The happy aspects of Aspergers

JM has asked me this:

‘You write so lucidly about what it’s like to be different. Atypical, for lack of a better word. Are there ways being different has been advantageous for you? Things you like about it, are glad of?’

This question made me happy, because there are so many truly wonderful things about having Aspergers, but somehow I’ve never written about them, because I’ve been focusing on raising awareness on how to deal with the more difficult things. And then the other day I found out that a group of autistic people on the internet have decided to make 30th April a day for flash-blogging about the positives of being on the autism spectrum – see here. So I decided to coincide my answer to this question with that date, so I could join in.

I actually know a few people who say they wish they didn’t have Aspergers. This has never been something I’ve wished for myself, despite all the difficult aspects, because I actually love being being me. And I see there are many things I experience with so much more richness than people who are not on the spectrum.

Take sensory experiences, for instance. Now, I’ve written quite a bit about sensory difficulties – being hypersensitive to sensory stimuli can be very difficult and overwhelming. But it can also be absolutely heavenly. When I go for a walk in the woods, for instance, the smells, the sounds, the green colours, totally absorb me and exhilarate me. When I walk into a Lush shop (shop that sells handmade soaps with lovely smells) my face actually lights up – I feel myself smiling – and I go round the shop smelling each and every type of soap and bath bomb, in utter delight. Totally absorbed – no thought of anything else but the delightful and wonderful smells.

Today I ate a meringue, filled with cream. Meringues are a multisensory experience for me – there is the taste, which I love, and there is the texture – the crunchy melt-in-the-mouth feel that I love – and there is noise of the crunching, that fills my ears and soothes me. Awareness of anything else vanishes, and all I am aware of is the blissful experience of eating a meringue. It sounds daft as I write it – I can’t begin to explain how delightful it is. Have you ever seen the movie Snow Cake? Signourney Weaver plays an autistic woman, and she is asking a guy who is staying with her if he’s ever had an orgasm. Somewhat taken aback, he replies ‘It has been known’. Sigourney Weaver – or Linda, as her character is called – is lying contentedly in the snow, eating handfuls of snow. She replies blissfully ‘It sounds like an inferior version of what I feel when I have a mouthful of snow.’ Now I don’t eat snow – I live in the south of England, where snow is a rarity – but I know exactly what she means. I’ve never had an orgasm – I’m asexual. No interest whatsoever in sex. But when people describe what it’s like, it pretty much does sound like an inferior version of the sensory pleasures I experience.

A friend of mine recently drew my attention to the fact that I seem to experience things as they are happening – rather than feel pain from things that are not happening, which apparently most people do. And I thought about this, and realised that I can only really feel one thing at a time. I can only truly focus on one thing at a time. Right now I am focused on writing this entry. I am remembering my conversation with my friend, so I can write about it. The words and images are whirling around my mind, and I am putting them here into some kind of order. I am not thinking about other things, and not feeling hurt from unpleasant things that have happened to me. Today was a bad day at work – I remember that now as I find something to illustrate this point – but I am not thinking about that, or feeling bothered about it. I focus on one thing and experience it completely. I could of course focus on my bad day at work, instead of writing this entry, and then I would feel upset, and that upset would be the only thing I was feeling. But instead, I can choose to focus on something positive and my mind becomes totally absorbed by that.

I don’t know if that made much sense, but it’s something I really appreciate, because it allows me to enjoy small pleasures with my whole being. Like a child. I identify more with children than adults, because they seem to enjoy things with the same intensity and whole-heartedness as I do.

And then there is my ability to analyse things in detail. Interestingly, quite a few people criticise this. ‘You should stop analysing and just enjoy life!’ they say (clearly not grasping my enormous capacity to enjoy life). I get a bit irritated when they say this, to be honest, because actually I can’t just stop analysing. I don’t process things instinctively – because of my Aspergers, my brain doesn’t do this. I have to analyse. If I stopped analysing, life would cease to make sense – and not in the superficial way that people might say ‘Oh, but life often doesn’t make sense – just go with the flow.’ People who say this have a deeper capacity to make sense of things even when some things aren’t quite clear to them. Bu for me, life would cease to make sense in a much deeper way. I wouldn’t be able to function. I need to analyse.  Telling me to stop analysing is pretty much like saying to someone in a wheelchair ‘Oh you should chuck away your wheelchair and just enjoy life!’

But the fact that I need to analyse doesn’t stop analysing being incredibly enjoyable for me. In the same way as a wheelchair is freeing and empowering for someone who can’t walk, so analysing is freeing and empowering to me. The feeling of analysing is like working out a puzzle, and as the parts start to fall into place, I feel the satisfaction of solving a puzzle – but it’s multiplied greatly because this isn’t just a puzzle one does for a hobby. This is working out life. It’s vitally important, so incredibly rewarding to work out.

