It astonishes me that there are so many people these days eager to line up and identify themselves as tortured, eccentric geniuses and geeks, which they seem to equate with Asperger’s syndrome. If you call yourself an “aspie” because you think it’s trendy, cool and romantic, then you probably don’t comprehend what it’s all about.In my opinion, Asperger’s is one of the most misunderstood so-called personality disorders in the psychological spectrum. First named by Hans Asperger in 1944 but not categorized as an official disorder until fifty years later, Asperger’s is currently thought to be a less disabling form of autism.
Although there are a number of lists of psychological traits available on the Internet and in a growing number of books to determine if you have aspergian tendencies, I can offer a simple test for those of you who wonder if you might be an “aspie”: the bumper car test. Decades ago, long before I had heard of Asperger’s, I visited a traveling carnival with a coworker. Since the ferris wheel was out of commission, we bought tickets for the bumper cars. Now, in my mind, a successful bumper car driver tries to avoid hitting and being hit, and that’s exactly what I did that night. But my friend did the exact opposite. He crashed into as many cars as he could make contact with. When the ride was over, he laughed at me for steering clear of the other cars. I was truly puzzled at his behavior, but I did notice that virtually all the other drivers did the same thing he did. That experience should have given me a big hint about how my mind works versus how the minds of most other people function. But I dismissed it at the time, because I was still involved in my frustrating quest to deny my nature and fit in.
I didn’t know about Asperger’s or even consider that I might have it until I was in my mid-50s. The first time I heard about Asperger’s was in reference to Dr. Temple Grandin, who designs humane livestock handling facilities and relates to animals better than to people, even going so far as to be avoid physical contact with her fellow humans. She even designed and built herself a squeezing machine that would allow her to skip the middleman and still enjoy the physical sensation of being hugged. That seemed a bit extreme to me. I thought Grandin was fascinating, but other than the fact that like her, I felt more comfortable with animals than people, it didn’t occur to me that she and I had much in common. Then I read an article in “Wired” about the high prevalence of Asperger’s in Silicon Valley computer geeks and their children, and later, another piece discussing the possibility that Microsoft’s Bill Gates is an aspie. I did some further research, and eventually the light bulb went on. I realized that my feeling of separation from my fellow humans came from my own aspergian tendencies.
Asperger’s is on the high end of the autism spectrum disorder range. Adults with Asperger’s can often function very well in society and at their jobs if they learn to control their natural tendencies to isolate or ignore social rules while in the presence of others. Their brain wiring is demonstrably different from so-called “neurotypicals”, those who are born with the ability to intuit how to behave around others.
All aspies do not exhibit identical thinking patterns. According to “Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships: Decoding Social Mysteries Through the Unique Perspective of Autism”, coauthored by aspies Temple Grandin and Sean Barron, those with Asperger’s can be broadly divided into those who think with their intellect and those who think with their emotions. Grandin further splits them into those who think visually (they’re good at drawing), those who think in patterns (they’re good at chess and engineering), and those who think verbally (they’re good at memorizing and translating). So there are a variety of combinations and permutations in Asperger’s syndrome. In general, aspies tend to be very good at one thing and poor at other things. If they can determine what they’re good at and stick to it, that’s half the battle.
But aspies do have problems dealing with day-to-day issues and must learn through trial and error the social rules that allow neurotypicals to form healthy relationships with others as well as function at their jobs and perform normal activities of daily living. If they can master those essential lessons, but at the same time accept themselves just as they were born, adult aspies can learn to be comfortable in their own skins and make unique contributions to society.