Friday, March 25, 2011


I think a lot of people with Asperger's syndrome have a similar story: they are walking down the street or through the hallways of school or work, deep in thought about something, and someone asks, "Are you okay?" or comments, "Don't look so sad!" It's frustrating, incredibly frustrating. It takes all my willpower to refrain from answering with a wise remark or from saying something nasty to them. 

This has been going on my entire life and while it doesn't bother me too much if people I know ask me what's wrong, it bothers me when total strangers ask me what's wrong or comment on the fact that I don't have a Cheshire Cat grin on my face. A couple months ago, I was heading back to work after my lunch break, and some random woman on the street said, "Aw, don't look so sad!" I just laughed it off but what I really wanted to say was, "And who are you? Do you know me? If something were wrong, do you honestly think that your comment would make me feel better?" 

I find myself wondering, too, if people notice more if a girl or woman doesn't smile. Females are expected to be highly social pack animals. I don't know if a study has been made about the frequency of females being reminded to smile, but I do know that a study has inversely linked testosterone levels to frequency of smiling. Males smile less frequently than women on average. That said, what do people think if they see a guy not smiling? Do they think he's just deep in thought? Does the phrase "still waters run deep" come to mind more readily when one sees a non-smiling guy than a non-smiling girl? It's worth thinking about as one of the many double-standards that apply to females vs. males with Asperger's syndrome, as many people with AS are not chronic smilers. 

Saturday, March 19, 2011

OCD vs. Obsessing

It seems to me that many people with Asperger's syndrome or who know somebody with Asperger's syndrome wonder if an Asperger's obsession is different from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). After all, both involve excessive thoughts/actions related to one thing! Is there a difference?


In Tony Attwood's great book The Complete Guide to Asperger's syndrome, Attwood points out a very important difference. Someone who is obsessed with trains or the Harry Potter series, for example, is getting pleasure out of the obsession. He or she is learning more about trains, how they work, and perhaps even how to build one. He or she is losing himself or herself in the world of Harry Potter to escape the real world, which is just too damned confusing! 

Someone with OCD, on the other hand, might be constantly afraid of running someone over in a car or getting a terminal illness if he does not wash his hands for exactly three minutes and forty-two seconds. These obsessions cause fear and distress, not pleasure. 

Now that you understand the difference, let me emphasize emphatically to parents that trying to end your child's obsession with trains or Harry Potter is not an option. This obsession keeps your child going, keeps him happy in a frustrating world. You must ask yourself if the reason you want it to end is because you think the child will be happier or if it is just because you are tired of hearing about it all day. If it's the former, then it's time to rethink your perception of the situation. If it's the latter, the answer is to help your child pursue his or her obsession in a constructive way. Get your train-obsessed child a model train set to play with or even encourage him to build his own model train from scratch. 

Can OCD be concurrent with Asperger's syndrome? You betcha. Attwood points out that it is sometimes an effect of the Asperger's syndrome, rather than something completely separate. I certainly think that was the case with me for many many years. Because of repeated social failures, I lived with the chronic, obsessive fear that I would mess up socially. I obsessed over things like, "Is that a genuine smile, or is that person uncomfortable?" Or, "When I told that joke and he laughed, did he think it was funny or am I going to find out the next day how deeply offended he was and that he told everybody how uncomfortable I made him?" "When I tried to engage in that conversation, did I come across as trying too hard, or was I natural?" These weren't just passing worries. I often harped on them for weeks at a time! Really, how can someone with Asperger's syndrome (undiagnosed in my childhood, in my case) NOT develop OCD? 

The fact that I grew up into a healthy, well-adjusted adult is nothing short of amazing. I guess it's because of how I'm hardwired, for whatever reason, to bounce back from setbacks and try again. It was only up until about two years ago that I obsessed about these things on a regular basis. One step that I took to overcome it was realizing that everyone makes social mistakes and not every social mistake I make is unique to Asperger's syndrome. It was then, in fact, that I realized I probably would not be diagnosed with the condition anymore because I compensated for so much. The few social mistakes I make these days are minor ones, ones that anyone can make. 

If you have a child or a friend with Asperger's who makes an obvious social mistake, such as yelling in public, "You farted!" not knowing that this is rude, don't get so worked up. If you get worked up, I can all but guarantee your child or friend will be obsessing on this for a long time. "I screwed up again. I suck at life." and so forth. Sure, someone announcing your farts in public is embarrassing, but really, is it the end of the world? Just gently remind the person not to do it anymore. Sure, it's frustrating, but I guarantee it's more frustrating for the person with Asperger's syndrome not knowing instinctively what behaviors are "appropriate" and what aren't.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Sometimes a Cigar is Just a Cigar

Many therapists-- and people in general-- like to analyze things that that have no deep meaning when they don't understand them. I think part of the reason is that what they don't understand makes them uncomfortable. Whatever the case, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, as Sigmund Freud (who I otherwise think was a bag of hot air) said.

