Asperger's Syndrome Teaches Each How to Cope in the World

“Man often becomes what he believes himself to be. If I keep on saying to myself that I cannot do a certain thing, it is possible that I may end by really becoming incapable of doing it. On the contrary, if I have the belief that I can do it, I shall surely acquire the capacity to do it even if I may not have it at the beginning.”       Mohandas Karamchand (Mahatma) Gandhi

1.  From Penelope Trunk: “Social Skills Boot Camp”:

What I really want to tell you about Melissa though, is that she quit her $150,000/year in international finance to hang out with some nine-year-old Italian after school. She speaks Chinese, which is how she got the family to pay her enough money. The family really wanted a nanny who could fix the kid’s English accent because English tutor was from Sweden. But now they’re getting a two-for-one: Their kid will learn English with an American accent and Chinese with an American accent, too.

Like me, Melissa has Asperger’s Syndrome. So I can finish her sentences for her, and she can finish my sentences. Which is funny because neither of us ever shuts up. So there are really never any sentences to finish.

We are both very high-functioning for people with Asperger’s. Both of us were in Special-Ed classes in high school. And both of us were in Honors classes as well. We spend a lot of time helping each other deal with Asperger’s. Here are things we do.

Stop circular thinking–

When I want something to happen that does not seem to be going to happen, I cannot stop talking about it. Like, somehow, if I keep talking, nothing bad will happen. Melissa tells me: Shhh! And snaps her finger like I’m a dog. If she does that, I am quiet. Not because I want to be, but because I know I have a problem that I can’t shut up when I don’t like something, so if someone tells me to shut up, I need to do that.

When she arrived at the house, there was a huge pile of dishes in the sink because I was too upset with the farmer to keep the house clean. I had to obsess about how upset I was, and then I had to tell her, and I told her I was going to die. And she said, “Shhh!” And then she started taking pictures to document the mess.

2.  From George Heymont: “Finding Artistic Inspiration in People With Asperger’s Syndrome”:

Not every script in which a character has Asperger’s is depressing. In an odd way, the behavioral syndrome can offer opportunities to create scenes of great poignancy and occasional comedy. For some people, making the first step toward connecting with another human being can be absolutely terrifying. On opening night of the 2010 San Francisco Fringe Festival, a 40-minute dramedy by George Pfirrmann entitled Arousal tackled this age-old dramatic situation from a new and erotically charged perspective.

Albena is an immigrant from the Ukraine who has settled into a studio apartment in San Francisco’s Richmond District (which has a large Russian-speaking population). She rarely goes out, preferring to order in meals that can be delivered. Albena manages her life very carefully with her computer and cell phone.

A modern, tech-savvy prostitute (who has been learning English by playing Scrabble online in between visits from her clients), Albena has built an emotional fortress around her in order to protect herself from being hurt.

Albena also has a curious tendency to categorize any questionable word uttered by a client as good or bad depending on how many points it will score in Scrabble (“Lonely? Is very bad word! All single point letters except for the Y!”).

Enter Clifford, a 24-year-old man with Asperger’s syndrome who was homeschooled by his devoted single mother. Over the years, Clifford had found himself struggling to make conversation with people. All too often, he would say something that alienated or offended them. Largely due to his Asperger’s, he was unable to understand what he had said or done that caused people to flee.

Even though Clifford is a grown man, he has never had any kind of sexual contact with a woman. However, after his mother’s recent death, he has suddenly found himself without any friends.

Clifford is desperate for affection, tenderness, and someone with whom he can feel comfortable. While trying to find an escape from his crushing loneliness, he spent some time browsing through the personal ads on Craigslist, where he came across an ad from a woman who offered to be “a special friend.”Arousal is all about how Clifford and Albena work through their communications issues to overcome their common problem: intense loneliness.

3.  From Norman Holland: “The Social Network. Asperger’s, and Your Brain”:

The thematic point of the movie is the interesting games it plays with the idea of social relations–friendship, love. The movie begins when Zuckerberg’s girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara) dumps him. She tells him girls will dislike him, not for being a nerd, but for being an asshole. And Zuckerberg, as portrayed in the movie, surely qualifies. (Whether the portrayal and the whole story are accurate is another matter. See the message boards on this movie at

Throughout the movie, the relationships among the people developing Facebook take on the same ephemeral or weird quality as the relationships online. People say wrong or mean things. Zuckerberg, as portrayed in the movie, is a motormouth with a gift for–more, a delight in– saying the wrong, antagonizing, contemptuous thing. But he is also presented as a brilliant computer nerd with 1600 SAT scores.

It seemed to me perfectly clear when I saw the movie that Zuckerberg, again, as portrayed, was a classic case of Asperger’s. I was planning to post a blog on it, but while I was fooling around with Halloween pranks, the web site Autisable made the same diagnosis. And maybe there are others out there.

The point is, our brains have an immense computational capacity, but it is, finally, finite. We have only so much brain power. Savants, my neurologist friends tell me, are people in whom one part of the brain is hugely developed and other parts become less. And the Zuckerberg of the movie looks like a savant to me.

A savant or “high-functioning patient with autistic spectrum disorder” may have incredible gifts in music, the visual arts, mathematical calculation, or memory but be totally lacking in perception of the emotions of those around him. (See that wonderful novel, Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.) The Zuckerberg of the movie, I think, is just such a case.

Picture credit.

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