A night with the grad students

Last night I talked to the students in Kathy Dyer’s Speech Pathology class at Elms College. The great thing about talking to classes like this (for me) is the students. They ask good questions, and I have to think hard to answer them. In doing so, I get new insights into the thought processes they ask about.

Tonight, I’ll offer one of the questions and answers, edited for brevity:

Why do I seem more socially adept now than I'm? Exactly what changes? It can’t be just being older and knowing more, can it?

I think the answer to this question speaks to how we use our brains. Most of us (Aspergian and autistic people) can’t read faces and sense social cues the way nypical people can. But many of us have very good logical reasoning abilities.

I now use my reasoning power to take the place of weak or non-existent social instincts. So instead of looking at a person and sensing, he really likes me and he’s friendly toward me, I arrive at a similar conclusion by logical reasoning. I watch the other person carefully, and note what they do. Do they smile? Move toward me? Move away? I process what they say. I watch their hands.

You might say, that’s what a nypical person does instinctively. And you’d be right. But I do it with a different process, and a different part of my brain. Instead of knowing the social answer, I figure it out. Rather than sense, “she wants this” I deduce, “most people in her situation would want this.” So I don’t act from certainty of that specific person’s feelings. I act from analysis and consideration of probabilities of what most people would do in her situation. That’s quite different on the inside, but it looks similar on the outside. My results may not be as good as the sense of a good nypical, but it’s enough to get by. It’s enough to pass for eccentric instead of weird, and to seem normal in some situations.

I have, in effect, substituted one part of my brain for another to mask a deficiency. Why did I only do it when I was older? First, I had to know the opportunity existed. I didn’t know about this until I was middle aged. Second, I needed a large database of life experience from which to draw good logical inferences and conclusions. Third, I had to have the desire to change. The positive feedback I’ve gotten since finding out about Asperger’s has provided an incentive.

I wonder if this is the same process of brain retraining by which stroke survivors teach their brains to substitute undamaged areas for damaged areas and thereby recover some lost skills.

Can other people do this? I don’t see why not. I’d be interested to hear from others who’ve done or tried this sort of thing.

So I thank the students for having me there last night. I feel like I get a little smarter every group I talk to.


Theresa said…
Mr. Robison,

This is my first posting to a blog. I am a 40 yr. old mom of 2 boys, on of who has AS. He's 13 and diagnosed about 8 yrs ago.

I first heard of you on the Diane Rehm show. I learned of your book then. I haven't read it yet because I simply don't have time for a book right now. Maybe next summer when school's out. Right now I only have time to read your blog.

Now that you know somewhat who I am, here is my reason for posting:

I do not believe I am Aspergian, but I do believe much of my son's "condition" (for lack of a better word) came from me and from what I know of them, through my mother's family.

I spent most of my childhood extremely clumsy, always the last to be picked for class sports teams, (sometimes I would hear "Do I have to?") :) and especially in my youngest years completely clueless as to why people laughed at me and made fun of me. I believe now that I was much more self centered early on than I ever realized. Boy, I must have been a real bore.

I remember about middle school age I began studying the kids that weren't my friends and trying to mimic their behaviors, (not so much so that I would get myself into trouble, just so that I could appear mormal), so I could blend in and be left alone. I would mimic a girl's walk (one I felt was more graceful than mine), behaviors such as aloofness, even a brooding sort of attitude. By high school I was pretty successful at this, enough so I was left alone. Is this an example of what you mean?

I was lucky in that I always had a small circle of friends who accepted me as I was. I still live near and occasionally see three of them, so I can look back at those days and laugh them off.

Thanks for your blog. It's very interesting.

Margaret said…
Yes, this is a similar though not exactly the same process of "brain retraining by which stroke victims teach their brains to substitute undamaged areas for damaged areas and thereby recover some lost skills," though we prefer to be called "stroke survivors" rather than "stroke victims."
anonymoose said…

My experience has been similar to yours. I can conciously reason my way through social stuff that seems more instinctive in most.

