In the previous blog, I introduced myself as a young man with Asperger Syndrome and reflected on my perception of autistic spectrum conditions and how they apply to me. In this post, I identify some typical autistic tendencies and discuss how they affect my life and whether the traits I discuss can really be attributed to my condition.
So, how would I describe myself and my condition? I’ve identified four typically autistic traits that I think I exhibit:
Number one- finding it hard to empathise with others, with the result that I often try to guess what they’re thinking.
Number two- spending a lot of time finding out about subjects that interest me (though I wouldn’t use the term “obsession”). There is a stereotype that autistic people compulsively talk about their favourite subjects, which is not always true, or at least not more than anyone else.
Number three- finding routine and predictable patterns comfortable and being nervous when changing them.
Number four- seeing things in absolute terms.
Here’s what they mean in practical terms:
Lack of empathy (struggling to understand what other people might be thinking)
Being aware of my limitations doesn’t really help with this because it makes me less confident in my ability to socialise with people. I used to assume that autistic people were simply bad at socialising, especially me. In large groups, like at university and work, I’m aware that I don’t know what people are thinking about me, so I usually keep my distance, feeling that it’s easier to keep face that way. Luckily for me, though, it’s not possible to just avoid everyone who doesn’t make a great first impression. A good number of my friends are people who I thought might not like me at first. As I’ve got older, I’ve become less quick to assume, because whenever I’ve found out what people think of me, it’s never been what I expected and it’s usually more positive.
Lack of empathy means I also tend to imagine that within my social circle, my feelings and attitudes must be common knowledge. I expect almost everyone I meet to have better social skills than I do and therefore to pick up on whatever’s on my mind. So if I don’t like someone (and more pertinently, if I really like someone), I think that everyone knows (how could the excellent observational skills of a neurotypical person fail to notice something that’s very much on my mind?) In the past, I’ve had conversations where I’ve been acutely aware of an “elephant in the room” that in fact, only I knew about.
By extension (and this may be a self-esteem issue) I think anything I can do must be easy and my achievements start to seem inevitable. While I don’t sound like a native when I speak German and Spanish, I can talk and write comfortably in both languages. I often read or listen to them convinced that no reasonably intelligent English speaker could fail to understand the message, because it’s so simple. Meanwhile, most of my monolingual friends and family would be baffled by the same conversation, because it’s in another language.
When I get interested in a new thing, I want to understand the history, backstories and inter-relationships within the context. Doesn’t everyone? It’s not that unusual for football fans to remember matches from years ago and there isn’t much stigma attached to that kind of devotion. I spend a lot of time thinking about my favourite subjects, but I don’t think I take it to a damaging or unusual extent. If anything, it’s just frustrating to me, because I sometimes have nobody to talk to about these things.
Subjects that have been occupied me a lot in recent years (I wouldn’t call them obsessions) include:
A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones. There are so many characters to keep track of, and the constant changes and detailed background appealed to me, so from reading the first one, I was hooked. I started to go off it a bit around book four, A Feast For Crows, because so much has happened and it has become hard to keep track. When I started reading them, I read certain chapters over and over; the tournament in A Game of Thrones, which introduces a lot of characters, and the negotiation scene in A Storm of Swords where the Small Council discusses new marriages for Tyrion and Cersei.
That’s Not Metal Podcast. A really funny music podcast run by two very passionate former Metal Hammer journalists, and more importantly, huge fans of metal, punk and hardcore. They like doing lists of their top 20 bands/albums, which appeals to my desire to rank things. I think wanting to list and rank things might be an autistic trait, but it’s one that many neurotypical people like doing it as well.
Battle Rap. I watch written rap battles, where rappers know each other and can prepare in advance. Most of my favourites perform on the London-based platform Don’t Flop. The scene has a constantly, organically evolving cast of real people to match up and compare, which makes it fun to follow. What’s more, the written element means that some of the wordplay is incredibly original. One of my favourite examples was when the Scottish battler Soul said of his opponent Cee Major “I pen circles around Cee because he copy writing”. The brilliance in that is that Soul says two things at once. He says he’ll metaphorically “pen circles around Cee” (write better bars than Cee Major) because Cee “copy writing” (meaning he copies Soul’s style), while also describing the literal appearance of the copyright symbol.
Being comfortable with routine and nervous when it changes.
In some ways, I’m more independent of a routine than most neurotypical people. I’ve lived in four countries in the last four years and I’m fluent in two foreign languages. Moving from a job in a call centre in a small town in Germany to teaching English to eight year olds in Hanoi, which I did last summer, is definitely a change in routine. However, I would say that both at home in Sheffield and in the niches that I found myself in in Germany, Spain and Vietnam, the circle of people with whom I interacted, activities that I felt comfortable doing and things that I thought were possible, were quite limited. At times, I’ve pushed myself a bit further, such as performing at an open mic night in Hanoi .
When it comes to meeting new people, my experience is similar to that of any shy or anxious person. I’m not usually comfortable with people I’ve just met and often feel overwhelmed by large groups. In some situations, I drink to make it easier to socialise. Sound familiar?
When I look for jobs, the idea of going into a new workplace seems scary; I’ll have to get to know new people, may have to do a long commute, and there will probably be parts of the job that I find difficult. I’m sure that’s also true for most neurotypical people. You might find that a lot of the things I’m writing here relate more to being shy and cautious than to being on the spectrum.
Seeing things in absolute terms
When I went backpacking, I often found it easier to go on organised trips than to find things for myself and I worried that I wasn’t travelling properly, or having a sufficiently “authentic” experience, whatever that means. I worry that I’m consuming “bad” trashy literature and music (I don’t care when it comes to TV for some reason). I tend to view people as either good or bad, which is a very childish way to see the world. If someone’s nice to me, but does things I don’t approve of, I find that hard to deal with.
I’ll go into this one in more detail in the next articles (particularly the one on friendships and having a social life). If I wasn’t so analytical and introspective, I probably wouldn’t notice some of these contradictions at all.
Overall, being on the autistic spectrum makes some differences in my life, but it’s sometimes less significant than other aspects of my personality and environment.
My next blog will be on fashion, how confusing it is, and how I think my condition influences the way I look at it.
This blog was updated on 12th May.