I was thinking about a lot of different things to post about. Like the constant soundtracks going in my head. All the time. Right now, it’s “I was in the house when the house burned down” by Warren Zevon. But then I decided to let out another post that’s been smoldering or perhaps festering, in my head for quite some time, about Parenthood, a TV show. This is apropos because a new season started recently. The other topic is only apropos because I listened to my Warren Zevon CD 2 weeks ago and it’s still rattling around inside.
My friend told me to watch Parenthood several months back because it was about a family with a kid who had Asperger’s. This is why she decided to watch it (online), to find out more about the condition (which I had told her about some time ago). Then she wanted me to watch it to see if I thought it was accurate, I guess, or what my take was. I was reluctant. I’d heard of the show before, on an Asperger’s forum I visit at times for a while, until I get all discouraged by people in general, so I knew (or remembered once I looked it up) that the writer of the show also had a kid with Asperger’s, therefore lending some credence (presumably) to the portrayal. At the same time, despite some uncanny similarities between people with Asperger’s, I rolled out the spiel about how people with Asperger’s are not all the same. Furthermore, it has seemed to me anecdotally that the whole “kids with Asperger’s” group (that is, the parents of said kids) has a very different take on Asperger’s than adults who actually have Asperger’s. As for the kids who have Asperger’s, their voice doesn’t actually get out much so I can only look back to my own childhood, when I didn’t know anything about Asperger’s anyway and neither did most other people. Perhaps because having Asperger’s can make it difficult (I’m told) to really see things from another’s perspective, my impression was people who actually have Asperger’s don’t seem to think it’s the cataclysmic event that parents do, though we would like to be able to deal with people better. I thought that a show actually written by or at least influenced by an older person with Asperger’s might therefore be more “accurate.”
My other bias against the show was, I’d clicked onto it once by accident, and ended up on what seemed to be some chaotic scene where everybody was talking over the top of everyone else and I couldn’t tell what was going on. I’m not a real fan of that kind of show. I already have a hard enough time figuring out what is going on in movies, not the least because a lot of the characters look the same sometimes, as anyone who’s ever watched a movie with me can attest to. If you don’t like people who have to ask what’s going on while the movie is playing, you’ll want to avoid watching a movie with me. Don’t worry, I don’t go to the theater very often.
Anyway, getting back to the earlier point, the reason I want to write about the show is it DID make me see a different perspective. One that somewhat troubled me, but might not be a bad one for those older people with Asperger’s to see, just to help get that perspective.
So, I set out to watch the show from the beginning online. There wasn’t any point in picking up in the middle of season 3, especially with the people-talking-over-each-other issue confusion issue. And if it was any good, I wanted to see it in order. To help with the people-talking-over-each-other issue, I watched it with the subtitles turned on. To be honest, this is my preferred method to watch a number of TV shows and movies. There seems to be this trend of movies where the background music is turned up so loud it interferes with the people talking. And then, there’s also this sort of modern type of scripting where people speak like “real” people, at varying volumes instead of one steady pace, and interrupt each other. This is the problem that plagues Parenthood, one which I still consider a problem and one of the most annoying aspects of the show. There is no way I could follow this show without the subtitles. I’d lose about 2/3rds of what was said, and hence, what was going on (I’ve had to occasionally watch episodes that way, and then when I rewatch them with subtitles it becomes a lot clearer). Yes, it’s more like “real life” but good grief, I have a hard time following what’s going on then too, I frequently miss what was said and have no idea what anybody’s talking about or why they’re laughing all of a sudden or why they’re all quiet now and staring at me in that funny way. At least break it down for me on the screen. This is supposed to be entertainment. As I said though, this problem is not limited to Parenthood it’s just particularly pronounced in it. I turn subtitles on elsewhere too. Accents are another problem. I like listening to accents a lot, but wrap in those other two issues and even more material is lost. In most shows I don’t read the subtitles all the time but I can refer to them if I miss something. This is more of a problem with the up-to-date broadcasts of shows, which require me to use the over-the-air Closed Caption service. The quality of this feature varies. Sometimes, it’s not at all accurate, or it’s completely absent. If the show isn’t coming in well it can be garbled (as for what shows up on “live” broadcasts like the news, it’s a laugh, frequently sentences aren’t even finished). I imagine a person sitting there transcribing feverishly on a keyboard as some news producer talks for 5 seconds and then suddenly it switches to a commercial and there’s NO TIME, NO TIME to finish the tiny nugget of “news.” I don’t generally watch those types of shows though, and not because of the lack of transcription. However, online and on DVD releases where the dialogue is part of the program it’s much more reliable as a viewing aid.
