Lightbulb moments

Lightbulb

Most of us like to think we are different, don’t we? We are all distinctive individuals, each with a sense of being a “me”. That doesn’t stop us being part of a sub-set, a group, a community or whatever, with shared beliefs or characteristics, but that distinctiveness encompasses a sense of self, as being capable of one’s own thoughts and responsible for one’s own achievements.

But each of us also rarely wants to be too different — to stand out like a sore thumb, to risk being ostracised, cold-shouldered or worse for not conforming to accepted norms. But what if you feel somehow different but cannot understand why the rest of the world either cannot recognise it or accept it? Or, worse, what if you cannot quite put a finger on why you might think or act differently from what seems to be expected of you?

For me — and I’m afraid much of this post will come over as me, me, me — the signs had long been there. I remember a lightbulb moment in my teens when I surmised that the world could be divided into People persons and Thing persons, that is, those whose main concerns were with interacting with others and those whose fascinations were to do with concepts and objects. I was well able to cope with my own company — reading or playing the piano or drawing or listening to music for example — meaning I pretty much was a Thing Person; but my crude division of the world’s population was never the 50/50 I imagined it might be. I was uninterested in mixing in company, in fact I found groups of people a nightmare: too much noise or too much distraction meant I was unable to focus on individual conversations, even if they were on topics I found interesting. I said little in such groups or else held forth strongly without the expected to and fro of chatter. In time I found such quirks were the exception, not the norm.

LightbulbIn my most recent lightbulb moment I finally, decades later, discovered that these traits that I exhibited from early on are identified as a ‘triad of impairments’ — namely of social interaction, of communication and imagination, and of a narrow, repetitive pattern of activities. In short the telltale signs of what is variously called high functioning autism or Asperger Syndrome (AS), if indeed they are the same thing. Various figures put this at between 0.36% and 0.71% of the world’s population, part of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (better known as DSM-5, published in 2013) proposed that 

People with ASD tend to have communication deficits, such as responding inappropriately in conversations, misreading nonverbal interactions, or having difficulty building friendships appropriate to their age. In addition, people with ASD may be overly dependent on routines, highly sensitive to changes in their environment, or intensely focused on inappropriate items.  Again, the symptoms of people with ASD will fall on a continuum, with some individuals showing mild symptoms and others having much more severe symptoms.

Controversially, DSM-5 omitted placing Asperger Syndrome as a separate category on the spectrum (the same with autistic disorderchildhood disintegrative disorder and the “catch-all” diagnosis of pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified or PDD-NOS). Enough research however has been done to point to Asperger Syndrome being on the autistic continuum but without the delay in language or cognitive development generally expected for those on the spectrum. For me personally many of the diagnostics for AS apply, leading to a shock of recognition when I first read them.

So, my intellectual capacities were in place but my inability to accurately read social cues or body language resulted in me rarely gaining the total social acceptance that I wanted. My motor skills were often hit-and-miss, meaning I was clumsy and uninterested in sport. While I liked language, especially written language, I was backward in conversational give-and-take. I was likely to be distracted by an overload of sensory cues — conversations in a pub, following a sports fixture, attending a lecture or a stage play — but a recital or concert had routines and expectations that I found soothing and easier to focus on.

Interestingly, even though I suspected that I was socially gauche I found myself pursuing a career as a schoolteacher. (In fact a Connolly Occupational Interests Questionnaire I took in the early 1970s specifically said I should avoid classroom teaching and instead become a librarian — advice I singularly ignored.) Luckily I latterly reverted to piano teaching and accompaniment, occupations much more suited to my nature, though how my life would otherwise have gone with different life choices is hard to say. However, I retained my fascination with books and reading, which is how I’ve ended up on a blogging platform, blogging about books.

Now that I’ve revealed my fully paid-up Nerd credentials, so what? Well, it in part explains the type of posts I put online and which a number of regular readers kindly ‘like’ or even comment on. Many if not most of these posts are less about the fictional characters involved and more about incidentals like plot, world-building, archetypes, chronology, tropes and the like. (My recent posts about Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles are typical, and are symptomatic of the AS tendency to systematise.) If like so many clones of Mr Spock Aspies, as those with AS often call themselves, generally lack what psychologists call a Theory of Mind — understanding how and what others are thinking — then they often have theories about just about everything else, and these clearly find their way online.

