Friday, May 19, 2017

Asshole or Asperger's?

Since we are talking about me, may we assume the second option, that my countless and varied episodes of assholery can reasonably be blamed on the neurological aberration known as Asperger's Syndrome? A comparatively mild condition on the autism spectrum that nonetheless can wreak havoc in a person's life? May we? If so, we can go ahead and slip on the 4-D glasses and settle in for a glimpse of my long, strange, angst-drenched (I'll try not to get any on you) trip. But if you can't--and I'm speaking directly to you, you there with the cynical smirk!—if you are unable to give me the benefit of any plausibly allowable doubt here as a guest on my blog, well then dammit you can buzz the fuck off. Go read another James Patterson novel!

Those of you still with me, in particular those of my acquaintances who have witnessed or experienced examples of my socially inappropriate behavior, please understand I am not trying to escape responsibility for the injuries and embarrassments I have caused. I'm not looking to excuse what I've done. My hope is to ease the sting of presumed intent by identifying the underlying reflexes that prompt many of my boorish actions. Virtually all perceptions of premeditation with these blunders are illusory. The blunders spring to life instantaneously. They're intuitive, born of a fallible reading of nuance. Self-protection for an Aspergian is tricky, risky business. The occasions when I've lost my temper with people, or treated them meanly, have haunted me from as far back as I can remember. My memory's nowhere near as comprehensive as the typical Aspergian's, but those of times I've unnecessarily hurt people are the ones that always seem to stick.

My self-diagnosis of what I've come to believe is Asperger's began while reading John Elder Robison's memoir, Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger's, This book not only opened my eyes (figuratively, ha ha) it emboldened me to shed a little light on my own personality dysfunctions. I want to be forgivable, of course, even liked, if not loved, else I might never have recognized in myself some of the symptoms Robison describes so intimately. His suffering was exponentially greater than mine. Then, too, his brilliance in overcoming the paralysis of believing himself an inexplicable outcast compares in little measure with my stubborn trudging through the passive daydreaming my obsessively critical lawyer father constantly paired with “feeble-mindedness.” I'd fixed my bearing on an idea of normalcy, to escape the neurotic tangle of physical tics, asthma, skin rashes, self-reproach and thoughts of suicide to an existence that promised happiness.

Mine and Robison's trouble understanding and communicating with people pushed us along divergent paths. He found solace in inanimate objects, machines in particular awakened his self-confidence: “No matter how big the machine, I am in charge. Machines don’t talk back. They are predictable. They don’t trick me, and they’re never mean.” My path went inward, my “feeble-minded” daydreaming leading me ultimately to the magic of words. The lawyer could follow me there only by proxy. He'd embedded reflexes in me that foretold spyware, yet my stubbornness, bequeathed unwittingly by him in his Norwegian genes, proved an effective enough firewall to preserve at least a fig-leaf sense of privacy.

I also turned to inanimate objects, but my curiosity focused on fantasy rather than mechanics. Even something humble as a rock was alive to me, with feelings I worried about hurting. I think my mother encouraged this. This inclination has stayed with me, albeit my emotional attachment is less empathic. Now, I see things mostly in the role of scapegoat--the laptop gets cursed when my fingers hit the wrong key, the hammer hears shouted obscenities when it hits my thumb while I'm trying to hang a picture, the picture hissed at when it refuses to hang straight. I know this is not sane, but it's safer taking anger out on things than on people. And I do sometimes apologize to the things after I've calmed down. But only when we're alone.

Robison's discovery that his mind worked rapidly understanding complex problems and that he had an exceptionally detailed memory opened up a new life for him. These unusual traits converged with his mechanical savvy and an unusual capacity for patience to launch electronics as the vehicle that gave him a ride he'd not dreamed possible. After dropping out of high school, he became so inventive designing lighting and audio circuitry on his kitchen table for local nightclubs the rock band KISS learned of his skills and paid him to trick out some electric guitars with special effects. The group soon made him its special effects expert. In turn the Aspergian whiz kid made KISS famous for its spectacular live performances.

