I See Live People.

Aspies have a well-documented love/hate relationship with eye contact.  Depending on the severity of the symptoms, eye contact may be nearly impossible, marginally uncomfortable, or just confusing.  I find that I am easily capable of eye contact with strangers, but the more I know someone, the more disoriented I am by looking them straight in the eye.  There is now simply too much information in their glance, and it is easier to read their expressions if I am not looking straight at them – like the way you can’t look directly at the sun.

I don’t get complaints about this, and it’s easy to see why.  People might tell a child, “LOOK at me when I’m talking to you!”, but that freedom thankfully becomes socially unacceptable when you’re speaking to an adult.  Also, I cover pretty well.  I always have.  I can look at the bridge of someone’s nose and give a pretty decent approximation of eye contact, but it is telling to me that I cannot come up with the exact eye color of most of the musicians I work with on a weekly basis.

There is, as I am discovering to be the case with many Aspie qualities, a positive flip side to this.  I may be overwhelmed by the sounds and smells and brightness of the grocery store, but I can happily chat with the person bagging their groceries across from me.  I will only “know them” for three minutes of our lives, and this quick snapshot of their day doesn’t tell me enough about them to form the level of connection that makes it hard to look at them.  I am no respecter of persons when it comes to this, and I suspect this odd approach to social interaction is another of the checkmarks on the Asperger’s assessment I had done a few weeks ago.  If someone seems chatty, I’ll talk to them, regardless of age, gender, facility with the English language, or number of children hanging from their various limbs.

I understand, I really do, that a propensity for looking people straight in the eye when you’ve just met them can be a little disconcerting.  Part of this comes, I think, from being an American.  We’re a little weird that way.  Part of it, too, is a remnant of the social behavior learned at the small college I attended.  Visiting speakers often commented that students actually looked at them and said “hello” when they passed them on campus, and that the school’s friendliness was unusual even among religious institutions, where you’d expect friendliness to be the norm.  Most of it, though, is just me.  People fascinate me, perhaps even more so because I understand most of them so little.

It may show up on my assessment as a deviation from normal standards of social behavior, but I actually quite like this particular trait.  It means that I see people who are not always seen.  I may not give the panhandler on Liberty Street a dollar every time, but I will look  him in the eye, and more than one grungy fellow in knit cap and old fatigues has looked at me in startled wonder at simply being seen.  I love to return the direct, unflinching gaze of a toddler who has not yet conformed to societal norms, and to be occasionally rewarded with a wide, sparkly-eyed grin.  It makes my day better to look right at the tired girl behind the counter at the drugstore while I make my purchase, and see her face light up when she realizes that I recognize her as a fellow human being.

I am particularly bad (good?) about this when I am reading a book while I eat my lunch in a restaurant.  If I am reading something funny and engaging, I fall headlong into my book, smiling and chuckling with absolute lack of awareness for anyone who may be around me.  More than once I have looked up from my book after a particularly giggly bit, cheeks still pink and eyes dancing from laughter, and I will realize that some poor unsuspecting businessman at the next table at Subway has just gotten the full force of a smile that would normally only be seen by a close friend or lover.  Every time, though, they smile back.

This kind of abnormal, I think I can live with.

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…Or Maybe You’re Just a Lunatic.

“People with Asperger’s syndrome may not pick up on social cues and may lack inborn social skills, such as being able to read others’ body language, start or maintain a conversation, and take turns talking.”

Um, yeah, tell me about it.

I’m the first to admit – well, no, that’s not true.  It took me thirty-some years to admit it, and it wasn’t an especially fun process.  My exasperated mother told me a couple of years ago that I talk too much, for too long, about topics she’s not interested in, and I’m boring.  I confess that my first instinct was to think, “Well, Ma, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.”  She’s right, though, and I’ve tried hard to be more conscious of it since that painful conversation.

The  Asperger’s diagnosis helped make more sense of that facet of my social experience, but it still isn’t much fun to keep constant vigilance on my conversation.  I have a hard time determining if someone is really interested in my thoughts about the fine points of ornamentation in late Baroque vocal music (or the etymology of half the words in the English language, or how to make a decent Sauce Mornay, or pi) – or if they are hoping desperately that they will be rescued from my conversation by a fire alarm, an earthquake, anything that will make me shut up about whether the trill starts on the auxiliary or the principal note.  This is especially hard in my job as a classical pianist.  I am paid to know which note it starts on (usually the auxiliary, if you were wondering), and my students are paying to find out.  They need to hear it regardless, but I can’t tell if they’re bored because I’m boring, or if they’re just bored on principle.

