Tuesday, January 6, 2009

10 Things Tuesday: A Curious Incident of Introspection

Let me state first that this post is not intended as humor. It is serious introspection, and should be read with that intent. Thank you for keeping that in mind.

I’m reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (Haddon, 2003), and it’s got me thinking about human behavior and how we all, to some degree, possess behaviors that someone with Asperger’s Syndrome, like Christopher (the protagonist), might exhibit, albeit to a lesser or more manageable degree. When we notice that someone avoids eye contact or is easily preoccupied with drawing house designs or takes a sarcastic comment literally, we call it an idiosyncrasy or a quirk. Such traits mark us as unique, especially once we’re adults and, as long as they don’t get in the way of our ability to interact socially, no one makes a big deal of them. We may even joke about them. People with Asperger’s Syndrome, like Christopher, often appear as compulsive or antisocial because their behaviors are so severe (and because they are accompanied by many other behaviors that, when all manifest together, mean that person has a very difficult time interacting with others).

We often don’t know how to talk to such people and, when they react in ways we don’t understand or accept as normal we often get frustrated and scared and, when someone makes us feel that way, we lose our ability to treat them as people. We objectify themand separate ourselves from them. We may even laugh or insult or demean them. I find it strange that we would do that, especially when it seems like most of us do many of the same things they do.

This thought led me to do a 10 Things post about the kinds of behavioral eccentricities I exhibit. I tried to think about things that would help me to understand how Christopher, a 15-year old boy with Asperger’s, might see the world. I don’t know if it does those with Asperger’s Syndrome an injustice to compare my own idiosyncrasies to their symptoms--and please don’t chew me out for doing so; it’s not my intention to minimize the condition. It’s just that I want to explore (out loud, if you will) a connection that I hope will help me to understand someone else’s experience.

1. In the book, Christopher does not like to be touched. When someone tries to touch or grab him, he screams or hits. I enjoy physical contact, but I have noticed that, when it is unexpected, my first instinct is not to embrace it, but to repel it, even if it’s from someone I know and love. That instinct is quickly overridden by learned response (something Christopher would have a very difficult time with), but I have wondered why I am that way for a very long time.

2. Christopher likes creating time schedules because it makes him scared when he doesn’t know what is going to happen when. I operate perfectly well without writing down a schedule, but I’ve noticed that there is rarely a time when I do not have a clear idea in my head about what I want to do and when. In fact, one of the great frustrations I experience in life is when that plan gets disrupted, especially if it is because of other people’s stuff. I do not have to abide by a time clock the way Christopher does, but I very much like to abide by an order of events. My nap, for example, doesn’t need to happen at 1pm, but it definitely has to happen after lunch.

3. Christopher dislikes the colors yellow and brown, and will not eat foods of either color. It is not explained in the book why this is the case, only that it is so. I have problems eating foods of a particular shade of green, in particular avocados, kiwi and limes. I can eat foods that contain them (I love guacamole!), but I don’t like to see foods prepared with them. This is different that the severe aversions I have to watermelon and root beer. Either of these foods will make me instantly ill to smell or taste. I can tell you exactly where these aversions come from (and they are the only ones I have), but they are deeply rooted.

4. Christopher likes the color red, and is superstitious about when he sees lots of red things because it means he’s going to have a good day. I have no superstitions related to color, but I do have colors I derive a certain amount of positive energy from. There’s a purplish wine color that I’m sure I see as a completely different from the rest of the world, that gives me great comfort to wear, especially in winter.

5. Christopher gets overwhelmed by busy places like train stations because there is so much sensory information that he can’t absorb it all comfortably. I get overwhelmed by dance parties for much the same reason. There is music to pay attention to, conversations occurring all over the place and dancing, which I have to focus on to do at all passably. I like to do all those things, but not at the same time because I can’t absorb them individually.

6. When Christopher gets overwhelmed, he likes to retreat to small, tight places like closets. I want my world to be physically small like that, as well, when I’m feeling besieged by life. I often feel that way when the house reaches a state of organizational chaos that I can’t keep up with.

7. Christopher makes his decisions in a stolidly logical manner. He won’t act unless it makes sense to him, according to the set of objective rules that orders his universe. I find that I have two decision making modes. The first is impulsive, when I rely on intuition and instinct (hopefully borne of practice) because there isn’t time to think, or because thinking clouds things up. This is often the mode I use for creative endeavor, but it’s also what’s called upon in “emergency mode”. This is a kind of mode Christopher does not truly possess. The other is rational, and is based on the rules that order my universe, which are more esoteric than Christopher’s. I know, for example, that if I see a word in a book that I don’t know, if I don’t look it up I will see it again and again until I do look it up, and then I won’t see it again for a long time. So, I look words up immediately.

8. Christopher does not pick up on the subtleties of interpersonal communication. People have to tell him things straight out. I’ve noticed that, for all that I am very good at reading people by listening to them and watching them, I pay far more attention to the particulars of their speech (tone, accent, word usage) than I do anything else. It’s one of the most frustrating things about dealing with indirect communicators. I can tell that someone is annoyed when they’re talking to me, but not if they don’t say anything.

9. Christopher will not lie. He is not compelled to tell the entire truth, but he will not say something that he knows is false. He says that it’s too hard on his brain. I’ve lied in my life, but I dislike doing it for the same reason. It’s just too hard to remember what you’ve lied about. This is different than bluffing. Bluffing is not lying. It’s taking a position and defending it.

10. Christopher comes across as completely lacking in empathy. I think I do, as well, but it’s not because I am. I believe it has more to do with how people see my rather extreme emotional detachment. It’s late, and this thought is a complicated one to explain, but it comes down to the thought that I don’t readily identify with other people’s emotions. That someone is sad doesn’t make me feel sad. That someone is happy doesn’t make me feel happy. One of the reasons I thought this was a healthy exercise was that it would take me away from the instinctive emotional response I thought I’d feel, so I could look at myself in a detached way. I’m easier to see that way, I guess.

1 comment:

Mrs. Chili said...

This is really interesting to me.

I read The Curious Incident, but I didn't enjoy it. I think that I missed some critical aspect of the novel that put the whole thing together. I may have to go back and revisit it.

Now I'm thinking of the things that *I* do. The one thing that comes immediately to mind is my love of order - I like to have things where they belong so that I always know where they are (and so I always know that I have enough). The gum in the car, for example, does NOT live in the glove box; it lives in the compartment in the armrest between the seats. When I'm tidying, the t.v. clicker always goes in the same place, regardless of where it ended up the night before. Short sleeves go in the top drawer, long sleeves in the middle drawer. The security of knowing that I can open a cabinet (or the fridge or the armrest) and find what I need is comforting to me, and maintaining this order is one of the challenges of living in a family.