Friday, November 29, 2013

Aspergers and Inappropriate Gifts and Comments

Well, it's December again and there's bound to be a lot of gifts and socialising, so it seems appropriate to talk about Aspergers and inappropriate gifts and comments...

A lot of people think that those with Asperger's syndrome are insensitive when it comes to gifts. In truth, I think we're actually trying too hard.

One of the things that is drummed into our heads from the time we first start giving and receiving gifts is that "it's the thought that counts".  Consequently, I try very hard when writing cards or choosing gifts, to put a whole lot of thought and personalisation into them. I consider giving soap or other "non-specific" items to be a failure on my part. It means that I haven't put adequate thought into the gift.

Sadly, I think that while lots of people appreciate this level of thought, I end up offending many more people than I would if I just handed over a novelty soap.

Have a look at this clip from the Big Bang Theory; it shows Sheldon, a character generally considered to have Asperger's syndrome, giving a colleague a gift.

In this case, the misstep is fairly obvious; Sheldon is using physical characteristics, such as race, to determine appropriate gifts.

In reality though, the line between giving someone something useful and insulting them is a lot harder to see.  Here are a few things that I've personally done.
  • Giving a person with sight issues an audio book. I thought this was a really insightful choice. I personally love books and I know that I'd be lost if I couldn't read.  I spent over my limit to get an audio book because I thought it would show that I had given the gift some thought.  I didn't see it opened because I'm usually the type of person who leaves a gift quietly and escapes but I assumed that it had gone down well.  It wasn't until I was talking about gifts this year that my wife heard and said; "you did WHAT!!!"  Apparently it wasn't a good thing.

  • Sending a Card Joking about ChristmasMy Christmas cards tend to be very chatty and friendly but since I write like I think, sometimes I write too much.  Again, it was my wife who picked up on the problem after I'd already sent the card. I thought I'd made a joke but I very nearly ended up cancelling Christmas.

  • Taking Bawdy Humour too far
    During my teenage years, my mother and I always enjoyed bawdy jokes but one year, when I couldn't find anything else to buy her, I went a little too far. You can imagine the moment of surprise when she unwrapped a book about safe sex - complete with a condom stapled to the front cover.

  • Given Someone a Compilation without Listening to it
    One year, shortly before Christmas, I decided that I'd had enough of Christmas carols, and I compiled a CD full of politically incorrect songs, starting with South Park's Awesome "Merry F***king Christmas".  I downloaded a whole heap of funny sounding songs, assembled them on CD and gave them out to people.  It wasn't until a day or two later when someone asked "have you listened to those CDs?" that I began to get worried.   It turned out that some of those songs were so bad that I still can't let my thirteen year-old listen to them today.  

Tell Someone about your Ideas
It's in my nature to be secretive about gifts. After all, everyone likes to give surprises - though many people are less enthusiastic about receiving them.  I guess the most important information in this post is that you should find someone that you trust and tell them about your gift - or your message - and why you think it is suitable.

It might save a lot of agony later on.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Asperger's Syndrome and Friendship

It’s taken me most of my adult life to really understand friendship. Even then, I don’t feel like I really understand more than the most basic of concepts. I'm sure it’s easy for other people but for me, the lines between friend, acquaintance, user and colleague are all very blurred and I often can’t tell one from the other.

In my early years, long before I understood what Asperger’s syndrome was, I used to think that my problems making friends were all down to my hearing loss. After all, I reasoned, If I couldn't hear people well enough to converse easily, then obviously my friend-making and friend-keeping skills would suffer.  This would have been a great theory if I hadn't lived next door to a very popular boy with a much worse hearing issue than I had.

For the first ten years of my life, that boy next door was my only friend - except of course, for my dog. When he was on holidays, and that was quite often, I would simply play by myself.  I used to be a little jealous of my friend. After all, he had lots of other friends and I was a very small part of his circle. To me though, he was my only friend, my world. 

Eventually my parents moved house and due to our mutual hearing difficulties, telephone conversations were impossible. We separated and I went quite a while without any friends at all.

School Friends
I didn't have friends at my primary school, I had parallel players. I was obsessed with Star Wars (it was 1978 after all) and I spent many lunchtimes playing with the figures with a "friend". After a while though, he wanted to play trucks instead. I didn't have trucks and I wasn't interested in trucks - my special interest was Star Wars. I never brought and trucks in and eventually we stopped playing together. I spent my last years of primary school wandering around and talking to the girls. I related better to them because they weren't interested in football or in bashing me up.

Not long afterwards, I changed schools.  I remember a boy coming up and talking to me during a soccer match. I hated sports but it was mandatory, so I'd just try to find a spot that I though the ball would never go to and then I'd stand and daydream. I probably seemed lonely to others but I was always happy with my thoughts.

Most of the time, if anyone came up to me during soccer, it was to shout at me for not doing anything. This time however, the boy just wanted to talk. At first I was afraid because after all, he was a much bigger kid than me but he didn't seem to be trying to bully me. I understood bullies really well but didn't understand friends. The next day at school he introduced me to a bunch of "nerdy" kids in other classes and told me to play handball with them at lunchtime.

