Monday, 1 September 2008

The problem with people

People with Asperger Syndrome (AS) have their brains wired up differently from normal people; it's almost as if the social element of it has been turned off. To have a stab at an analogy, do you ever remember learning to breathe? Or have you just always done it? Now image someone for who the breathing instinct has been turned off and they need to learn how to breathe and consciously think about it the whole time. As you're sat there watching TV they are sat thinking "breathe in…breathe out…breathe in…breathe out…" In social situations it can be like that for people with AS. In social situations we are exhibiting behaviour that we have learned from experience and observation…behaviour that just comes natural to other people.

Now for another analogy. As mentioned above, social interaction is, for us, an effort. Think of something else that is an effort, such as running on a treadmill. It's easy at the start, then it gets a bit of a chore, then it gets tiresome, then it gets too much and you have to stop. That's what it's like for us at a party or a group gathering. As time wears on we wear out and eventually zone out. This "zoned out" situation is one we refer to as overloading. When everything has gotten too much for us the shutters just come down. All desire to pretend to be social have evaporated. That's when we're sat in the corner at our rudest and quietest. It's not because we're horrible people…it's simply that while you've been enjoying yourself and relaxing, we've been running a damn marathon! Now we're exhausted and just want to be left alone.

It is this need to learn social behaviours that probably leads to a lot of confusion in a young person's life. I remember as a child, when someone would fall over and hurt themselves I couldn't care less, it didn't bother me. But other children would rush to the injured child's aid and I could never understand why. Little did I know that my AS was robbing me of empathy, I didn't care for people in peril as (frankly) the person in peril wasn't me. Seeing other people react in a totally different way from you is confusing and worrying when you're a child. So we do something we end up doing a lot of…we fake it. As a child I learned to fake concern by studying the reactions of others. So when a playmate fell over I would mimic the behaviours I saw in others. I still do it now…when a work mate or friend announces their grand parents have died or some disease has befallen them I screw my face up in concern and mutter "Oh no"s and "that's terrible"s just like everyone else in the room does. The reality is that I don't actually care. I know it sounds a horrible thing to say, but I can't help what my brain makes me consciously feel.

As I grew into a (still undiagnosed) adult my perception of this phenomenon changed and as my vulnerability to peer pressure waned and I began to grow in the confidence of my own skin I started to see people as being fake. As a child all you care about is fitting in, so you learn to mimic. As an adult you don't care about fitting in so much and instead start to question the behaviour you see in others. I would think that as I didn't care about this person, others couldn't either so their displays of affection were something I assumed were fake. That they felt just as I do but chose to demonstrate othewise. As I had to learn social interaction I think I view it in a far more clinical manner; to me it is simple cause and effect. I seem to view people's actions in a far more objective and critical way and tend to form opinions about people from their behaviour that others appear to be blind to. It's the classic "wood for the trees" scenario. Normal, social people seem to me to get enveloped in other's personalities, whereas I stand back and view things in a cold, analytical manner. A side affect of this process is that, of everyone I know, I'm far the quickest to say I don't like someone. It's rare for me to hear anyone say they don't like people, or they'll say things like "Don't get me wrong, I really like Joe, he's a great guy, but sometimes he does things that annoy me." You won't get that from me. I call a spade and a spade and I'll just come out and say "I don't like him" and I'll launch into an intimate character assassination, picking off flaws like shooting fish in a barrel.

That then leads onto another facet of AS (are you beginning to see that it all ties together into a big, complicated structure?) - namely that we tend to see things in black and white. I like you or I don't like you. I think you're right or I think you're wrong. I think you should obey a rule, or not obey it. Appreciating shades of grey is hard for me. Maybe I'll expand on that in a later post.

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