15 January, 2011

little thing that bothers me (actually, two little things)

cute stories about verbal people with ASD (usually adults) "learning to do things" (such as: flirt! go on a date! go to a party!).

I don't exactly know for sure what it is that bothers me so much, but let me just explore a possible reason, which may be wrongheaded.

The thing is I am probably way biased in being annoyed by this--you know, maybe I have a nonstandard experience in terms of what's hard for me and maybe the only reason I find these stories so stupid is that's not how my ASD is. But on the other hand, I don't know anyone like the people in these stories. If I'm an exception, it seems like exceptions are more numerous than people who follow the rule.

This may be a generational thing, since most of the people I know were diagnosed as kids--so maybe people diagnosed as kids were aware enough of social problems they had or might have had that they picked up on everything they could be taught?--and also most of the people I know are women--so, same thing? So you can take this with a grain of salt, I guess. But I just find myself reading the word "Asperger's" in some cute story or other, and what follows doesn't resemble anyone I know who has an ASD diagnosis.

I know some people, and if you'll just let me do a brief rundown of what verbal people with ASD, of my acquaintance, are like when they socialize:

1. Some people try really hard to respond to everything in a normal/"appropriate" way. Which can be kind of a painful reality to live in, and isn't actually that cute or simple.

2. Some people are themselves and that's okay with them; and maybe the way they think about themselves isn't "am I doing something odd?" so it isn't so much that they mistakenly think they're normal when they're doing weird things, but that they aren't asking the question.

(Obviously there's switching between these two modes, for some people. There's also a ton of variation in which mode actually leads to a certain person being seen as "wrong.")

I just don't really see all these "weird" people who are doing things "wrong," who upon given the right kind of help, or upon deciding to put their nose to the grindstone and "learn how to do things" (what were they doing before, hibernating in a cave?), are totally shocked to discover all the wrong things they've been doing and start doing everything properly and life is better.

A related trope that bothers me is the idea that people with "Asperger's" are like aliens (or humans raised by aliens) coming to earth. The problem with this simile is obvious: an alien has trouble fitting in to earth culture because the alien has actually grown up and lived a whole life in a different culture. So this has a few problematic implications:

1. The alien may be perfectly capable, with time, of learning to do everything just the way people do it on earth.

2. Again, if someone with ASD=alien, and becoming aware that they behave differently=coming to earth, are you saying that this person wasn't a part of the real world for the whole time that they were un-self-consciously different from other people?

More on problematic implication 1, which is really my biggest issue here, because it very much oversimplifies social problems (and erases emotional and functioning problems) faced by people with ASD. If people with "Asperger's" are just normal people who don't know how to act at a party but can be taught, then how is it actually a disability? Just learn how to act at a party, then. In addition to not being a disability, pop culture "Asperger's," when we come down to it...basically requires nothing from other people. If people who are different aren't just naturally innately different, but have just for some reason not learned how to be the same, then there's no reason for society to accept them. Society can give them a little extra time and smile at them fondly while they "learn how to do things," but just being okay with someone who's different and is cheerfully living as different? That's too much to ask.

Am I totally off base? I mean, I think I mostly am, but I also think I have a little bit of something here.


  1. You absolutely have something here.

  2. I think I legitimately do have naturally awful social skills-- I mean, that's the only explanation I can think of for how often I manage to accidentally upset other people--, but can learn many or most conventions by rote given time and effort. Maybe I'm in the minority there, I don't know. I don't like those "oh, he learned to flirt" anecdotes very much either, for what it's worth. I mean, I don't like them when they're told as though they're just cute and silly, I think it can be incredibly condescending to the person being talked about, and they tend to completely gloss over the embarrassment and anxiety that comes with having bad social skills all the time (and being self-aware about it, which you sort of *have* to be before you can start trying to "behave appropriately") as well as how it's actually quite sad that people are faced with this choice of conforming and spending their entire lives faking it till they hopefully make it or facing social ostracism.

  3. I don't know if I'm qualified to comment on this, as I don't really think I have ASD per se. But a lot of the problems I have are pretty similar so:

    I'd say the worst thing about these kinds of cutesy anecdotes is that they erase the experience of the person who's having the social problems. Like, I know what I'm supposed to do at a party. I often can't do what I'm supposed to do at a party because keeping up with multiple conversations is mentally difficult for me. I lose track of stuff like that easily and usually wind up feeling very drained and spacing out.

    Getting overly drained can be very difficult if I can't just leave to recharge. Then it becomes this massive effort to remain even marginally sane-looking/socially acceptable. Because I just get tapped out at that point and have to use all my energy just to make it through the damn thing.

    And that's just one example, but I could come up with more. But I just wanted to make the point that stories like that aren't paying attention to why the person may be acting 'odd' in the first place, and it might have nothing to do with them not knowing what the 'correct' thing to do is.

  4. 1. everyone has to learn to flirt, thats why learning to flirt is a multi-billion dollar industry (seriously, check a magazine rack/self help section the next time your in a book-store)

    2. flirting is a lot less important as learning how to reconise and deal with a threaetning person/situation (safely)

    3. Not to belittle you, or your dificulties with social interaction,(gos knows I have my own) but everyone is expected to Act pretty, and Not everyone does. This includes "normal" folks, who are just plain mean, or easily offended.

    Just my 2 cents. :)

  5. I'm with Corabelle...
    Furthermore, I've seen many of my girlfriends "practice" what they're going to say, how they're going to behave, what they're going to wear, etc... when they're on their date, and they're considered "normal." So really, ASD or no ASD, EVERYONE out there does a little practicing before they go out. Everyone gives thhem selves a pep talk, and everyone plays things out in their mind before going out, be it on a date, job interview or a party. I suppose none of us are "normal" then! LOL!!!
    I'm sick of reading articles on this subject too, and totally agree with you every step of the way. Well written!

  6. Those stories annoy me, too, but maybe for different reasons than they annoy you.

    See, I really do resemble the "alien from another planet" stereotype a lot of the time, and never really got all that invested in learning to pass, because I spent so much of my childhood insufficiently self-aware even to know there was such a thing as passing! (If that makes any sense to you...)

    But when I read stories about how someone with Asperger's "taught" himself (because it's usually a he, although that may be changing now that there's more awareness of girls on the spectrum) to do something, like flirt, make small talk with strangers, or whatever, just by Applying His Mighty Aspie Brain to come up with a set of Rules he can use to pass/predict how NTs will respond to him, I always go, "Dude, if it were really that easy? If there were some logical system underlying how all this stuff works, every time? More of us would've figured it out." It seems to me like there are too many variables in play for it to be possible to "hack" interpersonal relations without some other source of ground rules ...

    (Not to mention the shaming implicit in, "Hey, this person figured out how to act normal all by himself, why can't you???")