How to tell if your friends have Aspergers. The Christmas card edition

Let’s time travel back to the pre-Internet days of 1975. Long-distance phone calls were $1 per minute, so people received most of their communications via US mail, and Christmas cards were so important that the average number of families on a list was 300. That year, two sociology professors from Brigham Young University sent 600 Christmas cards to random families and then monitored how many cards were sent back in return.

Approximately 20% of the recipients took the time to find a card, write a message and send it back to the experimenters. That is an astounding number of people who felt obliged to reply. To give you context, today’s digital marketers are thrilled with a 1% response rate.

The experiment studied the rule of reciprocity – the strong social pressure to return favors. In the context of women, of course, because women send the Christmas cards. The rule of reciprocity has persisted throughout human history because it has survival value for the human species. Paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey said the essence of what makes us human is this system of reciprocity.

At the core of autism is a lack of social reciprocity. Autistic babies don’t reciprocate a parent’s smile. Autistic adults don’t reciprocate a friend’s Christmas card. Of course there are exceptions. Jewish people don’t send Christmas cards. People who don’t have enough money for food don’t send Christmas cards. But even those people reciprocate intuitively. Psychologist Amy Pearsons’s research shows that women with autism work hard to look normal, and they mimic the acts of reciprocity they see neurotypical women doing. Women with autism can pass for normal, but it exhausts them because passing involves constantly monitoring what is expected.

It’s much easier to see autism in other people than in ourselves, so this year use your Christmas card collection to determine which of your friends has autism.

1. People who are not smiling for the camera. These people think they are looking happy enough to satisfy the demands of normal people. But actually no amount of not smiling is okay. Only people with autism think that.

2. Unkempt hair. Women with unkempt hair means the woman has autsim. Neurotypical women keep their hair looking good all the time, not just for pictures. If the kids are posed carefully and still have unkempt hair, that’s an autistic mom as well. A neurotypical mom has their hair down to a science and would already have neatened their hair for special occasions.

3. A gap between good looks and good clothes. Is the woman more attractive than you would expect from the clothes she’s wearing? Outdated, ill fitting, or frumpy clothes are a sign that she doesn’t realize she’s not passing for normal.

4. Excessive matching. This emerges when a woman with autism has seen that family photos work best with some sort of color scheme. This means normal families are dressing everyone in more or less the same color, but women with autism are literal and don’t sweat details they don’t care about. So autistic mothers might be dressing everyone in the exact same shirt. Which only works if you are being funny.

5. Awkward spacing between people. Autism is genetic, and people who have autism often marry people with autism. Sometimes families are so used to accommodating each other’s sensory issues that people are either oddly close or oddly far apart and no one notices it’s weird.

6. Unacceptable timing. Autism is an umbrella term for a group of disorders that creates a lack of executive function. This means it’s so overwhelming to deal with the logistics of doing acceptable cards that a person with autism might forget that when the cards arrive is important as well. And then they send it a month late because the details of mailing were overwhelming.

7. A letter with the card. People with autism love to write, which means anyone who includes a longer letter instead of a simple greeting has increased their odds of having autism. So if Aunt Minnie’s letter also includes details about her ex-husband’s affair, she has autism. Understanding what is appropriate for the context when sending a letter to everyone is a skill women with autism lack.

8. Self-congratulations. Many people with autism are bright and successful, but the idea of a humblebrag is a balance that people with autism have a hard time hitting. Too many accomplishments in one letter reveals a person with autism who is probably lost when it comes to nuance.

9. A surprising return address. People with autism move a lot too because it’s harder to get attached to living in a place if you never really connect with making friends there. So if you are surprised about where someone lives now it’s a sign they move a lot.

My friend told me that people hire photographers to get a good family picture. That’s probably why I don’t have any good family pictures. In fact, I don’t even have bad ones. So I’ll have to hire a Christmas card photographer.

Meanwhile, up top is a picture of me at a wedding trying really hard to look normal. And I can’t help noticing that I’m leaning in but she’s leaning away.

30 replies
    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      So funny that you would write this, Chris. Because I would love to get a yearly picture from you — your kids are the same age as mine and I’ve known you from a distance for so long. So maybe the other thing about Christmas cards is that it’s nice that people reveal so much about their family in one single picture. It’s nice to know.


  1. Kitty Kilian
    Kitty Kilian says:

    ‘At the core of Aspergers is a lack of social reciprocity’ > that is an interesting article, and a good quote. I keep secretly hoping one of my Aspie family members will bring flowers, or even some stupid chocolate, whatever really, next time he comes. Against all odds.

    • Allison
      Allison says:

      Summed it up perfectly for me too. I’ve been trying to explain it to people who just don’t “get it”

  2. Karen
    Karen says:

    Thank you for sending this. I need reminders that trying to follow norms is exhausting for my Aspergers boyfriend. Also that he just doesn’t get what comes easy for others sometimes. Ended up yelling at me to get in the f**king car after almost running over his dog because without telling me thought he should back up to the front door of my house to help put the two little gifts I had for his mom in the car. Another holiday ending in disappointment but I’m trying to get used to it. Holidays seem the worst for him. Can barely crack a smile even when surrounded with love :(

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      People with Aspergers marry people with Aspergers. Karen’s comment is a great example of why that is. A neurotypical person would have Asperger traits as a dealbreaker, but someone who grew up with Aspergers doesn’t count Asperger traits as dealbreakers.

