Saturday, April 30, 2011

List Your Obsessions!

Since the past couple posts have been a bit dark, I figured this week's post ought to have more levity. I invite you to list the things you've been obsessed with over the years. Now, one important thing to realize is that everybody defines "obsession" differently. I personally have a very extreme definition of what constitutes obsession. By the way I define it, I stopped getting obsessed with things in the summer of 1995 when I was about to turn fifteen. After that, I got obsessed with people on whom I had a crush (that will be the topic of next week's post). That can be a royal pain, so let's focus on the obsessions that have been mostly fun and harmless.

Here is my list!

  • Fall 1986- late 1987 (age 6-7): Sesame Street
  • Fall 1986- late 1988 (age 6-8): Tom & Jerry
  • Winter 1986 (age 6): Santa Claus: The Movie and anything related to Santa Claus.
  • Late 1988- Late 1989 (age 8-9): DuckTales
  • Late 1989- Spring 1991 (age 9-10): Back to the Future trilogy
  • Spring-Fall 1991 (age 10): The Simpsons
  • Fall 1991-Summer 1993 (age 11-12): The Addams Family movie
  • Summer 1993-Summer 1995 (age 12-14): The Russians are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!/Anything related to actor Alan Arkin
  • Summer 1994 (age 13): The Rocketeer (another movie with Alan Arkin)

Friday, April 22, 2011

...I Wake Up Screaming

These days I am generally self-assured and well-adjusted. But it is not as if I've completely forgotten about my difficult past. Most nights are uneventful and I sleep well, but sometimes I have intense dreams about my past and I wake up screaming.

  • Friends at school ditch me-- I wake up screaming.
  • Kids at school humiliate me-- I wake up screaming.
  • I'm infuriated because I don't understand the plot of a movie and everyone else does effortlessly-- I wake up screaming.
  • My parents call me immature-- I wake up screaming.
  • My parents tell me I don't dress or act feminine enough-- I wake up screaming.
  • My parents tell me I'm annoying-- I wake up screaming.
  • My parents tell me I make people uncomfortable-- I wake up screaming.
  • My parents holler at me for drawing deranged and violent Addams Family cartoons and tell me I'm not allowed to draw them again-- I wake up screaming.
  • My parents tell me I'm too immature to have friends that are 5 years older-- I wake up screaming.
  • My parents grill me about why I'm not interested in dating-- I wake up screaming.

The recalled incidents involving my parents give me more frequent night terrors with greater intensity than ones involving kids at school. 

Parents, please, I know you mean well, but be careful of what you say to your kids. I promise that your remarks, while in your mind are "constructive criticism," will fester in their minds for many years. 

And listen to what they have to say. You might learn something.

Friday, April 15, 2011

"Asperger's and Death Part II" or "Confronting Your Own Discomfort"

Due to the popularity of my "Asperger's and Death" (it gets the most hits besides the intro page), I am going to address death again, and this time by talking about a famous person.

Dr. Jack Kevorkian.

Yes, Dr. Kevorkian, infamously known as Dr. Death for his in-your-face advocacy of voluntary euthanasia as an option for suffering, terminally ill patients. If anybody has ever watched interviews with him or seen his biopic, You Don't Know Jack, you know that he is a very odd, intense, and hyperfocused man. 

Could he have Asperger's syndrome?

Obviously, I don't know as I've never even met him. But let's take a look about what we know about him from television. I won't lie-- I find him brash and tactless in some of his interviews. I don't always agree with what he says either. For the most part, however, I think he is one of the most brilliant thinkers of the past hundred years, has a lot of good things to say, and is tragically misunderstood because his fascination with death is considered taboo.

Dr. Kevorkian rightly points out that many people are ludicrously uncomfortable with the subject of death, be it in the context of his euthanasia advocacy, his wonderfully disturbing paintings, or the fact that as a young man he did a research project in which he learned that he could determine the moment of death by looking into a patient's eyes and observing the changes.  

Kevorkian has many interests- art, music, and so forth- but he also seems to be very hyperfocused on death. This, combined with his intense facial expressions, mannerisms, remarkable talents (engineering, art, music, foreign language, and, of course, medicine) difficulty connecting with people during his teenage years, and according to friends, a minimal social life and lack of common sense, makes me think he may have Asperger's syndrome.  Many parents and friends of people with AS seem to experience inordinate discomfort about an AS person's obsession, even if with something as benign as trains. Why? I guess because they're not used to it. What happens, then, when that topic is death? 

When I first learned about Kevorkian's eye study, I was intrigued. Then I felt guilty, like I was "supposed to" cringe because if I reacted otherwise it meant something was wrong with me. The problem is that people think that if you're fascinated with death then you may be someone who wants to kill people. This is nonsense. If someone is fascinated with indigestion, does that mean that he cheers for joy when someone pukes on the floor? Being fascinated with the PROCESS of death can easily be completely divorced from the emotional reaction to the loss of a friend, family member, or even a perfect stranger. 

