All posts by aspiepriest

I'm a Catholic priest, diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome.

Three Minute Therapy

Spoiler Warning – if you haven’t seen Molly’s Game, look away now.

Earlier this month I went to see the film, Molly’s Game, tracing the rise and fall of Molly Bloom. The only daughter among three siblings in a highly competitive family, an injury put paid to her hopes of being an Olympic skier. A gap year job unexpectedly found her assisting with, and then running, high-stakes poker games for the great and the good of Los Angeles. With nothing but her wits to assist her, Molly thrived for a time in this environment, but then was drawn into a culture of drug use and overwork and crashed out, accompanied by threats from the mob.

At her lowest point, her Dad catches up with her in New York. He’s a professional psychologist, and since his relationship with her as a dad hasn’t been great, he says he’s there as “a very expensive therapist and I’m here to give you one free session”, which he unpacks as three year’s worth of therapy in three minutes, doing what everyone wished their therapist would do – answer their questions about themselves. But first Molly has to ask the questions.

In fact, he leads her to the first one – “Why did I choose this lifestyle?” He tells her that her true addiction is “having power over powerful men”. Since the film portrayed the decaying relationship with his wife, I found it no great surprise that the second was “Do you think you were a good husband?” But Molly was pressed to come up with the third question and paused long enough for me to realise that I had absolutely no idea what it was going to be. Eventually it came, as her father anticipated: “Why didn’t you like me as much as my brothers?”

Now I haven’t ready Molly’s book so I don’t know how much dramatic license the scriptwriter has taken with this scene, and scriptwriters have the advantage of godlike control over their characters’ words and actions… even so, there’s useful material here for the aspie trying to understand typical human beings.

The middle question is clearly triggered by obvious bad actions. We see the husband cheating on his wife. Easy observation for an aspie – “rules are being broken!” But for Molly, perhaps it’s less about rules and more about her need for security – or her father as a hero-figure. (“I don’t have any heroes” she says.) The first question is about Molly’s motives – and I have commented previously about the power of self-knowledge in the noisy mind of a typical human being. The third is about Molly’s sense of how a significant family member feels about her.

I don’t know how my parents feel about me, except when they choose to put it into words. I know how they act towards me (kindly!), but I’ve never sat down to try to analyse their motives. They don’t share my faith, so I don’t expect their uncritical applause for the things I do as a Catholic priest. I do have a brother. They do treat him differently in some ways, but he’s different from me – he has a mortgage and I don’t – so it’s only fair they support us in different ways. Since I became an adult, I have never considered it my right to receive any particular support from my parents; whatever they do give, I accept gladly as an undeserved gift.

As an aspie seeking to understand human beings, it’s insightful to be reminded of two things. First, most people are conscious of the power-balance in relationships in a way that makes them seek more power – I guess my working model is that I don’t care who makes the decisions as long as they are good and fair; I can lead or follow a competent leader as required. Second, that most people are wired to care about what other people think about them, but especially their parents. As a pastor, that’s doubly important. Just because I don’t have role models or heroes, or expectations of my parents, it doesn’t mean that’s typical!



A Transcendental Meditation

A while back, I began a new series of blog posts, taking as my launchpad C. S. Lewis’s classic Mere Christianity. We considered Lewis’s description of the Law of Human Nature – to what extent all human beings have the same inner experience of ‘the voice of conscience’. Lewis argued that we had a common sense of fair play because we all have some sense of The Good (which, he goes on to argue, comes from God.) This leads us to a philosophical question – is Goodness objective?

I was recently alerted to the Relit approach to Evangelisation, which is build around awareness of the transcendentals – Truth, Goodness and Beauty – and the expectation that for any given human being, one of these is a more meaningful “way in” than another person. This seems plausible, and certainly reflects the reality that there are different kinds of human mind, more attuned to Truth or to Goodness or to Beauty. But is this telling us something only about diversity in human minds?

