"There's only one hard and fast rule in running: sometimes you have to run one hard and fast."

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Autism Post

I don't usually make a big deal about being on the autism spectrum, but it's been a problem lately and I just need to vent.

I had a first date recently, where, after 10 minutes of chit-chat, I said, "I can't do this. People on dates pretend they're better than they are and try to figure out what flaws the other person's hiding. I have plenty of flaws, but I'm honest; tell me what flaws you're looking for and I'll tell you whether or not I have them. Then maybe I can relax and can enjoy spending time with you, which is really what I wanted to do in the first place." This was a bad idea. I knew it was a bad idea and I did it anyway. Some might think, "How refreshing! I wish someone had said that to me when I was dating," but you would've reacted badly to it if it happened. That's why people don't do that. It's clean, logical, efficient... and apparently unforgivably wrongheaded. The profoundly autistic don't date and the mildly autistic learn the accepted rules of behavior and abide by them (Pretend you're really interested in what she's saying. Ask a lot of questions, but nothing personal, etc.), though they think it's absurd. I'm in the middle range and it's frustrating. In almost 30 years of dating, about the only things I've learned are: 1) If someone takes a breath mint and offers you one, take it. 2) Apparently, it's never too hot for patio seating. 3) People laugh when they're nervous; don't assume you're actually amusing.

Autism can be very lonely. I can spend 23 hours a day by myself and be perfectly content, but eventually I want to be around other people and have trouble figuring out how to do that. It never occurs to me that I have to actually make an effort to contact people on a regular basis or relationships dry up. Meeting people is hard: I have trouble making eye contact, I don't like crowds (or noise, or being touched, or any other sensory overload that others can ignore), I have trouble starting and ending conversations. That's pretty limiting.

Autism can be very confusing. I don't notice a lot of things that others think important, but notice a world of details that I try to connect into some semblance of order and it gives me a skewed view of the world. Two examples come to mind. 1) I had a job where one day my boss told me he needed a large number of strips of aluminum of a certain size and gave me an example by cutting one with a razor blade. He called me twice, exasperated that I was so slow in getting him what he needed, but my hands had cramped with the work and were covered with hundreds of razor nicks (I had used up an entire box of blades and was forced to cut with dull ones). It never occurred to me that I was doing this on top of a machine designed to cut aluminum into strips. 2) I had a first date with a woman where we twice went for walks because her roommates wouldn't let her smoke indoors. She did something very peculiar. She kept running a few steps ahead of me and then stood on a curb or a park bench and waited for me to arrive. Only when I kissed her good night and she stepped on top of something so we'd be at a less awkward angle - she was very short - did I realize she had spent the night wondering why I didn't kiss her when she'd given me every opportunity. There was body language involved that I just couldn't read. [We dated for two years after that. It didn't get much easier.]

Autism can be very frustrating. A job interview, for example. My skin crawls when I'm offered a hand to shake, but I do it and the other person gives a facial expression that I've learned means "Good God! Don't crush my fingers." I try to look in their eyes, but it's hard, so I look away and they think, "He's being evasive. He's kind of shifty." They ask a question and it's open-ended, there's a hundred ways to answer it, so I think about how to best answer and I realize I'm taking too long, that it looks like I don't know or I'm trying to think of a good lie, I really should say something, anything, but all I can think about is the fact that I'm not saying anything and I should, I start to panic... and then say something that makes sense to me, but without the context of the interior monologue makes no sense at all.

The severely autistic don't speak at all and people wonder what's going on inside them. I have what I call "autistic moments," where I get a sort of vacant stare and I know I've stopped moving and it's not normal, but it's comfortable; I'm aware of what's going on, but I'm disconnected from the things around me. I expect catatonia must be like that.

I have two contrasting problems that each compensate for the other. I have an impossibly short attention span and I have a tendency to obsess. I focus on one thing, very hard, for a very long time, then my mind wanders and focuses on something else, very intently. It's like ADD and OCD combined. I think it's common in autism and one of the reasons the autistic develop "splinter skills," like the famous savants that are excellent at one particular activity, to the exclusion of all else. If you can master one thing, control it, understand it completely, it sort of makes up for the surrounding chaos and you think that perhaps the skills used to conquer that one thing will apply to everything else. [They never do.]

