfortable when you borrowed my dress yesterday, because I didn't even know you were going to wear it. I'd like to lend you clothes, but I just would like you to ask specifically each time."

I apologized and let her know that I had misunderstood and wouldn't do that again - which I didn't. We maintained our friendship over the next three years and grew very close. Meanwhile, the girl whose bed I borrowed, who had reported my mistake, is forgotten and unknown to me at this time. These are examples of how an Aspie either can be gently corrected in a friendly way or can become indignant that her motives are misinterpreted.

I can easily understand now how my actions could have been attributed to my being self-absorbed or self-indulgent. Maybe I was. But I didn't mean to be, and I loved it that the friend whose dress I borrowed gave me a second chance.

You see, I knew the rule, "No borrowing without asking," but according to my literal mind, I had asked in both cases. My first semester in college was when I learned the hard way that I actually had to ask the right person at the right time.


Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Educational Conversationalists

It's been on my mind to write a post about the obsessions people with Asperger's traits tend to develop. Of course, some writers on Asperger's syndrome would call these obsessions "strong, narrow interests." That's a very polite way of putting it.

One new acquaintance was describing to me her "strong, narrow interests" in Israel and in politics. She explained how seldom anyone else took an interest in her interests. I could empathize.

"People want you to be passionate, and then when you tell them what you're passionate about, they don't want to hear it," I remarked.

Frankly, I don't give a hoot about ever traveling to Israel or carefully studying and debating political issues. But because I wanted to get to know this new acquaintance, I listened - and listened - and listened. Her enthusiasm was hard to ignore. I'm pretty sure I could learn to enjoy both Israel and politics if I hung out with her often enough.
The odd thing about Aspies is that no matter how quiet and shy we appear on the surface, once we get somebody to give us full and complete attention, we love to talk! And our favorite topics of conversation are, well, our favorite topics of conversation - most decidedly. My favorites are literary characters and real-life characters (also known as my friends). In fact, sometimes I think the literary characters are just as much my friends as my real-life friends. They certainly have been with me much longer!

But there's nothing so absorbing to me as learning from a fellow Aspie about his favorite topics - because boy, can he cover them in detail. I like to refer to my fellow Aspies as educational conversationalists. Most Aspies are born teachers.

I had a favorite professor in college whose passion was literature, same as mine. It always struck me funny to hear other students walk away from his class asking each other what in heaven's name that lecture was all about. That prof had me entranced! Oh, yes, there were rabbit trails - many of them - but he always came back to the point, and I loved every minute of his lectures. The best part was when I'd be giggling away at some obscure allusion he had made that no other student got, or when I'd make a comment that would cause my professor to throw his head back and laugh - while the other students sat and blinked.

I think these passions that we seem unable to free ourselves from must be God-given drives to propel us in the direction God wants us to head in life. Because of my love for the language of English, here I sit, typing madly, and enjoying it . . . knowing that I will not be able to go to sleep tonight unless I share what's on my mind.

So the next time you start up a conversation with someone and that person seems unable to keep away from a certain topic or two, just think! You may have the opportunity to befriend an Aspie who can teach you a thing or three thousand about hockey . . . or skiing . . . or chess . . . or basketball . . . or Jane Austen . . . or computer programming. Hold onto your hat, and keep both ears open!