Saturday, February 28, 2015

What I Knew Part I: Asperger's and Gullibility

Probably one of the most prevailing stereotypes is that people with Asperger's Syndrome are remarkably gullible. Many books for parents of kids with Asperger's implore them to make sure their kids know when someone is trying to manipulate them in any way. Parents are told that they will have to constantly give their kids a reality check, because their kids often don't know what is going on.

Growing up, my problem was the exact opposite. If anything, my bullshit radar was on high sensitivity. By the time I was eight or nine, I usually knew when people were trying to manipulate me, whether in the form of being sarcastic (and people with Asperger's are not supposed to be able to understand sarcasm??) or in the form of sounding overly sweet in some way. And actually, my own parents often accused me of being paranoid. There's an old expression: Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean that they're not out to get you. My teachers and parents often felt that other kids were genuinely reaching out to me and I was just nastily blowing them off. Occasionally that was true (and why shouldn't I be extra vigilant if experience told me that most people wanted to humiliate me?), but an overwhelming majority of the time I knew exactly what was going on, that other kids were trying to set me up or were mocking me in some way. The fact that my teachers and parents rarely believed me made it more difficult.

For example, when I was in 7th grade (age 13), I was very uncomfortable changing for gym class in front of everyone else in the locker room, so I changed in a shower stall. One day, a classmate came over to me and asked in a mockingly sweet tone, "Excuse me, can I please come in there? I want to change and I don't want anybody to see my panties." Of course I saw that she was mocking the fact that I was uncomfortable changing in front of everyone else. A stereotypical person with Asperger's who takes everything literally might interpret this as someone genuinely wanting to come into the stall with the person already there and change so that the other girls don't see whatever cutesy patterns are on her underwear. And that's another thing-- the panties reference. I knew she was making fun of what one might see as the silliest, most childish reason for not wanting to change in front of others. I think we all remember being six years old and telling each other, "Ooh, I can see your underwear!" or "Nice underwear!" or "Ha ha, you have Care Bears underwear!" She was implying that my not wanting to change in front of others (which had nothing to do with underwear, a poor body image, or even modesty but rather just the simple fact that I was not used to it) was babyish. I understood as quickly as any neurotypical person, and I told the girl to go to hell.

That evening I told my parents about it and also mentioned that I had told the girl to go to hell. I told them that the girl was being sarcastic (I think facetious is a more appropriate term) when she asked to join me in the stall. Dad's response was, "It sounds like you were the one who was being sarcastic. You need to give other people a turn if they want to change in there." Dad somehow missed the implications of the girl's panties comment and the fact that she said that she wanted to come in there with me.

There were many other times throughout my childhood when other kids would pretend to be nice to me just to fuck with me, as the expression goes, and I saw right through their act. If someone told me that they loved my out-of-control-Orphan-Annie-thick hair that I hated, I knew they were being sarcastic. If a boy came up to me and said, "Oh, baby, will you go out with me?" I knew he saw me as a loser and thought it was hilarious to ask me out and call me baby. I knew that if kids who'd bullied me all year long asked me if they could sign my yearbook (or vice-versa), they were just entertaining themselves and their group of friends. I refused to let them sign my yearbook, and I refused to sign theirs. Of course, my parents would hear about these incidents and think that the kids were being "nice" and that I was being "paranoid" and blowing them off in some way.

I recall that a number of times Mom commented that people tried so hard to be nice to me and that they were going to stop being nice to me if I kept being paranoid. She had absolutely no clue, and I knew exactly what was going on, exactly what I was looking at. But by 9th grade (age 15), I really began to second-guess myself and wonder if Mom was right. So for the rest of high school and in early adulthood, when I knew damn well that others were fucking with me, I often played along just in case they weren't fucking with me. Also, I often ended up playing along because I didn't know what else to do. It was a bit embarrassing to say, "Yeah, I know you're fucking with me." In 9th grade I missed a day of gym class. When I came in the next day, a girl said, "We missed you so much and we needed you on our team." I was always terrible at sports. But I knew getting visibly upset and saying, "Go to hell" or some other comeback wouldn't fix anything. So instead I said something like, "I'm not that good." I didn't know what else to say. Guess what? This playing along made me look, well, gullible to many people.

Mom often commented that I never took advice from people (this wasn't true, but that's another blog post altogether). So with her comments about my not being nice when people reached out to me in mind, I threw caution to the wind one evening when I got an odd phone call from someone. The girl on the other end of the line said her name was Margaret and that she was my best friend from 3rd grade (age 9). Every antenna in my head went up immediately. My best friend in 3rd grade was not named Margaret; in fact I had never known anybody named Margaret. But I thought about my mother's comments about not being nice when people reached out to me and decided to be nice. I asked the girl what she'd been doing for the past six years and what her phone number was. She told me she'd just moved into a new house that day and that she also was a supermodel. Once again, I knew this sounded ridiculous. But, again, my mother's advice was in my head.

"Margaret" said that she had a boyfriend who was trying to break up with her and she didn't know what to do. Then she said she was thinking of committing suicide. I still thought she was bullshitting me but... what if she wasn't? So I told her something like, "No, don't kill yourself. It's not worth it." At that point, my parents (who had been out all evening) had just come home and listened in on the final call, the one about suicide. After I got off the phone, my parents informed me that it was indeed a prank call. "How could you fall for something like that?" Mom demanded. Well, here's her answer. I was trying to take her advice.

In his memoir Atypical, fellow Aspie Jesse Saperstein relates a story of when some classmates played a cruel prank on him in high school. He received an email one day from a girl named Liz. She said that she had always thought he was a nice person but that she was too shy to approach him at school. When I read much of Jesse's (I'm on a first name basis with him; he's my age and I hung out with him one time last summer when he was visiting Boston for a book tour) memoir, I felt like I was reading my own story. But this is where Jesse and I part ways: Had somebody sent me an email like that, I would have wondered how they got my email address and would have been very suspicious of their motives. In fact, in high school someone who I didn't know actually did send me an instant message online. This person was real, and we chatted briefly, but I was very careful about what I said, lest it be used as ammunition against me.

Jesse wasn't suspicious, however, and he believed that Liz was his close friend. In fact, Jesse even went out on a date with her. But the problem was that Liz wasn't even real. The girl on the "date" was just a friend of the bullies who went to another school,  an actress playing the part of a fictional character. The prank went on for six months until Jesse found out the truth.

Although many kids with Asperger's-- including Jesse when he was younger-- easily fall for pranks, many also don't. As I've said, I was hypervigilant during my school years. But as I've also said, I sometimes played along because I didn't know what else to do. I now wonder if the stereotype of gullibility really is based on a pervasive characteristic and that I'm the exception to this, or if the people who write these books assume that some of the kids who play along, as I did, are actually gullible. It's worth asking. It could be that people are interpreting the thought processes of Aspies from very superficial behaviors.

After all, it was only recently that popular psychology overturned the myth about people with Asperger's lacking empathy.

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