Knowing that I doing this makes it easier. For years, this literally was a blind spot, I mean, how is one supposed to know that their intuition is different than others?

I find the biggest challenge is that stressors quickly strip my ability to do all this extra social processing, so it's easy to throw me off track with sensory stuff. That being said, I can hold a bead on a point of logic through the roughest of weather. I can walk and chew gum, think deep thoughs even, but I talk better sitting down.


I and a nephew seem to share AS traits, my two brothers have a few here and there, but not as marked, bu tbut my mother and my sister share the same clumsiness, yet they are both socially well adjusted and outgoing -- just prone to prat-falls. I think you're on to something...
Unknown said…
Tractor Man (I share the same Nickname people I like trait),

I agree with you that we "figure" these things out. As I was reading your post, I was thinking... "yes, yes, exactly, I do that..."

I would also share that we have to build that large database, both on instances that occur by chance (such as the checkout person talking to us) or by experimentation under controlled situations (I will complement the checkout person, I understand that people like to be complemented). Also routine helps (the same checkout person each week isn't as scary and actually comforting) to get us the information. However, we have to remember to be dynamic, because what works for one person does not necessarily work for another person in the same situation.

Instead of going to Point A to Point B in the social realm. We start at Point A, Go a little toward Point B, Stop, Look at Point B from a distance, Go to Point C, look back at Point B, Move to Point D, Look at Point B, Move toward Point B, Look at Point B, Then Go to Point B. We still get there, we just do it our way.
Trish Ryan said…
Interesting stuff...thanks (as always) for the candid insight!
Trilogy said…
Your description is pretty accurate John.

Logical deductions and a mental library of anticipated if not predictable behaviors and responses of nypical people, gathered through experience and hard knocks all help me work my way through social situations.

what is different for me is that it does not come naturally or flowingly seemless. I work hard at it and I have to think my way through.I do feel like I'm learning to make parts of my brain work. The reference to stroke survivors makes sense.
Erin MT said…
Hi John,
I met you briefly at the Barnes and Noble WGBH promotion in the fall and enjoyed your talk as much as your book. I am the woman with the boldly colored shawl who works for the Hampshire Educational Collaborative Alternative Learning Programs. I had asked if you might be willing to come to my school to speak to my Aspergian students and their parents. I would be so grateful if you thought you might find time in your busy schedule! Thanks, Erin
So what does "nypical" mean? I don't remember seeing that term in your book. :)
Holly Kennedy said…
John, I'm constantly amazed at how much focus and effort and WORK you must put into processing physical cues so that you can socialize with others "smoothly" (for lack of a better word.)

It makes me rethink how sloppy I sometimes am when communicating and how much I take for granted.

John Robison said…
Daniel, nypical is my contraction of neurotypical. I find nypical easier to say and use. And it sounds friendlier and less clinical.
ZombieFoodie said…
I can recall going through this process of analytical socialization when I was a kid and well into adulthood. ..heck...well into last week. I didn't even realize it was atypical until I was in the middle of explaining it to someone in the spirit of "shared childhood experiences" and realized she had NO idea what I was talking about.


casandra lou said…
One of the people I care about most in the world has Aspergers. I noticed he had the traits for it several months ago and just felt comfortable enough in December to talk to him about it. He was diagnosed at the first of January. I know he doesn't read social cues, but it's difficult for me to read some of the things he does too. For example it took me a long time to realize that he actually liked me. He's never actually said so, but admits I know him better than most people and he knows me the same. Also I can always count on getting an email from him at least five times a week, but put us together face to face and he goes into a panic. I'm always looking for ways to make him more comfortable with me!
Jerry Waxler said…
John, I never thought of myself as Aspergian before I read your book. When I was little I just stayed away from other kids, and then in high school, there were so many nerds, we just assumed that it was normal. What made it incredibly hard was one I tried to form relationships. It turned out I intellectualize everything so intensely (including feelings) that in order to communicate my emotions, I expect people to follow my reasoning. By the way, it turns out this is an awesomely cool trait for a therapist. As a person is telling me what they feel, I easily and quickly translate their feelings into ideas about feelings. I'm sixty now and have learned and grown so much through various techniques - like for example, disciplining myself to strip big words out of my vocabulary so people can understand me. :)

But I've not really learned the knack you mention in this blog post. It is so cool that you are translating your experience into instructions other people can try to follow. Thank you!
Michelle O'Neil said…

I love the way you explain your processes. Do you ever get tired from all the effort or do you enjoy the challenge?