Finding out about Asperger’s on “Parenthood”
So, aside from this issue, tackled with the help of technology, I got into the show easily enough watching the online episodes back-to-back. This show isn’t really about Asperger’s, it’s about the whole family. However, the kind of “main” character’s son, Max, has Asperger’s, and the parents just find out when the show begins. He’s maybe 8 or so at this time. Early on, the family coming to terms with this and eventually telling him about the condition is a big theme, though not quite so much as the show progresses.
When Max’s parents find out, they’re shocked and horrified. It’s evident that there has been some (prior to the actual show starting) trouble with Max getting along at school, he’s had a temper tantrum that caused some trouble (I’m not going to explain everything that happens, if you’re interested, you’ll watch the show). But basically, they’re totally shocked. And very upset. I was not sympathetic watching this. Maybe this is because I have Asperger’s. However, it may be accurate, I have heard (mostly online) parents talk about how floored they are, etc. One thing which surprised me was, it doesn’t seem that most people who don’t have some personal connection to Asperger’s have any idea what it is. Max’s parents in the show don’t react this way except to the most minimal degree. Now, maybe it wouldn’t work in a TV show to have some kind of explanation about it or have them be all confused, so that’s why they handled it this way. It might be boring, especially when the show was just getting started, so perhaps they decided to show rather than tell. However, the reaction I would more expect would be along the lines of 1) What’s Asperger’s? and then, 2) my son can’t possible have that, he doesn’t seem autistic. People seem to fall into either this category or the category of, they suspected for a long time that he was different in some way and now it all make sense. Max’s parents don’t appear to be in the latter group though.
Max’s Family Tiptoes Around
The next thing that I found surprising/very different from my own experience (and that which I’ve heard from several other adults regarding their own childhood, since I don’t as an adult know for sure of any kids with Asperger’s), is how once they’d got over the initial shock, the parents and indeed all the other family members started acting very protective of Max. Also, again they all seemed to know what Asperger’s was when the parents told them (though like I said, this could be to keep the plot moving). They make a lot of exceptions to Max to not pressure him to try things he’s uncomfortable with (which is a lot of things) or to push himself too hard. They tiptoe around him. They go very easy on him. There’s a tiny bit of the Grandfather going with the concept that the kid will deal with things in a “normal” way if he has to, but that quickly irons out.
Finding Out About Asperger’s in my case
At first, I pooh-poohed this whole reaction as horribly unrealistic. But then I thought about it some more. Here’s a little background. First of all, as I said I had no idea what Asperger’s was or anything about it when I was a kid. I first became “familiar” with it when I met someone with Asperger’s online as a young adult, and we became friends, so I looked it up and we talked about it a fair amount. I didn’t think about it as relating to myself at that point, all I knew was, this person was the only person (with the occasional exception of my father on some topics) who seemed to have any idea what I was talking about in terms of my horrible difficulties dealing with other people. He understood because he had dealt with similar issues himself, and offered practical advice that was actually useful. Stuff I could apply. He pointed out “rules” of communication that had completely gone over my head which made complete sense (as he had studied the subject obviously, knowing about his condition), which were things which I sometimes tried to talk to people about, but nobody had any idea what I was talking about or why such a discussion would be necessary. Because unless it’s somebody who studies social interaction and nonverbal communication ( a pet interest of mine, perhaps because these researchers, too, know intriguing things), these aren’t things that the “average” neurotypical (aka “NT” or somebody not on the Autism spectrum or with similar conditions) thinks that much about. They observe the unspoken rules of communication, and they learn from it, and they mimic it, without having to analyze why or how something would be that way in order to replicate it. Sure, they bemoan the communication breakdowns that inevitably occur, but on a different level. Even the communication breakdowns amongst NT’s tend to follow a typical pattern that is recognized enough to be used for recurrent jokes. The kind of communication breakdowns that people with Asperger’s experience, on the other hand, just seem to disorient NT’s on the receiving end. Though jokes at the expense of the person with Asperger’s are possible of course, which they may not even realize are happening. Most of the time though (at least as adults), the failure to fulfill expectations in a social setting seems to just make people uncomfortable. At a certain age and in certain normal adult settings that we fall into, making fun of people all the time publicly seems to lose its appeal, and people react to “weirdness” differently, at least on the outside. They may draw a conclusion from the behavior based on their reasoning (unconscious, often) of “why” an NT person would CHOOSE to act that way, not realizing that the person with Asperger’s doesn’t have the same agenda. Or they may simply find it odd or bizarre. This may make them want to avoid being around that person since they don’t know what to make of them and their behavior is not “normal.” This is understandable. I think it’s an instinctual protection thing on some level, much as you might see an animal walking with an odd gait and behaving strangely and you immediately use caution… is it ill in some way? rabid? etc. Obviously this is not helpful with someone with Asperger’s, but at the same time I understand why people avoid that which makes them feel inexplicably uncomfortable.