Online blogging is also a good way for those with AS to conduct conversations. No confusing barrage of visual and behavioural cues to dodge, just the good old reliable written word. Where I can be just as pedantic or longwinded or finicky as I like.

The upshot is all this is, if there are readers to enjoy what I write, I shall continue to write in this vein. I take comfort from the retrospective claim that lot of famous writers are supposed to have had AS on the basis of reported traits — people like Jane Austen, Hans Christian Andersen, Charles Schultz and Michael Palin (yes I know, he’s not dead yet!) — though of course I’m not comparing myself with them in terms of talent or celebrity.

Now, a question or two so as not to make this post only about me. If up to 1% of people worldwide have AS to a greater or lesser degree, some of them will naturally gravitate to writing blogs. What proportion of bloggers, then, write word-based blogs? And, more to the point, might you also be one of them?

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20 thoughts on “Lightbulb moments

  1. Though I share many of those symptoms I would dispute that I – or you, for that matter, have AS or any other syndrome. Being ‘different’ in makeup does not necessarily make one inferior – in fact, the opposite may be argued. Most human interactions with one another are at an utterly facile level. If one is quickly bored by that, there is certainly no ‘defect’ needing ‘correction’. Being satisfied with one’s own company for much of the time allows for greater application to music, art, and letting the mind wander into realms of invention.
    Things like lack of sensitivity to body language or social cues is not so much an inability, but a disinterest. They are all noted most efficiently when communicating with someone one enjoys engaging with.
    Do you find that unless deliberately multi-skilling, you have a tendency to focus on one thing at a time (speaker, topic, occupation) and effectively block everything else that is going on? At times, when I am engrossed in something else, I am even able to assign a small bit of consciousness to offer appropriate responses to things I haven’t taken in a single word of. Particularly when writing or composing.

    1. Don’t get me wrong, Leslie, I didn’t and don’t see having AS as a disability or failing that makes me or others inferior in any way, just different in the ways that we view and respond to the world compared to so-called neurotypicals (NTs in the accepted jargon).

      It would be easy to get distressed or depressed if one doesn’t understand why one doesn’t fit NT expectations or gets treated adversely at work or in social situations, and in fact I have been both. But even coming late to a realisation that I fit this category allows me to have a better self-knowledge and to use appropriate strategies to cope better.

      Having a long-suffering but loving partner who is both sympathetic and a psychologist to boot helps no end of course! If you yourself feel you have many of these admirable traits I would recommend that you embrace them joyfully because the positives I think far outweigh the negatives that undoubtedly accrue from ignorance of one’s true nature.

  2. One of my favorite New Yorker cartoons shows a man on a couch at a party, asking the person next to him, “What’s the payoff for all this chit chat?”

    My daughter is convinced that my dislike of parties and strangers puts me on the ASD continuum. Despite painful shyness as a child, I fell into a career as a teacher where, several times a year, I had to enter a doorway and take charge of a room of strangers. After 40 years as a teacher, I still get nervous on the first day of classes.

    And I, for one, get so much enjoyment from your posts, along with an ever lengthening list of books I need to read, that I hope you keep blogging, whatever your reasons.

    1. I would guess from what I know from what you write and from meeting you that your daughter is right, Lizzie, because those traits are ones I definitely share. I am also poor at small talk and drift to the edges in social occasions (quite unlike my mother, for example, who liked to be the ‘life and soul’ of any gathering she was in).
      Thanks also, Lizzie, for your kind comments about my posts. Ditto the same for your blog, despite the shameful neglect I’ve accorded it and other blogs in recent weeks due to other calls on my time. Normal service will I hope shortly be resumed, as they say!

  3. Many thanks for the ‘follow’ and kind comment! I fit some of the traits you mention but certainly not all, and I have good friends who fit them much better (the fact that we get on probably puts me somewhere on the spectrum!) Attempts at scientific understanding are often a relief, even when they are extremely tentative and dealing with something as complex as the human mind. Ken Robinson (in that lecture he gave that the world and his spaniel have all watched now) memorably said of another syndrome that in previous decades “it wasn’t an available condition” and that “people weren’t aware they could have that”. It is amusing to think that science, by its very nature, will have identified all sorts of syndromes that we are currently unaware that we can ‘have’… !

