Do you know an Aspergian when you see him?


Do we have a distinctive look? A distinctive sound? A smell?

You’re probably expecting me to say, “No, we look and sound and smell just like everyone else!” But I’m not saying that, because it’s not true. We are distinctive.

Most middle-aged Aspergians grew up in isolation, not knowing any others of our kind. That’s what it was like for me. Now that I’m out of the closet, it seems like I meet Aspergians and autistics everywhere I go. And you know – we seem to recognize each other.

It’s the strangest thing. I’ve written before about talking with Temple Grandin. When we spoke, I was immediately struck with the realization that she sounded just like me. Her pauses between words, her manner of delivery . . . very similar to my own, enough so that I noticed. Since then, I have made the same observation with other intelligent Aspergians.

At another level, autistic people seem to see something in me. And I often recognize them as kindred spirits. I’m thinking of little Antonio, a six-year-old Aspergian I met last year, and the autistic teenagers I meet at events like the Lifespire reading I attended back in May.

I am not exactly sure what’s being recognized there. Temple suggested it’s a very basic, animal kind of thing. I really don’t know. But it’s there, because I’ve seen it and I’d wager that the moms who observed me at those events saw it too. I wish I knew more.

So what does all this mean?

It means that we do indeed have distinct behavior patterns, but we are only just now learning what they are. We also have this low-level manner of recognizing each other, but I can’t say how it works. Maybe new research will give us answers.

Can members of the neurotypical public recognize us? I don’t know. The fact that I went to a dozen or more therapists and mental health professionals for thirty-plus years and none of them suggested I had Asperger’s makes me a bit skeptical. Life experience says that most people’s classification skill is limited to a few terms: retard, freak, misfit, or normal. Some people have a wider range of descriptive words and phrases, others a narrower range, but few include Aspergian in their repertoire.

So if you’re an Aspergian, and you feel handicapped in society, be careful, because you’re not gonna get the same consideration as a guy in a wheelchair. Unless you get a wheelchair, too. But if you don’t feel handicapped, rejoice, because you can make your way in the world and no one will ever know.

Time will tell if announcing my Aspergianism to the world was a good move for me. I hope it was. I’m sure of this – there are a lot more Aspergians in the closet than out, even today.

I guess this is sort of a rambling post, but there it is. When you’re forty, all that matters are results. So if you have dreams, and you have legs, run for them. And if you have a net gun, use it.


The Anti-Wife said…
"Time will tell if announcing my Aspergianism to the world was a good move for me. I hope it was."

John, if you're happy with your decision then it was a good thing.
Anonymous said…
I would not have known what Asperger's was if not for your book, John. I realize now that I had a very dear uncle that had this syndrome. He has since passed and was never diagnosed; but I know that he indeed had it. How I wish that I could have learned how to relate better with him. He was extraordinary but very much a loner. Your coming out of the closet will benefit untold numbers of people by teaching tolerance and understanding.
If you hadn't "come out" I'd never have met you. So I'm happy. Hope you are too.
ssas said…
Ditto on Kim, though I only know you electronically.

Kindred souls tend to find each other, and though there may be a scientific means, I think there's probably spiritual means, too. (I've never thought of the two as mutually exclusive, anyway.)

It sounds like you're getting the opportunity to meet a lot of great people, John, so it must be a good move.
John Robison said…
With respect to my own coming out of the closet, it is nice to have met all of you, and I certainly don't have any regrets or second thoughts about that.

The supportive comments from all you readers help me keep going when I feel shy or scared.

My life is certainly enriched, and my horizons are broadened. And I think my book will be beneficial to others, and doing something to benefit society has been a goal of mine for some time.

But will it make me happier, in the end? I don't know. Time will tell.
Kanani said…
Years ago I went to a conference where Tony Attwood was talking and someone (an "aspie" as they called themselves) there said they could play a game called "spot the Aspie." Now, I don't mean to be mean, but after years of observing I'd have to say that yes, there certain "look." I really don't know about pheromones, but my god, think of the fortune that could be made if there were (?!).

Sometimes it's just the way they dress --a certain rumpledness to the clothes, a very offbeat way of wearing things, maybe their hair is a bit overgrown. Or perhaps they're wearing something odd for a given social situation. For instance, a sister-in-law who is a prominent attorney and adheres to the M-F outfit, showed up at a fancy dress event on a weekend, wearing something akin to urban combat fatigues. Go figure.

Sometimes they've been wearing the same hairstyle or type of clothing for years --I remember one guy who has had the same hairstyle since 1970, and wears nothing but Hawaiian shirts and outdoors pants and hiking boots. Remember that character out of "Napoleon Dynamite? He was like seventies Uncle Rico --you'd swear he never figured 1973 was gone. But today? He'd be hip again. So again, go figure.

