A Different Kind of Asperger’s

Tim Page has a remarkable essay in the August 20 New Yorker about his personal experience with Asperger’s syndrome:

In the fall of 2000, in the course of what had become a protracted effort to identify—and, if possible, alleviate—my lifelong unease, I was told that I had Asperger’s syndrome. I had never heard of the condition, which had been recognized by the American Psychiatric Association only six years earlier. Nevertheless, the diagnosis was one of those rare clinical confirmations which are met mostly with relief. Here, finally, was an objective explanation for some of my strengths and weaknesses, the simultaneous capacity for unbroken work and all-encompassing recall, linked inextricably to a driven, uncomfortable personality.

This essay blew my mind. Despite my reservations, I’m now pretty sure I have Asperger’s myself. Which may make it unwise to marry an engineer after all!

What makes Page’s account so startling is that he is a writer: a writer not of technology, but of arts and culture. He has an excellent grasp of language and social norms – he could not be more different from the inarticulate, socially unengaged, math-geek Asperger’s stereotype. I’ve never encountered Asperger’s from this perspective before; in fact, I thought writing an allusion-heavy, adjective-saturated, wry memoir for the New Yorker would be indelible proof one did not have it!

Like Page, I’ve never had any problem with language or art. Like Page, I still don’t know my right from my left. Like Page, I tend to be hypersensitive and emotional in disproportionate ways:

So preoccupied are we with our inner imperatives that the outer world may overwhelm and confuse. What anguished pity I used to feel for piñatas at birthday parties, those papier-mâché donkeys with their amiable smiles about to be shattered by little brutes with bats. On at least one occasion, I begged for a stay of execution and eventually had to be taken home, weeping, convinced that I had just witnessed the braining of a new and sympathetic acquaintance. Caring for inanimate objects came easily. Learning to make genuine connections with people—much as I desperately wanted them—was a bewildering process. I felt like an alien, always about to be exposed. Or, to adapt another hoary but useful analogy, not only did I not see the forest for the trees; I was so intensely distracted that I missed the trees for the species of lichen on their bark.

I don’t think that differs in any important way from the hysterical tantrum I threw in kindergarten at my friend Josh, who stomped on a colony of ants, or the time I burst into tears because another friend drew some birds so badly, they appeared painfully deformed. Or the fact that I sold my first car for $500, because I knew a buyer willing to pay fair market value for it would kill it, I mean, have it broken up for parts.

Autistic individuals are supposed to lack empathy. But perhaps in some cases of Asperger’s, the empathy is there and powerful, just slightly miswired?

And there’s this:

It was never difficult for me to articulate my feelings about anything external. I’ve rarely run short of opinions, well founded or otherwise. But deeper emotions reduced me (and, to some extent, reduce me still) to aching silence, especially when I feared that I would be exposed, misunderstood, or ridiculed. I empathized with Rostand’s Cyrano (a serious rival to Ferdinand the Bull in my private pantheon of literary heroes), who was too terrified to utter the crucial words to the woman he loved. . . Falling in love surprised me; I had never imagined sustained contentment, and certainly not in the company of another person.

Ahem. Been there, too.

There seems to be only significant way in which Page and I differ (besides his love of music – I gravitated toward the visual arts). I learned early on how to persuade myself into compliance with the boredom of school, and to dominate it. Page laments his inability to concentrate on or care about anything in which he is not interested; I can relate. I generally did the exact opposite of whatever I was supposed to be doing – drawing geometric shapes in English, writing poetry in math, always procrastinating until the last moment. But I could still inevitably pull out the A. I learned to please – professors, parents, adults in general – and made pleasing of such paramount importance that the terror I felt at the thought that I might not get an A overcame my distaste for any topic. This may have something to do with being female – pleasing others was always the primary function of women in my family, and the source of their self-worth.

Even so, everyone understood that though I could do almost anything well, I would willingly do it only once. When I figured a process out, I lost all interest and moved on to my latest delight. This was the kiss of death in graduate school, which was several years too long to hold my interest: I realized nothing could be more appalling than spending my life studying one thing. The horror, the horror!

ADD or Asperger’s – the effect is the same. I have just started my entire career over, have no idea what my new job entails, and couldn’t be more enthusiastic about it. I have also, like Page, entered a phase of intense reflection about what I need to make me happy. I’ve been unhappy most of my life, and the idea that I could and should be happy, rather than merely productive, is still new to me. And yet, this introspective process is far harder than acing physical chemistry (rather fun!) or the LSAT (invigoratingly terrifying!).

I think I’ve spent my entire life trying to find that one person who would understand me, simply because despite my brains, I could never understand myself at all. Putting a label on it doesn’t help, not really, but it does make me feel a little less freakish. So thank you, Mr. Page, for that.

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3 Responses to A Different Kind of Asperger’s

  1. Funny to read your reaction to the piece, Cicada. I annotated Page’s article heavily, convinced, like you, that I have Asperger’s. Actually, I became convinced of the diagnosis a few years ago, when I first read in detail about the condition.

    The truth is, though, that I want to have Asperger’s. It offers me an “easy out,” a quick explanation of my picadillos and social failures. But if I do have it, it’s a damned odd variety. More likely I’m an only child who distanced himself from most of his peers and became most comfortable with drawing, fantasy and loneliness. There was, and is, plenty of empathy…probably too damned much. ;)

  2. cicada says:

    You know, I always wonder if these sorts of diagnoses aren’t like astrological predictions – easy to see parts of ourselves in them, easy to dismiss the parts that don’t fit. And it’s true that bookish, introspective people will inevitably mull over their own shortcomings, making hypotheses even though they lack the objectivity to do so properly.

    But although I was bookish, I was never antisocial – rather the opposite. So it was an uphill battle to convince me I might have even a tinge of Asperger’s. And maybe it isn’t Asperger’s – what is “Asperger’s” anyway, but a nebulous catch-all diagnosis for a particular set of traits. . .

    Regardless, I think I’ve got some of what Page has got, and maybe you’ve got it too. Whatever it is, it’s a blessing and a curse, isn’t it?

  3. CoachJann says:

    Actually, the truth DOES set you free…or at least set you off in the right direction! Get a good diagnosis from someone knowledgeable about the differences between AD/HD and Asperger’s…AND “normal” (whatever that is). Aside from the relief that you’re feeling from reading this article, you’ll also find things that will work for you and make your life (lives) easier!

    I’m an AD/HD coach and, yes, Virginia, there IS a difference between the two!

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