The Asperger’s Angle

It was probably the early 2000s when someone contacted me via AIM and inquired on my familiarity with Asperger syndrome. This is another one of my “writing down my history” articles, following my Programming for PFS-ICD post.

First Contact

The person who contacted me likely knew of me though my Pokémon web site I ran back then. He provided a link to Wikipedia’s article on Asperger’s syndrome. Considering that article was started February 3rd, 2002, and I moved back to California at the end of 2005 or start of 2006, it was within that range, likely sooner rather than later. I figure it was around 2003 or 2004 when the person contacted me. The date doesn’t matter, though. Trying to piece together dates is one of my oddities, but I’ll spare this post any of that.

I wish I knew this person was who had contacted me. I had never heard of Asperger’s syndrome before, and reading that page on Wikipedia was a miniature revelation, to see how many things listed there lined up with “me”. However, I had a personal stigma with the label of “autism” due to autism and mental retardation being used interchangeably in some contexts at high school. I wasn’t ready to label myself as an “Aspie”. I thought, “Yeah, this sounds similar to me, but that’s all.”

It was at the end of 2005 when I had to reevaluate my life. I hadn’t had a serious job yet. Beyond that, I had this mindset that I couldn’t get a job until I finished college. But I couldn’t go to college until I could afford it. I know, that’s a super-limited outlook on life, but Aspies are known to have such limited views at that time in their life. It’s not an excuse for not having a proper job until I was 26, but when I would later learn that this was part of “my mindset” at the time, it would stand as an explanation for “the way I was”. Looking back, I can say, “I can’t believe my view of the world was so limited then, but I can understand it now.”

Need for a Change

I was living with my older brother in Arizona at the time of my life reevaluation. He inquired on my progress toward looking to learn to drive or to getting a job (I forget which). At the time, I hadn’t really gone back to reading up on Asperger’s, so I hadn’t learned about just how limited my mind was compared to “normal” people, known as “neurotypical” or “NT”. Various things had recently happened in my life, and my brother’s inquiry was what made me tell myself, “I have to change.”

"Asperger’s from the Inside Out", Michael John Carley

I knew my limitations. I knew things like driving would remain impossible. I had to focus on where I knew I could make progress. My father had told me some months before that he could get me a job interview where he worked, at Sharp HealthCare. Since job openings are posted there, he knew whenever there was an opening for a low-level position. Even though talking on the phone was nearly impossible for me, I picked up that phone, called my father, and asked if he could still get me an interview.

I lucked out that there were two jobs to interview for. One would have me doing simple things like filling papers in printers, which would be an easy “get your foot in the door” job, which a person should move up and out of after six months. I knew if I were in that position, I would have trouble moving beyond it. But it would still be a start. However, it would also be the type of job where I’d be answering phone calls, such as when someone called in to say a printer wasn’t working. I don’t recall how much of this I knew before the interview.

The other job interview was for something computer-based. It involved essentially taking batches of insurance payments posted to patient accounts, checking for errors in the automated posting, and correcting them. With me in that position, the hope would be that I wouldn’t simply do the job, but would use my self-taught computer programming (having learned PHP programming for my web site I’d manned for five years, although C++ and VB6 are what I’d find myself using at work) to streamline and improve the process. I wouldn’t be among the computer programmers at work. Instead, I would be in a data-entry unit, but I would have some of the tools necessary to do programming work available to me.

Try telling someone they can either interview for a job where they’d have to do something impossible for them (for me, communicating with others and answering a phone) versus interviewing for a job where they can do their hobby. Which will be picked?

I don’t know where I’d be today if I didn’t get either job. I don’t know where I’d be today if I got that entry-level job. Thankfully for me and for my desire to improve myself, I got the data-entry job which would involve software programming.

First Steps

Starting at Sharp wasn’t easy. I was surrounded by a lot of people, which can be overwhelming for the Aspie, or “AS”. Of course, I had pretty much forgotten about Asperger’s by then. All that mattered was that I knew my limitations, and would be facing them. I would have to communicate with my co-workers, especially the person who did this position’s data correction before me. I would also find myself having to use the phone (until I found a method to get the information I needed without having to make a call).

