Pretentious, moi? *

spectrum

Forgive me, I’m still bleating on about Asperger Syndrome. To change animal metaphors: I’m a terrier with a rat, reading up about the condition, its incidence and how Aspies cope or don’t cope with it.

And — as this is a literary-leaning blog — along with fascinating AS-related non-fiction titles I’m devouring (many from Jessica Kingsley Publishers) I’m also finding that the fiction that I’m reading concurrently is taking on an added perspective when AS is taken into account.


First of all, I’ve just read Sophie Divry’s The Library of Unrequited Love which is about a stereotypical single female librarian in a provincial French town. She rants and rails about anything and everything, blows hot and cold about pet topics and effectively holds a reader captive in the library building while she harangues him at length (well over 90 pages in the translation I’ve just finished). Now it’s not so much what she says — after all we all have strong views on what’s wrong with the system — but the way she says it that strikes a chord. She has a certain logic in her arguments but they can be rather scattergun, and her virtual monologue is how many of those with high-functioning autism often hold forth, letting no one, least of all neurotypicals (NTs), get a word in edgeways.

I’ve also recently finished — and hugely enjoyed — Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and have been struck with the obsessive AS ways of the two lead protagonists, both epitomes of the absentminded professor stereotype. I also recognise author Susanna Clarke’s mode of putting her book together: according to an interview in The Times, rather than writing the novel from beginning to end she wrote in fragments which she then attempted to stitch together. This is altogether familiar and similar to behaviours that read of many with AS in their attempts to make sense of the world, their world even, by codifying and systematising it. Clarke is reported to have admitted that the project was for herself and not for the reader,  another approach that typifies many of those on the autism spectrum (though it must also apply to many NTs too).

Academics have searched many writers’ biographies and writings for clues as to whether they could be on the autistic spectrum, specifically those with Asperger Syndrome. You might not be surprised that they’ve come up with a diverse list that includes authors like Lewis Carroll, Herman Melville, W B Yeats and Hans Christian Andersen (all male) and Emily Dickinson and Jane Austen (as female representatives). Austen, for example, has aspects of several AS traits evident in her letters as well as fiction. These include attention to detail — her ability to analyse people’s strengths and weaknesses in what they say and do (less so their physical appearance, in which she has little interest); honesty — her ability to get to the heart of individual motivation, often with subtlety as well as wit; and logic over emotion in that she can appear to be emotionally detached from the people she is describing.

Whether or not the scholars are correct in these instances — and having not read the studies I’m in no position to judge — I’m starting to wonder whether the proportion of eminent or successful writers on the autistic spectrum is greater than the proportion estimated to be in the general population (currently estimated from under 1% to perhaps as high as 1 in 69).

But — I hear you cry — many of the traits assigned to Aspies could equally be laid at the door of many neurotypicals; and of course you are right. Those with AS have no monopoly over honesty, or attention to detail, or self-motivation or any of the other characteristics mentioned. I have no axe to grind, and don’t claim that Aspies are better at creating let’s-pretend worlds than NTs. But, given that those with AS are often said to be “in a world of their own”, they can’t be said to lack imagination — just a different kind of imagination from the perhaps more empathic NT population. It’s just that, when authors are able to delineate in great detail protagonists with AS characteristics, I have a niggling feeling that they may be able to do it with some degree of inherent understanding.

Now, am I pretending to myself when I suggest all this? And am I also being a bit pretentious with all this cod-psychology? Maybe. I’ll leave you to be the judge.

* This post’s title is a quote from celebrated porcine philosopher Miss Piggy, just to complete the animal references with which I began this post.

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20 thoughts on “Pretentious, moi? *

  1. My husbands nephew has Asperger Syndrome. He did go to a special school as a small child, then they put in to main stream school. He got top A levels went to Uni in Southampton for music, he is a musician, he plays nearly every normal instrument and makes music. I say make, because he does not have to write it down, its just like breathing to him. But his world is black and white, there is no grey, its either right or wrong. He is a very friendly and polite individual, but I would have loved for him to have got drunk and had fun at Uni, like my own grandson, but that did not happen and will never happen, but he knows no different…….he is happy in his own world. I think possibly you are right, it would take a special kind of mind to be some of those authors.

    1. Interesting what you say about your husband’s nephew, especially as I too went to Southampton Uni to study music — in the 60s, mind! Not all Aspies, let alone the many on the autistic spectrum, are the same. Some have learnt a few social strategies to mostly get by, others are entirely impractical, and there is growing acceptance that the female experience of AS is not only more prevalent than previously realised but also different in many ways from the classic male presentation. (Sorry, I’m starting to parrot the jargon now.)