    The really knotty question is the philosophical one of ‘Natural Kinds’. Are these syndromes actually ‘things’ in nature or fuzzy groupings of statistical/clinical/biochemical data. It seems to me that the black and white of rational thought is one of our crowning achievements and science is the best scalpel we possess for separating the two, but what we cut through with our terminology is often grey – a long spectrum of grey, getting darker at one end, lighter at the other. So there will be more dissections, more syndromes – and hopefully more understanding.

    Speaking of which, your own dissections of all things literary and imaginative are definitely an aid to understanding and most enjoyable to read.

    1. I too am very much in favour of the scientific method whereby previously accepted theories are questioned in the light of continuing research; it’s not a method liked by those requiring absolute certainty but I think it is more honest and, for me at least, more satisfying even if at times it feels our whole knowledge base is destabilised.

      So, where the state of affairs with new syndromes identified and older paradigms overturned is concerned I’m mostly happy with whatever model seems to work until or unless something comes along to refute it. Yes, the human mind is vastly more complex and capable than we are likely to know but it’s fun trying to map it out, build models of it like we’re reconstructing flatpack furniture and devise social experiments to determine what it is capable of. When a definition like that for AS comes along and I find that the traits described are largely a good fit for what I’ve observed of my thoughts and behaviours over several decades then I’m satisfied to admit that I’m on the spectrum. (Hmm, I seem to have cantered off somewhere on a hobbyhorse …)

      By the way, there are several sites that have the standard Baron-Cohen questionnaire to help individuals self diagnose whether they’re likely to be on the spectrum (though they always say that it’s only a possible indication, not a definite diagnosis) for example at
      https://psychology-tools.com/autism-spectrum-quotient
      For comparison I scored 40 out of a possible 50 on this AQ test, where scores in the 33 – 50 range were claimed to indicate significant Austistic traits. (Note that there is no available questionnaire for Asberger Syndrome, especially as AS is deemed to be on the spectrum, not separate from it.)

      And belated thanks for your appreciations, Tim, most kind!

      1. Yes it is important to remain sceptical in science. In fact the scientific method is itself a kind of systematic scepticism through experiment. As you say, that’s the best we can do with rationality, each new theory, or even paradigm shift, in scientific understanding being a better fit for the available evidence. I’m happy with the idea of a never-ending progress in understanding too!

        The question of psychological syndromes is something of a minefield. Actually I see it as an extension of something we all do, limiting ourselves by self-description. And nearly always these self-descriptions owe a great deal to modern scientific labelling and ways of thinking anyway.

        So for example, in full cod psychology mode, I can associate much more easily with manic depression than autism. Sadly, I just don’t have a good enough memory to be a proper Aspie! Honesty, I just don’t cut the mustard – I have a friend who is comfortably within the AS band. We’re both interested in taxonomy in various fields but he has an encyclopaedic knowledge and an obsession with listing that is sometimes quite breath-taking.

        I scored 24 on that test. It is easy to see how it works. While clearly revealing myself to be introverted, self-contained and with a tendency to social isolation, the questionnaire was well enough designed to discover that this was only sometimes and so probably a mood-based behaviour rather than something more intrinsic; that I have strong theory of mind; and that my obsessions are not of the detailed, memory-based type.

        One thing does puzzle me though. What I get from your posts and comments/responses is that you have a highly developed ‘theory of mind’, i.e. you read people very well. Is this something you can only achieve in a written medium? Or is it one area where AS fails to model your psychology properly…?

        1. The scientific method as a kind of “systematic scepticism through experiment” — what a splendid definition! One I might quote in future discussions …

          In fact very perspicacious comments altogether. Your mention of manic depression — isn’t that the same as bipolar these days? — reminds me that it is claimed as a common feature of ASD for some, as is dyspraxia, dyslexia and other conditions (though that’s not to say that all those with one of these conditions are necessarily on the spectrum). And that facility with memory is very hit and miss when it comes to AS — often that encyclopaedic knowledge is extremely selective; as you point out with regard to yourself.

