Category Archives: AspiePriest’s Mind, AspiePriest’s Story

This is my story, and because of the nature of this blog, it’s the story of how my mind works.

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.

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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…)

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?

Ear, Nose and Throat

When I was a child, I enjoyed going swimming – but every time I went in the water, I got a sore throat afterwards. As an adult, I chose not to swim for many years. Then, on a business trip in a hotel with a swimming pool, I decided to give swimming another try. And – you guessed it! – a sore throat followed as night follows day!

I think I am more susceptible to picking up passing bugs than the average person, but that’s difficult to prove rigorously. Being autistic, I have a tendency to answer a polite “How are you are?” by commenting on my state of health rather than the conventional “Fine, how are you?” – and friends often reply, “Not another cold, surely?” But if the typical human being doesn’t comment on passing ailments so readily, maybe it just seems like I catch more colds.

There is some clinical evidence  (paper, commentary) that autism is linked with increased ear infections (otitis media), so I do wonder if my Aspie body has some special vulnerability to picking up bugs every time I go into the swimming pool. When I was about 30 – long after I gave up swimming – I got such a severe ear-nose-and-throat infection that I lost my balance for 4 weeks, and the doctors had to try four different kinds of antibiotics before they identified one that could clear up my tubes. That was a wretched month, lying in bed because I couldn’t walk anywhere without falling over! For about four years after that infection, I had such a thick production of phlegm that I had to cough – a very hawking kind of cough – to clear my throat every 10-15 minutes. This did not make me popular in company.

On the subject of ears, a word about singing. When I was in school, my music teacher asked me to stop singing, saying I was putting the class off. But at seminary, every student was expected to sing, and I had one-to-one coaching. After about four years, my coach identified a rather unusual problem – I couldn’t resolve the notes in a chord – sometimes I couldn’t even tell which of two notes was higher. To learn a new piece of music, I had to have someone play the basic melody free of all chords and harmonies. Then I could learn the pattern, and would be able to hold it against richer backing music.

I can’t carry a tune easily when a song is written in multi-part harmony. The only time I ever found that easy was when I was seated among a dozen other bass singers in a large music practice – then I could lock on to the people around me and not be distracted by the other parts. But I can’t keep my part in my head when I can only hear the other parts being performed.

The funny thing is, I enjoy singing. I am very attentive to structure, and have the confidence to start the words in the right place, even when they begin at an off-beat most people miss. I also will choose to sing the echo part during a well-known worship song even if there isn’t a lead musician animating the echoes. Those “mechanistic” bits of music I get, and I enjoy – but I have already written about how the emotion of music, for me, is all about past context, not about responding to the emotional narrative intended by the composer.

 

I would value feedback from fellow Aspies, or their parents, reading this blog. In your experience, do Aspies get more sore throats than their siblings or friends when swimming? Do any other Aspies suffer from the same musical fault of not resolving a chord? As with all such anecdotal evidence, a few examples prove nothing. But if this is common among Aspies, it might just be worth clinicians doing a more extensive study to establish of there is a correlation – and if so, to consider why this would be the case.

Faith, Hope and Charity

Continuing my consideration of C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, let’s turn now to questions of Faith, Hope and Charity (pages 112-129). These are known as the ‘theological virtues’ – and a virtue is a self-reinforcing good practice which we must choose to work at.

Lewis sees our human existence is a constant balancing act between reason and emotion. Even though we know certain things are true, and should give us security, our fears and other emotions can cause us to panic and doubt. For a new Christian believer, one who has recently become convinced of the weight of evidence that Christianity is true, this new faith will be challenged by an emotional storm – and sooner rather than later. Maybe this is borne of some piece of bad news, or perhaps it is because a powerful desire rises up for something known to be contrary to Christian morals. Daily devotions help reinforce what we know to be true in the face of our changing moods.

One of the perks of being an Aspie is that, having reached the point of deciding that Christianity (and its Catholic flavour) are intrinsically true, my faith is rarely rocked by passing moods. Yes, I have experienced “low spells” in my life where things have been difficult in work and relationships, but these seldom caused me to doubt God’s existence. There’s no passage in the Bible which promises a trouble-free life for Christians – our loved ones will get sick, die, and suffer the misfortunes of earthly existence.

Lewis comments that only those who have come to the point of “surrendering to Christ” will understand what it means to have this experience of deep conversion. This may be experienced in a flash or recognised in hindsight as something that happened immeasurably over years. Often it is borne of confronting one’s utter inability to resist temptation.

