Tuesday, February 15, 2011
An Apology, Of Sorts
D'you remember when Asperger's Syndrome didn't exist? Wikipedia calls it: "... an autism spectrum disorder that is characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction, along with restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests. It differs from other autism spectrum disorders by its relative preservation oflinguistic and cognitive development."
And I suppose that's fair enough. Except that up until 1994, when it was standardised as an actual-factual diagnosis, persons suffering from Asperger's were more commonly called "clueless munters", or something similar.
Blind folk, deaf folk, amputees, victims of cerebral palsy -- these are disabilities you can see in action. It makes sense. We can imagine being blind, or deaf, or missing an arm or a leg, or being stuck in a wheelchair. And people with these disabilities have the good manners to be obviously different.
On the other hand, the most notable effect of mild Asperger's would appear to be an inability to read nonverbal cues, a lack of empathy, maybe a little clumsiness. There's no prosthesis. There's no guide dog. No wheelchair. The person with Asperger's is just... difficult and irritating to be around.
There was a bloke back at university. He wasn't stupid. He did well enough in computer science to go on as a programmer for Defense, and I understand he may have been involved in a couple of fairly exciting development projects. So: not actively stupid, no.
But oh. He was so difficult to be around.
He wanted to be liked. That was obvious. Painfully obvious. He would go to ridiculous lengths to repay a favour. He'd bound out of bed at two in the morning to pick up some drunken fool from the outer suburbs, merely because they'd rung (while the rest of us in the house would say things like "Tough shit, ya drunken sot.") He'd be first in line to pay for shared food or drinks. He'd offer you just about anything in his power.
I'm sure you've met people like that. The harder they try, the more obvious it becomes, and the more painful it is.
He really didn't understand personal-relationship stuff, either. Couldn't tell when he should get the hell out and leave a room to the two people who were just about stripping each other with their eyes. Couldn't figure out that five or six polite refusals to different events meant the girl wasn't actually interested. Didn't know when he was too early, couldn't figure out when he stayed too late.
Once I saw him slap a mutual friend. It was like a scene from a movie, and in retrospect, I think that was the mental model he was drawing from.
The bloke he slapped is a long-term, unshakeable friend of mine: Mick. Mick is quick-witted as hell, but deeply non-confrontational, and he's learned humour as a form of defense. At one point, the cry of "Hey! Your mother!" was a standard tagline and greeting from Mick. He'd heard a bunch of Yankee 'your mother' jokes, and in his way, he'd simply boiled them down to their absolute minimum. He'd point, and in a gruff voice, he'd say "Hey! Your mother!" and instantly you'd know he was referencing all those stupid jokes - but more importantly, he was referencing and lampooning the kind of macho, braindead oik who might make a joke like that. He was, in fact, making himself the butt of the joke while sharing it -- and since he has genuine comic timing, it worked.
At least, it usually worked. Except this one day, sitting down to a late breakfast in a Uni cafeteria. In walks Mister Clueless, and sits down opposite Mick. Conversation starts. Mick cuts to his tagline -- and out of the blue, Mister Clueless reaches out and slaps him on the cheek, like some eighteenth century period piece gentleman putting a cad in his place. And he says: "Don't you say anything about my mother!"
Mick was confused as hell, and surprised, but being Mick, he just shrugged and said something like right, yeah, whatever.
I was confused too. But it was obvious it was going no farther, so there was nothing to be done.
You see my point by now. When was the last time you saw anyone, anyone in the normal spectrum of emotional development act out a scene like that?
So. It's probably twenty-five years since that happened, at a guess. And honestly, I haven't seen or heard from Mister Clueless in probably a decade. I don't really care to hear from him, either.
But... I always had a certain degree of sympathy for the guy. He was an utterly clueless, graceless munter, but he meant well, and he wanted to be liked. I couldn't find it in me to really enjoy his company, but I can say truthfully that I never disliked him. It was just uncomfortable to be around him.
Of course, nowadays there would be a label for Mister Clueless -- because if ever there was anybody who should be a poster child for Asperger's Syndrome, it's him. And it's that post-hoc label, that after-the-fact knowledge that gives me considerably more sympathy for him than I had before.
The thing about Aspbergers... not only is it invisible, but it's bloody difficult to compensate for. Blind? Canes, guide-dogs, Braille, and lots of assistance from a sympathetic public. Deaf? Sign language, hearing aids, cochlear implants. You get the picture.
But - how do you replace that invisible sense of social aptness, of propriety? How do you instill a situational sensitivity? If the bloke is twenty-five, has had a reasonably normal upbringing, gone through schools and societies and clubs and shit, and he STILL doesn't know that he should go home when his hosts are turning off the house lights and going to bed, how do you fix it?
I can imagine being blind. I can imagine being deaf. But I can't imagine being unable to perceive social, emotional, and behavioural cues. I try to think about it in terms of, perhaps, a language I cannot understand, like Russian -- and then I remember that at least I know Russian is a language, meant to convey information. And I can watch, and I can listen, and I can learn, and maybe one day I can speak enough Russian to say ja jebal tvoyemadj in a friendly fashion, and not get my teeth knocked down my throat.
That's not the same thing at all, is it?
And so, probably ten years too late, I'm offering a limited apology to Mister Clueless. I'm sorry, mate. There wasn't a word or a name for your condition back when we were around each other. I knew -- hell, everyone knew -- that you were fairly useless at sorting out social stuff... but I didn't understand that it was truly, honestly, something you couldn't help, and I never really thought of how it might be, groping your way through a world of information, cues, rules and responses you couldn't even perceive, let alone act on.
It wouldn't have made me any happier to be in your company. But if I'd known, I could have been more up-front, and tried replacing the subtle social stuff with more direct verbal instructions. I didn't do it back then because I didn't want to hurt your feelings -- but that seems kind of stupid, in retrospect. You need empathy and social skills to have easily bruised feelings. Just coming out and telling you when you were behaving inappropriately would probably not have hurt you, and quite likely would have helped us all. I should have twigged, eh?
Sorry about that.