Growing up with undiagnosed Asperger's syndrome, I encountered over-analysis from my first therapist, Dr. Klein, and sometimes my own parents, a lot. For example, I was never a huggy person, except with animals. Give me a dog or cat and I will hug it, kiss it, and tell it I love it. I very rarely hug other people. My mother struggled to figure out why I would shower the family dog with love and affection but would never hug even my own parents. I struggled, too, because I had enough insight to know that most people liked to hug and be hugged. I felt like there was something wrong with me. Finally, my father came up with a very simple answer: "I don't see what's not to understand. The dog is soft and furry. People are not." Isn't it funny how the most straightforward, simple answer is often the correct one?

Dr. Klein, my clueless therapist I saw when I was 11-14 years old, analyzed a lot of silly things. I often showed him a lot of drawings I did, and one day I brought one that I colored in. He said, "I've noticed that you're coloring in your drawings now. Why?" Why? I felt like it. Coloring is a labor-intensive process and isn't as much of a creative endeavor as actual drawing, so I rarely did it. But once in a while I felt like it and did it because it made my artwork look better. Why was this worth analyzing?

Around that time I was into The Addams Family type humor. I drew a lot of pictures and comics that rivaled the violence in Itchy and Scratchy on The Simpsons. Once again, my father saw it for what it was: I thought it was funny. But he was still a little concerned, mostly because I did it so often. My mother, on the other hand, was terrified. Dr. Klein? Well, he didn't act freaked out like my mother did but I could tell he was still shocked. He thought I was doing it to "blow off steam." Many people think that if a child draws violent pictures it means he or she wants to hurt people or is venting in some way. No. Not in my case. All of the characters that I drew in violent pictures were either characters out of The Addams Family or characters of my own creation: They were MADE UP. I never drew real people getting hurt. Besides, I just had a strange sense of humor. I still do. I like humor that deviates into the wicked and absurd: I'm a huge fan of South Park

Sometimes there are reasons to be concerned about somebody's behavior, sense of humor, and so forth and you may want to analyze. But bear in mind that sometimes, more often than you would think, a cigar is just a cigar.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Asperger's and Death

Death is not easy for anyone to accept. When a friend or family member dies, most people handle this devistation by crying or grieving in some other way and go to friends and family for support. Do people with Asperger's syndrome grieve differently? In an email exchange, famous Asperger's authority Tony Attwood told me that many people with Asperger's syndrome use knowledge and information to handle their grief rather than seeking affection from others. 

In Attwood's book The Complete Guide to Asperger's Syndrome, Attwood relates an incident in which a boy's father was away doing a photo shoot on a war. The father had been missing for a few days and everybody was worried. The boy kept asking his mother about what weapons each side of the war was using and how many people were dying. When his father did come back, the boy asked Dad how many photos he had taken of dead bodies. The boy's family thought he was unconcerned and didn't feel compassion, but this was how he handled the concerns he had about his father's life. Obviously, he wanted to get a clear picture of what was happening, possibly to assess the risk of death his father faced; he was not at all trivializing the situation.

I can understand this boy's perspective. Last week, I found out that a girl I met in 1997 on a summer teen group tour died in a tragic accident. I only saw her once since the trip, in 2007 when she was passing through NYC, we only occasionally kept in touch, and we weren't close. I did, however, grieve a little. I cried. I lamented about not having gotten to know her better because she seemed like a great person. On the trip, she had helped me at least once with social problems I was having.

I also found myself recreating the accident in my mind. I wondered what her last thoughts where and how quickly she died. I tried to picture exactly how the accident played out. I wondered what her body looked like. I even searched the Internet for information about how the decomposition process works. Why? This is not some perverse fascination with death. It is because I have such a hard time wrapping my head around how someone can be alive and happy one minute and essentially cease to exist the next. A once lively face is now just a piece of a decaying body. A once-thinking, intelligent brain is returning to the earth. It does not know it is dead because if it is not conscious, how can it know it? How does it feel to not be conscious? It doesn't. 

It is here that grieving meets scientific curiosity in trying to give closure. But of course this questioning won't give me closure. I know logically I just have to move on and accept that I'll probably never know the exact details of the accident and the aftermath.

Fortunately, I have enough insight not to talk about such things on my friend's Facebook memorial page or with her close friends. Not all people with Asperger's syndrome, however, know this. You may be shocked, for example, because your son seems to be trivializing his beloved grandpa's death. But it is very likely that this is not the case. It may be his way of seeking closure for a death that he is having a hard time coming to terms with. Talk to him. Try to understand why he is thinking this way. It may seem weird to you, but once you understand you might find yourself getting more insight into how his mind-- or your own-- works.