Are Goodness and Beauty objective? A priori truths seem to have some kind of objective existence. Mathematical axioms follow logically from premises; mathematical models of the physical universe successfully (and therefore objectively) predict how the universe will behave. There is a meaningful sense of which we can speak of a priori Truth existing independently of the existence of conscious human beings. We can cautiously also speak of contingent Truth existing objectively: whether we accept Darwinian evolution or read Genesis literally, either way there was a time when the earth existed without human beings to observe it. The world was the way it was at that time – that’s contingent truth. An atheist could go further and argue that Truth exists with no mind to observe it; a Theist would say that all which is True is known by the mind of God.

As for Beauty, Bishop Robert Barron tries to argue that there’s a difference between subjective and objective beauty. He likes deep-dish Chicago pizzza, but says that’s his own subjective taste. Yet he says that certain works of art – a Beethoven symphony, Chartres Cathedral – are objectively beautiful. The trouble is, I can’t sense the beauty in Beethoven or Chartres. And if I can’t, that means one of two things – either the beauty of these great art works is as subjective as the flavour of Bishop Barron’s favourite pizza – or there’s an objective standard for beauty I ought to be able to learn to apply whether or not I can feel the beauty.

Here I need to borrow an unusual word from Lewis. In his Out of the Silent Planet, he imagined Mars to be inhabited by three quite distinct species of thinking beings who coexisted peacefully with one another. The term for an intelligent, reasoning creature was hnau. When a human being lands on the planet – not speaking the same language as any of the inhabitants – the native tribes first have to figure out if the human is hnau or a mere animal.

Would other hnau recognise Truth? We expect they would recognise a priori mathematical truths and contingent physical truths about the universe we both inhabit. When human beings have sent deliberate messages into space we have used these universal concepts – prime numbers, the properties of the hydrogen atom, the molecular structure of simple sugars.

But are Goodness and Beauty objective? Would other hnau agree with our sense of what is Good or Beautiful, or inasmuch as the human race has a shared sense of the Good and the Beautiful, is this telling us about a common property of the human brain, shaped by natural selection for the survival of the human race?

I have written earlier in this blog about my lack of intuitive sense of beauty and of goodness. If Goodness and Beauty are objective, it should be possible to teach me some rules I can apply to determine if something is Good or Beautiful, even though I cannot experience goodness or beauty through a working “recognition circuit” in my own brain. If I cannot, in principle, learn to do so, then these things must be subjective, and the common experience of humanity is telling us only about the average perceptive properties of the human brain.

“If most people agree that standard X is more moral, or more beautiful, does that prove that standard X objectively exists?”

No. If the only hnau we can converse with is our own species, it is only telling us that most human brains have a “Goodness recognition circuit” or “Beauty recognition circuit” which gives weight to X. There might be some evolutionary advantage to us having that trait.

Good Vibrations

Recently, I had a conversation with a Catholic writer on spirituality. In one of her works she had referred to living plants ‘pulsing with silent, invisible energy’ and sensing God’s presence which caused an atmosphere to become charged with ‘vibrations of love’.

This sort of language generally unsettles me. Vibrations are the language of Eastern and New Age spirituality, not the Catholic tradition. And yet… I have learned in my journey as an Aspie that when I come across language that makes no intuitive sense to me, it is often a sign of how my lived experience of the world differs from that of the more typical majority. So rather than write her off as a clear case of someone straying outside the Catholic fold, I asked if she could describe these ‘vibrations’ in a way that could make sense to a person who had never personally experienced them. Even if what she has experienced might not be a ‘majority’ experience, it could still be valid.

She struggled to find the right words, and we went round in circles for a time. Then I asked if it was something like what happens when you put your hand on a refrigerator and feel it humming because the motor is running. She was happy with this analogy.

This got me thinking. Not only have I never experienced ‘vibrations’ in a spiritual context, but also, I seldom sense an ‘atmosphere’ when I walk into a room. Celtic writers might talk of praying in a ‘thin place’ but I wouldn’t know one if I fell through it. Yet many people use this language often enough that it seems to be meaningful to most listeners. Could it be that something akin to synaesthesia is taking place?

