The following is a speech given at Purchase College, at the April 2014 event, “Friendship, Love & Aspergers.”
Hi, I’m going to talk about how Aspergers affects social interaction, hopefully from a perspective you haven’t heard too often already. I know the other Aspies in the audience already know how this phenomenon feels, so it’s really important that the neurotypical people listen, and maybe learn something about the challenges we face.
One basic assumption is that the main difficulty for people on the Spectrum is simply “making friends”, and that, if they have friends the troubles are over. But friendships are difficult too, because social interaction tends to be based on competition. Far too often, I’ve found myself towards the bottom of my social groups’ hierarchy, because people pick out differences to determine that sort of thing.
And often, people are unwilling to forgive differences. When I’ve told my friends I have Aspergers, they’ve been completely unwilling to listen. There’s a lot of myths about the Spectrum that really pervade, and it keeps people from accepting and embracing people like us. One of the things I’ve always heard is that I can’t actually have Aspergers, that it’s so over diagnosed, and I seem “perfectly normal” – that is, until I do anything out of the ordinary. Until I do something upsetting in some way. People tend to infer intent in that regard. But there’s an insistence of falsity that’s just so completely dismissive, you’d think – I’ve been diagnosed four times – you’d think by the fourth diagnosis, people would accept it.
And then there’s all these misconceptions about the Spectrum itself. I had a roommate two years ago who said people with Aspergers have no empathy, which is a very common myth. These misconceptions sort of serve to perpetuate a feeling of apathy on the part of the neurotypical people. As I said, people infer intent. My roommate thought that, because his cousin, who has Aspergers, says things that offend him. And I tried to argue with him that, for someone on the Spectrum, those might not seem like insults, but he wouldn’t listen. There’s always this notion that if we do or say something, we intended it to play out exactly the way it did, to get the reaction we got.
The other area that’s hard is that a lot of interactions are very harsh, and we’re supposed to pass every hurtful comment off as a “joke”. To a lot of us on the Spectrum, it’s hard to separate jokes from realities, because it seems that every sentiment has to come from somewhere. That’s part of the trait of honesty in the Spectrum, that people on the Spectrum tell the truth and expect others to. It reminds me of the Baal Shem Tov, a philosopher, who once argued that everything you say affects a spiritual realm, because somewhere within you, you must mean it – otherwise, you wouldn’t say it!
For all of the traits of the Spectrum, nuerotypical people tend to characterize them negatively. Rather than honest, they often say, we’re gullible. People will often lie to me just to see how long they can keep me believing them, and you can imagine how degrading that is. And despite always being accused of being “too sensitive”, we’re also always accused of not showing enough empathy, when, really, they’re the same thing. They come from the same place. It may be hard for us to express caring, but we do – sometimes, we care a little too much.
What I hope is that we can get to a point where nuerotypical people really understand the Spectrum beyond the standard stereotypes, and that they can be respectful of certain boundaries that may not make sense to them. It’s definitely strange to respect things that don’t make sense, but that’s something that we on the Spectrum do all the time. We’re always trying to figure out what pushes people the wrong way, and we’re always trying to figure out what’s appropriate to say when, or when it’s ok to talk about your interests, and when you’re talking too much about them.
People on the Spectrum tend to remember incidents that made us feel bad or frustrated with ourselves, and a lot of these incidents involve people criticizing things that are somewhat or totally beyond our control. So really, I just hope that if we talk about the challenges we face, we can get to a point where we don’t need to be forgiven, but that we’ll just be accepted as different, and that’s okay – because I believe we have a lot to offer, too.