      So yes, Lynne, I did get drunk at uni (never again) and had fun, but that was as much to fit in socially as to have new experiences. I now tend to stick to obsessions and interests, though that doesn’t mean I avoid all challenges that take me out of my comfort zone; perhaps that’s not the case with said nephew.

      1. Said Nephew has far more confidence than I have, more friends than I have, played with some top bands and solo singers……so I took the test and came out at 17, then I thought what do you have to be like to be Aspies, I could not get anymore than 25, I took it about five times to see if I could get 40, no way. I am now really intrigued, because I do have obsessions and interests, I am totally obsess with my blog and visiting places, and if things do not go to plan, I am a total pain and I hate social chitchat…. but what I have learnt from employing people is, NO one is the same, they might appear similar, but everyone is different, regardless if they have Aspies or not 🙂 As you say there are different levels to everything, but glad to hear you did get drunk, said Nephew didn’t because he was there to work…..and nothing else, thats how he saw it, just different levels 🙂 (just hope that all makes sense)

        1. The more I read about AS and ASD the more I realise I don’t know. Standard diagnostic tests for checking if you’re on the spectrum favour males, because that’s where the condition was mostly identified. But the female Aspie brain presents in subtly different ways, so if I were you I’d search for questionnaires using ‘female’ as well as the usual other terms. I’m reading about women and girls with ASD at the moment and it’s fascinating

  2. Kinda Bexy

    I’m pondering… (me pondering)… This thing about being happy in our own world… sort of hearing that song by Gloria Gaynor “I will survive” I’m thinking along the lines of: If social interaction hits a hard place and if being alone is a place spent, then maybe it is a great thing that ‘happy in his own world’. Pondering some more… but that the expression “What is normal” comes to mind, the answer being something along the lines of: Clicky, I~want~to~fit~in, sheeple… There’s skills in including people, and those that make the effort to include those of us having a hard time being with clicky, sheeple are glad of those that attempt to retain those skills. We all need each other, we’re all so unique, even the clicky, sheeple under all that I~want~to~fit~in shite.

    1. If what I take from your comment, Bexy, is right, then I agree that having one’s own mental space (and often physical space too) that we can retreat or escape to is crucial to our well-being. But we’re also not anti-social, we often like to see others and interact — but on our own terms, not forced to mix if we don’t want to or are not in the right mood. (Clicky, sheeple are noisy NTs, I’m guessing.)

  3. If you identify with the characteristics of Aspergers but are self diagnosing, does it help you to put a name to it and why? Can / does it help to say to the world “I have Aspergers”?

    1. Only little question but ideally needing a big answer, Alastair! Briefly (if that’s ever possible with me) having a label to pin on myself is both a vindication and a relief, because like many Aspies I’ve been described in many mildly pejorative ways as not conforming to the norm; accepting that their instinct was right but that it wasn’t entirely my ‘fault’ (ie it was mostly nature and not nurture) justifies me being who I was and who I am. A bit of self-knowledge can’t be bad!

      Outing myself as having AS? If I was still working that could be fraught with difficulties, not least because of public ignorance or misconceptions. Being retired I have fewer pressures to out myself. I’m happy for family and friends to know, depending on their capacity to deal with the information; and I’m happy to discuss it on a blog with sensitive correspondents like you chipping in. (FB? Probably not.)

      1. Names or labels can certainly be useful but as you say they still need to be used carefully due to preconceptions and misunderstandings. I have had type 1 dinettes for 43 years now – I used to be “a diabetic” until someone decided that that was offensive in some way and so now i am someone with diabetes. I couldn’t give a hoot myself but if it helps others, that’s ok.

  4. Kinda Bexy

    I am not sure of others, but that all I know of me is that I have lots of moments of “Bexy Syndrome” and others can take me as they find me or bog off and enjoy their own life. My life is not for taking, I will spend it in my own sweet way. I don’t do labels, labels are for bags and parcels. In each “Sane” person, there’s a lurking madness in the dark pretending to be “Normal”. On the other hand out~of~it “Crazy” persons have a lot of lucid moments that make more sense than the crowd would like to admit.

    1. You’re entirely correct, reducing someone to a label or wanting to put them in a box is a denial of their individuality and denies that everyone has odd aspects that could be called mad by those who don’t have them. Vive la difference!

      1. Kinda Bexy

        I imagine that all of us are like the rainbow as regard the expression a “spectrum” and I have loved that expression many times “Vive la difference!” Each of us are so different and in each moment there are differences in experiences to explore. Not one of us is the same in so many ways, that as we all go our own way, we add to the world our unique slant and input. Hence when we decide to join in (because I find it is always best to do so on our own terms, but that might just be me) we add that colour missing if we were not there in that moment. “Viva la l’arc-en-ciel des personnalités” (Long live the rainbow of personalities).