Depression is very common in autism and part of it is undoubtedly from the frustration of not being able to do things others take for granted. I used to sit in restaurants and bars and watch people, to see if I could figure out how they behave. I watched a lot of television, to see how certain characters handle various situations. The same with novels; it's a vicarious life.

Okay, I'm starting to feel my mind wander to something else, so it's time to stop writing.


GeorgiaSnail said...

Steve, Thank you for that post. My 9 year old nephew has Autism. Your post has given me insight into his world (and yours) that I have never seen in the nine years I have been around him. Thank you again!

Glaven Q. Heisenberg said...

Extremely interesting post, Steve.

I myself feel awkward in most social situations, and I'm kinda one of those I-Like-People-In-The-Aggregate-But-Would-Prefer-Most-Individuals-Leave-Me-Alone types, but not to the point that I'd claim I fell anywhere within the range of the autism spectrum.

But I feel extremely self-conscious in most face-to-face social conversations (face-to-face conversations in a professional context are no problem: I am a Reference Librarian, after all, and not being able to handle that would definitely be a deal-breaker), and I've sat back and watched and listened to others who are really good conversationalists, and tried to figure out how they did it; because when I hear what they say, I'm always like, "That was exactly the right thing to say, there, and it seems so flippin' obvious after the fact, but i never would have thought to say it if it were me ..."

And I concluded a long time ago that, autisic or not, you can't really learn this because these foax are just good at it; but part of what they do that i don't, I noticed, is listen well and react to what's just been said. Whereas I, in most social situations, spend most of my "listening" time trying to think of what I'm going to say next that might not make me sound like an utter idiot. So I actually absorb maybe 25% of what the other person has just said, virtually guaranteeing that what I say next will be so disconnected from what preceded it that I'll look like the idiot I feared I'd look like.

So ... um ... what was my point?

Uh ... your guess is as good as mine!

But, again, very interesting post.

I guess the difference between someone on the autism scale (you) and someone not (me) is I can fake it quite a bit better.

That sounds more flippant and reductive than I intended, but, well, you know... did I ever tell you about me and social situations and sounding like an idiot ...?

Diana said...

Thanks for Glaven sending me over a link to your post via my blog, I just want to say "thanks" for letting the world know a little about autism from the "inside". I have a son who has Aspbergers and just wrote a blog today in regards to him and what I'd like to do for him and others. Your input would be awesome.
Thanks again, look forward to more of your blog-hope you don't mind if I put it on my sidebar!

M2Marathon said...

Fascinating insight into how you view the world. Autism or not, we never really know exactly how others view the world, from the inside out. You eloquently described just that.

And I always haaaaatttteeedd the pretense of dating, as well. I often wanted to say just what you did, get the dog and pony show out of the way and just get to know the real person sitting there. Actually, I still feel this way about people. And I'm not on the autism spectrum, but rather more the conversationalist type. I have to think there are others like me out there.

Thanks for the insightful post.

Helen said...

All I can say is whatever you (and Glaven) may lack (and I'm not sure that's the right word) in social situations you make up for in writting and blogging skills. A serious issue conveyed in understandable terms. With humour too.

Agree on dating BS. I went on a first (and last) date two weeks ago and after yawning three times in the first twenty minutes decided to wrap it up. And I am comfortable with conversation, eye contact etc but damn it Life's Too Short! I guess, maybe I just need more sleep. Or coffee.

Aka Alice said...

Hi Steve,
I've been reading your blog for awhile, I'm not sure I've ever commented before though.

Your blog made me think about what a wonderful thing the internet and this blogging thing is. My blog is the place where I can be direct. The words are the only thing that speak, and while words may have subtle/gray meanings that are often confounding, in the context of my blog, they aren't accompanied by body language or shrugs (only the occasional emoticon).

I'm not sure why I'm leaving this comment. It's just what I was thinking of as I read your rant (which, on your blog, you're allowed to do whenever you want!).

Andrew said...

Thanks for sharing. I don't know if anyone reading your blog has known you for as long as I, likely not someone from the running side of things anyway. I would normally leave a bunch of smart ass remarks if I leave any at all. This time I'll just say this - I'm better off for knowing you. Sorry for your low times.

sea legs girl said...

