Thursday, September 10, 2009

Article: Life as an Aspergian female

John Elder Robison (author of "Look me in the Eye") has posted part one of a story about a female with aspergers on his blog. I was quite interested to read it because the female aspie is something of a mystery. Under-diagnosed and under documented, there are undoubtedly fewer female aspies than males. I'm still not convinced that they're as rare as they seem though.

Anyway, I'd encourage you to read and respond to his article;

Life as an Aspergian female - a story I had to share


My Take
Personally, I felt somewhat miffed by the article. It's probably my OCD/Pedantism rebelling against the generalisations in it but I'll try to outline my reasons in more detail;


The Bad
  • Empathy
    It would take several blog posts to even begin to break the surface on the whole empathy thing. I have big problems with the whole definition of empathy and still haven't quite found a single definition which suits me. Empathy means different things to different people and I don't understand how someone could be empathetic to starving people but not to obsese people. Sympathy isn't the same as empathy.

  • Honesty
    The first line of this paragraph is a contradiction. In itself, the statement that "Aspies are incapable of telling lies" is a lie. Aspies are certainly very capable of lying. Social lies, such as insincere compliments, don't come naturally to us, but they do happen. Aspies can be trained to do it. Aspies are great actors. We act normal all our lives. This in itself is a form of lying and it follows that when we are required to lie in this manner, we can do so very well.

    Lying without cause doesn't come naturally to us but there are some aspies out there who are habitual liars.

  • IQs
    This section miffed me considerably because I'm constantly in contact with parents who expect their children to become "little professors" and have issues when these qualities fail to materialise. Aspies have normal IQs. Sometimes they're high, sometimes they're low and most of the time they're in between. The only thing that aspies don't have is very low IQs.

    I don't think that IQ scores matter much with aspergers. I did an IQ test ages ago, when I was distracted at work. I didn't do wonderfully because I had other tasks to perform at the same time (so I guess it wasn't a terribly fair test). I did get a slightly above average score. Recently, I decided that enough time had passed for me to do another IQ test. This time I got in the genius range.

    Does that mean I'm a genius? Sadly, no. I think that it just means that I'd gotten used to the way those tests work. Memory is a problem for me. Short term memory is abysmal but my long term memory is good. Very good. Even though there had been a period of three years between the tests, my memory started to kick in halfway through and I started to remember how I'd worked out the answers to the questions previously.

    It wasn't even the same test but the questions were similar. I think that my memory allowed me to unintentionally cheat.

    I've always said that it's a combination of focus, memory and special interest that makes us seem like little professors. I stand by that. We all look like geniuses when it comes to our special interest - but true genius doesn't have much to do with it.

    Parents of aspies need to curb their expectations. Your children don't need to be geniuses.

The Good
The article isn't all bad though, the paragraph on speaking style is brilliant and I love the phrase "Aspergians tend to download data onto you rather than have a 2 way conversation". In my experience, it captures an important aspect of aspie behaviour perfectly.

  • Age
    The idea that aspies aren't age-appropriate is right. Sometimes we're childlike and sometimes we're adult. Most of the time, we seem to be a mix of both. This seriously confuses people around us. I don't really believe that people around you treat you like dirt but then again, that could be my own naievity.

    I don't usually bother fighting the image that people have of me. They can think what they like. It doesn't change me. I generally find that people fall into two categories; Those that treat you in a similar manner to the way that you treat them and those who won't change their views. Being super-nice to people will bring a great response from the former and there's no sense in being upset about the latter. Some people just don't make good friends.

  • Clumsiness
    I can relate to this and yes, I constantly bump into things. It's not just low muscle tone (hyptonia) issues. I seem to have very little spacial awareness.

  • Eye Contact
    I can also relate to the eye contact issues, I think what has been said there is pretty close to the way I feel except that I don't like other people starring into my eyes either. It feels like my soul is being drained.

  • Sensitivities
    This is a weird one for me. I don't have major light sensitivities (except that I can't read books outside). I've never worn sunglasses, though my current pair of glasses automatically dim (and it's wonderful). Being deaf, I don't have any issues with sound though vibrations can irritate my sense of touch. I have issues with clothing too, particularly flannelette, but most of the time I can live with them.

