On a Thursday last July, in a clinic just outside Cambridge, a psychologist sat down with me and confirmed that I have Asperger syndrome.
It wasn’t a huge surprise – after a slew of questionnaires, an extensive reference book and a year-long waiting list, I was already pretty convinced I knew what the answer was going to be. Even so, it was a big deal, and has been a big deal since, to reframe and understand the last three decades. And now here I am. Telling you.
Hi. This is me.
A very brief introduction to Asperger syndrome
Asperger syndrome is a form of autism. Like the autism spectrum itself, Asperger syndrome covers a whole range of traits, which different people are going to have to different degrees. Probably the most well-known traits are around highly specialised, very intense interests, and difficulties understanding body language and subtext. I don’t want to go into much detail here, as other people and organisations have already written far better introductions than I ever could. If you’d like to know more, the National Autistic Society has a pretty good introduction to Asperger syndrome, and some broader information about the autism spectrum as a whole.
Before I start delving into the details, I feel it’s worth making clear that this is all my own personal experience of my own personal brain, and doesn’t necessarily apply to other autistic folk. It might, but please don’t make too many assumptions. On top of that, I’m still relatively new to this, and writing as I learn, so there may well be parts I’ve misunderstood, and there are definitely parts I haven’t figured out yet.
With that said, here’s what I’ve figured out so far about how my mind works.
How my mind works
My mind’s pretty specialised. It’s very good at a number of things most people’s minds struggle with, and it struggles with a number of things most people do without even thinking.
As far as I’ve been able to figure out so far, the things my mind is best at are details and systems. It‘s part of what makes me a good programmer: I can hold a lot of detail in my head about how a system fits together, I can mess around with it more easily than most people, and I can pick up on details other people might miss, such as potential bugs. A lot of the things I enjoy (and seem to be pretty good at) are those where there’s an underlying system to figure out and master – computer games, martial arts, even cooking.
Then there’s a few things my mind struggles to handle. Most of them revolve around people.
I’m not always great at figuring out what someone else is thinking, or feeling, or even dropping hints about. I can take educated guesses, for sure, but I don’t necessarily get it right. It also takes a lot of work to keep track of all the social cues going on whenever there’s a conversation happening, and all the social conventions most people seem to follow without even thinking. I can think of several times when someone has asked me how my weekend went, and it’s completely slipped my mind that the appropriate response is to ask them about theirs too. It’s not that I don’t care; it’s that I’m having to concentrate so much on the rest of the social cues that I take longer to catch up with how the conversation is supposed to go.
All of this is usually manageable when I’m talking with one person, but add in a few more people to keep track of and I really start to struggle. Throw in some background noise, or get several of those people talking at once, and I’ve got very little chance of following what’s going on.
Another thing I’ve noticed is that surprises throw me pretty hard. While other people seem to be able to roll with surprises fairly easily, it takes me longer to recover, and I’m less able to function in the meantime. That surprise might be an unexpected change of plans, an abrupt change in a discussion topic, or even a sudden loud noise. It’s probably going to knock my brain sideways for a while, and I’m going to be that bit twitchier until I’ve recovered.
A few things don’t really count as good or bad: they’re just things my brain seems to do a bit differently. My memory seems to have some pretty strong opinions about what is and isn’t worth remembering. Movie quotes? Yup. Which actor was in which episode of which series, or voiced which character in which game? Keep it. Different types of bird or plant? Nope; unless I can eat it, it’s already forgotten.
There’s a whole load more traits I could cover here – also, I don’t doubt, a whole pile of traits I haven’t yet identified as a part of this particular pattern – but I hope that gives at least a flavour of what makes my mind a bit different from most.
What this means for me
On the surface, nothing’s really changed. I’m still exactly the same person I was before, and have always been; the way my brain is wired is the way my brain has always been wired. None of that has changed; what’s changed is that now I know about it. I can better appreciate the things I’m really good at, and I can better accept the things I struggle with.
Perhaps most importantly, I think this means I can try just a bit less to fit in with what I think other people expect of me – and what I’ve grown up expecting of myself – because all that’s going to achieve is a second-rate emulation of another person. Instead, I can accept that I’ll need to make a few adjustments when dealing with other people, and maybe ask those people to make a few adjustments in turn.
The most common question people have asked me is whether this diagnosis is a good thing. In short: yes. Yes, it is. For the technically-minded, it’s like struggling with a problem for what seems like an eternity, then finding that one abstraction – that one missing piece of the puzzle – that makes the solution fall neatly into place. Except that problem is the last three decades of your life. For the less technically-minded, it’s like finding out you’re a penguin. Either way, it’s very good indeed – nothing short of life-changing, in fact – and I’m looking forward to finding out more about what it means.