This is the 500th post I’ve made on this blog; thank you very much to everyone who’s been reading over the past five years! This feels like a good time to start talking properly about my experiences with having Asperger Syndrome. Having briefly made reference to the subject in 2018, I wanted to write about it more this year; I’ve gained more confidence in talking about it and I hope that in sharing my experiences, I can both gain a new personal perspective, and inform and/or help other people who either have Asperger’s or know somebody who does.
First I want to talk about just what having Asperger’s means for me. Asperger Syndrome is a condition on the autism spectrum; in fact, the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders no longer recognises it as a separate diagnosis from autism, but it’s still a commonly used label, and I still prefer using it out of familiarity. Every case of Asperger’s or autism is unique – hence the term ‘spectrum’ – but they tend to have certain symptoms in common.
The most prominent of these is the difficulty found in socialising. Understanding social rules, and reading how other people feel, seems to come naturally to most people – but for me, it’s harder. To me, having Asperger’s is like living in a foreign country where you’re not fluent in the language. Instead of having a natural sense of what to do in a social situation, I have to actively process the right actions – especially in novel situations – like manually accessing a file from a hard drive. Sometimes I don’t talk very much; when at college and university, people often said I was blunt, given my minimal use of words. Sometimes it’s difficult to get my message across when talking to people, and it’s often hard to make or maintain eye contact (though I’ll still be listening). There’s so much effort involved in socialising that being in my own company can feel like a relief by comparison.
In my younger years, when my knowledge of social rules was at its most incomplete, I would frequently do things like interrupt people or misinterpret their moods. I didn’t understand that other people didn’t always feel the same way I did, and in a group situation, I was always certain that my way was best. I’ve since become much more adept at social situations, through a combination of building up my bank of knowledge, and having the right support in school and at home. I often find myself going to the opposite extreme these days, such as by concentrating hard on trying to gauge another person’s feelings, or being unsure about whether to say something in case it’s the wrong thing. There are still qualities of my old thought processes that I’ve carried into adulthood, such as a tendency to take things literally and not always recognise when people are joking. As a child, if my mum said we would be going somewhere “in five minutes”, I would check the nearest clock to make sure we kept to that schedule.
Some people think that people with autism or Asperger’s don’t have empathy. This is 100% untrue. Sometimes, it is difficult for people with Asperger’s to express empathy in a way that neurotypicals can understand. They may not say ‘I love you’ or smile very much, or they may be reluctant to be hugged and kissed. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t feel it. I, personally, love very deeply. I love my family. I love our dogs. I love my closest friends. I care about other people’s problems and successes. And the last thing I ever want is to hurt anyone’s feelings or create the wrong impression.
Another common symptom of Asperger’s and autism is a preference for routine, and being unsure about change. I certainly like to follow certain schedules; for example, I generally go to work, eat meals and go to bed around the same time each day. I always function best when I have a plan and/or a specific target: both at work and in my spare time, I like to make lists of the things I need to do. This is also why I do my most prolific writing in National Novel Writing Month, and why I usually need to make an outline of my story beforehand.
I can still sometimes get anxious if I’ve got something planned out and my plans are forced to change. This happened the day after I passed my driving test, when I was taking my car out on my own for the first time. I was just doing a circuit around the block, but found there were roadworks stopping me from where I wanted to go. Finding another way was really quite straightforward, yet I still had to stop the car, get my breath, and think about it – and by the time I did get home, I was a nervous wreck. This may have affected my driving in the long-term: I was never quite at ease in that car since.
I focus heavily on the little details of tasks; when I set out to do something, from cooking to driving, I prefer to know exactly how it will turn out. This means I often have to put a lot of thought into novel tasks and decisions, but it can be a strength too: it lends itself well to successful planning and any data-oriented tasks in the workplace.
People with Asperger’s often have a fixation on certain interests, wanting to learn everything they can about these subjects and talk about them whenever possible. With me, it was dinosaurs in primary school, then the Titanic and space travel in high school; as you’ll know if you’ve read this blog, I’m still very fond of these things, but I’ve had a range of other interests since then, from TV shows to podcast subjects. It certainly encourages learning, even as a grown-up!
That’s how Asperger’s affects the way my mind works, but what about the physical and sensory aspects? It’s hard for me to judge whether I am more sensitive to particular sights, noise and smells than other people, since I’ll never be able to see the world through another person’s eyes. I certainly have an aversion to certain noises or smells – I really hate the slurping of tea, which may be why I never drink it myself, and I don’t like the sterile smell of aeroplanes and certain trains – and loud noises can distract me or make me feel uncomfortable. This is why I always prefer quiet environments for social gatherings; a comfortable environment for me is one where I can easily hear the people I’m with, and where I have a reasonable amount of personal space. If I do experience sensory overload, it’s usually because of excessive noise, though I can experience similar stress when too many things are happening around me at once. One time recently, I became anxious from being cornered in a tight hallway with three dogs who were going crazy with excitement over each other.
I feel very sensitive with clothing, particularly clothes with stiff collars or textures that aren’t soft enough; comfortable clothes are important to me. Sensitivity to textures has an effect on the food I like as well: I really don’t like the texture of onions, and if I’m eating something with onions in it, I prefer that they be in pieces too small to be noticeable. As a child, I disliked having my hair sprayed with water for a haircut so much, that for many years, my barber would cut it dry. I don’t mind being touched if it’s someone I know and it’s done gently, but if someone I don’t know touches me unexpectedly, I often want to jerk away for a second.
Today, Asperger Syndrome is still a big part of who I am, and its symptoms still make certain situations more complicated for me. But as an adult, through experience and finding the right environments, I’ve been able to embrace some of the strengths of having Asperger’s, and overcome a lot of the difficulties that affected me more deeply when I was younger – and I hope that I might be able to help other people do the same.
I’m planning to do different posts on how Asperger’s has affected different aspects of my life – e.g. driving, public speaking, approaches to social situations. If you have any questions, or any suggestions for things you’d like me to talk about in future posts, please let me know in the comments!