For me, there was a key year in the mid-1990s when two things happened. The first was that I was weighed down with the experience of wanting a relationship I couldn’t have, with a friend who was losing her faith. After months of agony, I said to God, “You must carry this burden, I can’t hold it any more.” On that day, I prayed in tongues for the first time. A few months later, having been resisting the idea of the call to priesthood, I surrendered to God and said: “You know best, show me what you want me to do in life – even if it is becoming a Catholic priest.” It was on this day – not the day I became a Catholic a few years before – that I made the intellectual decision to entrust myself to Jesus as Lord of every aspect of my life.

Faith is a virtue – that is, a daily practice to put into place. It means continuing to act according to the teachings of Jesus whatever life may throw at us. To believe is less about knowing things intellectually and more about “putting our trust in” Christ.

Lewis turns his attention to hope. Humans generally experience a longing for “something more”. Whatever we delight in, the delight fades. Some people use their life to chase “experiences” but nothing will ultimately satisfy. Others, more pragmatic, choose to stop “chasing rainbows” and settle for what they have; and may project an air of “superiority” to those they regard as adolescents chasing dreams. Lewis argues that desires exist because there is something capable of fulfilling them, and these unmet human desires are a signal to us that heaven exists. The picture-language used in the Bible to describe heaven merely points to its qualities – music for ecstasy, gold for eternity, crowns for power and splendour.

I’m not with Lewis 100% on the idea that if longing exists, the sought-for thing must exist somewhere in its fullness. I’m sure evolutionary biology can give some account of how a species benefits from a hard-wired drive to aspire – when suitable fruits are there to be harvested, aspiration pays off, and as long as not too much energy is expended on wild-goose chases, this strategy will succeed. But I do think I ‘get’ the idea of this unfulfilled longing. For me, it happens when surfing the Internet randomly – that sense that there is some page out there, just a click away, which has a funnier joke or a more interesting story, if only I knew what to click. I’ll just have to take Lewis’s word for it that music is the best way to experience ‘ecstasy’, as I’ve said before, music just doesn’t connect for me.

As for Christian charity, or love, Lewis is clear that this is a choice, not a feeling. It begins with behaving “as if” you love others and grows into affection for them. This is good news for Aspies! We can’t always feel, but we can choose to do good for others. (It is important, however, to check that our actions are appreciated by others and are not merely what the other person would like if they too were an Aspie!)

Lewis reflects on his very fresh memory of Nazi Germany to see how those who chose to act with friendliness or hostility to certain ethnic groups grew into a genuine love or hatred for those groups, by the very actions they chose to take. For my part, I know there was one occasion in my life when a person I instinctively didn’t like asked for my friendship. I made a deliberate choice to overcome those instincts and am glad to say that person is now a good and worthwhile friend.

As a Lenten reflection, I’ll leave you with this idea from Lewis. Do you doubt whether you love God? Ask yourself “What would I do if I was sure I loved God?” Go do it.

 

A Touchy Subject

Last time, I pondered the question of why people don’t do things when it comes to food. This time, I’m asking the same question concerning touch.

A while back, I was walking alongside my pre-teen godson in a pilgrimage. We have a close and loving relationship, and I rested my hand on his shoulder. But his Mum wasn’t happy. “Only a Dad should touch a boy like that – you don’t see other godfathers doing that, do you?” She was also concerned that onlookers might misread the situation and assume I was a child abuser.

Once again, I have failed to make a study of typical human behaviour – in this case how godfathers normally show affection. And once again, even if I had noticed the absence of such behaviour, I wouldn’t have known the reasons why they don’t do it.

Indeed, in general, I don’t have a good sense of how really close friends behave when they are together in private – I don’t get to go to that many family parties. There are plenty of books guiding Aspies who want a sexual relationship, but none on how to navigate close yet chaste relationships when you are celibate. For instance, when you are a house-guest with a family, should you offer the hostess a kiss on the cheek when you retire to go to bed? There are clearly circumstances when you shouldn’t – if she’s asked you not to, or you know it would make her husband jealous. But is it the kind of thing people don’t do in general? I haven’t been a house guest alongside enough different guests to know! It’s just one small example of the difficulty of not reading the emotional melodies in a life which is occasionally ambushed by affection.