    Smell... That one, I probably need to do an entire post about. Some smells (Vanilla) drive me wild, while others, particularly chilli breath and beer breath make me very ill - or, strangely enough... angry.

    Insomnia
    The comments on insomnia are interesting too. My children cured mine. These days I'm really tired all the time and while my brain still doesn't ever shut off, my body closes down and I can sleep through anything.
Conclusion
It's quite an interesting article though the author is obviously a vegan who has issues with fat people. Funnily enough, I'm not fat, (ok... perhaps I'm getting a little porky in my old age) but I've always had issues with vegans and super-thin waif-people. Of course, I never let issues like that get in the way of friendships.

I'm looking forward to part two.

22 comments:

themadandwild said...

Yeah, it appeared as if she was saying that aspergers is a superior race of humans. For someone with such an IQ, she really should have fact checked her article. After the life diagnoses are dodgy at best.

John Elder Robison said...

Thanks for your thoughtful analysis. That's what I hoped her post would stimulate . . .

Woof!

Lindsay said...

Nice post, Gavin --- although I would quibble with this:
"Aspies are great actors. We act normal all our lives."

Not every Aspie can do this! Even apart from the question of whether we've had any ABA-style special training in How to Look Normal (which will vary with all sorts of things like age, age at time of diagnosis, nationality, race and economic status!), our ability to cobble together a normal-looking self-presentation will vary with a) our capacity for close observation, b) our capacity for identifying which details are the ones we should remember and try to copy; and c) our ability and inclincation to attend specifically to other people. We do not naturally attend to socially salient details, as NTs do, so we have to have a fair amount of determination to "figure out" social interactions if we are going to teach ourselves to do this.

Not all of us care that much.

Also, this, from the original article:
"Meat eaters smell like musky sweaty testicles to me."
That made me laugh (it's a ridiculous mental image), but I've heard this from vegans who aren't autistic --- they can "smell" meat on nonvegans.

And re. sympathy for starving people but not obese people --- I wonder if it would blow her mind to know that fat people can be malnourished, too?

The Rambling Taoist said...

While I agree that everything she wrote isn't true for every aspie (and a bit of it may not be true at all), I found myself in agreement with much of it. Of course, as well as having Asperger's I also have Klinefelter's Syndrome -- my 23rd chromosome is XXY. So, I seem to straddle the worlds of males and females.

Gavin Bollard said...

Thanks Lindsay,

You're quite right. I go off and make a point about generalisations and then make the same mistake myself.

Not all aspies are great actors.

Some are better than others. Some don't try, some just aren't good mimics and some are great.

I never acted in stage plays at school but I actually did drama (mainly because I wanted to kill my stage fright problems). It certainly helped me with my "acting".

e said...

WOW

I read it. I was going to leave a comment on it but was amazed at the positive comments the article got. While there is a lot of truth to what she wrote, I found her to be offensive. She sounds angry and like she's trying to prove herself. I won't deny that I've done my share of that but I am pretty miffed that she thinks she represents all female Aspies. I wonder how old she is. I suspect she's rather young and still raring to have a fight with the world just to prove a point. That is my feeling on it.
I think I'll read it again and make some specific comments but overall, I think she's very abrasive.

Catana/Sylvie Mac said...

LOL, yes we all make generalizations, and it's nice to see someone admit that they've fallen into that trap. But your analysis hits a lot of important points. I found myself so different from her generalizations that it's as if we live in two different worlds. I've never been called immature, and I don't consider adapting to your environment "acting," though it may be a deliberate act, for some aspies. I understand her sensory problems though I don't share them to such an extreme extent. What does bother me is her attitude that "that's me, and if you don't like it, bug off."

As for genius -- there's no such thing as a "genius range" of IQ. Genius is a label for extradordinary levels of creative accomplishment, and it's granted by one's colleagues and by history. No level of IQ confers genius; you have to earn it.

CelticRose said...

I don't see how this was supposed to be an article about the feminine side of Asperger's. The only thing she mentioned in part one that was female-specific was that her peers want to talk about make-up, clothes, and boys all the time. Part 2 has been published, but I won't post any spoilers. ;-)

I too found her rather offensive. She seems arrogant -- not just the self-absorption that we Aspies often exhibit, but downright conceited.

