~by Rod Engelsman
Note: I’d been mulling over a guest post on this topic for the last several days. Given the rumors surrounding the mental state of the perpetrator of last Friday’s horror in Connecticut, it seems timely.While I won’t directly address that in this post, I’ll be happy to discuss it in the comments.
This message from Alex at wrongplanet.net lands in my gmail inbox:
Subject: Wrong Planet How to Join a Social Circle & Make Friends in a GroupIn the second installment of Autism Talk TV’s social skills series filmed at the UCLA PEERS center, Alex learns how to approach a group, find something common to talk about, and be accepted into a group. Hopefully this will show you guys how social skills are actually very easy to learn if you’re taught properly.
Making friends can seem hard but these tips will help you succeed. There are a lot of variations in body language that you can easily learn in order to join conversations. Dr. Liz Laugeson, the director of PEERS, walks Alex through these various topics in an easy to follow step-by-step tutorial.
Hi, my name is Rod and I’m an Aspie, that is, an individual with Asperger’s Syndrome. It’s not something that I spend a lot of time thinking about specifically anymore, but it’s had a profound, and decidedly negative, impact on my life. That impact will, of course, vary widely by individual. But in my case it’s the reason why a kid who was tested with an IQ over 150, proficient in math and science, graduated from a respected university with a degree in engineering, with honors no less, is now a middle-aged man driving a semi for a living. Some Aspies have made out well in life and others far worse. We’re all special snowflakes, yadda yadda.
Asperger’s Syndrome is a part of the Autism spectrum of disorders. From the Wiki article, it is “characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction, alongside restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests.” Aspies are typically of normal and often very high intelligence, as measured by standard tests. The linked article mentions that other notable characteristics are often physical clumsiness and atypical use of language. To that I would add poor, or perhaps odd, emotional control often characterized by a relatively flat affect, but puncuated with “meltdowns” (or what I’ve personally referred to as “spikes”). Asperger’s has a high co-morbidity with other emotional/psycological conditions such as OCD, ADD/ADHD, and anxiety disorders.
We range from Nearly Normal(TM) to pretty thoroughly disabled. I have a relatively mild case. Although I have always had difficulty with social relationships I have managed–twice no less!–to talk a girl into marrying me. I have a lovely wife and two beautiful daughters so I’m ahead of the Aspie curve in that respect. Yes, I’m clumsy. I quit basketball in my sophomore year of high school when, despite being the tallest on the team, I spent all or most of every game on the bench. Truly I sucked at the game. Track and field were more my speed since it was mostly about being fast and strong; not so much about being coordinated. And I have an unfortunate tendency to say odd and inappropriate things. Sometimes I’ll realize it immediately and regret it, perhaps apologize; other times I’ll be completely oblivious until it’s pointed out to me later.
My path to self-discovery was complicated by many factors. First, mine is a milder case. I didn’t exhibit obvious behaviors as a child that would have alerted my parents or teachers that something was amiss. It’s not like I was rocking in the corner like Rainman. And since I got really good grades and didn’t cause a lot of trouble they naturally assumed that all was well. It should be noted as well that in the ’60s and ’70s Asperger’s, like ADD, which I also have, wasn’t a “thing” yet. My social awkwardness could be ascribed to just being a shy kid and not having a lot of opportunities to socialize. I grew up on a farm a couple miles outside a very small town of about 200. Although the social difference between inside and outside of a town that size may not seem like much to folks from larger cities, it meant that I was something of an outsider from the start. And then that relative separation continued when we of Tinytown were bussed to high school in the relatively larger neighboring town. By the time I moved into the dorm at Major State U, I was thoroughly acclimated to my role as the outsider, flitting about at the edge of various circles but never being totally accepted as One of Us. In retrospect I can clearly see the pattern, but at the time I didn’t have the requisite perspective.
I graduated and again, circumstances obscured what would later become clear. 1983 was in the midst of the Reagan recession and jobs were relatively scarce, so I had an excuse for why I was so pathetic at interviewing and couldn’t get an offer despite graduating in the top ten percent of my class. I went back to school in the fall and started on a grad program in electrical engineering and then actually got a job offer in the spring from AT&T. Pretty good gig, huh? Unfortunately, that was immediately following the order from Federal Judge Greene that broke up the Bell System, something which I didn’t know about at the time since I didn’t really research the company at all. And the job was in the Technology Systems division which provided all the hardware, from phones up to switching gear, that was used in the Bell System. And now that division was facing, for the first time ever, actual competition from the likes of Northern Telecom. Layoffs were proceeding fast and furiously and my first job assignment was to oversee the transfer of some equipment from a plant being closed in Indianapolis to Kansas City. Writing on the wall.