Being a good kid, I did what I was asked. After a couple of years of playing with this friend and his other friends at lunchtime, our school put out a call for library monitors and I immediately signed up. After all, I loved books and I didn't really have anything else to do with my lunchtimes.  I’d been playing handball but really I’d just been letting them win all the time because that’s what I thought they wanted. It simply didn't occur to me that I was liked “as a friend”.

When these friends found out that I’d signed up to be a library monitor, they were very annoyed that I hadn't consulted them. Again, I simply didn't understand why. The very next day, they all signed up to be library monitors with me. 

Over the years, I've lost touch with a couple but mostly these guys are still my closest friends today, 26 years after leaving school. These guys are in my absolute trust zone. Of course, I've met lots of other people in the workplace, in my neighbourhood, at university and on Facebook since then and each time I've been surprised to have been asked to go to places with them. I rarely do though because I always feel so uncertain.

It's not that I don't care for these people deeply, it's just that for me, the line between friend and colleague is so unclear that I never know what I'm doing. I have no idea of what is and isn't appropriate or when someone is being nice to me because they like me - and not just for their own reasons.

Having friends when you have Asperger's syndrome is like walking around in the dark and not knowing whether the next thing you bump into is going to be hard or soft - or whether it is going to shatter into a thousand pieces.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Understanding Adult Bullying

You could be forgiven for thinking that bullying is “something that happens to kids”. After all, that’s how the media portrays it.  The theory is that if bullying happens to adults, it’s rare, it’s obvious and it’s generally the work of “rednecks” or similar people who lack the education and/or social exposure to be more accepting of others. 

In reality, bullying is as common, as pervasive and as destructive amongst adults as it is among kids. The difference is that the vast majority of adult bullying goes undetected - or at least unchallenged by most adult bystanders. We expect our children to report bullying and yet we fail to do it ourselves.

In order to really understand bullying, you have to know what it means. Google defines bullying as to; “use superior strength or influence to intimidate (someone), typically to force them to do something”.

Bullying is Intentional
I think this is a very good definition. It makes it clear that there is an intended result to bullying. It’s not accidental, nor unintentional, and for those of us who have kids with ADHD, it’s thankfully not simple impulsivity.  No. Bullying is an act with an intended outcome - even if that outcome is merely “to make a particular person cry”.

Bullying amongst kids is reasonably easy to see, after all, kids are generally transparent about the things they want, control of the playground, their favourite toy, someone’s lunch money etc.  Kids are also quite good at articulating these wants and will open directly with a request, for example, for lunch money before they move onto bullying in earnest.

Adults on the other hand are much less direct.  They know that direct methods won’t work and instead resort to less obvious ones from the outset.  Often adults have a need for control and they generally won't walk up to you and say; "I want to control your department" or "I want to control you". Instead, they'll just start bullying until your reaction makes you give them what they want.

Bullying Requires Superior Strength
Then there’s the position of superior strength. It’s no coincidence that in the playground, the bully is often the biggest kid - or the strongest, or the loudest. The measurement of superior strength in the playground in generally based upon physical aspects, though as kids, particularly girls,  move into the later school years, bullying strength relies increasingly on popularity.

In adult bullying, superior strength is often achieved by “being popular” or team-building. This is frequently seen in companies where people who have the ear of the CEO are feared by their colleagues. Sometimes bullies will do favours for others so that they can call them in if needed.  Workplace bullies like to sit in the middle of the office and will often place candies or other incentives on their desks to attract others so that they can be included in conversations and office politics.

If a victim tries to take action against a bully with friends, it’s easy for the bully to convince people to take their side.  Having high numbers of supporters makes it easy for a bully to throw out an accusation with a catchphrase like, “not bullying, just adults behaving badly”.

Sometimes bullying strength, particularly in the workplace, comes from the job description. Human resources managers are often bullies as their access to personnel files allows them to “dig dirt” on their colleagues while suppressing negative reports of their own.  This can happen in other departments too, such as IT where it becomes easy to sabotage the work of another. Unscrupulous bullies in IT departments often use their privileged access rights to snoop on the files of other employees.  It's all about power.

Aspergers and Bullying
People with asperger’s syndrome are particularly prone to bullying for two main reasons;

  • Naivety; Many people with Asperger’s syndrome are completely oblivious to indirect communication. They usually believe the lies spun by bullies and can often be manipulated into doing a bully’s dirty work for them.  It’s also very easy for bullies to bait or otherwise manipulate naive aspie victims into situations which are difficult to defend. 

  • Differences; Bullies often pick on people who are different. It’s no longer politically correct to pick on people of different races, creeds or sexuality. There are laws against that. There are also laws covering physical disability but those laws become blurred when a disability is less obvious. Since people with Asperger’s syndrome generally look the same as everyone else, it’s easy for a bully to say “I didn’t know” in their defence.

How to Help
The following quote has been attributed to many people over the years and as far as I can tell, the origin is still hazy. Nevertheless, it’s a quote which applies extremely well to bullying situations.

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

If you witness adult bullying and fail to act then your actions are no less wrong than a boy who witnesses his friend being bullied at school and fails to report or intervene. We want our children to step in - so why can’t we do the right thing as adults?  Why can’t we teach by example?