With dutiful effort Robison made gradual progress learning social cues and mastering the “illogical” small talk that enabled him to feel more comfortable in social settings. Same with me, although my deficit in this area was nowhere near as severe. This could be because my mind works much slower than Robison's, more cautiously. Not all Aspergians are alike. Our traits can vary widely. After reading Robison's memoir I sought out more information on Asperger's, to help me better understand the syndrome and to help me with my own diagnosis. This is from Adult Asperger's Syndrome: The Essential Guide, by Kenneth Roberson, Ph.D.: 
 The complexity of Asperger’s can be distilled down to one main idea – trouble understanding what goes on in other people’s minds.

So far, so good. In another section, Roberson explains the way many if not most Aspergians cope with this shortcoming:

The neurological vulnerabilities of someone with Asperger’s make them especially sensitive to ambiguity and unpredictability, which are typically overwhelming. Their counter-reaction is to seek orderliness, certainty and uniformity. To do that they focus on facts in the present moment, they take ideas and words exactly at their most usual and basic sense, and they avoid figurative or metaphorical thinking. The world of Asperger’s is an orderly one. Facts, rather than presumptions, are a priority. Doubt, uncertainty, and vagueness are avoided. Literal speech, focusing on things exactly as they are while leaving out figurative explanations and assumptions, is a hallmark of Asperger’s.

For me, while the distillate's the same, my coping, by contrast, is primarily subterranean. I'd learned to hide in my imagination, so it was natural for me to begin exploring there when I felt bold enough to venture outward. This led to my working out above-ground difficulties without the pressure of someone looking over my shoulder. Books, newspapers and other reading matter, along with stumbles, missteps and serious blunders comprised the resources I worked with in my secret little chamber. I went above ground to test hypotheses on real people, which gained me incrementally the successes that kept me going. My test method was to represent my findings in words, both oral and written. I taught myself basic wordcraft this way. Writing has been my life raft over the years—a four-decade career in newspapers, which fed my Social Security account. These days I blog and write fiction to preserve my illusion of sanity.

I nearly forgot to mention another neurological aberration that has complicated things. A psychiatrist diagnosed this one: Attention Deficit Disorder. It was a late diagnosis that identified a layer of difficulty over those of my as-yet undiagnosed Asperger's. All the more incentive to dive to my private place, where ideas whirl and dance before me with less risk of interruption by superficial stimuli. Yet danger is not completely absent there. Plenty of bad memories sleep below in the dark, and many can be awakened by resonances from above. My little hideout in one sense sits on a dormant volcano of bad juju. It's my good fortune to have a mojo, besides my writing, that is fairly effective in keeping the bad stuff at bay: certain musical strains. Two come to mind at the moment.

One is a certain section in The Nutcracker Suite. I don't know what it means, how it relates to the story, or even which of the eight numbers it's in or where it is in the number. It's only a few bars. I know only that whenever I hear it I start to cry. It's a purely emotional response to an unexpected triumphal-sounding advent of brass that follows a stretch of tones that seems to suggest hardship or trial. I've surmised that somehow this moving tonal progression taps deep into my subconscious with a healing touch on some long ago forgotten hurt.

Here's another that does the same thing for me. It's from the 1968 Broadway musical Hair, and it's called “The Flesh Failures.” The lyrics start out grim:

We starve, look at one another short of breath,
Walking proudly in our winter coats,
Wearing smells from laboratories,
Facing a dying nation of moving paper fantasy,
Listening for the new told lies with supreme visions of
Lonely tunes.
Somewhere, inside something, there is a rush of
Who knows what stands in front of our lives;
I fashion my future on films in space.
Silence tells me secretly everything, everything

At the end comes the chorus, bringing the healing tears. It consists of a single phrase, repeated over and over, like a mantra: Let the Sunshine In.


  1. You're still daMan Matt Paust. 'kin yes.

  2. I have always been in awe of your facility with words. We go all the way back to 2010, where we spent many long days and evenings baring our souls on Open Salon. I have witnessed your most severe meltdowns there -- you losing your shit with obnoxious bloggers who loved to start shit storms. But I have always admired the way you express yourself in writing and secretly wished (and I remember privately imploring you to lighten up) I could write so well. This is a very brave and eloquent essay which provides insight that I wish all those other bloggers of yesteryear could see. Great job, Matt. Kudos.

