My Aspie Friends

Byron is an old ASU classmate of mine. We lost touch in 2000, when he rejoined the army. Ten years later, he tracked me down on Facebook, and every month since then we’ve exchanged a few messages. The other day he PM’d me: “Turns out I have Asperger’s Syndrome. Does that freak you out?”

“Not at all,” I wrote back. It was the truth. In fact, I might have added: “Et tu?”

Just a few months earlier, an ex-girlfriend named Karen wrote me to report her own diagnosis with AS. “In case you ever wondered why I was so weird, well…” was the gist of the letter. She went on to relate how she’d enrolled in a sort of class, along with others like her, to gain a better undertanding of why and how their experience of the world differs from the average person’s. She’s finding it helpful. She also said she and her friends call themselves “Aspies.” Notwithstanding my outsider status, I’ll help myself to the word — it’s too jaunty to leave be.

By anyone’s standards, both Karen and Byron are high-functioning. Byron served as an artillery forward observer — a fact that casts doubt on his sanity, but not on any other aspect of his mental fitness — and holds a masters degree in social work. When I knew Karen, she was finishing up a bachelors in accounting. Byron is married with a son. Though, apparently like many Aspies, Karen now considers herself asexual, she claims to be “passionately in love” with two different people, both of them women. According to her, both objects reciprocate. Sex or no sex, this makes her a polyamorist, and therefore much hipper than me.

If there’s any quick giveaway that Byron and Karen are wired differently from most people, it’s the all-consuming quality of their interests. Byron’s hobby horses include martial arts and philosophy. He can entwine the two — say, by spinning an on-the-spot Hegelian analysis of Sonny Liston’s jab — in a way Norman Mailer would have admired. Karen is a sci-fi and fantasy fangirl who has made herself a respected eminence on a dozen discussion boards.

Yet I would hesitate to call either one obsessed. The social realities of this world may do nothing to tamp down their passions, but they’ve at least created an impetus toward compromise or camouflage. If anyone were to bring up botany or hip-hop music, either Karen or Byron would listen politely and make a sincere effort to contribute. When Karen, a veteran of countless comic conventions, managed to get herself photographed with Renee O’Connor, she never imagined that the event formalized some cosmic connection between them.

Both Karen and Byron are terrible drivers, but out from behind the wheel, both come across as lovable eccentrics. Or lovable to me, at any rate. I’m starting to realize that I get along better with these high-functioning Aspies better than I do with most high-functioning normal people. For starters, nobody, I’ve found, appreciates a good listener like someone with AS. If you can follow the Aspie-affected mind down its strange (though well-traveled) pathways, you’re as good as gold. Byron could amuse himself for hours with a game I’ll call — unimaginatively — Which Movie Character Could Beat up Whom? A typical round would go something like this:

“Okay, Max, who would win: Clubber Lang or Ivan Drago?”

“Drago, definitely. Clubber had no chin at all.”

“The greasers from The Outsiders or the Fordham Baldies from The Wanderers?”

(Long pause.) “Too close to call. It would depend on who brought more people. In any case, it’d be one busy night in the ER.”

“Mr. Miyagi from the Karate Kid movies, or Xian Chow from Kickboxer?”

“Xian Chow. Muay Thai is just too bad-assed.”

When I think back on this game, two thoughts occur to me. First, Byron never disputed my calls. As long as he could tell I was really engaged, he was satisfied. Second, I really was engaged. The exercise involved inductive reasoning, but allowed room for wishful thinking and even a sense of poetic justice. (Drago might have been a surly cuss, but unlike Clubber, he wasn’t crude.) It might seem childish — a regression to the Little Rascals’ Who’s Stronger: Flash Gordon or Tarzan? — but it’s related to a respectable form of sports journalism. After I lost touch with Byron, I ran across an issue of Nat Fleischer’s The Ring dedicated entirely to imagined match-ups between fighters from different eras. The writer predicted, among other outcomes, that Frazier would take Marciano in six, by TKO. As I recall, his logic was no more sophisticated than Byron’s would have been.