And then there is my memory. I have an incredibly detailed memory, which causes people to do a double take and say ‘How on earth did you remember that?’ I remember every book I read – I remember intricate details of the characters, the plot, and even whereabouts on the page something is written. Now when I tell people that this is one of the positive aspects of Aspergers for me, they are quick to point out ‘But not everyone with Aspergers has that sort of memory.’ Yes, I know this. Everyone with Aspergers is different – not everyone has the same sensory difficulties as I do – and oddly no one jumps in to say ‘Ah, but not everyone with Aspergers has those sort of difficulties’ when I talk about my sensory difficulties. It’s only for the positive aspects – as if I shouldn’t be talking about them. But you know what – yes, not everyone with Aspergers has a detailed memory, but I do, and I love it. I may not have developed such a memory if I hadn’t spent all my childhood reading – to be honest, I think the special skills that come with Aspergers are generally created by our hyperfocus and perseveration – spending huge amounts of time on things that non-autistic people simply don’t tend to spend the time on. But as it is, I loved reading as a child, and read all the time, and derived great joy from knowing that once I’d read a book, it was inside my head forever. And now as an adult, although I don’t have the time and the energy to read as much as I did as a child, I still read, and I still remember, and I still love it.

Something I’m very aware of is that the way I write sounds quite methodical and unemotional. This is not because my entire experience of life is like this, but it’s because when I write, I am using the left side of my brain, which is methodical and rational. That is the side of the brain that language is on. The emotional, intuitive side doesn’t use language. And while non-autistic people have a lot of links between the left and the right side, so that emotions can come through their writing, people on the spectrum don’t have so many links – the links are disrupted. So, when I’m having a deeply emotional experience, or a deeply sensory experience, there are no words. That’s why it felt weird trying to put these experiences into words – I’m selecting words like ‘wonderful’ and ‘bliss’ and realising these words don’t come close to what I experience. And I realise that, because of this, it’s actually incredibly hard to put these happy aspects of Aspergers into words.

However, I have tried to do so, and hope this makes some sense. The things I have written about are some of the reasons I love being me – love having Aspergers. My enthusiasm and focus might make me seem strange to non-autistic people, but I wouldn’t want to switch.

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12 Comments

  1. So glad you’re writing in your blog again – I missed reading it! This is excellent information for those of us who know little about autism or Asperger’s, so thank you for being open and willing to share your experience.

  2. I too loved reading as a child…but unlike you I have never been able to remember well at all. I think it’s an innate ability, rather than something developed through practice.
    Your blog it’s very interesting and well-written..keep up the good work…

  3. Thanks for sharing your experience. I myself have Asperger’s Syndrome and I always feel that my writing is rather rigidly methodical. However, I don’t think I get such an impression from reading your blog essays. It seemed quite fluid and expressive to me.

  4. Thank you for such a great blog. I found it trying to understand my little daughter’s echolalia and was so thankful for the insight. And, by the way, your writing IS emotional. Making people feel what you felt doesn’t come only from beautiful words put together. Clear thoughts and powerful message make the story truly amazing (I think so – and I am a journalist, although i write in my native Russian.)

  5. I have to agree with Samuel (above) about your writing being fluid and expressive. You have a gift with language, and I think in some ways you do better than most on the spectrum in terms of describing experiences. (Having written numerous stories, I consider myself something of an expert on this….)

    Admittedly, it might be my own Aspie nature responding. People are always surprised (well, other than other Aspies / ASDs I mention this to) when I say that I can read the emotional content of things like emails perfectly well. It’s the tones of voice and the in-person body language that I have trouble with, not the expressiveness of words themselves. (Unless we’re talking about me verbalizing something. *Then* I have trouble.)

    As for memory and reading… I myself have a good memory – for certain things. Books I’ve read – yes. I can remember characters and what they were like, a number of the events in the novels, the occasional detail of where on the page the words were (the particular book I can do that on is _Magic’s Pawn_, by Mercedes Lackey, because I’ve read it so often and that part of the book is a very emotional part). But my memory for things in my life is vague, unless they stand out to me in some way. I can remember heavily emotional events, like my breakdown in 2007, and one time when I was in 3rd grade and thought our neighbour (who was a classmate of my younger sister’s, in 1st grade) had scarlet fever, because we’d recently had it, she wasn’t feeling well, and her symptoms sounded like ours had. Boy, was the result of that unpleasant – I got called to the principal’s office after recess and informed by the girl’s mother that I’d scared her a lot (I’d been keeping other kids away from her, because scarlet fever was contagious). *sighs*

    On the other hand, the memory I have of the day before my fifth birthday is a wonderful, calm memory; swinging on the swings in the backyard (which might have easily been stimming – I have this obsession with swings that lasts to this day) and playing an imaginary story game I’d worked out. (I think even back then I was destined to write…. 😉 )

    But yes, there are good things about being on the spectrum. When I’m in a writing mood, I can write like the wind – and nothing disturbs me, because my concentration is that focused. I *love* writing. When I’m absorbed in a good book, again, nothing disturbs me. If we have to be left alone… well, we don’t tend to mind, because that’s what we’re comfortable with. (And my mind’s going blank with tiredness, and I have to be up in less than eight hours, so I’ll end my commenting for the night here. I’m in Newfoundland, so 3-1/2 hours behind your time.)

    Thanks for the post!

  6. You mentioned being able to identify with small children well. I can sense what babies and small children are feeling. WHen I’m around them, I can feel their emotions, know whether they are crying because of physical discomfort, or emotional reasons. I can also sense my best friends emotions. But apart from him, I’m not that aware of other adult’s emotions unless I make a conscious effort to notice the signs.

  7. Hey Gail, this is Alex from Goodreads – I kept meaning to check your blog out, and now I have. This piece was really great! You’ve written about the experience of Asperger’s in a way I haven’t heard before. Thanks!

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