    1. Love ya, Lezlie. (And many's been the time I envied your skill with words.)

  3. The neurological vulnerabilities of someone with Asperger’s make them especially sensitive to ambiguity and unpredictability, which are typically overwhelming. Their counter-reaction is to seek orderliness, certainty and uniformity. To do that they focus on facts in the present moment, they take ideas and words exactly at their most usual and basic sense, and they avoid figurative or metaphorical thinking. The world of Asperger’s is an orderly one. Facts, rather than presumptions, are a priority. Doubt, uncertainty, and vagueness are avoided. Literal speech, focusing on things exactly as they are while leaving out figurative explanations and assumptions, is a hallmark of Asperger’s. Matt, this is my daughter. I'm very educated in the world of those with Asperger's. I do hope you keep writing because you are so great at it. and I hope to see more of you on FB. You don't need to hide. We are your friends and friends accept you as you are.

    1. Thanks so much for your kind words, Christine. Before I learned about Asperger's and realize I'm Aspergian, I might have said something like "I'm sorry" about your daughter. Now I know that the sorry ones are those who do not understand. And I've no doubt your daughter grew up in a loving home and escaped the anxiety (and worse) so many of us have experienced from rejection and ridicule.

  4. Years ago I read Temple Grandin's book (Thinking in Pictures: Other Reports from My Life with Autism -- highly recommended!) and began to feel a kinship with autistic people as I found many similarities in my own growing up experiences. My personal perceptions of the world and I how I navigate among "normal" people seemed very much like hers. Then like you I had a similar experience of self-diagnosing myself as an Asperger's person while reading Tim Page's memoir Parallel Play. Page had a volatile adolescence and major difficulty adjusting to "normalcy" while growing up. His life was also plagued with substance abuse which of course only worsened his turbulent life. You might want to read his book also. Page found solace in music and found his career as a music critic. I saw a lot of myself in Page's early life and thought I might be somewhere on the Asperger spectrum, but the more I tried to fit myself into the symptoms, the more I saw I was just one of the many misfits with heightened sensitivity and keen perceptions that go beyond what anyone would consider normal. I think I wanted desperately to belong to a group, but I don't think I'll ever belong to any group. I just share traits of some groups but never truly belong. As I grow older I have recognized many Asperger-like symptoms (extreme sensitivity to noise, for instance) that have tended to change the way I interact with people and cultivated some avoidance behavior. I enjoy being solitary more than ever these days and still think of myself as a melancholy misanthrope, a nickname I gave myself in college. But I think I've been forced to cope with society at large (the "normal" ones) and found sophisticated methods (apart from outright avoidance) to deal with my differences to ever call myself Aspergian as you do.

    Nevertheless, I'll always have a deep sympathy for all those who see themselves as falling somewhere on the Spectrum. Thanks for this raw and frank essay and also for letting me know of yet another memoir I need to read. Knowing of others who grew up in a similar plight makes all of this silent suffering all the more bearable. We are never truly alone, are we?

    1. Speaking of frankness, thanks for sharing your experiences, too, John. As to "joining" groups, I lean toward Groucho's quote about not joining any club that would have him as a member. It might well be that my symptoms, which seem more like yours than the more common ones, don't make me Aspergian. Whether I am or not, this introspection has if nothing else made me more sensitive to folks whose lives are tortured by societal rejection because of such neurological aberrations--whatever they're called. BTW, I think I sent you a cyberlink that should get you into If you didn't receive it, let me know and I'll send it again.

  5. You are an amazing, brilliant, kind, wonderful friend. That's all there is for me.

    1. Mwah, Patti. You've moistened my eyes (There would be more, but I must keep a stoic face in the library).

  6. Very, very interesting, Mathew. I don't recognize much here in myself, but I have always had a very good memory (although the older I get the less that is true). But I have for decades preferred to be alone except for my husband and son, and even (especially) being with my family in Alabama drives me crazy.

  7. Thank you for this, Matt. Powerful and brave.