The human brain is capable of ceaseless wonders. There are many documented cases where the parts of the brain which deal with two different senses seem to be cross-wired, resulting in written words having characteristic colours or particular sounds translating as tactile experiences. Could it also be the case that the part of the brain which interprets emotions could be cross-wired with the part responsible for hearing or touch? Could a brain which, unlike mine, can take in and process a thousand micro-expressions to analyse a room of human beings, synthesise its findings in the form of an audible or tactile hum, which would then be perceived as a vibration? Might a similar mechanism account for those people who claim to be able detect the ‘aura’ or ‘bioenergy’ of another person? Indeed, I note that the Wikipedia article on Synaesthesia tantalisingly lists a rare form of synaesthesia as: personality-color (occasionally referred to as “auras”) – but without further expansion or reference.

I cannot rule out, of course, that the reason Eastern religions speak of a spiritual energy variously called chi, qi, ki or prana, is because such an energy genuinely exists but is such a subtle phenomenon that science has not yet been able to detect it – no scientist can ever definitively proclaim proof of non-existence except in tightly defined conditions. It is of course possible for an objective phenomenon to exist, but for some humans to be incapable of sensing it – such as color-blindness or ineed Aspie ‘mindblindness’ to emotional signals. I lean towards the idea that this energy is a cultural construct with no underlying phenomenon. But the ‘synaesthesia’ hypothesis raises an intriguing third possibility.

Laying on of Hands

Ever since I started this Blog, I’ve had an open invitation for others to contribute guest pieces. This is the first I’ve received. – AspiePriest

 By: A. Wolf – Guest Poster

Every so often, our church offers a Healing Service. Last Monday night was one such occasion.

Throughout the service, in the back of my mind, I was wondering what I could pray for when my turn came to go forwards. Whether I could think of anything that would be worthy of asking for. I finally settled on something only moments before I would have to choose whether to go up, or sit this one out: Greater peace with what I believe, and greater harmony and unity with others.

I was surprised to find that my voice was ragged with emotion when I came to offer such prayer guidelines to the visiting priest. I had no discernible reason to feel tension. I’ve always felt comfortable around this particular priest, felt indirect-recognition and great admiration for how his mind works, as evidenced by his style of preaching in weekdays services and the one occasion I have heard him lead a Churches Together service. I’ve received such personalised prayer from him in a previous service, though he was not first to speak before. I already knew, for example, that he favours laying his hand upon the head of the supplicant, slightly towards the back. Except in the case of ministering to a fellow priest, when he opts to lay his hand upon the shoulder.

Such details of who places their hands where when invited to pray for others, flags itself as significant in my mind. When I first received such a service, offered by a visiting priest at the altar rail, he laid his hand gently, but squarely on my head, and prayed simply and sincerely that God would grant me my dearest wish. The sense of potency I felt in such an act made me wish to participate in any future services of the same kind. They have not all gone so smoothly. When I first received such prayer, flanked by two priests, it felt very alien and overwhelming to have the weight of their hands upon me and have them standing so close, attending to my introductory words so closely. In one case, led by a priest-in-training, I flinched at the opening words and ended up feeling worse afterwards than when I arrived.

But never have I doubted the potency of the act, for good if I can align myself to it, or for ill if I find myself fighting it.

I remember only his opening words, for they startled me. ‘Lord, _ seems to know you well,’. The rest blurred into a background haze, and I remember only that they were good words, meaningful at the time. As were the tears silently streaming down my face which I deliberately stopped myself from questioning. Some things are better to simply surrender to the experience of, rather than to mar with analysis. I knew I was letting go of something that was weighing me down, holding me back. That was enough.

In hindsight it was enough to hold in my mind, that a priest thought well enough of my beliefs that he would voice such an opinion. In his opening sentence, he had granted me everything I had asked for; greater peace with my own beliefs, through harmony with his own beliefs and unity with him in that fleeting moment. For myself, the lag time between receiving that gift and realising what I could say to him personally, in gratitude for his words to me and for turning-out on such a cold night to provide this service for us, was such that I could only offer such sentiments to God’s keeping, for I was halfway home by then. And only upon waking the next morning, did I recognise the greater significance of that.