  5. Kinda Bexy

    p.s. Today I will go and visit a friend at another friends house of whom I’ve not seen in years. All those years ago she had a moment of clarity, but did a few things “Normal” people saw as totally bonkers, so she was sectioned, heavily sedated and for a while those in charge did not allow me to visit (being alarmed and needing desperately to know she was alive, I would check on her through the window of her room before driving home, unbeknown to anyone). I power dressed and walked in very confidently and insisted in the end I was to see her the next time I visited. They knew I was coming and placed me into a huge empty room to wait and wait and wait, then in ran a women who came right up nose to nose and said “DEFINE NORMAL!” Oh the joy of those memories and how they bring a grin to mind now, but at the time did my head in!!!

  6. Kinda Bexy

    p.p.s. Not seen in years because she lives hundreds of miles away and is here on a break. Oh and the woman who ran towards me wasn’t her, but a total stranger.

  7. Interesting review of a couple of books about autism in the latest LRB: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v38/n10/daniel-smith/call-a-kid-a-zebra

    The reviewer, Daniel Smith, writes, “… what makes autism an important subject now is the question of how extensive a role the condition plays in contemporary life, and how extensive a role it ought to play.” He goes on: “This question has to be addressed in two ways, one statistical, the other cultural and political.” Your posts show an interest in the cultural role that an awareness of autism (if not autism itself) is playing. Interesting.

    1. Though I don’t subscribe to the LRB I read enough the review to note that Lorna Wing is referenced in some of the books on autism I’ve finished so far. Interesting premise — as far as I got without subscribing!

      The thing that comes across about those with autism is that not only do they sense they’re different from the neurotypical population but that NTs are adept at spotting them too (without necessarily putting a name to their condition).

      This sense of difference — of otherness, almost — often leads to ostracisation or bullying on the one hand or even a sort of veneration if they demonstrate unusual abilities. If my hunch is correct and a significant proportion of authors are on the spectrum then it’s not surprising that the odd tics and behaviours that many anecdotes about writers draw attention to (and which be indicative of ASD) are tolerated or valued by NT readers because of the output of enjoyable books. Well, possibly!

  8. elmediat

    There is another category of thinkers that could be seen a LD by some and have similar traits to Asperger’s Syn. It is a constellation of traits that do not really have their own label, but I have seen them exemplified by many students, including my son.

    These individuals function as Global learners, but may extend that way of thinking to where it can stymie some processing of information (either taking it in or expressing it ). As I have said to my son, some can not see the forest for the trees, while you have difficulty concentrating on the tree(s) because you see the whole forest (global ecosystem).

    One early bench mark, may be core phonological deficient. The individuals will delay in language and suddenly just jump to whole words and sentences. They can have huge verbal vocabularies, yet have difficulty creating lists of like sounding words.

    “Give me a word that starts with s and sounds like bat.”

    “Sbahts”

    They will learn to read & write and use complex words like “dinosaur or photosynthesis”, yet have a terrible time with words like “what or because” – scrambling phonological elements.

    They will recall information in chunks, often narrative based, and will have trouble retrieving small elements outside of those frameworks.

    Their social skills can be very mixed, because they see extended patterns of interaction, getting caught up in where it is going, rather than where it is at the present. Individual interaction can be inconsistent and yet they function well in certain group/team situations.

    Depending on he project/activity they can be like deer staring into the headlights, frozen my the magnitude/complexity unable to start, even though they have a detailed plan. Starting at the being may not be the best option.

    Stitching a fragment narrative together may be an easier approach than the opening line/first chapter. Cutting away pieces to reveal a sculpture (the extraction method) easier that building up a model. Anticipating problems and conflicts easier than completing a piece (trying to eliminate all the imperfections or adjusting smallest detail).

    Labels go only so far when dealing with a complex set of characteristics – especially if each characteristic can have a different level of intensity depending on environment and temperament. Labels should be treated as guidelines and rough templates for to establish accurate evaluation and means of assistance. 🙂

    1. Well, this is fascinating — as you say, labels can go only so far and have their limitations, though they can be useful as pointers in a certain direction. Having a handle on how your son thinks must be a huge bonus, especially for his sake as well as for your own.

      I wouldn’t imagine Susanna Clarke necessarily has this constellation of traits when she stiches together fragments to complete her novel — after all I suspect that many writers follow a similar procedure — but as a visual illustration of how some think it’s very vivid. (I also like your analogy of “cutting away pieces to reveal a sculpture” which is how I think Michelangelo worked, isn’t it — chipping away at the block of marble to free the figure inside.)

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