      Women with Aspergers always look more high functioning than men with Aspergers. So women assume they don’t have it. But Aspergers is a gender-linked disorder, and women with Aspergers run into trouble because they are not similar to other women. Men with Aspergers are not similar to other men, and women with Aspergers are not similar to other women.

      There are so many facebook groups for women who are married to men with Aspergers, and if you read the comments it’s clear that all the women in those groups have Aspergers. They don’t see it because they are surrounded by men with Aspergers and women who married them. But no one in those groups is a neurotypical woman.

      I say this so you can ask yourself why you put up with what he’s doing. Everyone has to put up with a lot from their significant other, but what we choose to put up with gives us great insight about ourselves.


      • Karen
        Karen says:

        Thank you for your reply Penelope :) Yes, I have often thought that I am neuro atypical and just took two tests from the links in this article I scored that I am slightly neuro a typical on both. I also think that I am an empath, co-dependent, and I am a Cancer (for what that info is worth) and a bleeding heart liberal! I do often wonder why I stay with someone who has caused me such pain but it is true what they say about all the special wonderful unique qualities of neuro a typicals being very endearing as well. Not to mention there is a lot of love and attraction there. Your question is a good one and one I have explored before. I think because there have been no “deal breakers” (cheating, abuse, etc.) I choose to stay b/c of what I’ve already mentioned and that my bf lost his younger brother/best friend/business partner and his father both suddenly and within 4 months of each other 5 years ago so I feel needs even more understanding especially at the holidays. Ever since then it is as though a portion of him will always be broken. Now with Covid I see him struggling with organization, being accident prone, losing things and so can see how hard it has been for him to be out of his normal routines. So I guess I just am waiting out the time hoping one day he will feel more relaxed and that I will learn to blow off his outbursts/ lack of attention/ etc. even more than I already do. I have finally gotten him to read that book by David Finch but he says he wants something more technical so I am looking for another book that maybe he can relate to. I think communication is our biggest problem at this point…sometimes I can not believe how he can get wrong something written or said in black and white! I have read “how to be an adult in relationships” 3 times since my divorce 7 years ago. I want to be a good partner and I want to be fulfilled in my relationship. It has definitely! improved steadily over the past 5 years which is another reason I stay. The holidays just always seem to bite us in the ass though. lol Merry Christmas!

      • Heather
        Heather says:

        I’m laughing because your blog is hysterical! I’m also figuratively crying because it’s such a relief to read comments that reflect me and my life SO EXACTLY!! Also the Christmas card tips are so true!

  3. Carol
    Carol says:

    Interesting. I have long thought that three of my friends have what I call “Asperger’s Lite,” but this makes me think they have something else or a subset of Asperger’s. They obsess on certain things, miss some social cues, have slightly intense nasal voices, are super-sharp, and do not get super-sentimental or miffed about some things. By your definition, my friend, the famous farmer, is perhaps Asperger’s. She is aware of that. Has said she likes plants more than people. Yet she called to check in recently. About this photo, I wonder if the woman is reaction to your lower lip stuck out as well as the proximity. It feels aggressive.

    • Bostonian
      Bostonian says:

      Carol, people with Aspergers often don’t know that they appear to be acting aggressive towards other people. The person who feels the Aspie is acting aggressive is unlikely to out with it and say “Excuse me, it seems to me that you are acting aggressive,” which is what would be required for the person with Asperger’s to notice. Instead, they will send postural and facial clues to communicate that feeling, which the person with Aspergers – especially if she is perseverating on something – will not notice. When I look at the picture above, that is what I see – oblivious perseveration in the face of avoidance.

      As for your friends having “Aspergers lite,” there’s not really such a thing, as autism spectrum disorder results in difference below the water line, as it were. Aspergers is already “autism lite.”

      However, people who are related to a person with autism frequently show some of the characteristics of autism without being autistic. This is referred to as the Broad Autism Phenotype. Look it up (I find posting links here tiresome).

      My son has autism / Aspergers, and both my wife and I show some of the characteristics of autism without being autistic. From my experience, one of the problems with this can be that we tolerate – and even enjoy – a relatively high degree of idiosyncrasy in other people, and a parent not in the Broad Autism Phenotype might have noticed that my son is autistic long before I did. However, even between someone such as I, who exhibits some of the characteristics of autism, and a person such as my son, who is actually autistic, there is a deep gulf of incomprehension. Of course, he’s a teenager too, so the expected value for parent-child understanding is already quite low.

  4. Joyce
    Joyce says:

    Hi! I can relate to the hair, clothes, spacing, and timing. Passing off as normal can be tiring. Thank you!