If there is one indicator which I have discovered that unites autistics of all abilities in my limited experience, it is that they will all speak of lack of tactile affection in their early childhood. I freely admit that my pool of direct experience is too small to claim this as a determining factor, but it is suggestive. In two cases related to me by another Aspie, an Aspie of his acquaintance claimed that his was not ‘a huggy family’, yet their siblings stated the opposite. In my own case, my mother related to me that when I was young, I would scream if she tried to brush my hair. Because of this and other factors, she learnt not to intrude into my personal space. I only remember that it HURT when she pulled my hair, trying to untangle it. None of the succession of dogs my family owned were fond of being groomed by her, whereas I learnt to be very gentle with tangles in their coats, and they would sit still much longer for me. One Aspie of a much older generation, relates how frustrated his mother became when beating him had no effect, for he would just tune-out the pain. He developed into an individual who will ignore a scrap happening a yard from him as irrelevant; I by contrast, tense-up at any aggressive tone within earshot, and I still remember the fear I experienced at being smacked merely once in my childhood. In our response to social lack-of-affection, we have developed in parallel to neurotypical individuals of similar formative experiences.

One of the most counter-intuitive things I have ever read on mammalian psychology concerns the development of puppies. It is better that they are handled a lot in their very-early development, despite their protests. They are much calmer under social stress as adults, if they are exposed to high levels of tactile contact while their stress-threshold is yet to be determined. Perhaps this is what was lacking in our own nurture: That by not being in a puppies-in-a-basket, in an all-paws-and-tails situation, our brains did not automatically form social protocols and therefore prioritised different things to develop. I’m not saying that we were raised wrong, I’m saying we were nurtured differently. Our protests were heeded in early life, and we can find it difficult to integrate into a social community which has a different values for what to ignore and what to pay attention to, than what our early nurture taught us to expect from interaction. The opposite attitude to infant-nurture would theoretically produce an individual just as far from the mean-average.

According to modern science, there is a threshold of social cues caused by overcrowding, that causes a grasshopper to metamorphose into a locust in response to a rise in their personal serotonin levels. This shift between their intrinsic solitary and gregarious biological survival options is so dramatic, that they were once thought to be separate species. It makes sense to me, that the comparatively complex social nature of mammals allows infants pick-up on cues as to how sociable or independent they need to be to survive, in the species and local circumstances they are born into. Human society is an order of magnitude more complex, and therefore there is a lot more diversity in the development of our protocols for solitary and gregarious survival states; depending on local culture, the life experiences of our parents, and our perception of our own circumstances. To be autistic, is therefore simply to be labelled as significantly different enough from the average, as to struggle to relate to it.

Yet the human brain retains plasticity into adulthood. We can out-think the hand we were dealt and adapt, through personal choice to change and seeking the circumstances which will support that growth. With enough passion to change, someone who has never progressed beyond drawing stick-men can continue their journey to become an artist, though they may not catch-up with those who for whom drawing is their lifelong passion. The same is true of social awkwardness in Aspies. It is only lack of experience in this area that makes us so gauche. Through practise, through making mistakes and learning from them, any individual can learn anything if they are internally motivated to do so. Our lag-time in emotionally responding as a well-adjusted gregarious individual would, is likely caused by our over-prizing of our independence and difference from others. Yet we do not have to give up what makes us different, only choose to value also, what makes us the same. Being Aspies unites us, but being human unites all of us. Late development is still development, as pure and true as if we had learned it in the cradle.

Learning from Experience

When was the last time you made a big mistake?

Typical human beings have an important safety mechanism: that little voice in the back of the head which is constantly saying : “What would other people think of me if I did such-and-such?”

My Aspie brain doesn’t do that automatically, so I have to use my reasoning to anticipate when my actions could prove awkward to others. What do I draw on to make such decisions? Principles about right and wrong, and lessons from the school of hard knocks!

I’d like to share two examples of mistakes typical human beings might not have made. They are both mistakes I have never repeated, because I learned quickly from those experiences – but they were deeply embarrassing at the time.

The first story comes from the days when I was a university student living in a shared house with male and female residents. One day a group of us were enjoying a conversation in the kitchen, and I was standing alongside another resident. In the flow of conversation, I made a comment about something that “would set your heart racing” and to emphasise the point, reached across to tap the resident on the chest.

But the resident was a woman.