          You’re quite right about my theory of mind working best in a written medium where I have time and space to analyse and consider — faced with on the spot assessments with a myriad other distractions I can be absolutely flummoxed.

          Thanks so much, Tim, for these reflective comments, I’ve enjoyed them and they’ve certainly made me think!

  4. by the way, I have just noticed the tags under your post and have realised for the first time that this is how people get in touch on wordpress (I haven’t tagged anything thus far) – clearly some of us are more AS than we thought – I cant even get VIRTUAL small talk right! hahahah!

    1. Ha! Like you I was slow on the uptake where tagging was concerned. Luckily it’s easy enough to get into the habit, unlike small talk, virtual or otherwise!

  5. Agreed. One needs no aspirations towards being typical, whether neurotically or otherwise. NTs can too often be N(I)Ts, I am happy to remain with a high level of self-sufficiency and a low level of ability to suffer fools at all, much less gladly.

    1. The adjective mostly applied to my partner and myself is ‘quirky’, which we’re happy to use as a badge to identify us (and I suspect you would too) because it’s about as atypical as you can get. That self-sufficiency whereof you speak is also pretty much me too, though whether I’m noted for suffering fools — gladly or otherwise — I cannot say.

      You also asked if when “multi-skilling” (nope, that doesn’t sound remotely like me) I have a tendency to focus on one thing at a time, effectively blocking everything else that is going on. I must say that sounds typically me, though I haven’t yet mastered the skill of offering appropriate responses — if anything they’re usually singularly inappropriate, drawing attention to my lack of attentiveness. Um, what was your point?!

      1. ‘Quirky’ is a kinder word than is commonly in currency with people describing me, but is along similar lines.
        The remote-answer skill is not to be recommended. It leads people to believe one knows things which one doesn’t.

        1. My mind is being boggled at what possible less kinder word is applied to you! As to ‘remote-answer’ skills and the ascription of knowledge one doesn’t have, at least having time to find the answer means one gets the knowledge … eventually. And then people can truly believe you know things, even if you once didn’t!

          1. More like strange, weird, nutty, away-with-the-fairies (that one is often true, especially given what populates Darx Circle), infuriating, remote, unfriendly, unsociable …

  6. I had a similar experience to you in my youth; I had severe social and communication difficulties, yet I decided to become a teacher! Unsurprisingly that did not go well, and I eventually found another path, yet it was interesting that I was drawn to a career so at odds with my abilities. I do find that blogging enables me to share my love of books and learning in a way that is comfortable for me. Connecting with others through words is something that I really love to do, and I’m glad that you’re here to do the same.

    1. I think I went into teaching (rather than getting library qualifications, my other option) for altruistic reasons — sharing my love and understanding and knowledge of the subject — but also for selfish reasons — long holidays, respect, a steady income, supporting a young family … Reality proved more cruel in some repects, though not all, thank goodness!

      I’m entirely with you too on the joy of blogging, which is both altruistic and selfish as it turns out. 🙂

  7. elmediat

    As a retired teacher, I can attest to the fact that many who enter into the teaching profession do so because of mixture of difficult learning experiences and very positive ones. They often attempt to “right the wrongs” they experienced by attempting to make sure others do not experience their fate (sort of like Bruce Wayne 😀 ). Those of us with a set of specific learning challenge will eventually become a Special Education teacher of some type.

    A learning disability is one side of a learning strength. If the learning environment is poorly balanced , then there is an emphasis on the weakness in processing information ( skills, knowledge, understanding & application). In a different learning environment, the strength is emphasized and the individual is seen as either “normal” or “gifted”. 🙂

    1. “A learning disability is one side of a learning strength.” Such a positive way of looking at this issue; your comments chime so strongly in with my thoughts and experience, especially your observation of the teacher wanting to right the wrongs they perceived to be in their own education. I didn’t migrate into Special Needs Education (not sure it was on my radar when I trained in the 70s) but into Music — which could be regarded as a special needs subject particularly if I’d gone into Music Therapy, but my inclination then was more academic. Still is, I suppose.

      Thanks so much for these pertinent and enlightening points, gives me more food for thought!

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