What do normal people talk about, anyway? Politics? The economy? (Pass the Maalox.) Their lousy sex lives? (Has anyone seen my violin?) Their outstanding sex lives? (As they say in Yiddish, yemakh shmoy – may their names be erased from the Book of Life.) Any absorbing passion that exists for its own sake, in its own pristine atmosphere, untouched by the grime of real life, is ipso facto a form of escapism. In moderation, that’s a good thing. A visit to a friend shouldn’t always feel like a consultation with my accountant.

Then there’s the special sense of security I get from dealing with explicit verbalizers. As a writer, I like words. Sure, I can interpret nonverbal cues like a false smile, a dropped gaze or a tactful silence as well as the next person, but unless that signal gets converted into a paragraph, and quickly, I become antsy. I sense that the person I’m talking to is trying to deny me a tactical advantage by avoiding the medium in which I consider myself expert. Understatement, hyperbole and irony are fine, but in my old age I’m losing patience with people who default to them. Whenever I hear “That’s what she said,” I want to mark the speaker down for appealing to false authority.

One time, I asked Karen, “What’s wrong?” That evening, when I got home, I found she’d written me an 1,900-word e-mail explaining exactly what was wrong, and concluding with a point-by-point explication of how she wished for me to treat her going forward. At the time, I was outraged — the thing read like the Treaty of Versailles. With hindsight, I’ve come to cherish that document. It beats any of those “Oh, nothings,” that prove as reliable as the Munich Agreement.

Aspies are said to be deficient in cognitive empathy. That is, they have a hard time inferring what other people are thinking and feeling, even given clues that work fine for the rest of us. However frustrating and painful this might be under normal circumstances, it can, occasionally, be a mercy. When I first met Byron, he was dating a woman whose mother took an instant, passionate dislike to him. With karate-tested chin resting on karate-trained fist, Byron puzzled over the mysterious disconnect.

“I think I’ve got it, Bro,” he said at length. I wish I could reproduce what he came up with — something about archetypes, I think. The point is, it sounded a lot more pleasant to believe than what I perceived to be the truth: that the woman was spiteful by nature, and likely to become more obviously so over time. (The fact that Byron had introduced himself as “your typical Mormon Daoist” probably didn’t do much to boost his standing with a Southern Baptist family.) Not long after that, she and Byron got into a shouting match. I’ll bet dollars to donuts the understanding of their differences he’d constructed so painstakingly from thin air was the only thing that kept him from decking the hag.

To an Aspie, everything I’ve written here must reek of condescension. Here I am, dealing out unsought pats on the head from a position of unearned privilege. Anyway, would I speak so fulsomely of people more seriously affected than this pair? Probably not. When I worked on the ramp for U.S. Airways, I dreaded being teamed with an Aspie named Dave, who was brilliant at stacking bags, but chanted “Gotta go! Gotta go! Gotta go-go-go!” with an intensity that made my hair stand on end. Karen gave me the impression that Aspies create their own caste distinctions along passability lines. For socializing chiefly with people like me, she hinted, she ran a risk of being labeled an Aspie La Malinche. I certainly don’t want to add to that pool of resentment.

But, at least in my case, it took two poster children like Karen and Byron to get me thinking seriously about less ingratiating specimens like Dave. One of life’s cruelest realities is that some people dine out on their flaws (quirks, eccentricities, whatever), whereas others chase their own, nearly identical, irregularities straight down the drain. I’ve met no end of blustery illiterates who made small fortunes in sales. I’ve met other blustery illiterates who tanked, thanks to squeaky voices or dork faces. It’s downright criminal to say, “There but for the grace of God go I” without remembering that the devil is in the details.

  • Tim

    I can never understand this Asperger’s Syndrome phenomenon. Whenever I read an article about it, which includes a profile of some “Aspie”, the people seem to be functioning pretty well, even if they are a little odd.

    Your Aspie friends seem to have good social lives despite (or maybe because of) their eccentricities. From your description, they appear “normal” as far as I’m concerned.

