Is it possible for a “gift” or advantage to also be a disadvantage or disability? Can one trait fit both attributes at the same time?
I pondered this question and came up with the following answer: yes.
(Wow! That was easy. OK, I’m done! Blog post written; mission accomplished. Wait–not so fast… As usual, I have some elaborating to do.)
Focusing intently – true to diagnostic criteria form, I hyperfocus. When I concentrate hard enough, the rest of the world disappears behind a blurry, nondescript backdrop. All other elements become nonissues and are successfully set aside, temporarily forgotten. This includes basic physiological needs such as eating and sleeping. For a time, these basic human needs become non-needs; they become temporarily optional. All there is, is the object or subject of interest.
This phenomenon has its advantages. Being able to zero in for long periods of time makes me good at what I do. It helps me meet upcoming deadlines more easily. It tunes out the world for me and liberates my mind, freeing me of extraneous fluff, while I accomplish the task at hand.
It’s also a disability, in a way. Engaging so deeply comes with fine print. Tuning out the world requires disengagement from it, at which point I lose track of my surroundings. Being able to ignore or remain unaware of my body’s needs doesn’t mean that they vanish; they accumulate until I reach a critical point in which they become dire and can no longer be ignored. By then, my physiological status has become a minor emergency.
Empathy – The age-old stereotypical misconception that people on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum lack empathy is being chiseled away at, little by little, by activism and firsthand accounts. The reality, hands down, is that we possess plenty of empathy; it’s just that we might express it in an unconventional way. In fact, the concept that we may actually have more empathy than the average bear is under construction.
This is a double edged sword, with both ends visible at the same time. On one hand, our unconventional empathy allows us to feel out other people, sensing information (and even picking up on potential red flags) that the rest of the world is usually oblivious to. Many of us can tune into the wavelengths of animals in a special way not common in the general population. Some of us can sense when something is “off” or when Things Don’t Add Up. We can use this sixth sense to keep tabs on the world from a distance, without having to actively interact with it.
But this comes at a cost to us. Too often, various subjects and events assault our keen senses, taking a short-cut through our thin layers of resilience, triggering profound sadness, intense irritability/anger, or debilitating anxiety. They can invade and intrude, uninvited and un-consented to, into our previously-safe zones and sanctuaries. Our triggers vary (I won’t mention any specifics, since most of us are already all-too-aware of ours); what sets off one Asperger’s/autistic person may not faze another, but the effects are eerily similar among many of us.
And those effects can suck. Various news headlines involving subjects that I find to be personal triggers have sent me spiraling, flailing, grasping at anything and failing, downward into the emotional abyss, where I can get stuck for hours, days, weeks, months, and yes, years. It has happened; I’ve been there.
Different view of the world – For the cheap seats (if this is your first visit to this blog), I tend to perceive and experience being on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum as simply running a different operating system in my brain. It’s not lesser; it’s just different. Some skills and abilities (my brain’s Aspie/autistic OS’s “apps”) are universally shared in common with other brain OSs, while others differ. This offers me a semi-rare opportunity to view the world through a different lens.
For example, I’m pretty sure that my AOS neurological orientation plays a starring role in my pantheistic worldview. Adherent to the diagnostic criteria are the presence of “special interests”, one of which involves astrology and another of which involves conventional-yet-progressive science. Using an Einstein-like philosophical framework, I can view the world in almost an esoteric way that frequently considers the macro- and microcosms simultaneously, putting a lesser emphasis on what lies in between (the in-between layers that are readily visible and the object of fixation for the world at large). I’m looking at the same world, but my focus is shifted, zeroing in on a different element instead, one that may remain ignored by others. By doing this, I can contribute an alternative way of thinking, and ensure that the less-commonly-considered elements aren’t forgotten entirely.
But this, too, has a downside. In bringing certain elements to the forefront, others fade into the background. When some elements become crisper, others lose definition and become blurry. There might be some important aspects in those mundane, everyday elements that I might inadvertently overlook.
Systemizing – Also in sync with the stereotypes of Asperger’s/autism, my systemizing abilities are pretty well-developed and finely-tuned. Systemizing typically refers to the characteristic of putting things in order, in a virtual filing cabinet in my brain. It often manifests in such phenomena like wanting to categorize the world, being curious about the world around us, putting detailed information into neat little boxes, reading up on subjects that interest us, knowing the background trivia of these topics, and so on.
