Email Followers, Sign Up Here!


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.