Now, I know very well that a gentleman does not touch a lady’s breasts, and I have never groped a woman in my life. But my inner “program” which says “don’t touch a woman’s breasts” didn’t have that extra line of code which says “trying to tap a woman’s chest from alongside her will be interpreted as trying to grope her, don’t do it”.

Fortunately, no harm came of the incident, apart from some teasing among the residents about “the day I tried to grope so-and-so”. But that day I learned a new rule: “Don’t go anywhere near a woman’s chest even if it’s not the breast you are trying to touch.” Could I have worked out that rule in advance if I had thought through the scenario slowly? Probably yes, but it was never a scenario I had anticipated.

The other story comes from my time as a seminarian, when I was on a weekly placement in a high school. Now, what are the principles of school chaplaincy? You are there to “get alongside” the students, winning trust and building relationships. You are not there as a disciplinarian – leave that to the teaching staff. One break time I found a group of teenagers playing some game throwing balls (or were they apples?) at tin cans set up to be knocked over, so I joined in and started “larking around with them”. One of the staff members observed this, and I was called into the Head’s office. I was told in no uncertain terms that this was “unprofessional” – and so on that day I learned a clear limit and I have never made the same kind of mistake again.

I’m sharing these stories because they may be useful for professionals who have to manage Aspies. Has your Aspie made a serious social error like this? I would encourage you to ask them about their track record. Have they made similar errors in the past? Have they been able to learn from each error and not make the same kind of mistake again? If your Aspie is teachable, and willing to learn from their latest error, you can expect diligence in ensuring it does not happen again.

There’s an adage in business that you should recruit for “character, not competence” – because you can train a recruit of good character, but you can’t correct the flaws of a bad but competent character. Please remember that an Aspie’s character is to be ignorant of the social norms which typical human beings intuit, and that for an Aspie, good social skills are an acquired competence.  If your Aspie is a character willing to learn from their experience, you have no need to be concerned.

Worthy Celebration

Some say that there is a special poignancy to praying the Office of Readings in the small hours of the night. I haven’t tried that often, though I did once visit a Cistercian monastery and joined the monks for 3 am prayer. Did it enhance my experience of prayer? No.

I guess for the typical human being, where praying is as much about the emotional side as the rational side, there is a daily rhythm which shapes the emotions and affects the way praying is received. That doesn’t work for me.

A monastery is the acme of liturgical prayer, a community designed to prioritise the worthy celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours, day in, day out. For the likes of us secular clergy, we don’t have the luxury of a day relatively free of apostolic work, or a community to chant the Office with us.

Cardinal Sarah has been in the news recently for his quotes on not using an electronic device to pray the Divine Office and not taking photos of the liturgy. I can see what he is getting it. What would be the most perfect way to celebrate the Sacred Liturgy? It would be to perform the prayers with serene recollection from a worthy book set apart for this function alone.

But… saints have been added to the calendar since my breviary was printed. When I prayed the office of the Korean Martyrs on 20 September, I prayed the psalms from my breviary, but found the Proper Second Reading on my iPhone. One of my altar Missals is annotated in pen to remind me to mention St Joseph in the Eucharistic Prayers. Another has the Proper of St John Paul II glued into a blank page. The most perfect way of celebrating the liturgy would be with newly updated volumes, but these do not exist; so I am forced to choose between two kinds of perfection – production quality or completeness of content.

I do recognise that there is something lacking in using an electronic device for prayer – only a few weeks ago I made a conscious decision to use my breviary book more often in preference to the electronic options available, knowing that the electronic glow does create a different “feel”. But there are also times on dark evenings when a self-illuminating tablet disrupts the atmosphere of my chapel less than the impact of putting on the electric light to read from a book. And I often switch to “flight mode” during prayer lest I am distracted by incoming messages.

There are days when I race through one or more hours of the Divine Office because I am trying to squeeze it in between pastoral duties. If I were free to choose, I wouldn’t pray that way; but once I have committed myself to the needs of my parishioners and the activities of my diocese, I do not have total freedom – I am beholden to needs and demands not of my own making. The Gospels make it clear that I honour God less by neglecting the needs of others to pray more fully, when I have an opportunity to attend to the present needs of persons in distress. This also means there is a trade-off between attending to God in the liturgy, and serving God in my neighbour. My ordination vows to pray five rounds of the Divine Office each day were made prior to me entering any pastoral context where those rounds must be accommodated to ministry not entirely under my control.

