Recently, I decided to take the Autism Spectrum Quotient. Because I’m really fucking weird. Things that don’t bother other people can drive me to a near meltdown. Dogs barking in my building. People tapping their pens. Happy jerks whistling somewhere on campus. I can even hear my downstairs neighbor’s footsteps. My boyfriend hears them faintly when he turns off the television and concentrates extremely hard. But to my brain, it sounds like our neighbor is intentionally stomping as hard as he can just to piss me off. I can practically feel the walls and floorboards vibrate through the air. I’m not lying when I say I’ve considered going down there with pepper spray to make a point.
And it’s not just our current neighbors. At the last two apartments I’ve lived in, I’ve had conflicts with neighbors because I could hear every single thing they did. Opening cabinets. Closing doors. Footsteps. Mumbled conversations. Yes, fucking too. (I actually don’t mind the latter much.) There’s only one respite: when I slip in my earbuds and blast some white noise, or heavy metal, or Bjork.
I’ve also never socialized well. Plus, I’m terse. Most people don’t think I like them at first. Sometimes I make people cry without meaning to.
Why did I wait so long to test myself for Asperger’s? I’m not sure, but recently I’ve been working with students who have disabilities, meeting with counselors, and things they’ve said made me start thinking about myself. Everyday I’ve thought, “Hang on…what this counselor just said, I’m kind of like that…Interesting.” In fact, I’ve embarrassed myself countless times mimicking what I thought was normal behavior. One time, I flipped a guy off because I thought the middle finger was an ironic greeting. I had a crush on him. I thought he would admire my wit. Instead, he just stopped talking to me
Most of the time, I have to feign a certain persona. Over time, this persona has become more like the real me. I like to think of her as the way Jessica would act if she had real feelings. But after a long dinner with friends or colleagues, I don’t feel the same lingering sense of fulfillment. I feel a sense of relief. Whew. Got through this night okay. Then I begin to pick apart the conversations and second guess things I said. Did I do a good enough job? Did I talk too much? Did I say the right thing with Professor So-and-So talked about his relationship with his cousins? Living like this is exhausting. After a 2-hour dinner, I desperately need most of the next day to myself.
The ASQ asks multiple choice questions, but I thought it could be fun to answer a few of them in more depth:
- I prefer to do things with others rather than on my own. Definitely not. I like doing things on my own. One time, my roommate asked me if I wanted to start working out with her and I said, “Um, no. Not ever. I have a rigorous routine with no breaks, and I do it solo.” I’ve always preferred watching movies home alone because the sound of people chewing popcorn disturbs me. I’m like, Jesus Christ how many times are you going to reach into your bag and ruffle around? I’m trying to analyze the dialogue! Yes, I still go see movies in theaters, but it’s not that much fun. More like an exercise in self discipline.
- I prefer to do things the same way over and over again. One summer, I ate the same thing for lunch and dinner every day for 8 weeks. Black bean burgers and Spinach salad. It was marvelous. I always eat oatmeal for breakfast. Don’t ever try to change that.
- I frequently get so strongly absorbed in one thing that I lose sight of other things. When writing my dissertation, I could keep on for ten or eleven hours. I mean, I worked in bathroom trips and a run, maybe a walk to Starbucks. Otherwise, it was writing-writing-writing. Other people hated me because I couldn’t empathize with their dissertation woes. I loved every minute of my dissertation. For the first time ever, I had a good excuse for solitude.
- I often notice small sounds when others do not. Once, I pitched such a fit in a hotel that the guy below me checked out early. His television was too loud. As the manager told me, “You scared the hell out of him.” My answer, “Good!” Every single day, I almost lose my mind over sounds other people can barely hear. However, I’ve come a long way. I have three different white noise machines and all kinds of rain soundtracks. They keep me from killing people.
- Other people frequently tell me that what I’ve said is impolite, even though I think it is polite. I’ve gotten better about this. In grade school, I made another girl cry because I asked her gender. My first year in graduate school, I went to dinner with some new people. The check came. We paid. They stayed and kept talking. I interjected, “Excuse me, but we paid. What are we still doing here?” Someone said, “Talking?” I said, “Well, enjoy that.” Maybe this also explains why I once asked a date to drop me off at a bar, where I planned to meet my second date that night. I didn’t understand it was hurtful. Other times, I overcompensated. Like when? Once at a party, a guy started stroking my thigh. I didn’t like it, but I looked around the room for social cues. I got nothing, so I just sort of sat there until he asked me out. At that point, I understood and said, “Ohhhh, okay. I’m not interested in you.” Five or six times, I’ve been unable to console people when their parents or siblings died.
- I am fascinated by dates. My original major was history. Why? I could memorize dates like nobody’s business. In fact, a huge problem happened in college when I realized I would be graded on things like original thought and interpretation, not regurgitated dates and their importance. It sucked, but I managed.
- I would rather go to a library than to a party. That’s not even a fair question. Who wouldn’t enjoy a library? And yet, I still went to a lot of parties. Mainly to get drunk and hook up with guys. I’ll just confess. It’s a good thing I’m classified as attractive. As one friend once told me: “Honey, we don’t need you to talk. We just need you to sit with us and attract guys.” I was table candy. Of course, my time as table candy helped me a great deal. I observed and studied normal people’s conversations. Over time, I learned how to talk like a normal person. Astounding. Watching television also helped. For me, TV was never just entertainment. It was education. For example, Bones. Watching Temperance Brennan’s transformation helped me with my own. Certain episodes made me cry about as hard as my tear ducts would allow. Like when Temperance finally realizes she loves Booth but thinks she’s too late. Heavy drinking that day, boys and girls.
What’s it like having Asperger’s in a nutshell? Here’s the simplest way I can put it: When you invite me to brunch on a Saturday, I sort of want to stab you. To me, your brunch sounds like even more work than a regular meeting. I’ve spent all week interacting with people, and now you’ve just asked me to give up my one day off from people.
Brunch is just a couple of hours, right? But you see, Asperger’s folk don’t see it that way. I dread brunch. The prospect of brunch might even keep me awake at night. I spend the hours leading up to your brunch in agony. Once I’m there, I sit in the booth and think my way through every single detail of our unstructured social time together. Small talk comes naturally to many people–local eateries, things to do, theme parks, theater, festivals. Me? I’m like, what is this social outing that has no end objective, like bedding a beautiful man? Just sitting there talking about whatever? Torture! Only when it’s over, when I’m safely back in my car, can I finally relax and do what I want. Just show up and talk…about what? Your personal lives, your kids, your relatives and stuff? I don’t understand how this could be appealing to anyone. Alcohol? Yes! If you can make it interesting somehow, like involve ghosts or murder or gossip, I’m down with that. But pleasant chit chat stresses me out. I’ve never been able to do it.
All told, I scored a 138 on the ASQ, about 10 points higher than the cutoff. Some people might look at me and think, she’s not Asperger’s. Fake! What kind of hipster fakes Asperger’s to get attention? But what does Asperger’s look like? If you put a bunch of makeup on a weird girl, she’s still going to act weird, even if she doesn’t fit some kind of play-doh mold. People have also asked why I care so much. It’s nice to understand yourself. Isn’t it? Without a diagnosis, I thought I was just weird. How do you respond to situations when there’s no framework? My whole life until now, I’ve searched for some greater meaning to all the mistakes I’ve made. I’ve never quite understood why I consider brunch just as much work, probably even more, than a business meeting. Now that I’m pretty sure I’m Asperger’s, I can read about it and figure out how to adjust to hard situations, like when some people won’t stop talking behind me on the plane.