Another thing a close friend asked me not to do is to look into her eyes for too long. I’ve written previously about how I can’t read the emotions in other people’s eyes, but there’s also some good scientific research establishing that gazing into one another’s eyes promotes a sense of bonding – and even gazing into a pet’s eyes produces the “bonding hormone” oxytocin. As a celibate seeking to avoid, and avoid provoking, falling-in-love there’s one clear conclusion – don’t look for too long!

Food for Thought

I’ve not been blogging for a while due to a series of minor infections – when you’re not running on 100% capacity as a priest you have to prioritise the basics – and it may be a while before I’m posting regularly, but this thought came along.

Why is it that other people don’t do certain things?

Recently, I asked one of my trusted friends for perspective, because I had to fill our a self-assessment form which asked about my social weaknesses. “When you eat soup in company,” she said, “don’t dunk your bread in it. After all, you don’t see other people doing that, do you?”

I learned two things from this conversation.

First, I don’t tend to notice what it is that other people don’t do. I don’t think I’ve ever paid attention to how other people eat soup.

Second, my friend (and therefore, if she is representative, a fair percentage of humanity) get an icky emotional reaction when they see someone dunking.

Soup has never come up as a subject before, but at seminary, one student challenged me about dunking my toast in my morning coffee. At the time, my response was to always try to sit at a different table from him, so he didn’t have to watch me. But in hindsight, I think the message I was supposed to get was that most people find that icky and would be uncomfortable around me.

It’s in cases like this that we Aspies might be at a multiple disadvantage. First, if I did notice someone dunking in coffee or soup, I wouldn’t have a bad emotional reaction to that. Second, since I’m not good at reading other people’s emotions, I am unlikely to notice that someone else is uncomfortable about the way that I am eating. Third, since I don’t naturally seek out other people’s behaviour patterns as examples of what to do, or avoid doing, I’m not going to have a sense that most people don’t do that. And fourth, if no one tells you that most people do react badly, then even if you do notice that no-one else is dunking, you wouldn’t know why. Maybe most people simply don’t like to dunk.

My friend also pointed out that not eating part of a meal prepared for you shows disrespect for the time and effort that the person went into making it for you. This is a good example of the different assumptions that Aspies and typical human beings might make when it comes to preparing a meal… and it all depends on the Golden Metarule which I mentioned this time last year.

The Aspie Way

  1. People might have allergies or simply not like particular food. I don’t want to have to eat food I don’t like so why should I put anyone else in that position?
  2. I want my guests to enjoy their meal.
  3. I ask my guests what they do and don’t like to eat.
  4. I make sure that I prepare food that my guests like.
  5. If something goes wrong with my cooking, I want my guests to tell me so that I can avoid making the same mistake next time. How else could I be sure to prepare something they will really like?

The Typical Human Way

  1. Most people like the adventure of trying something new or unexpected.
  2. The host puts a lot of effort into giving the guests a surprise.
  3. The guests show they appreciate the effort by eating all the food, smiling, whatever they really think of it.
  4. They all say “Thank you for a lovely meal.”

Postscript…

I was recently at a bread-and-soup lunch for Christian leaders. For the first time in my life – and I’m now in my 40s – I paid attention to how other people eat. The bread was in the form of sliced baguettes. Of the six others on my table, four put dry bread in their mouths. Two took small pieces of baguette crust and dipped them in the soup.

It was fascinating, paying attention to this and noticing what other people do. A reminder that my way of being an Aspie includes no desire to conform to other people’s actual patterns of behaviour, no instinct to monitor that behaviour, and no awareness of non-verbal signs of fellow diners are reacting to my behaviour.

The Slumbering Spirit

Rarely, I come across a book which makes my spirit sing. The author has looked into the Bible and found meanings in Scripture which make sense on paper, and have a deep ring of truth about them, but are not obvious to me before I read them.  One such book is Healing the Wounded Spirit by John and Paula Sandford.

One chapter in this book (and expanded in Waking the Slumbering Spirit) talks about what they call the “slumbering spirit”. The idea is that our innermost souls, made in God’s image, are meant to love and to be loved. When they fail to receive affection in childhood, they fall asleep and become emotionally unresponsive. The soul also begins resenting parents for failing to communicate that love.

When I first read about this, I took it to my confessor. Although I had no conscious awareness of resentment regarding my parents, who were caring but undemonstrative, I repented by faith of any unfelt anger in my soul. When I left confession that day I felt like a great weight had been lifted, and that I had a spring in my step – the only time I have ever felt this after confession.