That co-worker played a big part in helping ease things for me. When it was found we both played Final Fantasy video games, that gave us a common interest to talk about. He’s an easygoing kind of guy, which made him comfortable to talk with, even though I still had difficulty communicating with others.

Over time I would slowly push myself to talk more to co-workers, and to joke about things. There would be difficulties, such as our once-a-year All-Staff Assembly, or having to stand in front of a hundred people to accept an employee-of-the-month award, but those events are spread out far.

Not Alone

It was in October of 2008 when I met someone online who, like me, had learned about Asperger’s syndrome, and had a revelation that the description fit her. If I remember right, she wasn’t willing to label herself as AS at the time, either. I wouldn’t know this about her until later on, though. Maybe it was halfway through 2009?

Somehow she knew I was an AS without knowing it. She just knew I wasn’t like “normal” people. I also found her easy to communicate with. This familiarity and ease of conversation kept us in communication for the rest of 2008 and through 2009, before Asperger syndrome finally came up as a topic.

I’m reminded of that person who had instant messaged me on AIM some years before. Did he read my postings on my Pokémon site, and realize that I was “like him”? I wish I knew who that was, as maybe he and I could be friends. If at the time of his contacting me I was ready to truly realize my difference from NT people, maybe he and I would have become close friends at that time.

Acceptance

It was after this new friend mentioned Asperger’s to me that I started to reevaluated it. With a bit of prompting on my part, she admitted to having various traits which I then pointed out I also had. The more similarities we had, the more easy it was to accept we were not “normal”, or more specifically, not NT. Add later to this a bit of reading articles on Asperger syndrome in the Asperger’s Diary articles, and similar writings, and I was finally able to say, “I’m am Asperger’s. Asperger’s is me.”

In the past, it was easy to look at a bullet list of “Asperger traits” and say, “these ones don’t match me,” but meeting another AS makes it clear that the similarities far outweight the differences. It may sound wishywashy to say, “autisum is a spectrum, and not all Asperger’s will have the same symptoms,” but it’s really no different than ten people who love pizza all prefering different toppings. There also tends to be marked differnces between males and females, but that’s true for the NT as well.

(Some of) My Asperger’s Bullet Points

So which bullet points are me? I won’t list all my oddities here, but rather just some of the major ones that I face. I’ll work off of a list from Michael John Carley’s book, “Asperger’s from the Inside Out”.

1) Intense absorption in a topic or field of interest.

This certainly doesn’t excluse the NT crowd, so I often wonder about this one being included in these lists. Sure, I can do computer software programming all day at work, all night at home, and be ready to talk about it with others who’ll just be confused about my rambling on and on, but isn’t this true about everyone with a hobby of theirs? Doesn’t a photographer enjoy photography intensely? Doesn’t a piano player practice every day, and have his face light up when talking about his latest composition?

I’ll skip over point one.

2) Inability to read nonverbal communications such as facial expressions, body gestures, and shifting vocal tones.

I’ve always been more comfortable communicating via text, such as e-mail and instant messenger. I didn’t realize it until I read about it, but I really don’t get body language at all.

When I started working at Sharp, I was talking with one co-worker, and she commenting on another co-worker I worked near being a nice person, and was winking an eye repeatedly upon saying this. I probably had a dumbfounded look on my face at that time. This was long before I’d start to see improvements, as I had barely started down that path, so it was impossible for me to ask why she was winking her eye. Four years later, I can’t go and inquire about it, of course. This will simply be one of the many mysteries of nonverbal communication in my life.

Identifying my shortcomings has lead to being able to work around them, but this is one that I can’t seem to grasp. Even after researching body gestures and the like, I still can’t get a handle on them.

3) Discomfort or inability at small talk. Sees no logic in it.

This is a big one for me. The rules of social interaction state that when you see a co-worker, you engage in small talk. I don’t “get” small talk. I couldn’t participate in small talk to save my life. I don’t even know what small talk is.

If you greet me at work, and you start up a bit of small talk, and all I can do is look away and not reply, it is not an intention to be impolite. It’s me being unable to comprehend the situation and not knowing how to respond, trying and failing to think of what to say, finding it impossible to give a reply.