But still, a bright, young, engineer should have been able to survive, perhaps even find a way to thrive, right? Wrong. I had a mentor that didn’t mentor me and a job that was very ill-defined and when orders came down to cut staff I was on the list. I don’t blame them much because I wasn’t really doing anything productive and the fact was that I didn’t have the social intelligence to change my situation. So I interviewed internally and landed a transfer to the Aurora, IL, plant as a quality control engineer. Intellectually I dug it. They sent me to Princeton to take a class at Bell Labs and I studied up on Deming and Juran and statistical qc. Which all would have been fine except that job was also ill-defined and I did little more than walk around and pretend to manage things. I really had no clue what I was doing and I was terrified to ask for help. Eventually another round of layoffs came around and I was out. Aside from a disastrous two weeks at a very small manufacturer in Chicago* that was the last time I could honestly call myself an engineer.
I sent out resumes but, frankly I didn’t really know how to look for a job and the resume itself was pathetic to read. Worked as a bartender for a time while I looked for engineering work and then enlisted in the Navy, on the promise that I could apply to OCS. Well OCS turned out to be a lot harder to get into that the recruiter said, naturally, so after almost nine years there I got out. Managed a Radio Shack and when I couldn’t survive on the pay there I tried selling cars. Hideous job for someone with my condition. Both the wife and I got fired within a week of each other and then we moved back home with our tails tucked between our legs. Looked around at my options and that’s how I became a trucker.
So as you can imagine, I’ve spent a great deal of my life alternating between feeling like the biggest loser on earth and rationalizing why it isn’t my fault. As a high school senior I won a competition and was named the Outstanding Student in Science and Math, not for my small school, but for all of Northwest Kansas. I was the guy that was supposed to Make It. Most likely to succeed and all that. Now I’m driving a damn truck for a living. It’s honest work and I’m putting the food on my family, but it’s not what I would have chosen by any stretch and it seems like a complete waste of my talents.
Then one day I’m listening to something on NPR, Fresh Air probably, and an author is being interviewed and he’s describing my life. Smart, good student, full of promise, but… career in shambles, practically non-existent social life, perpetually behind the curve on major life milestones, and, infusing it all, a persistent feeling of otherness. Like you’re not quite a real human being like everyone else. Listening to that man describe his situation was… revelatory. Strange as it may seem, I was ecstatic to learn that I possibly had a diagnosable neurological condition. Because what it meant was that I could stop beating myself up for being such a loser. It meant that in some way, it wasn’t my fault.
Because the real problem all along wasn’t that I was failing where I should have succeeded. The problem was that I was trying to succeed where I was doomed to fail. I just didn’t understand that because I didn’t understand myself. And it’s not really that I was doomed to fail as an engineer; it’s just that I was doomed to fail given that I didn’t understand my true strengths and weaknesses. I didn’t know when and how to ask for help because I didn’t know why I needed help. Everyone, including myself, naturally assumed that because I could do the hard stuff like math and physics that I could do the “easy” stuff like figure out what the hell I’m supposed to do today. Everybody else seemed to have it figured out, busy working on this or that, whatever it was, while I basically… pretended. Pretended to be doing something, and hoped no one would notice. To this day I don’t really know what half of them were actually doing. Maybe they were pretending like me and were just a lot better at it.
The name of the website that sent me the email comes from that feeling of otherness. Like you were born on the wrong planet or something. It basically stems from not having any intuitive sense of social relations. We’re terrible at reading social cues and forming an accurate theory of mind for others. What normal folks (neuro-typicals, in Aspie lingo) just do effortlessly, subconsciously even, we have to make a deliberate, conscious, effort. And frankly, it’s exhausting to have to try all the time and just a lot easier to pursue more solitary aims. As much as I hate the way my so-called career path has turned out, I have to say that the lifestyle of an OTR trucker actually suits my temperament pretty well.
But at the same time we’re rejecting normal social relationships we also crave them. It’s like you’re locked outside, with your nose pressed against the window, watching the normal happy people inside the party, like a dog who’s been banished for peeing on the carpet. When I’m home for a weekend there’s no friends for me to call and go have a beer. There’s no circle that gets together for cookouts in the summer. No holiday parties to attend. Frankly, it’s damn lonely and it puts just that much more strain on the one real relationship that I maintain, my marriage. A lot of people say their spouse is their best friend, but in reality, those are different roles that need to be played by separate persons. Who am I supposed to talk to when my wife pisses me off (and she does sometimes; they all do)?
As pathetic as it sounds, this League of Gentlemen is the closest thing I currently have to a social circle. Never mind that I don’t actually know any of you personally. That’s actually not that different from most people in my life, nuclear family excluded. But now you all know me a little better.