Since childhood, I’ve been full to overflowing with words, but never quite sure what to do with them.  Writing helps.  Oh, it helps.  But for most of my life my only outlet has been conversation, and for a lot of Aspies, diagnosed or not, that’s a pretty good definition of hell.

I’ve always felt that there were two sets of conversational rules – one for me, and one for everyone else.  My list has more rules, and I don’t know what many of them are until I break them.  I am high-functioning enough (and anxious enough, which is another story) that I can tell I’m saying something wrong, and I get fluttery and worried that I’ve hurt someone or embarrassed them.  It’s confusing, though, because when I say something mildly critical it apparently breaks some unwritten social rule – but when someone else says something wildly rude and confrontational, it’s somehow OK.  For the most part I’ve given up understanding it, and I’ve compensated by simply being very, very polite.

Recently, though, I had a small breakthrough when I crossed an invisible line into the conversational equivalent of Alice’s Wonderland.  It started out innocently enough.  [Note:  All names have been changed to protect the deranged.]  My friend Christy has an excitable dog who needs a new home.  My Facebook acquaintance Lisa works with an animal rescue group, so I asked if she knew of anyone local who could suggest some resources for a new home for the dog.  Lisa connected me with her colleague Amanda, a lawyer who works with severely abused animals in need of rescue.  So far, so good.

I sent Amanda a note explaining the situation, with a short summary of the situation from Christy.  Amanda and I began a pleasant email correspondence, and I mentioned Christy’s extensive (but eventually unsuccessful) efforts to help the dog settle into their family life, as well as her sincere desire to find it a good home.  At this point Amanda took a side trail into la-la land, but – this is important – she didn’t tell me she was leaving.

Over the next 12 hours, Amanda castigated Christy for her inhumanity, her lack of concern for the dog, her meaningless efforts, and several other things that made less sense the longer she ranted.  I thought before responding, since I know I miss stuff sometimes.  I finally sent a calm, brief reply saying that I understood Amanda’s concern, but that Christy was in fact quite a nice person who did NOT want to see her dog die.  Amanda sent back a short, horrid email and told me never to contact her again.

At this point I thought, “Screw social convention” and sent back a still-polite but rather definitely worded note saying that I agreed that we should end our correspondence, since we clearly disagreed on how one ought to speak to one’s fellow humans.  Amanda announced that she was reporting me to Facebook, and blocked me.  If you are not familiar with Facebook’s blocking feature, it is the virtual equivalent of a locked door, a restraining order, and a cloak of invisibility.  Folks, this was SERIOUS overkill.

My anxiety levels shot through the roof, and I sent a cautious email to Lisa, asking if Amanda was perhaps … you know.  Not the nicest person?  And Lisa told me that Amanda was, not to put too fine a point on it, a nutcase.

I retained enough social awareness to stop myself before responding, “Oh, I am so RELIEVED!”  But you know what?  I was relieved.  It wasn’t me.  Amanda was bonkers.  I had gotten it right, and she had gone off the deep end all by herself.

I’m fine now, Amanda’s still blocking me, and Christy found a home for her dog.  As unpleasant as it all was, I’m glad for the experience, because for once I was the sane one in the conversation.  And the next time I come out of a conversation absolutely bemused because I did everything right and it still went completely to pieces, I can walk away, smile gently, and say to them in the privacy of my own head:

“It’s not me – it’s you.”

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Too Much

It seemed like a good idea at the time, like so many stupid ideas do.

The basement needs to be painted before the carpet can be installed, so I am dedicating much of spring break to painting it and sorting out the years’ worth of crap that has collected down there.  The kids wanted to help, so I set my daughter up with a roller brush and gave my son a paint brush and a section of wall to which he could do little permanent damage, even if his enthusiastic painting got completely out of hand.  My husband eventually wandered down and started helping paint the up-high bits.  He decided we needed some music to paint to, and set up his iPad with Pandora set to 1960’s surf rock.