There are a lot of parallels between Aspie traits and the Sandfords’ description of the slumbering spirit. I wonder if they are in fact describing from a spiritual point of view what a psychologist would call high-functioning autism?

They also talk a lot in their books about Performance Orientation, and how so many Christians are crippled by believing they need to earn God’s love. Personally, I don’t draw my identity from success – but it is one of this things that makes me happy. Alas, it is rare that the daily work of a priest includes talking with a person whose faith has recently deepened, who has received a sense of God’s blessing, or wants to make a genuine commitment to my parish. Success in ministry is a rare currency indeed!

The best thing that ever happens? Hearing the confession of someone who – probably through no good deed of mine – comes to confession after 20, 30, or 40 years away from the life of the Church. I only hear such a confession every couple of years, but I need to jump for joy, literally, as soon as I am out of the confessional!

Say it With Flowers

Kate, a close friend since my undergraduate days, is one of the people I have taken into my confidence about my diagnosis.

Once, I stayed with Kate and her family for a week while attending a conference near her home. During that time I shared about how my Asperger’s is a form of ’emotional deafness’. I think she understands.

At the end of the week, I gave Kate a bunch of flowers to thank her for letting me stay. She was most effusive about the gift and gushed for a few minutes about how lovely they were. Now, I couldn’t tell whether her gushing was because I had bought just the right sort of flowers that she really adored, or whether she was emphasising her gratitude to get past my emotional deafness.

In the past, my main concern would have been whether they were the kind of flowers she really liked; if I can’t tell whether the gushing is genuine, how can I know whether to get the right kind of flowers next time?

But suddenly, I realised that the point of the flowers wasn’t the flowers but the message they conveyed.

If I had chosen well, and the gushing was 100% genuine, this was a big win.

But if Kate was gushing for my sake, it was intended to communicate that she was really appreciative of the gesture. In this case, I had at least succeeded in communicating gratitude, and she in returning appreciation. This is also a win!

As I write these words, I am reminded of several occasions in the past when I have plainly displayed my disappointment that a gift hadn’t been what I had wanted. I had always assumed the business of gift-giving was about identifying what the other person really liked and giving appropriately. But am I wrong? Is it about communicating affection through the intent to give?

I also sent another friend flowers after spending time with her family. The message back was “Thank you – no need, but thank you.” I think that counts as another win!

X + Y

Have you seen the movie “x + y”? It’s a drama based on the life of International Maths Olympiad competitor Daniel Lightman, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s aged 16. The movie’s main character, Nathan Ellis, is mainly but not wholly a reflection of Daniel, who also acted as a consultant to help keep the portrayal true to autistic traits.

A key part of the plot stood out for me – here are necessarily spoilers, so be warned!

The plot shows how Nathan deals with touch. Repeatedly we are shown how his mother wants to touch him, especially in moments of high emotion, but Nathan draws back. His mother needs closeness for her comfort; Nathan needs space for his. But in the course of the movie, Nathan enters a relationship with a girl who has strong feelings for him; he overcomes his aversion to touch when they kiss. Shortly afterwards an emotional dam bursts and he is able to weep for his late father, recognising for the first time that the tender memories he has of his Dad are a sign of what love is; he is finally able to accept his mother’s embrace as she comforts him.

I can recognise the time in my life, up to age 19, when I basically didn’t want to be touched. I had various elderly aunties who expected to be greeted with a kiss, sometimes on the lips, and I always found that to be most uncomfortable. I understood that Mum expected a kiss on certain occasions, but when I gave her one it would be perfunctory.

Then a girl kissed me. Not a snog – I have never snogged anyone in my life! – but a simple thank-you kiss on my forehead for doing her a good turn. And over the next few days, a dormant part of my psyche awoke. I realised I was living in a  world of touching, feeling, human beings but missing out! No-one who was a friend rather than an auntie has kissed me before. This was amazing!

There followed a rather embarrassing period in my life when I tried to kiss lots of my female friends without understanding when and how this might be acceptable. On the plus side, Mum got the first sincere kiss of her life from me when I got home from University at the next vacation!

Over more recent years, I have noticed friends and parishioners becoming more likely to touch me. I don’t know how much that is to do with my body language changing, and how much is the maturity of the people I am mixing with. But this is also a bittersweet truth. Now that it is not so rare for someone to touch me, touch seems to have lost much of its emotional power. So was it the touch itself, or the novelty of being touched, which once provoked an emotional reaction in me?