I get an incredible amount of email from people with Asperger Syndrome. It's all really similar. Here's a sample:
“I'm 45 and a lawyer and I have Aspergers. I don’t know what is appropriate, and not appropriate some of the time, such as talking too much about very personal info, or saying something that offends someone.
“I’ve gone through many friends in life. Most can’t deal with me, I’ve never been married, relationships get complicated, but luckily I’ve had a few who hung on regardless of my flaws.
“How do you feel and deal with the fallout when you say things that cause more problems than you would have had if you just kept your mouth shut? I want to take the attitude that if I say something inappropriate and it’s held against me, screw ‘em, I’m not going to worry about it, life is short.
“Do you think there a way of saying inappropriate, blunt things into an asset even though others don’t approve of your behavior?”
I respond to everyone. I don't even know why I'm writing this in a post — that I respond to all my emails. Because it just means I'll get more. But I think, even though I know it's terrible time management to respond to all emails, I must like it because look: I launched the Mailbag section. The emails are probably human contact that I need.
I was going to respond to this guy via email, and then I thought how we all have problems that we don't know how to solve. Asperger's is interesting to people in part because it's just one version of the bazillion versions of personality flaws that each of us has to deal with about ourselves.
I am similar to the guy in the email above: I go through friends fast. I piss off colleagues. I feel lucky when people hang onto me. Honestly, I get frustrated with trying to fit in. It’s really hard work and I’m really bad at it and it makes me want to give up.
I keep myself from giving up by making rules for myself. I can't make the problem go away, but I can manage myself to limit how often my deficits will show. Here are three rules I have:
1. Don't talk if possible.
Ryan Healy once told me that the only time I sound normal is when I'm giving an interview to a journalist. This is probably true. Because it's not really a two-way conversation. It's lecturing. In non-lecture situations I try very hard to say as little as possible, especially when situations seem like they have social conventions tied to them. I assume I do not know the rules. I try to tell people what I’m feeling so they know that I am trying hard to say the right thing even if I am not saying the right thing.
2. Don't use the phone.
For some reason, people feel that a phone call does not have to stay on topic. In fact, people open up a phone call by talking with you about the thing that is not the topic. For example, “How have you been?” This question is disconcerting for me. Is the person really calling to talk about our mental state? Or do they mean our physical state? Or is that a fake question and the real topic is coming. I get nervous immediately because I don't know what we are talking about. In an email, though, I can read through the whole thing, get to the topic, and respond directly to the topic. Email is so straightforward, and even if it's not, it's asynchronous, so I can ask for help.
3. Don't tell jokes.
It will surprise you, I think, that I am very shy about making a joke. I do not understand jokes other people make, and I have been told that I make the kind of jokes a ten-year-old makes. (I love puns, for example, and I make pictures of people in Legos.) I know that people think this blog is funny. I know people think I'm funny. But the Farmer once explained me this way: “She is funny, but she doesn't know she is being funny. She is sitcom-funny.”
I make rules like those three but I still get into lots of trouble.
The truth is that the only thing I am good at when it comes to dealing with Asperger's, is controlling my environment and getting help when I can’t. For example, there was tons of stupid stuff in this post that my blog editor cut.
When I have an email to answer that I think is complicated in the social rules department, I will forward it to a friend to ask if my answer is going to be okay.
I have a small group of friends that will edit me. I know which one will edit which thing, and when is a good time to reach them without bugging them.
When I want to throw a fit at work, I have a board member whose major job on the board is to keep me at bay. And I love him for helping me.
If I could give one piece of advice to everyone with Aspergers it would be to surround yourself with people who will help you and then trust them; do what they say.
And parents, if you have a kid with Asperger's teach them to ask for help. Posing the question is so difficult. It's so much easier to spew information than ask for information.
And for all of you who do not have Aspergers, I think there is a lesson here as well: We each have a deficit that could hold us back. Get help for it, on a regular basis. No one can get through life as a lone ranger.