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      That’s a really good question. Once a woman realizes she has Aspergers, it’s like the whole world opens to her. Everything makes sense — her childhood, her parents, her significant other, her job, all of it. It’s very exciting. And having a friend to share the discovery with makes it even better.

      Also, having Aspergers is exhausting, so women with Aspergers isolate rather than do the exhausting work of passing for normal. But isolating is lonely. So if you can find friends who have Aseprgers then life is way less lonely.


    • Bostonian
      Bostonian says:

      Knowing that your friend has Aspergers might help you to understand her better and preserve a friendship in the face of repeated errors in communication.

  5. jenwithben
    jenwithben says:

    I love Christmas cards—designing mine, sending them, receiving them! I thought I was old fashioned but I think there is something really special keeping in touch with people you wouldn’t necessarily otherwise as well as close friends and family. I also enjoy reflecting on the year past and hearing about people’s lives. Of course they are hard to make, manage, execute on time. But most things worth doing are hard. Maybe it’s the fact that they ARE hard that makes receiving something so anachronistic relevant and special today. Last year a friend asked for my email to send a “digital card”—-that only lasted a year. I’m guessing no one reciprocated an awkward photo email. Emails are two way conversation—Christmas cards are blissfully one way. I do wonder if I would reciprocate a random card. Probably not. I rented a dumpster this year and the company sent me a card. I didn’t reciprocate.

  6. Jessica R.
    Jessica R. says:

    You’re still adorable, Penelope…leaning in or leaning out, with messy hair or regular hair…you have warmed my heart through the years and I cherish your posts. Thank you for educating all of us…with Aspergers or without. Hugs (like the side hug, not the full-on embrace, lol).

  7. celestial
    celestial says:

    I have to disagree with this on many levels. My family of origin had one formal portrait taken of all eleven of us, children aged 9 to 19, and my mother’s hair is somewhat askew, as she was busy organizing 9 children to pose for a photo. Her clothing was also out of date and a bit ill-fitting, probably due to the reality of clothing 11 people on a yearly income of less than $7000 in 1972. I know you are sincere in what you are saying, but the absolutes you give really are not absolute; there are other explanations.

  8. Dorie
    Dorie says:

    Oddly enough, this reinforces the idea I’ve been chewing on about my husband. The pandemic has forced me to consider the idea that he is autistic (especially while watching his sensory seeking/avoiding behavior in direct conflict with our son’s sensory behavior). He never smiles for the camera (because people already know he’s happy) and it reminds me of when we first got together and I told him it bothered me that he never said my name. He responded that he didn’t need to because I already knew he was talking to me.

  9. Angie
    Angie says:

    I always have messy hair, my kids have messy hair and my wardrobe is atrocious. However, I”m fully aware that this is not what society would deem normal, I just don’t care enough or have enough time most of the time to get it sorted. I never send back christmas cards, I know I should, but I think they are a complete waste of time and not a priority. I also think societal ‘norms’ are BS and sometimes quite pointless so rage a bit against them. I wouldn’t consider myself aspergers at all. Are we in danger of over diagnosing people because they don’t demonstrate the behaviours we expect or actively choose not to??

  10. Fenn
    Fenn says:

    Has anyone told you that not only is Aspergers outdated and not used by the medical community anymore, but the autistic community doesn’t like it either? Perhaps you should do some reading.

    I’ve always enjoyed just how tone deaf your posts are, but I know you’re not stupid. You make a lot of excuses for refusing to learn, but it’s very clearly a choice. Maybe it’s time for a change.

  11. Tracy Cruz
    Tracy Cruz says:

    Asperger syndrome (AS), also known as Asperger’s, is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication, along with restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests. Arborist Westminster Co

  12. Ann
    Ann says:

    In Ireland people used to send Christmas cards with a Christmassy Snowman/Robin or a Saint /Jesus on it.The family photo theme has crept in a bit but is still regarded as more of an American thing.
    I dont send them.I did 16 years ago when I was excited about starting a relationship &having a baby abroad. No one back home had met him so it was a way of telling people. It did not last.
    Now if someone sends me a card I sometimes send a thank you text.Im bad at knowing what is appropriate re money in a wedding card,thinking and sending birthday cards to a handful of relatives.Others seem to know it intuitively.
    I dont go to weddings. My other half doesnt like going either.Im turned off by the logistics of all of it.The million questions about what you will be wearing, the wondering why I was invited,knowing certain people will be there but not why other seemingly unconnected people are invited. The not drink too much,just enough to try to dance.It was more fun as a child in a way as I didnt think about most of those things.
    I doubt I’ll get married. Once he takes care of our son & my daughter I dont care.My daughters Dad wont leave her an inheritance.My current partner will probably will help her get to college, get a car etc but will leave his farm to our son.He said if we had more and the next one was interested in farming he would leave it to him instead.
    I dont want anymore kids because you cant be completely equal to them all but you can try make some semblance of it
    The more I read your post on Autism the more I think I need to get officially diagnosed

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