    But if believing they have some kind of “syndrome” helps explain their lives, God love ‘em. Then again, maybe the “syndrome” is more a convenience for others (the non-Aspies) to explain and accept the behavior of the Aspies. I always found that ascribing some oddity of another to a medical condition (such as a syndrome) sets my mind at ease.

    [I'm downplaying the odd parts.]

  • Nina Evans

    I am not a clinician. But I have supported clinicians who worked with clients of out / in patient therapy for mental illness. What I am going to say is from the inside looking on the dynamic that is therapy today.

    First, if being quirky is a problem, then it could have a diagnosis. If you can bill for it, it is chronic. If it is chronic then it could be an argument for disability. So if I am skeptical of MI diagnosis, forgive me. I am only looking at what I see in the business. Sad state of affairs and somewhat recent development (in the last 30+ years).

    That being said, I know a close relative who has Aspergers. His quirky behavior was difficult for the family and during his childhood and most of his adulthood, shrugged off as a regrettable personality, ie the black sheep syndrome. I must say that there was a bit of Grace extended to him when he was diagnosed. You see, as a black sheep he was expected to behave differently at some point if he would but chose it. Now, as a diagnosed MI individual, he had a legitimate source of his quirkiness. His behavior still irritated the family, but no longer did anyone expect it to change because said family member decided to stop doing XXX behaviors. It is no longer the devil made me do it. It was now the diagnosis made me do it.

    In short, there was little improvement for this family member except that now he wasn’t to blame entirely for his quirky behaviors. His genetics, his exposure to whatever toxins whilst he was a child or younger….whatever, were the bugaboos. And yes, Max, there but for the Grace of God go I. I reveled in my own quirkiness. His was resonate with mine. I found him amusing, if not irritating at times. But the ugly truth is, he is still the black sheep. But instead of fm’s (family member) pointing a finger at him, they instead invoke whatever wards against the evil eye they are comfortable with:prayers, arguments against this or that therapy, calls for political action. I have yet to see the hand signs and/or spitting gestures as these fm’s are esteemed too erudite for such displays. Do we believe it is the Grace of God that protects us? Or is this not a kind of warding against the incomprehensible forces of evil?

    Each of us has a diagnosis. We are fallen creatures, a little lower than the angels and a little higher than the animals. Be twist and between. Humanity comes in shades and sizes. Some have code and a place in the DSM (whatever number it is up to by now). Some do not have a precise name or prognosis. We might name the syndrome which may only be resolved in our next life. In the meantime, like St Paul I find myself working out my salvation in fear and trembling. Fear and trembling not because the evil that stalks us humans, but fear of the wondrous opportunity we have to love against all odds and trembling because it is with the expectation of failures and lessons learned the hard way. There is where the Grace of God abounds.

  • Thanks

    Miyagi would kill xian- Frazier/ Marciano: too close. Sensitive and profound treatise ( by no
    Means condescending).

  • B. Durbin

    Tim: The way it works is that everybody has filters. For someone who is neurotypical (“normal”), these filters screen out the irrelevant material, allowing the person to focus on the subject at hand. For someone on the autism spectrum—of which Asperger’s is one part—these filters are broken to some degree, which means that the person is dealing with too much irrelevant information to function the same as someone who has working filters.

    I should note at this point that Asperger’s is not “mild autism” but a particular form; some autistic people are very sensitive to social cues.

    At any rate, someone with any form of autism has to fight through information overload in order to function. Think of it like trying to carry on a conversation while one or more people are shouting in your ear. With Asperger’s, they can’t pick up on the social cues because there’s too many other things going on which demand their attention. Extreme focus on one or two areas of interest is a coping mechanism.

    (It is entirely possible that my husband is very mildly autistic. His experience in childhood and now lines up pretty well; as it is, the diagnosis is almost identical to what he HAS been told he is, which is extremely introverted and ADD. We’re going to try to get a proper diagnosis because the coping techniques are slightly different.)

  • Byron

    Max, as only you can do- you made my world a little more livable- thanks for the truth.

    [Just me trying to pay off an unpayable debt, baby.]

  • Tim

    “Just me trying to pay off an unpayable debt, baby.”

    Student loans?


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