All well and good.  I don’t mind a little music while I paint.  After two hours of that, I realized that the reason I desperately wanted a hamburger was that I associate 1960’s surf rock with burger joints, which is reasonable enough.  It was after 7 p.m. and we were all hungry, so we decided to finish up and go get a hamburger.  Sure, why not?

I’d been thinking about the cozy little diner up the road, but it turned out we had a coupon to Red Robin, and that sounded OK too, so we set out on the 15-minute drive to the restaurant.  I hopped out while they parked, hoping to get on the waiting list for a seat.  It turned out that they could seat us right away, so I sat at the table and waited.  I turned the drink menu around to face the wall, but after about five minutes I was really sorry I’d quit drinking.  I had just plain forgotten how loud Red Robin is.

The music is loud, and people talk loudly so they can be heard over it.  (I secretly wonder if Red Robin turns the music up so it can be heard over the people talking.)

A lady at the next table was laughing loud and long about some joke, and then laughed some more for good measure.  I understand that some people are innately gifted with voices with the timbre of scalded cats and the carrying power of foghorns.  I firmly believe, however, that that is not an unlimited license to employ such voices at full blast in enclosed spaces.

The woman behind me had summoned the manager and was complaining about the hand soap in the bathroom, in detail, with supporting evidence and footnotes.  He kindly explained that he would be happy to send a note to the corporate office, but that he had no say about the kind of soap used in the dispenser in the ladies’ room.  Well, SHE worked in HEALTH CARE, and there was no reason on EARTH why …

… always wanted to be in a circus but I can’t decide whether I want to be a trapeze artist or a tiger tamer or ride the elephants.”  My daughter was talking to me at the same time, and the words kept getting tangled.  I have no idea what she’s talking about half the time anyway, which I know puts me right there in downtown Bad Mom City.  But holy freaking COW.  She can take an incident with the cat that took 10 seconds, tops, and expand it into a five-minute run-on sentence about what she thinks the cat thought she was doing, assuming of course that our brainless parody of a cat thinks at all (and speaks English).  When she is in full rambling descriptive flow, I sometimes suspect her of circular breathing.

My son (who also has Asperger’s) was quickly reduced to the beeps, squeals, and repeated phrases that come with the territory when he’s maxed out.  He’s getting better at processing things though, so the beeps were interspersed with occasional long-winded questions about cheetahs, and onions, and how did World War II end?

I, on the other hand, was so tense that if you’d tapped my arm I’d have rung like a tuning fork.  The yowling woman behind me had finally subsided, and the hyena at the next table had stumbled her hilarious way out of the restaurant, but now there was a birthday party two tables over.  We were seated (of course) next to the kitchen, with the constant clank and clang of dishes on metal, the intermittent whoosh of water, and hollered commentary from the cooks.  The waitresses were flirting with the busboys, and Elvis wailed on.  A metal fork dropped on a cement floor made me jerk slightly, arms wrapping instinctively around myself as the sound pinged through my body.  And then they all started singing “Do we have a birthday here? Yes we have a birthday here! Birthday where? Birthday here! Oh, oh, oh, oh” and I was pretty much finished before the food even arrived.

I ate my fish sandwich and looked at the table top because there was no other surface in the restaurant that wasn’t red, gold, patterned, reflective, or moving.  I made it through, discouraged dessert, and we got out to the car.  I sat in the back to allow my daughter the fun treat of riding up front, and my husband turned on the soundtrack to “You’ve Got Mail.”  Oh, here’s a fun song, let’s turn it up louder!  I hunched down in the back seat below his line of sight in the rearview mirror and plugged my ears and shut my eyes.  I could hear just barely enough to give appropriate responses to my children when they asked me things (none of which, thankfully, involved international politics), and we made it home.

They are in bed now, and it is quiet, and I am silently debating the merits of a hot bath and a book, or a cup of tea and a book.  Or possibly a hot bath and a cup of tea and a book.  Tonight was too much, and all too often, everything is too much.  Sometimes I need quiet and stillness, but sometimes I need a release valve.

This quiet place to write, I hope, will be exactly that.  Welcome, read, enjoy – and if you comment, please, no shouting.

(That was a joke, you know.  It’s OK to laugh.)

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