Thursday, September 5, 2013

Better Living Through References

A close friend of mine once told me that her brother with Asperger's has only communicated with her through shared references. Her brother has never had any other type of interaction with her - his efforts to reach out never migrate from direct experiences to reflection - never include what most people consider "real" conversation.

Many people tell me that it's hard to know that I have Asperger's. My close friend has reported that she sees vast differences between her brother and myself, yet sometimes, I feel that all of my "sophisticated, thoughtful" ideas are still loosely based on references and nothing else.

I have a phenomenal working memory for topics that interest me, and I store as much useful (or useless, depending on how you value the data) information as I can. This allows me to cheat, to make me seem like a person with "normal" reactions to life.

I feel like a human version of the "Turing test": every day, I wonder if people can distinguish what I say and how I act from the people around me. Will I pass? How long will people know me before they suspect me?

Once upon a time, Windows operating software like Windows 95 functioned on top of a pre-existing program called DOS. Windows 95 gave users the illusion of direct control, but Windows was still dependent on DOS architecture for daily operations. I like using this analogy to describe what it's like to be a person with Asperger's who has made some adjustments to cope with a neurotypical world.

While I strive to act compatibly with the majority of the people around me, I am in fact deeply dependent on a very different set of hardwiring. As much as I try to act in a synchronized way with what other people seem to expect from me, there are invariably times when I become frustrated by my limitations and the strenuous difficulty of staying on constant alert.

There are many things I do and ways I think about the world which are considered unusual. For example, I have a profoundly different sense of humor than most people I have met. A lot of things amuse me which are similar to neurotypical humor, but they tend to have their own subtle but pleasing spin for me.

Lots of people appreciate slapstick humor and the idea of the pratfall. Countless comedians - from Charlie Chaplin in the silent film era, to Chevy Chase's bumbling impression of Gerald Ford on Saturday Night Live, to Ben Stiller antagonizing Robert DeNiro in the Meet the Parents movies - have made their reputations and millions of dollars from this brand of comedy.

For me, though, the concept of the pratfall extends from the physical to the emotional and societal. When people are hypocritical, inconsistent, passive-aggressive, dishonest, euphemistic, or otherwise find their feelings and actions at cross-purposes, I feel a great surge of schadenfreude. Those who have, as I have, spent their entire lives struggling to relate to people or to decipher the murky impressions people agonizingly leave in their wake, find it especially hysterical when neurotypical people struggle with some of the same problems.

On a related note, one of my favorite things is when neurotypical people adopt behaviors that autistic people have used to cope with a society that is inherently difficult for them. Every year, more people adopt smartphones, tablets, and other kinds of technology that occupy a person's every waking moment - insulating individuals from the burden of small talk and other social relationships. People are so cocooned in their own worlds - due to technology - that they miss out on the subtle, intimate details of daily life that people like me have struggled in vain to notice.

It amuses me to no end that so many neurotypical people are voluntarily abandoning a portal to the world that has been troublesome for me to access. When I am surrounded by a group of my friends who are all consumed in their smartphones, and I am the one person most intent on making conversation and observing the world around me...I cannot help but guffaw.

In an era of wildly proliferating Internet memes and the burgeoning celebration of pop culture references as a touchstone of daily life, I am beginning to wonder whether I am the person who truly has a problem with relying too much on abstract references and ideas.

The consumer-focused, hyper-individualized culture of America has blurred the lines (yes, that was intentional) between my struggle to anticipate how other people expect me to behave, and my longing to capture as much of the human experience as I possibly can.

I now face a society that discourages authenticity and the hard work required to immerse one's self in a diverse array of experiences. I face a society seemingly satisfied with low-hanging fruit and lowest-common-denominators. If I used to worry that I would not live up to the expectations of society, perhaps it is society that needs to worry about whether it's going to live up to my expectations.

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