Must every liturgy aim at “maximum worthiness”? I recognise that there are “protocol occasions” when every gesture must be carefully calibrated, when we mean to communicate something to God and to the congregation present by ensuring that every hierarch processes in the proper order, every saint takes their chronological place in a litany, and each vestment belongs to a matching set. Yet a loving couple will dress in their finest for a black tie dinner while being comfortable slobbing casually in each other’s company for the exact some reason – the love between them. Are there not times when the love that flows between God and us makes it just as appropriate to pray very casually as it does to use liturgical bells and whistles?

I will also plead guilty – sorry, Cardinal Sarah – to sometimes taking photos while concelebrating on a sanctuary. I never use a flash, and I keep my camera discreetly hidden until I need to use it. I only do so at ‘low’ times in the Mass, perhaps when a new priest is receiving his vestments, not when I am meant to be speaking words of concelebration.  Why do I do so at all? Sometimes my position gives my a unique vantage point which enables me to get a shot of a key moment. That photo is intended to be used for evangelisation, promoting the work of the church – not for the satisfaction of my own personal photo album. So I do this out of love for God who commands me to share the Gospel, as well as love for my neighbour who will be enhanced by recieving it.

Cardinal Sarah argues that the purpose of the liturgy is for me to engage in an intense listening to God, demanding my undivided attention. I don’t know how that works for typical human beings, but I know that for me, as an Aspie, I don’t usually sense God speaking to me during liturgy. And on those rare moments when I believe God has inspired a thought, it’s usually about the content of some upcoming sermon or personal dilemma, which needs to be set down in writing as soon as that particular liturgy is over.

For me, going to liturgy is rather like being the paralysed man at the pool of Bethzatha – maybe someone receives a touch of God’s presence, but it’s not me. I haven’t quite been a Catholic for 38 years, but it’s coming close!

Them and Us

During my summer travels, I visited a science festival – that’s something I’ve always enjoyed since my teens. But now I have an added purpose: when I attend lectures on psychology or sociology, I am also looking out for tips about how typical human beings function. The lecturer explains the facet they are investigating – and now, when I think “I didn’t know some people’s brains worked like that,” I note that this is probably a clue about most human beings, present company excepted.

For instance, I recently heard about a research study dividing 5-year-old children into groups which were identified by wearing a yellow scarf or a green scarf. Immediately the children started identifying with ‘their’ colour, willing to express dislike for those wearing the opposite colour. In a German study, children would keep a secret entrusted to ‘their’ group but quickly betray a confidence about the ‘other’ group.

It’s always puzzled me why I should be loyal to ‘my’ group rather than even-handed to all comers. I would happily identify myself equally as a citizen of my nation, my state, my region and my continent, and regret that international borders mean that someone can’t simply choose to live in my country should they so wish. I see now that this goes beyond the Aspie trait of being extremely principled, but has an added dimension of not being wired to favour ingroups over outgroups.

Another study showed that identity was highly malleable: if you tell experimental subjects that the study is about ‘soccer fans’ then they will show altruism to someone in a rival team shirt over someone in a plain T-shirt because the rival fan is part of the ‘ingroup’. But tell a similar fan that you are studying supporters of their team, and the rival fan is now deemed part of the ‘outgroup’ and not extended the same altruism as you would show those wearing the colours of your own team.

Further, part of the art of being a demagogue is to get a group of people to identify as part of your ingroup, and amplify positive differences compared to ‘them’, whoever your outgroup might happen to be. This drives me to conflict as a pastor: is intentional creation of an ‘ingroup’ a necessary part of being an effective leader of a congregation, or unethical manipulation of souls? Certainly Jesus challenged the Jewish ‘ingroup’ identity by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan.

One final thought, for the researchers: if you are writing a paper about some ‘Them and Us’ phenomenon, do you really want to be cited as ‘Principal Author et al.’? (Think about the Latin…)

Aspie on Vacation

I’m on vacation!