The advantage here is that, well, knowledge is power, right? Seeking information is both relaxing and invigorating. I usually feel a sense of deep satisfaction, of triumph, of victory. I sought, I conquered, I acquired. The information is now mine to use as I see fit, and it’s downright fun to pursue! Maybe that’s an evolutionary throwback to the thrill of the hunt or something.
But sometimes, it gets in the way. Sometimes people think I’m strange or obsessed. Some people find me annoying. They may not need all of my detail; they may only be interested in the main talking points, the gist of a topic, without needing me to inform them of the trivial minutiae or accompanying background. Sometimes, I neglect my relationships with people while on my information-seeking expeditions. Sometimes I aggravate people with my constant “why?”s.
Hyperlexia – I’ve seen this phenomenon used within several contexts and take on several meanings. One of them is the commonly-spectrum-shared experience of having learned to read at an early age. Another is an utter joy derived from reading and thus, the tendency to do it often and for long periods of time.
The advantages of this trait are fairly obvious: reading provides us with a way of exploring and accumulating information about the world without involving contact with anyone else. I can read and learn at my own speed, on my own timetable, in my own preferred sequence or path, and all within the comfort and solitude of my own space. What’s not to love??
Well, there are some strings attached. If I’m reading, then I’m not doing anything else, such as, oh, cleaning the apartment or doing laundry. I can take care of some physiological basics like munching on a snack while reading, but I can’t, say, take a shower, brush my hair, or sleep. I also can’t meet with people, which is how I make my income. I might get labeled as “lazy” or whatever.
Sensory sensitivity – The phrase “everything gets through” sums up the neurological reality for most Asperger’s/autistic people. It refers to our heightened reception of incoming input into our five special senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell.
In a way, this is a good thing; if I can’t tune out this information, and it gets through, then I don’t miss something that could potentially be important. If I smell something funny, then I can pick up on potential danger before it poses a serious threat. I’ve used my touch sensitivity to detect abnormal changes in the skin of my massage therapy clients. By looking at someone, I can tell if their thyroid or adrenal glands are acting up, or if their liver or kidneys are starting to fail, maybe even before they’re aware of any issue.
There are drawbacks with this one, too. My touch sensitivity limits the type of clothing I can tolerate. TV and radio commercials penetrate through my (nonexistent) filters and immediately irritate me. Bright strobe lights instantly become overpowering and overwhelming. Going to a concert might result in fatigue for the entire week following the event. Going to the mall or the grocery store is arduous and unpleasant–and usually realistically impossible. I have weigh my ultimate freedom against my available energy; one always costs the other. This translates to a limitation in/of my mobility, a disability which is then compounded by its invisibility and the judgment that it often elicits from other people, people who don’t see the disability, can’t relate, and can’t understand why I can’t do this or that.
Stamina and Sleep – As alluded to above, my ability to focus intensely on a particular subject often invigorates me. I can dive into deep academic and literary waters for long periods of time without coming up for air. This gives me incredible stamina, but it also renders me oblivious to basic needs… Like the need for sleep. I can create and produce. I can run (function) fairly coherently on surprisingly little sleep. I’ve been through phases of my life in which an average night consisted of a mere four hours of sleep. I’ve “gotten by” through a 24-hour period with as little as a 30-minute catnap.
But am I fooling myself? Am I deluding myself into thinking this is fine? What will this ultimately cost me? While this stamina and apparent “lack of need” for sleep prove to be powerful tools or allies by making it possible to accomplish and produce, it also has its risks. Although I haven’t developed it yet so far, I’m at an incredibly high risk for epilepsy/seizures, which (given the information I have) might suddenly become a reality for me, due to my chronic lack of sleep. This also (frequently) puts me at statistically high risk for temporary psychotic states, although that, too, has yet to happen thus far. My blood sugar rides a constant roller coaster because I forget to eat. My brain becomes overloaded with information and although the act of gathering said information is fun, it also taxes my cognitive resources and leads me into a numb mental (but thankfully not emotional) shutdown.
I’m learning that there is little in this world that is clearly either black or white. And there are way more than 50 shades of gray. The divisibility is infinite; between two shades of gray, there is always an intermediate in the middle.
This seems to hold especially true for my experience of certain Asperger’s/autistic traits; none seem to be good or bad.
They just are.
(Image Credit: Angel Mills)