The Human Condition:

Slightly Aspergic – February 5, 2023

Brain activity

Most human conditions—a person’s physical construction and endowments, their enzymatic and chemical orientation, their innate nature, their reactions and tendencies—are on a spectrum. One person may be mildly reactive to an allergen, which merely causes itching or discomfort. Another can be severely reactive, which causes the windpipe to close down, the autonomic nervous system to pause, and the person to go into shock that can lead to death. And at the same time many of us, maybe most of us, are not affected at all. Almost everything in life is on a spectrum.

True confessions time, I am mildly, slightly aspergic. That means I have—by self-diagnosis, based on my preferences for and reactions to most social interactions—a mild case of Asperger’s syndrome. I sometimes don’t understand what people might want or need, or “where they’re coming from.” I don’t feel anxiety when I have to spend the day alone, cut off from the signals of human companionship. On the other hand, I don’t feel all that comfortable in large parties full of people I hardly know, and I will not willingly walk into a crowd of total strangers.

I remember one of my first experiences of a large-group dynamic. In junior high, which in my town was a mixed junior and senior high school, I was sent along with everyone else into a pep rally for an upcoming varsity game. It was about a thousand kids sitting in bleachers and, prompted by the beat of the marching band and calisthenics of the cheerleaders, screaming their heads off. I was looking around, trying to take it all in. One of my friends sitting next to me noticed this, grabbed me by the shirt front, and yelled in my face, “Scream, Thomas!” And I looked at him in puzzlement and asked, “Why?”

Whatever group dynamic was driving those young people, age about thirteen to eighteen, into a form of hysteria—I wasn’t feeling it. I might have been an anthropologist at a tribal dance—interested in the experience, but not standing up to participate.

This does not mean I don’t understand human nature or the emotions and biases that drive human behavior. I can see things from another person’s point of view—or at least what I think is their point of view, as I may be wrong. But I am not always mindful of their needs and intentions. You might think that this would be a handicap for someone who wants to write fiction about human beings, but the reality is quite the opposite. When I am writing from a character’s point of view, I am simultaneously experiencing and creating something that is totally inside my head. A lot of writers are slightly aspergic: we’re wired into our own thinking. We can also be good communicators, because we can examine a thought process for ourselves, try it out on the imaginary people inside our heads,1 and then spread it to the world.

Asperger’s syndrome used to be thought of as a separate diagnosis from autism. Current psychological thinking places Asperger’s at the higher, more functional, more “normal”—if you will, and if you are one of those “habitually normal” people—end of a spectrum. And that spectrum runs from the deep end, which marks a debilitating isolation from human touch and communication, such that the child or adult lives totally inside his or her own head and doesn’t even see other human beings as animate, sensing, let alone like-minded creatures, up through various levels of misunderstanding and discomfort, to the shallower end, where we who are “slightly aspergic” fail to pick up on certain social cues, sometimes fail to get a joke, and don’t feel comfortable in crowds full of screaming people.

The point of this mediation is that, unlike certain skills and practices, a more sociable nature or a better tolerance for social situations cannot be trained or taught. This is that innate physical and chemical structure, hard-wired into the brain and not the result of an improper or incompetent upbringing. Being perfectly in tune with social situations is like having perfect pitch. Some people can hear a note and say, “Oh, that’s a D-flat,” or “That’s a C-minor chord.” I can only tell you that one note is higher than another, or that one combination of notes is “a little weirder or more discordant” than another. But no amount of listening, paying attention, or really trying will get me to identify the notes on a piano or violin by their sound alone. I am not wired that way.

Similarly, being mildly autistic or deeply aspergic is a case of brain wiring. An autistic person is not uncaring or unfeeling, or simply not paying attention, or has failed to learn human expression as a baby. They don’t have the wiring to pick up on, or sometimes even be aware of, social cues. They can understand intellectually that other people might have this ability, but they don’t have it themselves. In the same way I can understand intellectually that some people have the skill and coordination to dribble a basketball. But when I try it, my hand gets either ahead of or behind the bounce, and the ball gets away. My brain has a built-in stutter reaction to certain repetitive motions, and that’s hard-wired.2

What the rest of us—and I’m speaking to you “normies” here—have to understand is that the mildly aspergic, and those who are more deeply positioned on the spectrum, are not the way we are for lack of trying, or lack of caring, or because we are stupid. For those of us with full-on, diagnosed autism, it’s like we were born into a world where everyone else is speaking Chinese or Japanese, and we simply don’t know the language. Social interaction is difficult, exasperating, takes a lot of energy, and is terribly exhausting. But even then, if reading human social cues and facial expressions were simply a language that we could learn, we would do so. Instead, they are something hard-wired into the brain, like musical pitch. And on the deeper end of the spectrum, we who are afflicted are simply deaf: we don’t even know that other people are speaking a language at all!

Sometimes autism and the people who are born with it are curiously gifted. Think of the person who has no sense of human interaction but has a phenomenal memory or an ability with numbers—like the main character in the movie Rain Man. It may be that a brain not otherwise occupied with interpreting human social cues is left open to, or has the spare capacity for, pursuits that most people can’t even understand. But it’s not a gift that most of us would want.

As I said, we are all on a spectrum. And “normal” is a very slippery term.

1. This imaginary person is what the writer thinks of as the “general reader” or “educated reader”—an imagined synthesis of what the writer believes other people reading his or her words will likely think, react to, and understand. But it’s all in the writer’s head.

2. I tried to join a dragon-boat team once, as part of a corporate exercise. I could stay on the beat with the other paddlers for about five strokes. Then my mind and hands would stutter, hesitate, and miss the beat. I will never be a drummer in a rock band or any kind of performer where staying on the beat is necessary. And yes, because I am six-foot-six, I broke the high school basketball coach’s heart. But there it is.