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.
In 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 disorder, childhood 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?