My friend, Rhedyn, is a neurotypical woman happily married to a lovely man, Dan, who was diagnosed as an adult with Asperger’s Syndrome. They may be the most devoted couple I know, with an unmistakeable chemistry.
They don’t fight about the kids or money or any of the typical things most NT couples row about. But once per year, they clash.
I was the unhappy bystander to Dan and Rhedyn’s yearly explosion this past week-end. One moment, we were having a confab over pints and the next Rhedyn was telling Dan to ‘make eye contact and at least feign interest when Ivy speaks. You’re being rude looking away and waving your hands while Ivy’s talking’.
A second later, Dan had flung his eyeglasses across the room and was in tears. The meltdown happened so fast I was stunned, trying to figure out what exactly had occurred. Having a mother I strongly suspect of being an ‘Aspie’, I decided to stay and talk to Dan. I wanted to know what caused this dear, gentle man so much pain that he would react so dramatically.
While Rhedyn made a batch of curry and her famous naan bread, I patiently talked to Dan.
We neurotypicals cannot begin to fathom how hard it is for Aspies to exist in a culture we dominate. We set the rules. We design society. We define social norms. Even something as fundamental as the rules for manners and polite conversation are foreign to an Aspie. They may behave ‘normally’ (as NTs define it) but that’s because they’ve memorised how to follow our seemingly nonsensical rules by rote. It’s a script for them and a senseless one at that.
For example, when Dan was breaking eye contact, waving his hands and gasping, I had been talking about a movie that quite interested me. A neurotypical who had not seen that movie as Dan had not would automatically realise the important part of the conversation is not the movie. It is how the speaker felt about it.
An Aspie on the other hand, cogitates on the movie (they haven’t seen) and having nothing to contribute to the subject of the movie, wants to advance the conversation to something they enjoy talking about. Hence the appearance of impatience and disinterest.
It never occurred to Dan that I was telling him about my feelings. He thought we were discussing the movie. ‘No, I was telling you about me’, I told Dan.
‘Then why didn’t you say that?’ he retorted.
As a neurotypical, I thought I had. It was implied. So obvious, that it never occurred to me to verbally express it.
But Aspies don’t make assumptions so hard-wired in NT minds that what we really mean is usually left unspoken.
The more we talked, the more I learnt that Dan harbours a great deal of irritation that merely because NTs are in the majority, they set the rules. ‘That doesn’t make it right’, he said dolefully.
He’s right. If I may use a Star Trek metaphor, we NTs would find ourselves constantly breaking social morés and unspoken rules of social etiquette on Vulcan, just as Aspies find themselves doing here on Earth. It’s not done wilfully nor to be rude. We’re all hardwired differently. Aspies are not broken or flawed Neurotypicals. Defining them by what they lack as compared to neurotypicals is unjust. It’s prejudiced and narrow-minded.
Dan gave me a tiny glimpse into the pain Aspies bear for a lifetime as they blunder through the seemingly nonsensical, arbitrary rules of Neurotypical inter-personal interaction. With no guidebook for NT etiquette, Aspies often appear vain, egotistical, rude and self-centred.
Growing up in the 1970s, Dan’s mates often called him ‘retard’, ‘idiot’ and ‘weirdo’ although his I. Q. is 173. Dan’s different way of learning, inability to make friends, sensitivity to noise and undiagnosed colour blindness made him the butt of vicious bullying that often saw him sent to the headmaster’s office where he was pigeonholed as a ‘retard’ and ‘troublemaker’. From there, he was sent for remedial classes where he quite enjoyed learning with the children with Down Syndrome. They accepted him for whom he was and never called him a ‘condescending bastard’.
Having survived this brutal childhood, Dan found his passion as a successful architect…yet he still struggles with relationships with his colleagues and what he calls ‘the idiocy of office politics’. More than one firm has fired Dan for being a ‘vain, condescending arsehole’. But if you knew him as I know him, he is the sweetest, gentlest of men with the most refined and sensitive conscience.
‘I dumb myself down all the time’, Dan wept. ‘You think I’m being condescending? You have no idea how much I know. I don’t know something about a topic. I know everything about that topic. I have to hold myself back when we talk about it. Yes, I tell people when they’re wrong. They call me a jerk but I’m not doing it to be a jerk. I correct them because they are wrong. Don’t they want to be right?!’
Asking an Aspie to behave more neurotypically is, in their mind, asking them to act. To lie through their behaviour. Dan cannot tell a lie.
But asking Rhedyn as a neurotypical to meet her Aspie husband halfway is almost as impossible for her. It would mean putting all her non-verbal communication into words. This she cannot do.
Acting out, ‘shut up, I’m busy’ through facial expressions and body language is more acceptable than blurting out the words, ‘Shut up, Dan. Can’t you see I’m busy!?! You’re being rude!’ Rhedyn is a very nice woman who acts out her boundaries. Therein lies their disconnect.
The discussion between Dan, Rhedyn and myself ended as most NT/Aspie discussions end: impasse. Neither one can change their spots. Dan harbours great vexation toward society for marginalising his inborn nature simply because Aspies are in the minority while Rhedyn remains exasperated that Dan cannot make eye contact or convey the appearance of being interested in what others say. In reality, he insists he’s very interested in what others say but you’d never know it from his body language.
I came away from that experience with profound empathy for people with Asperger’s Syndrome. Their pain is profound. Even in this blog posting, I realise that I have unwittingly done what society does: judge Aspies against neurotypical standards. That’s jolly unfair.
Photo by kevin dooley