Thanks so much for writing that. You may find this a bit strange, but SR and I actually talk sometimes about how you simply can't be autistic because you care so much about people (at least through their blogs). But I think I understand better now. Whatever name you give it and wherever you sit on any spectrum, it gives you problems. And I can completely relate to them --- perhaps a reason we both have blogs. I will just say that I have never been able to "date" anyone either. I was just lucky enough to find another person who is the same way in social situations as me. It's also easier to start dating someone you happen to know in advance. The truth is we can all relate to what you wrote to some degree, so thanks for being honest. Now, this is going to sound cheesy, but another truth is, you don't need to be afraid of being your awkward self. I have no doubt people will like you in the real world just as they do on your blog.

SteveQ said...

Thanks for the comments (and for letting me vent). I could go on forever on the subject, but Tracy brings up a sore point; my being autistic has been debated ad nauseum (prefrontal dysexecutive deficit a possibility). Being rather clever, I've developed skills to hide symptoms; for example, having conversations with people while running means never having to make eye contact! Empathy is a strained concept in autism - it's not that someone who's autistic doesn't care what someone else feels, it's more that they can't read the signs, so when someone gives (say) a sign of exasperation, the autistic person goes merrily along doing whatever was exasperating until they're told explicitly to stop.

Glaven Q. Heisenberg said...

Hey Steve - check out the addendum to my blog post today, then try and tell me: "Harksuck: It's What's For Dinner" wouldn't be an awesome blog post title!

It's a winner because it's drawn from real (i.e., virtual) life!

SteveQ said...

G, I just saw that, but I'm still enthralled by Bearsharktopus, which was a couple links away.

Kathleen said...

I agree with sea legs girl. Many, many people have similar issues -- maybe on a different place in the continuum, but we're still there. Driving is a good place for conversation as well!

Anonymous said...

I came across your blog last week, and started reading from the beginning entries. I happened to see your latest entry today, so instead of linking backwards to an older entry, decided to read it.

Considering how well you write and express your ideas, I was blown away to read that you are autistic. But then I thought, wait, do I even know what that condition entails, because most everything you described I have experienced myself, yet I was never diagnosed with a disease or ailment.

Eye contact, I just can't do it, especially when I am speaking, I have to look away so that I can formulate what I want to say. Also, when I do look into someone's eyes, I feel I gaze too intently, as if I am spying on their inner selves, so I just give it up altogether.

Conversations are tough, but I once read something by Robert Bly which made things easier - "If you want to have a conversation with someone, ask a question, then... listen."

I'll get an interesting thought in my head, and then gaze out into nothingness while pondering. People will notice this, and say, "whoa, where did you just go."

I can easily spend days on end by myself and feel no need to speak or see anyone.

Because of all of the above I had to figure out some kind of excuse or description to explain to people why I spend most of my time alone. I say, "I'm an introvert, I never get bored."

Pretty odd how closely related introversion and autism are.

Oh yeah, is it any wonder that I love running whole days in the woods by myself :)

Just wanted to say how much I enjoy your blog, your entries resonate with me, and I find them to be inspiring and interesting.

One day I hope to meet you on the trail - I won't make eye contact, I probably won't say anything, but I will give you a nod of the head and a wave of the hand....

Midwestern Introvert

Guy said...

Steve, I also have a nephew (14) who is autistic. I can relate to a lot of what you describe as his "world", and some of what you describe has given me insight into things I've noticed, but not understood before. Interesting. Thanks!

Julie B said...

I don't think your posting of autism is 'making a big deal of it' as it is a part of you and I would think writing about it is a great way to express your feelings. But what do I know. I tell more on my blog than I talk about face to face with people. I am just not comfortable talking about myself.. but writing .. I can do it all day long. Thanks for sharing a bit more of yourself.

Beth said...

Thanks for writing that post and sharing how the world works and appears to you. I think if someone said that to me on a first date I would ask them to marry me on the spot. I hate playing games and always want to get to the point.

Mitch R. said...

I know about people like you. My 10-year old son is severely autistic.

SteveQ said...

Mitch, I was expecting a comment of some sort from you - you and Steve G. have talked about your son, but I didn't know where on the spectrum he is.

At the Autism Society of Minnesota, I'm often asked for input, because there aren't many who can articulate their ideas who understand the issues from the inside.

trailgrrl said...

Great posts period..you make me laugh and for that I want to thank thank thank you..even with a serious topic you find humor....good on you!