As to empathy, I'm not convinced that Aspies lack it. I think, rather, that we simply don't know when it's appropriate to express it. Also, since we can't read non-verbal social cues we often don't know that there's something to be empathetic about.

For example, Mary, an NT, is upset about her dog dying, but says nothing about it. John, an Aspie, walks into the room, says "Hi" to Mary but doesn't notice anything wrong, so he sits down at his desk and starts working. Bob, an NT, comes in, immediately sees that something is wrong, and asks Mary what the trouble is.

John wasn't lacking empathy -- he just couldn't read the non-verbal cues that would have told him that Mary was upset.

Nightfall said...

"Social lies, such as insincere compliments, don't come naturally to us, but they do happen. Aspies can be trained to do it. Aspies are great actors. We act normal all our lives. This in itself is a form of lying and it follows that when we are required to lie in this manner, we can do so very well."

Thank you for this. It's always bothered me, the "can't tell lies" thing. It is very difficult to dissemble and to say something that I don't believe, such as insincere compliments, but it is possible to, as you say, act normal, to put on a persona that is effectively a lie, in order to fit into a given situation. I think all aspies should go into drama in school for this reason. ;-) And also because in general people who act tend to be more accepting of difference and it's easier to make friends in the drama club...

Nathaniel Hoffelder said...

I wish my first post here wasn't a nitpick, but I have to take issue with the title. The word female is an adjective, not a noun. You can say female person, not adjective female.

BTW, why did you torture Asperger's into a particularly gruesome adjective when you could have simply written "female Aspie"?

Gavin Bollard said...

Hi and welcome Nathaniel,

I don't particularly like the title and in fact I tend to use "aspie" rather than "aspergian" but I have a rule that says when I'm referring to an article that someone else has written I must write;

"Article: {their article name}"

Hence, it's not my title, it's the article title on John Elder's blog that is the issue. I can't break my own rules.

Rachel said...

Okay, I've had it. I used to pray for world peace and an end to human suffering, but now, I've decided that I must devote all of my spiritual energies to getting the g*dd*mned empathy question off the g*dd*mned table.

We have empathy. We are human. If one of us is a sociopath, it's a co-morbid condition. It is not a feature of autism. Yeah, so maybe we don't make the greatest guesses about what other people are feeling, but NT "autism experts" haven't exactly made the best series of guesses about us, either, now have they? If, in past generations, they'd been able to read *our* nonverbals and realize that there was A PERSON IN THERE, they wouldn't have confined so many autistic people to institutions.

Call me crazy, but I think that kind of impaired empathy is slightly more alarming than not noticing that your friend is sad because she lost her dog.

M said...

hey there.

i just worry that some statements of hers are opinions that she expresses under the umbrella term "asperger's".

not liking fat people for example. she refers to it as a sensory issue, "i can smell fat". but she also says that they are greedy, destroying the planet (some of that she might have added in a comment).

opinions are fine, i certainly have my own preferences, reject this or that trait about people. but i'm not confortable with the idea of using the asperger label to cover all statements. i think she moves from a sensory issue...smell...into straight opinion. which is fine, she has every right to do that, but once it moves into opinion, again, i'm just not comfortable referring to that as an AS trait.

i don't know. it's one of those tricky areas. hope you are well.

Chasmatazz said...

We can hold opinions on things where there is no objective truth. "Blue is the most attractive color" is an opinion.

"Fat people take more than their share" is not an opinion. It's either true, or it's false. In this case, it's false. The freedom to hold an opinion doesn't entitle to make such statements. It's not "fine."

Anonymous said...

Hey Gavin,

When you say that vanilla "drives me wild" do you mean in a pleasant and/or sexual sense? Is vanilla your favorite scent?

Gavin Bollard said...

Vanilla drives me wild though not necessarily in a sexual manner. I smell a little and need to smell more.

I don't usually buy scents but I've bought quite a few vanilla candles over the years. I've also bought a lot of vanilla incense.

I used to work with someone who wore vanilla perfume and I caught myself sniffing more when I was in the lift with her. Eventually I asked the name of the perfume and bought it for my wife. Unfortunately, it turned her skin yellow, so she couldn't wear it.

e said...

I know what you mean about vanilla scent.

Anonymous said...