I have had the experience of developing different parts of my brain through martial arts. When I started I was very teetery, off balance,etc. Now, almost 15 years since my last formal lesson, I can still stand on one foot with one leg held in a high kick position, for a long time without wavering. My wiring seems to have permanently changed.

This concept of brain "expansion" is exciting to me. I don't think we're ever done growing.
John Robison said…
Michelle, I do get tired sometimes but I learn a lot by interacting with people at these events. So I keep doing them.

Jerry . . . there are a LOT of people out there who don't have Asperger's but still connect strongly with my stories and ways of thinking. I call those people (maybe you ar eone) Proto-Aspergians.
Thanks John. I did feel like an idiot...'cuz I still had to look up neurotypical. ;)

Susan Rodarme said…
Hi, John.

I found your book through my book group and picked it up because I'm a huge fan of your brother. Needless to say, I was floored to see that was connecting with many of your experiences; it was the first time in my life that I'd ever heard *another person* describe all of those feelings of disconnectedness I'd had all my life. My 'lack of social or emotional reciprocity,' if you will.

Like you, when I was in high school, I had grossly engaging hobbies that allowed me to spend much of my time alone. I used to love to read and draw people's portraits, which I could do nearly perfectly from their photographs. I had to have these hobbies because, even though I had friends, I was never really able to penetrate the 'inner circle' and be extremely close to people outside of school. I had taught myself to make small talk--your description of learning to ask about people's daughters, mothers, wives, etc, really hit home for me; I remember having that exact idea, that I would remember as much as I could about people and make myself recall that information in conversation. I'd also learned the art of a well-timed wisecrack. All of my efforts, however, only got me casual friends. I thought it was something wrong with me that people didn't want to get close to me. Now, I suspect I wasn't really connecting with anybody, as hard as I tried to do so.

When I was fifteen, two things happened. I made my very first close friend in real life (really, he friended me, I think--just adopted me as his best friend), and I got the internet. I think the internet was a key to my learning how to more properly socialize. There were so few social stimuli to worry about--just the words on the screen to read and respond to. (Even so, I still sometimes have a difficult time interpreting a person's online "tone" and responding appropriately.) I think that it must have helped me to know that it wasn't some gaping personality defect making people steer clear of me.

Some time later, when I was 20, I moved to Columbus, Ohio, where I truly learned how to be a social creature. I'd just left a job where I'd unintentionally made some enemies (if you can guess why--because I didn't play the social 'game' correctly), and I settled into a job at Starbucks, where I really had to hone my social graces to give that legendary service. I did this by watching my friend Stephanie while she worked; I listened intently as she spoke to people, and I tried ti mimic that as best I could without being too obvious (Steph has a very, very distinct personality). I tried to remember to ask about people's days, their families, and other things that were personal to them, rather than just asking the questions that I wanted to know. Mostly I just watched Stephanie; she is a social butterfly and was a good teacher.

I've always been more nypical than not, I think--I may be one of those Proto-Aspergians. I do feel as though I made a trade for my increased sociability, though. What increased focus I did have as a result of being turned inward, I seem to have lost--even more so now because I am living with my future mate and I'm very rarely truly "alone." I rarely indulge in the hobbies that I used to love; even when I try, it truly isn't the same.

Thank you for opening my eyes. I used to think I was some kind of psychopath or sociopath just waiting to happen. Now I know better.


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