Some might wonder what it’s like to suffer Asperger’s Syndrome. A few thought experiments might make the experience of this disorder a little clearer to those who only see its surface manifestations.
Imagine that you are sealed permanently in a box. It looks just like a human being, but it is a box, and you spend all your time inside it, and you cannot escape. Within the box you have a control panel of switches and levers and dials which operate and monitor such things as your facial expression, tone of voice, gait, posture and other media of nonverbal communication. You must maintain constant vigilance over this panel of indicators and controls. Every few seconds a snapshot drops into the box… pictures of such things as somebody’s knit brows, a smirking or laughing mouth, a person yawning or winking at you. At the same time as you analyze these clues for some idea what’s going on outside the box, you listen carefully with headphones to things that are being said. Unfortunately, all the transmissions you receive have been automatically translated into a foreign language and then back into English, so all you hear are mechanically stilted phrases, lacking nuance, but awash with confused connotations and subject to confounding interpretations; consequently, you don’t easily recognize sarcasm, and many forms of humor and irony are lost on you. Remember, at the same time as you are poring over the pictures-- trying to put together the story-- also while listening to, and examining transcripts of the strained syntax coming over the headphones and trying to make sense of all that, you must simultaneously maintain conscious control of the panel. Does this sound difficult?
There’s more. Growing up in the box, you’ve become increasingly aware that you’re “different” from the people around you, or, I should say, the people around your box. You inevitably get teased and bullied a lot in school. Others don’t appear to suffer the strain you endure in trying to deal with people from within the box; for them, “reading” other people is natural, easy, and “fun”. You are called a bookworm (and many other less innocuous names) because, for you, even higher mathematics and particle physics are easier to comprehend than the idly chattering people around you. Thus, you become a sort of “walking encyclopedia” of various subjects you’ve retreated into… books never shunned you, and they have become your only reliable friends. People comment that you often appear absent-minded or lost in thought, speak in a pedantic or artificial way, and generally lack “common sense”. Passengers in your car notice that you appear to have great difficulty conversing and driving at the same time. You acquire a reputation for saying precisely the wrong thing at the worst possible moment. People avoid you; they don’t understand how a demonstrably intelligent person could at the same time be such a blithering idiot and social washout. They don’t understand how much work it is trying to manage in the box, how easily you can be overwhelmed by all the fragmented pictures and illogical phrases-- each requiring close analysis and evaluation-- which inundate you. Do you think you might feel very lonely, bitterly lonely, under these circumstances?
You do your best to assuage the loneliness by constructing an acceptable demeanor, built up of all the things you’ve learned-- learned the hard way-- about managing interpersonal relations from within the box. You learn some routines which can be punched into the control panel by rote, all for the purpose of feigning normality. The veneer is very brittle, though, and has to be repaired constantly and at great effort to maintain the façade. For instance, a new acquaintance might mention the beautiful weather; you, delighted at meeting someone who shares your interest in meteorology, discourse on the high-pressure system recorded via satellite a few miles away, and are bewildered that your newfound friend appears to be trying to get away from you. But you learn from this. You program a macro into the control panel which automatically replies “Yes, what an effing gorgeous day! I can’t wait for the weekend!” to any mention of attractive weather, though you know you’ll be indoors, all by yourself that weekend, just like every other weekend. You might start feeling a bit insincere and empty after doing this for a while. Do you think you could get used to that?
Affectations of normality only go so far, though, and you don’t get invited to many parties. This might come as a relief, given the stress dealing with groups of people creates in the box. However, there is one particular social gathering which remains memorable. It is the one where you discover that you’re not just “different”, but that you truly don’t belong. At this gathering, you find yourself surrounded by laughing people, all or most of their attention being focused on you. You feel a bit flattered that all these friendly people find you so interesting and entertaining. At first. Then a few of the snapshots which drop into the box start to reveal a different story… they appear to be signaling to one another as if to say “get a load of this dork” and you begin to realize you are being humiliated with the sarcasm you don’t comprehend, and are being set on display for ridicule. That’s the reason you were invited, in fact: it is a circus, and you are the clueless sideshow freak. You begin to falter as you go over the evidence which has now piled into the box, and tears fill your eyes as you look over the snapshots you’ve collected, searching desperately for some other interpretation. You can’t believe that people would be so cruel. Deep inside the box, you start sobbing, uncontrollably, and you drop the pictures, throw the headphones aside and turn away from the control panel, in abject hurt and pain. But the box isn’t crying… the control panel has been left unattended, so the box is left staring blankly into space, twitching nervously, and rocking back and forth in silence. Sweet, numbing silence.
Then try this one on for size. Imagine that you have a grotesque deformity… but not just one particular deformity, because people can get used to those, and, depending upon the character of the afflicted person, some may come to find big scars and missing parts colorful and endearing. No, imagine that you have some sort of constantly-changing deformity, such that, say, a rhinoceros horn would grow out of your cheekbone for a period of five minutes, then recede only to be replaced a half hour later with a third-degree burn which consumes your nose and right ear, and then a few minutes later this scar in turn fades away, but after another twenty minutes your lower jaw drops off, making you look like a hagfish. This process continues throughout your life, and you have absolutely no control over it. Your job-- which you must perform every day-- is to go out and meet people while pretending that absolutely nothing is wrong. Clearly, your working life would be hell. But what would your social life be like during your non-working hours? What about your sexual life? Where would you go, and what would you do? How would you feel?
Well, that’s the way I feel every day. The deformity is a pervasive developmental disorder on the autistic spectrum. It affects my personality and everything I do and everyone I meet on any more than a casual basis. Some would deny that there is any sort of “disorder“ here; I know I sure did. In previous years I’ve told my self I was merely “shy,” “melancholic,” or “hypersensitive”. I even called my habit of sitting in a corner rocking back and forth for two or three hours per day-- a trait I share with my fully autistic brother-- a form of “meditation”! But I don’t lie to myself anymore. The best I can do is reassure those close to me (a very precious few) that, though I’m alarmingly whacked, I’m not at all dangerous. Did I mention that AS is no more treatable nor curable than any other form of mental retardation?