4a) Difficulty in recognizing faces.
4b) Poor ability at eye contact.

I haven’t yet seen these two associated regarding AS, but I’m putting them together for a specific reason.

I was telling a co-worker the other day, actually, about how I cannot recognize faces easily, but voices I’m good with. While going over this list from the book with my AS friend, and her saying about how it’s the same with her where she cannot easily recognize faces, but is better with voices, I had a thought. It’s something I haven’t seen suggested anywhere yet, though I imagine it has been somewhere.

Eye contact is impossible for me. I can manage it sometimes, but I get nervous, and am unable to keep it up. I simply cannot look a person in the face. If I need to, I’ll focus on something other than the eyes, but I’m sure I more often than not have my head turned, my eyes on something off to the side. It’s wonderful when the topic is something on the computer screen so I can focus on that instead. But that’s starting to be a tangent there.

My thought is this: The reason I cannot recognize faces very well is probably because I am never looking at them. If I’m always looking away from someone’s face, then how can I not suffer from “face-blindness”? And since I’m looking away, more focus goes into what the person is saying. I might have difficulty understanding the words, but the voice becomes stronger as my hearing is more active than my seeing regarding this person.

5) Motor skill issues such as illegible handwriting and poor coordination, balance, and bodily rhythm.

My teachers back in school must have felt I was uncaring in the effort I put into my work due to how messy my writing is. Thankfully typing on a computer doesn’t have that issue.

As for coordination and balance, I am terribly clumsy. Always have been and likely always will be. I don’t mind it.

6) Says whatever comes into their head, unaware of the potential damage the statement might cause.

I’ll just say this has caused problems for me, and move along without citing any examples. Being unable to say anything is an advantage here.

7) Sensory issues: difficulty processing certain types of lighting, certain smells, tastes, fabrics, or noises.

The All-Staff Assembly for work gets worse every year. I enjoy the event itself, but it has its negatives. After getting off the bus, the entrance to the San Diego Convention Center is surrounded by Sharp employees shaking plastic clappers so there are many loud hums of plastic clapping together while everyone there is screaming out as loud as they can.

Last year, I had just watched the Karate Kid movies, so as I went past the loudness, tried to shut off my senses, and just focus on the repeated phrase, “The sun is warm. The grass is green.” I managed to get through the noise.

This year, I don’t think I thought of anything. I just visually mapped out my path to walk, then closed my senses, save for seeing the path to walk to reach that entrance. Everything else faded away. When I “came to”, I was halfway across the large convention center hall inside, with my ears ringing, my heart pounding, my breathing heavy, and my whole body shaking. I was now surrounded by hundreds upon hundreds, if not over a thousand people in that large, dark hall, with lights of various colors beaming at me from the dark. My only thought was to find a wide, open space, away from the flashy lights, and with as few people as possible there, where I could read a book to calm myself.

Next year, if I think about it, and I’m sure I will, I may walk around the Gaslamp Quarter area a bit after arriving. I will be on the clock and getting paid, so I would have to check in with my supervisor on it first, but since we have an hour to partake in coffee and fruit and muffins in the hall before getting seated for the start of the show, it isn’t like I’d be missing the assembly if I stayed away for an hour until (hopefully) the noisy greeters at the entrance have gone inside.

8) Repeating of favorite topics or songs; watching favored movies repeatedly.

What, you mean everybody doesn’t play the same song looping for two days?

9) Is fooled easily.

I’m trusting to a fault. I’m loyal to a fault. And I’ve been duped by tricks and pranks many times in my life. High school was not nice to me when it comes to fellow students. I think I preferred all the teasing and bullying during elementary and middle school over the pranks and tricks in high school.

Improving Into the Future

After the first two years at Sharp, there had been slight improvements. After a third, my improvements were noticeable to me. After the fourth, I’m really starting to get confidence in it.

I still have issues with socializing, though. I try to be a bit more social at work, but sometimes I just get too worn out, and I need to “give it a break” for a week or two.

I do wish I had some way to find that person who first introduced “Asperger’s” to me, way back when.

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