When I was in high school, our family had a long-term guest named Jimmy. He had lived with us for a year when something happened that would illuminate how I view the world. It was a late night, about 2 a.m., and Jimmy was Skyping on his computer with his girlfriend, Sara. He had headphones on and was chatting away when I approached, intrigued by their conversation. I went up to him and asked, “Can I have another set of headphones so we can both talk to her?” It never occurred to me that this was a private conversation that did not include me. It was also a sign of bigger issue: I was unable to read the social situation.
This case of being unaware of context is quite common for me. This is a symptom of Asperger’s syndrome. I suspect, and so do my loved ones, that I have Asperger’s. Although never officially diagnosed, I do have some slight symptoms. Asperger’s syndrome is on the spectrum of autism; however, it is less severe than other forms.
Asperger’s syndrome affects people differently. Some are affected socially; for others, the symptoms aren’t evident unless you get to know them well. For those like myself, we may not be aware of some social nuances of life. Here’s what I mean: Talk with a friend for a few minutes and write down all the nuances or nonverbal communication that happens. Think about how much meaning is in those nuances, how your interpretation of the message depends on tone of voice, eye contact, facial expression. Now imagine a world with no nonverbal communication. This is the life of a person with Asperger’s syndrome. Now for me, I can read nonverbal communication to an extent, but there are limits. For instance, I don’t understand how to properly react to people who are sarcastic. The hard part is trying to decipher if a speaker is being serious or not. However, the times I do get it, I don’t know “my part” in the humor and sarcasm. This is also a common trait for people with Asperger’s syndrome.
So how do we interact with people with Asperger’s syndrome? Because of such diversity of symptoms it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how to respond in each case; it depends on how severe the case is or what the social issue is. But here’s my best advice: Just be yourself. Second, if it seems like there’s a communication barrier, just ask the individual, “What is the best way for me to communicate this?” Or, try repeating yourself. For instance, if I don’t get a joke, and give a serious response, don’t give up. Tell another joke, and I will probably understand that you are joking and probably respond. [Probably one of the people that can be sarcastic with me, and I expect it, is Uriah Sauder. He is constantly joking around with people, and I expect it of him; therefore it is extremely easy to understand him.]
A quote that summarizes my experience with Asperger’s syndrome, comes from Temple Grandin, a person with autism and animal behavior expert who is known for revolutionizing the livestock industry: “The thing about being autistic is that you gradually get less and less autistic, because you keep learning, you keep learning how to behave. It’s like being in a play; I’m always in a play.”