Category Archives: Living with Asperger’s

An Ill Wind

It was only while I was in seminary that I discovered that most human beings are well aware of when their bowels are building up gas, and can exert considerable control about when to hold it in as well as when to let it out. I, unfortunately, only become aware of the presence of gas a couple of seconds before it breaks out. At this stage I have only one choice to make – to clench or not to clench. Clenching is just as likely to force the gas out with impressive sound effects as it is to push it in deeper. Not clenching has a good chance of allowing a ‘silent but deadly’ escape. When I sense gas coming, I have only moments to try to judge whether to clench or relax for minimum embarrassment!

I’ve often wondered if there’s any connection between poor flatus control and being autistic. I couldn’t see any obvious link until I discovered recent articles on the distinction between autism and alexithymia, notably this scientific paper which proposes that alexithymia is a general lack of awareness of one’s own body – not just the signs which indicate emotions.

Why do people speak of emotions as ‘feelings’ and associate them with our heart and our guts? There’s a growing body of evidence that for a neurotypical person, awareness of one’s own emotional state is strongly linked to interoception – the human body’s ability to be aware of its own internal states. The speed of one’s heartbeat, the filling or draining of blood from one’s cheeks, the tension in one’s chest or bowels – all of these are associated with particular emotional states, and knowing what one’s body is doing is part and parcel of knowing how one is feeling. So could the inability to know one’s own emotions be due to a particular person having a body only weakly wired for the brain to know its physical state? This would provide a clear link between a lack of awareness of gas in my bowel, and a lack of awareness of other cues which should make me aware of my own emotions.

I also consider myself to be a clumsy person. Nor can I ride a bike – my sense of balance isn’t good enough. Could these be consequences of a weakness in proprioception – the body’s knowledge of exactly how its limbs are placed?

There are other ways, too, in which I seem to have non-standard body reactions. Apparently people ‘feel good’ after strenuous exercise. But they don’t eat food just before going to bed because of the way it makes them feel. But I’ve never derived pleasure from exercise, and never noticed ill effects if I should need to eat late and then go to bed… except in recent months when eating a certain brand of chocolate digestive cookies at bedtime caused me to wake up with trapped wind in the middle of the night. Since that brand of biscuit never caused trouble before I put it down to some change in gut flora.

I simply place these thoughts on the record for future researchers.

The Glass Ceiling

It’s been a long time since I wrote on this blog, after my triumphant Graduation Day. But a graduate is not as skilled as a professor, and I have continued to reflect on my abilities and limitations.

A few days ago I watched the movie Still Alice, a portrayal of a young professor’s decline due to early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Her neurologist commented that intelligent people seem to decline more rapidly with Alzheimer’s – they develop coping strategies to ‘work around’ their memory loss until the disease progresses to the point where they can’t do so any more and their full decline is laid bare. A similar cliff-edge seems to apply to my ability to build close relationships.

I’ve been reading around the subject of alexithymia lately. There’s a growing body of research distinguishing other autistic traits from the inability to know one’s own emotions and identify emotions in others. The term alexithymia literally means ‘no words for feelings’ but also covers the absence of feelings. A recurring theme in alexithymia, which I have also noticed in my own life, is what happens when a relationship grows beyond one’s ability to compensate for not actually having emotions:

Here’s a quote from an article by Emma Young; it concerns the difficulties an alexithymic man, Stephen, began to face in his marriage:

“At the beginning of a relationship, I’m totally into who that person is,” he explains. “I’ve been told I’m very good at maintaining a honeymoon period for ‘longer than expected.’ But after a year, it takes a massive turn. It all falls apart. I’ve put myself on a pedestal to be this person which I’m really not. I react mostly cognitively, rather than it being emotions making me react. Obviously, that is not valid. It’s not real. It seems fake. Because it is fake. And you can only pretend for so long.”

Or consider this comment by Dr Samantha Rodman:

Alexithymics often have a range of canned responses to normal social situations in which empathy is required. They can mimic others’ responses and assemble a repertoire of phrases like, “That must be so hard” and “Awww,” with the correct, imitated, tone. Only an intimate partner will notice that the same responses recur over and over and the pseudo-emotion that is exhibited dissipates instantly.

I’m in an invidious position. Do I care about other people? Absolutely! Am I able to empathise with other people? No. I don’t experience a rich palette of emotions myself, so it’s simply not possible for me to know ‘from the inside’ what another person is likely to be feeling in most situations. I do know, intellectually, that it’s important to come across as sympathetic in certain circumstances, and I do my best to literally ‘make the right noises’ – but this can only get me so far.

Due to covid-19 I am currently residing with some other members of the Catholic community I belong to. In a recent conversation, a person shared a piece of sad news. I said “Aww” in the tone of voice I usually use to indicate compassion. Someone then passed comment that that was my “sympathetic noise”. That’s probably a sign that members of my community have known me now for long enough to notice that I am not expressing a deep heartfelt empathy but doing my best to project a simulation of empathy – because it’s the only way I can communicate that I do care.

Why is it that 30 years after realising I was part of a community of loving, caring humans and nearly 20 years after getting my diagnosis of Asperger’s, that in my circles of friends I am often welcomed but seldom wanted? The people I call friends are happy when I call them but rarely if ever call me? I am wanted for what I can do as a priest, or to fix someone’s computer, but not for the sole reason of my company. That combination of not giving and receiving non-verbal cues, and having a limited understanding of other people’s feelings, combine to mean I rarely appeal to others to rise to the rank of ‘close friend’. If they are wanting to reach out to that one person who gives them empathy in return, it won’t be me. I keep reaching this glass ceiling beyond which I see people who seek out one another’s company, but I am never the one sought.

Sometimes it has happened in my life that there’s been one person who has drawn close to me. Usually this is someone who is bubbly, often but not always quite tactile, and tries to build good relations with everyone they meet. I experience this as someone ‘taking an interest in me’. At one level this is true, but at another it’s not very personal because the other person is trying to take an interest in everyone. This becomes a dangerous situation for me, because at my brain is reacting as if this person were signalling a desire for a reciprocal close friendship – and if I am not very careful, I can become over-dependent on this one person. Then I will probably overstep my ability to emulate emotions without realising it. The good-natured friend politely tolerates my increasingly gauche behaviour until I cause some kind of bust-up. And unfortunately, although in more recent years I have tried explaining about my autistic condition and my need for verbal feedback, such good-natured friends turn out to be very reticent about giving any negative feedback until a pinch has become a crunch!

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!

 

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!

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 AspiePriest@gmx.com!

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.