BEWARE OF THE ALIEN LIFE
I am prone to cruising the Internet, as many fellow
aspies do, and often hear the comment that others feel they are
on an alien planet - they kind of get the gist of conversation,
they know the basics of culture and appropriate behavior, but never
quite get the hang of it - a kind of permanent tourist if you will.
Garden variety aspie
This cultural gap had me completely perplexed
until my late teens when my love for precise analytical thinking
was turned upon myself, and the social mores of this alien planet
upon which I roam. Slowly I cam to realize why I had trouble with
the indigenous peoples of this planet - they see me as self-centered,
aloof, pedantic, unable to sustain eye contact, rigid, lacking spontaneity
in social interaction, completely uninterested in their interests,
and obsessively concerned with my own interests. In other words,
I'm a pretty ordinary garden-variety case of Asperger's
Fun for all the family
I now know my family were incredibly supportive
and copped heaps of shit from me. They were just reacting normally
to my abnormal behavior, when I would borrow things without asking,
or turn off the television as they watched it because the noise
bugged me. Fun for all the family. Things changed dramatically when
I got diagnosed as they suddenly could see why I was the way I was.
But it's been a longer journey for me to see how poorly I've fitted
into the family, let alone society.
The employment merry-go-round
Unemployment has been par for the course over
the years. I am intelligent and incredibly good at certain things,
but I miss the big picture. So yes, I did an excellent business
proposal, but "you missed the deadline I warned you about repeatedly,
here are your marching orders". I just couldn't come to grips
with fitting in with co-workers - either I insulted them, came across
as an arrogant prick, or was labeled a misfit and subtly recommended
for moving on to the boss.
Over the years, I constantly got similar jobs as I could maintain
the polished exterior, but lost them rapidly when the aspie within
emerged. Now I work part-time as a security guard. My PhD does not
get used much in this line of work, but I can cope with the duties
and not rub people up the wrong way. It’s hard to describe the anguish
in this move, from professional high flyer to average Joe. For most
of us, what we do for a crust is a substantial part of who we are,
and this job shows how far I have fallen. Yet I know I am one of
the very lucky ones who can actually still work.
Relationships were a disaster. Most women sensibly
ran the other way at my clumsy attempts to bed them as soon as possible.
I figure much of the trouble came from not seeing the world through
their eyes, and partners were mainly there to meet my needs, although
I genuinely thought I was still a caring kind of guy. Funny thing
is that I've always been puzzled that people bother with the numerous
hassles of a relationship. For me, it is more of a sexual outlet
and there are plenty of alternatives for that which are cheaper
emotionally and financially speaking!
I’ve resigned myself to being single, at least for the time being.
I have enough self-awareness now to know how much I can hurt someone,
and I know I need to work on my relationship abilities a lot more
before inflicting myself on someone else.
The self-esteem conundrum
Self-esteem suffers inversely proportionally to
self-awareness. The more I become aware of how badly I fit in to
this planet's culture, the worse I feel about myself. It is hard
to work on becoming a 'better person' by their standards when you
feel like shit about yourself in doing so. I figure this spiral
of depression must be the same for many of us aspies. Ignorance
is bliss, yet the key to better relationships with families, co-workers
and friends is realizing what a prick you appear to be. Go figure.
So I'm on the “mild” end of the autism spectrum according to a
counselor I see. Mild? What a misnomer. At times I feel as if I
am ripping apart the true 'me', to painfully put it back together
to regain a mere shadow of my former self, in order to fit in a
bit better. All that for a world where people don't say what they
mean, a world constantly clammering away at me with visual, aural,
tactile and olfactory overload, desperately encouraging new must-have
changes to disrupt my comfortable routines.
Actually, my counselor is a great guy. He’s always had a thing for
neuroscience, and we've been chatting about polite conversations
and reading non-verbal language Last week, me at a party: You’d
have to be a complete morn to vote for the xxxxx (leading political
candidate). Polite shuffling of feet, lack of eye contact, moving
away, so I follow them and continue my harangue – spot the problem!
Message for family members
What can I say to husbands, wives, siblings, children,
parents, employers or friends of someone on this 'mild' end of the
autism spectrum? If you’ve been putting up with some of the things
I’ve mentioned, good on you. I’m getting a picture of the patience,
selflessness and love required to handle the behavior, words and
attitudes that can arise in people from another planet. Perhaps
my story gives some insight to why you may not be thanked for your
efforts – indeed, you may feel criticized, abused or rejected when
you are being as supportive as possible. I hope the person you know
at some point expresses their appreciation for all you have done
for them, and begin the difficult task of reciprocating a little.
Message to fellow aspies
And what can I say to my fellow immigrants to
Earth? We all vary in our levels of self-awareness. We also vary
in the degree of compromise we are willing to make between this
two disparate cultures. If you find you’ve lost friends, alienated
family, pissed off your neighbors yet believe they are all at fault,
take a gentle but long look at yourself. If you do want those relationships
to work, then some compromise is needed, and you can't expect them
to do all the changing. On the other hand, you don't have to change
if you don't want to.
I went through an angry-young-man political phase
where I firmly believed aspies had the right to stay as we are (and
still do!). I thought the world should change and be more understanding,
more aware of Asperger's (and I still do!). But in my mellow middle
age, I can see that it's probably best to meet in the middle so
nowadays I'm prepared to compromise.
In a way it is like multiculturalism. An immigrant
can come to this country and assimilate - learn the language, the
culture, the social mores and slowly fit in to some extent, despite
bigotry, racism and lack of understanding by others. The same immigrant
can choose to not adapt - this is a human right - but he but shouldn't
complain if his new neighbors choose to ignore him in return.
If you do make some compromises, read up on 'theory
of mind' and practice seeing the world through non-autie eyes.
Learn how to listen and share the interests of others. My personal
key is to spend more time listening than talking now. If you take
a real interest, people love to talk about themselves, and it gives
you less chances of saying the wrong thing. Nowadays, I tend to
be seen as a quiet person, bit of a loner, but good listener so
worth having a chat with. Not exactly a charismatic role, but a
far cry from the mind-fucked weirdo psycho-nut image from years
Be gentle on yourself
Perhaps the final and greatest challenge is readjusting
your expectations of yourself, and learning to like whichever identity
you create for yourself. Be gentle with yourself and appreciate
the effort you are making, even when others can’t see it.
It’s worst for me at family get-togethers. My
two brothers are there with perfect wives, jobs and children, with
mum and dad doting on them all, engaging in warm humorous family
ways. Then there is the sad but loving look reserved for me, the
part-time security guard, living alone, struggling to fit in the
conversation, looking awkward, trying to read non-verbal cues while
the gift of effortlessly fitting in with others eludes my clumsy
grasp to date.
Oh well. These challenges are the hardest things I’ve ever done
in life, but frankly, what’s the alternative? In the words of one
of my favorite musicians, Peter Garrett, it’s better to die on your
feet than live on your knees!
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