That’s not so easy, being an Aspie. I’ve got this sense that friends expect me to kick back and enjoy myself… but how?

This year, for my summer vacation, I am travelling through a non-English-speaking country. My command of the local language is enough to get by, but not to understand what other people are saying. (Maybe for typical human beings, picking up the emotions adds to understanding what others are trying to communicate… for me, I can learn phrases and understand the written language fairly well, but human beings speaking in real time? Too much, too fast!)

I’ve already blogged about how I don’t really take in what art is trying to communicate. When travelling in a country where English isn’t common, that severely limits my options. Art galleries, classical or popular music were never going to be my choice anyway… and now theatre and cinema are also off the menu. Thankfully my iPhone can play me English downloads while I am driving around!

Another culture also means  different food. It’s not always easy to work out what will actually arrive based on the description on the menu. Since I am quite particular about what I will or won’t eat, that’s also a problem. There are, of course, the big international brands… but I don’t feel I am doing justice to a vacation if I settle for a Subway or a McDonald’s unless there is no other choice.

Being a priest, I am visiting various cathedrals and historic churches. But to what end? I don’t “feel the atmosphere” when I go into such a building. I quickly tire of learning about the architectural features which distinguish a building. If there are stained glass windows or beautiful sculptures, I can give them a quick look and think “Hmm. that’s nice” – and move on.

You may be wondering why I am on vacation at all. I’m in this country travelling to an international retreat followed by a visit to friends. So I am making a virtue of a necessity. A vacation at least allows time to catch up on books I don’t have time to read during the rest of the year. And yes, I confess I have taken my laptop, so I can do my annual tidy-up of the photo collection!

Now, tourism is clearly important for typical humans. What do they feel when standing in some historic place of prayer, or ruined abbey, or ancient castle? Is it about identity? Atmosphere? How many of them are feeling social pressure to “do what tourists do” without necessarily enjoying it? If you are a non-Aspie reader of this blog, I’d appreciate knowing what you do on your vacation, and more importantly, why you do it. Answers to!

During and After

When do you feel the emotions associated with key moments in your life? Are you conscious of them in the moment, or only once you have time afterwards to process what has gone on?

I find in my life, I tend to have stronger emotions reflecting on what previously happened, than in the moment (though there are exceptions).

When I was an undergraduate, my friend Kate gave me an unexpected kiss when I made her tea at a black tie dinner – she didn’t like coffee. In the course of the next 48 hours it dawned on me that a beautiful woman of my own age had given me a kiss (for the first time ever in my life) – and I woke up to the fact I was living among a community of touching, feeling, human beings and not really taking part (a bittersweet awakening).

Much more recently, celebrating a significant anniversary of my priesthood, a friend I hadn’t seen for nearly 20 years (and who hadn’t RSVP’d to say she was coming) surprised me by turning up, and leaning in close when someone took a photo for us. This is all the more precious because that friend had left me a note, rather then saying goodbye in person, when our work situations took us in different directions. Although I didn’t feel powerful emotions at the party, my long-term memory of that event is marked by very positive feelings.

Throughout the two decades when I’ve woken up to interpersonal emotions, I’ve had more experiences of this kind (“I’m really glad that happened”) than times I have felt something positive in the moment (“I never want this moment to end”). Awkwardly, I think the latter sort have only ever happened when I’ve been touched by a person I have “fallen in love with” at some point in my life. 

Is it the interpersonal chemistry itself which is enabling the feelings in my otherwise unfeeling psyche? Is it the rare fulfilment of a desire to be close to that particular person? Or is it simply that in these cases the emotional volume is loud enough for me to hear what is always there but which I am otherwise deaf to?

To look at it another way, how might I feel when someone touches me or hugs me?

Warm and fuzzy – but this solely applies when it’s a person I not only trust but also experience some chemistry with.

Intellectually satisfied – when someone I trust but don’t have chemistry with, because I recognise the sign of affection

Annoyed – when it’s someone I have given verbal or body-language signals to, that I do not wish to be touched.

I wonder how much of this is peculiar to my Aspergers’ way of experiencing the world, and to what extent it is true for typical human beings?