And there's a slight awkwardness in movement, not caused by clumsiness, but more like a hyperawareness of their own place in a given social setting. Maybe they don't make eye contact, or initiate introductions. Or perhaps they're fiddling with something --a key fob, camera, whilst everyone else is talking.

But then the spectrum is so large, isn't it? You might have an aspergian obsessed with fashion who has a way of putting together styles in such a funky way they become a fashion statement for others. Or that guy who fiddles might someday make --well, computer programs that annoy yet dominate the world.
The Muse said…
Kanani- I love your description of an Aspie. They are an enigma. You can observe their air of self-consciousness; but yet, there is a complete absence of vanity. Internal cues are far more important than visual ones. Their offbeat sense of style reflects their quiet rebelliousness and non-conforming nature.
Kanani said…
Well, we NT types can't see internal cues, so we gotta go with what's on the outside, first.

Did I mention a certain propensity for puns? Or is that just my set of aspergians that love to drive my simple NT mind crazy with puns? I'm so bad with puns, wordplay... oh, an aspergian beat my ass the other day with the crossword puzzle.

By the way.... I've left something for John
over on my blog.
Appletini said…
I guess that since I have worked with Aspergers and Autism for the last 10 years or so, I could spot someone with the disorder if I were to see him/her.
It's not that they "look" different, it's in their manner of relating.
I can't believe you wrote about this. It's so interesting! I have known many children with autism/aspergers because I taught special education for fifteen years. At the writer's conference I just got back from, there was a fancy dinner. I sat next to a woman and began talking to her. Within about ten minutes I thought, "I wonder if she is autistic?" "I wonder if she's diagnosed?" Later I told her about my book about my father and said something about how he isn't comfortable in crowds unless he is at a function like church where he knows what to expect. I explained that going on a book tour with him would be interesting. Then she said she felt the same way but it was because she has aspergers.

After reading your post, I wondered what it was that made me think that about her. My best assumption is it was the difficulty she had keeping eye contact. It may also have been a difference in conversation-and that's one I can't relly explain. It's just different. I don't think anyone else, without experience would have guessed there was anything different beyond the differing shades of normal.

And by the way, I told her about your book. I told her the title and your name. She asked me to write it down for her. Then the rest of the table, about eight people were suddenly listening and I told them all about it. I even scrunched my face to show them what the cover looks like. There were people from Las Vegas and New Mexico as well as Washington State. It was fun to share about your upcoming book John. Sorry this is so long. Now it's me who's rambling. Oh well.

Karen L. Alaniz
Polly Kahl said…
Great description kanani. I can remember three in high school, other than my brother. They were the oddballs who didn't know how to dress, had poor eye contact, and were brilliant in math or science. They had a hard time holding a simple social exchange but could go on for hours about whatever their particular favorite thing was. They were not dangerous, they were just considered dorks at the time. One of them is now a brilliant scientist at the Menninger clinic, despite still being socially awkward. Another inherited his dad's dairy farm and, since farming was his thing, he made a great success of it. They're not all so lucky. John, you're an inspiration.
John Robison said…
Polly, I'm touched that you all fell that I'm an inspiration. I just hope I keep being one, and September 25 doesn't roll around to find me rotting in some foreign jail, unable to meet you all at the readings.

I'm so glad I'm not out there, riding those old DC3s, running guns and drugs back and forth to South America.

You can only be an inspiration if you stay on the loose.

Also, you have to avoid being savaged by predators. I hike on weekends and I'm just going to have to hope nothing eats me in the next few weeks.

And Kanani, you leave that book of mine down there with the dogs and there's no telling what they'll get up to. I'd get it back quick if I were you. Otherwise you could be living under the porch and they'll take over the bed.

Karen, it's both an exciting and an anxious time, for sure. But I'm still glad to be here. And my appetite is holding up fine, too

Appletini, I was in a restuarant tonight and they were serving you, in several flavors. The names in the blog world are something.
momof3 said…
I love your blog John. Joe told me after he met you that I just had to meet you. That you were like a grown up version of Antonio. I was shocked at how right he was. Right away I noticed how you two even walk the same....same walking gait and expression on your face as my son. It's like a sneak preview into adulthood for mom's of aspergian kids. What I loved about meeting you was how you said you are "aspergian" and not someone with a condition who needed to be cured. The world needs more people like you who speak openly about having Asperger's. As for Antonio, right now he's fascinated with sports cars. That and pointing out people's eating habits to put it politely (for example, telling others that they are fat and in need of some serious exercise if they want to be healthy)! Yes, we will be working on social graces for a long time......such is the life of a mom with an aspergian kid. That and teaching Antonio to smile more.

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