Hey Gavin. Can you do a topic on the sense of scent in Aspies. When you talk about what specific scents you like/dislike, can you also include some insight into the unique body scent of individuals?

Anonymous said...

your blog will shine new light on our little 9 year old with aspergers....we have such a hard time with him and are finding so many things set him off. i also see by reading your blog that I myself have many ideas and feeling just like an aspergers person WOW

Anonymous said...

"What does bother me is her attitude that "that's me, and if you don't like it, bug off." "

Ever noticed how people with that atttiude - whether they're Aspie or NT or whatever - also complain about "not being accepted" when the people who don't like it do bug off?

"We have empathy. We are human. If one of us is a sociopath, it's a co-morbid condition. It is not a feature of autism."

You're right, and that's true no matter how much a sociopath demands that other people put up with his or her treating them badly "or else you're discriminating against Aspies!!!!!!"

"Eventually I asked the name of the perfume and bought it for my wife. Unfortunately, it turned her skin yellow, so she couldn't wear it."

Perfume is not supposed to do that. Did you two complain to the perfume company about their bad product and get at least a refund?

mados said...

I agree very much with your take. Especially about lies:

"In itself, the statement that "Aspies are incapable of telling lies" is a lie."

That's what I thought too... that a broad generalisation like that is automatically a lie.

I agree with you that everyday acting - as in trying to hide "weirdness" - is a form of lying. Personally I am great at acting in theatre/play, but not in everyday acting...

And aspies have normal IQ... Yes. The genius myth is setting a lot of people up to fail.

As I understand the issue: for the normal population, the full range of IQs are included in the average IQ - from retarded to genius. Whereas for Aspergers, persons with intellectual disabilities are conventionally given a diagnosis for infantile autism (or whatever it is called now/was called recently), and not aspergers... So that brings the average IQ of the population of persons diagnosed with aspergers a bit over the normal average... but that is an artificial difference.

I also agree with the age inappropriateness, clumsiness, eye contact, and sensory sensitivities... albeit for me the latter works differently from her description.

I also liked the "download data" description a lot... spot on. Although I would like to add that I try hard to NOT do that...

I do think the point of conversation is the exchange of information and insight.

If I let myself dominate a conversation due to tenaciously hanging onto one track and not being open to others' input, then I end up not only annoying the person I talk to but also disappointing myself.

Because after all, I already knew all the things I said; I had them already. So I got no new/improved information out of it. And most likely, the person I talked to didn't either... because if it was information overload for them and they got annoyed, then they just shut down. So that's a loose-loose situation.

So that is what I do NOT want to do and trying hard to avoid doing - and it is very much worth it, because it gives me insights and information from other people (plus people like talking, and I want to be a pleasure to talk with).




mados said...

I agree very much with your take. Especially about lies:

"In itself, the statement that "Aspies are incapable of telling lies" is a lie."

That's what I thought too... that a broad generalisation like that is automatically a lie.

I agree with you that everyday acting - as in trying to hide "weirdness" - is a form of lying. Personally I am great at acting in theatre/play, but not in everyday acting...

And aspies have normal IQ... Yes. The genius myth is setting a lot of people up to fail.

As I understand the issue: for the normal population, the full range of IQs are included in the average IQ - from retarded to genius. Whereas for Aspergers, persons with intellectual disabilities are conventionally given a diagnosis for infantile autism (or whatever it is called now/was called recently), and not aspergers... So that brings the average IQ of the population of persons diagnosed with aspergers a bit over the normal average... but that is an artificial difference.

I also agree with the age inappropriateness, clumsiness, eye contact, and sensory sensitivities... albeit for me the latter works differently from her description.

I also liked the "download data" description a lot... spot on. Although I would like to add that I try hard to NOT do that...

I do think the point of conversation is the exchange of information and insight.

If I let myself dominate a conversation due to tenaciously hanging onto one track and not being open to others' input, then I end up not only annoying the person I talk to but also disappointing myself.

Because after all, I already knew all the things I said; I had them already. So I got no new/improved information out of it. And most likely, the person I talked to didn't either... because if it was information overload for them and they got annoyed, then they just shut down. So that's a loose-loose situation.

So that is what I do NOT want to do and trying hard to avoid doing - and it is very much worth it, because it gives me insights and information from other people (plus people like talking, and I want to be a pleasure to talk with).