I confess to having a slight fascination with death, but I'm also fascinated with a lot of natural and medical processes. In my first "Asperger's and Death" post, I confessed that when a friend died I not only cried but also researched the decomposition process. Yes, it was my way of dealing with this tragedy, but I would be lying if I said there wasn't a bit of scientific curiosity involved too. What's wrong with that? Guess what? Dr. Kevorkian confessed to crying at some of his patients' assisted suicides which he otherwise approached in a nonemotional manner. 

How many people out there have a fascination with death and are afraid to admit it? Am I more honest about it because I have Asperger's syndrome? Is Dr. Kevorkian? Or are people like us the exceptions, not the rule? I don't know. But I do know that neurotypical people often keep more secrets about "taboo" interests than those with AS because they're so worried about what everyone will think.

You may not agree with Kevorkian's stance on euthanasia, and that's okay. I completely understand that it's a difficult issue for many people (just so you know, he turned away about 97% of the patients who told him they wanted to die). However, I think what we may all be able to agree on is that he has raised consciousness by exposing the absurdity of taboos. Sometimes, probably more often than you think, responding to someone's concern about a friend or child's fascination with death ought to be an emphatic, "So what?" 

Indeed, sometimes it takes someone with Asperger's-- or, at least, someone a little odd-- to make us question our assumptions and the rationality behind our knee-jerk reactions. That opportunity is here now. 

Do it.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Define Maturity!

It is frustrating how often people with Asperger's syndrome are labeled "immature" because of their social difficulties. Throughout my childhood and much of my adulthood, my maturity was criticized by parents, teachers, and peers:

  • Making a silly comment at an inappropriate moment: immature
  • Not wanting to dress like the other girls: immature
  • Preferring animated films to live-action films: immature
  • Getting upset over something that wouldn't upset most people: immature
  • Talking too much: immature

And so on. 

To be fair, I was still undiagnosed during my childhood, but these days many books for parents describe children with AS as immature.

Time for some consciousness raising: Imagine if a child with Down syndrome were labeled immature for having difficulties in reading and math. Imagine the uproar from their parents: "How dare they use that word to describe my child? He can't help it if he has problems in reading and math!"

Why, then, do we have this double standard in defining maturity? Simple: society, aware of it or not, puts a disproportionate amount of stock in social "maturity" over intellectual "maturity." We say that kids with Down syndrome are, to use a euphemism, "intellectually challenged." Or we say that they have learning problems. How often do you hear a person with AS being labelled socially challenged or socially delayed? How often, on the other hand, do you hear someone say that a kid with AS is "intellectually more mature" rather than "intellectually advanced?" Don't all speak at once.

For the same reason that it is offensive to call someone with Down syndrome (intellectually) immature, it is offensive to call someone with AS (socially/emotionally) immature. I think calling someone with AS "immature" is as loaded as calling someone with DS "stupid." These adjectives are harsh, blunt criticisms leveled at a person who has difficulties with certain skills that most people acquire naturally. It is detrimental to their self-esteem.

Why is the socially awkward teen with AS who locks himself in his room for hours and creates a new complex computer program labelled immature while a highly social teen with DS who is still struggling with basic math is not? Now, you know why. Think about it. 

And think about what you say.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Are You SURE You Have Asperger's Syndrome?

Being the highest of the high-functioning on the autism spectrum is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it's great that in adulthood that my symptoms are sub-clinical and I can finally relax and not worry that every little thing I do is going to set people off due to a miscommunication. I make friends with ease and I am very personable. On the other hand, because of these skills that I now have, lots of people who I meet for the first time don't believe me when I say that I have Asperger's syndrome. Yes, it's true that I diagnosed myself initially before seeking confirmation from a therapist, but I'm not the type of person that sees one little trait that vaguely fits my personality and makes a diagnosis. It is true, sometimes people do that. "Oh, I'm fascinated with numbers. I must have Asperger's syndrome," someone might say, not thinking about the label that they're misapplying to themselves. But I'm not like that.

People who knew me from summer camp or from school, with whom I reunite on Facebook, often say this when I tell them I have Asperger's syndrome: "That explains a lot." And it does! People who I'm just getting to know today can't see that I have it because I've compensated for most of the problems that come with it. Just because they can't see the struggles and the pain I endured while trying to navigate the social world throughout the vast majority of my life (a lot of it was trial and error) does not mean that these things didn't happen. Asperger's syndrome is the only logical explanation for the social problems I had throughout my childhood and part of my adulthood. Some people become sub-clinical in adulthood (AS advocate Michael John Carley comes to mind-- I used to go to his support group and I never would have guessed he has AS). A child may have a dyslexia that makes reading a headache, but upon adulthood that same person may read with near total fluency. On the other hand, some dyslexic people rely on audiobooks in adulthood. 

Like dyslexia, autism is a spectrum. And I think the highest functioning people have it the hardest growing up because they appear to be "normal." That is, "normal" kids who are stubborn, uncooperative, ill-mannered, rude, etc. When a child fits the stereotypical AS traits-- talking about trains, flapping hands, taking idiomatic expressions literally-- then people may see the AS more clearly and be more accommodating. Let's raise consciousness. For those of you who are the highest of the high-functioning, I'd like to hear from you.