It wasn’t until several years later, not even in touch with the friend with Asperger’s anymore, that I stumbled upon an article about Asperger’s. I had been going through yet another failing friendship and trying to figure out, as I often did, what in the world I was doing wrong. When I read about it this time, suddenly it all clicked. I researched it more, looked online, followed up on some resources the old online friend with Asperger’s had once provided. It was clear. It was like a revelation. Things suddenly started to make sense, along all my life. It was a lifeline to grab hold of to start getting more answers, which as I researched, I found. Ways to deal with life. I’d worked out some things on my own, by then; I’d come up with ways to struggle and cope and constructed them out of nothing. The more I learned, the more I realized my own void of what seemed to be human nature, and furthermore, seemed to be considerably less elusive to almost everyone else I interacted with, who didn’t really have to think about it.
At the same time, as this sunk in, it was also a blow. On the one hand, my entire life I’d had people telling me I was weird, asking what was wrong with me, constantly complaining about my behavior and that I didn’t “get” it, destroying one friendship or acquaintance or even potential friend after another with my (I now know) fairly bizarre behavior by most standards. I’d excelled hugely in certain areas of life and academics, and had people tell me how smart I was in certain areas, which was also evidenced by my actual performance, but yet seemed incapable of handling the “easier” things or simple activities that didn’t seem to phase those around me (and yes, I asked them, I questioned how they did things and what was easy and hard). The people who liked me despite my oddities said I was eccentric, or “unique.” Who wants to be normal? normal is boring, they said. However even these people had a threshold–one I often crossed and sometimes blew completely away, and while they tried to appreciate the good parts of me they found it difficult to tolerate many other aspects. And now, I was for the first time really looking at a world of other people, who were in fact like me. I wasn’t just eccentric or odd or unique. My “uniqueness” was actually a medical condition. It confirmed, something was WRONG with me. It’s one thing to hear this over and over and you can take it when you’re down or dismiss it when you’re up, it’s another thing to see it staring you in the face and see things that you thought were just your quirks itemized or demonstrated in other people, sometimes people who were clearly having serious problems getting through life or were even unable to function. The people whose parents despaired when they were children.
I got past this phase. But it was there. It was surprising. The thing I ended up taking from it was, it turns out I’m not the only one. But that means I’m not alone, it’s not hopeless. It also means, I have more of a starting point to figure out solutions. I wasn’t looking for an “explanation”–to me, this was my reality. I knew by then that other people had a serious problem with my reality, and by extension, I had a serious problem because I wanted to get along with them, but I didn’t even realize then the extent of the problems. I still continue to discover new “obvious” things and levels of communication that I’ve been completely oblivious to all my life. It’s like when you learn a new word. Then suddenly, you hear it everywhere. And you wonder how you didn’t hear it before all this time? The thing is, it was out there, you just didn’t know what it was and so it went over your head, you carried on with the basic context without knowing it. But you missed something not knowing it, and you had no idea you were missing anything. Eventually, of course depending on the word, you start to realize that you’re missing something in a conversation because you thought people were talking about one thing, and it turns out, it’s something else. When you nail down that word, now it’s clear. And you’re suddenly aware of something that didn’t EXIST for you before.
As for me, I’m pretty good with words. Especially if they’re written down. The subtext, on the other hand, the reading between the lines, the connotations–that was more the kind of thing I was missing (not necessarily literally about the words, though that happened too… but pertaining to life in general). I knew, by the time I found out about Asperger’s, that I was missing stuff. What I didn’t know was what it was, and how to get it. And of course, there was also a lot of stuff that I had no clue at all that I was even missing or that it even existed. I set to work though. I’m a problem solver, and this was a problem I’d been already working on for some time. I’d made inroads of my own, without even knowing what I was trying to solve. The problem had kept seeming bigger and bigger… I’d think I was tackling one part and it turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg. But Asperger’s was something I could work with. And will continue to work with.
In reference to the “familiar reaction” of the people with Parenthood, my parents fell into the latter category. The one where they said, What? There’s nothing wrong with you, you’re just… different. That is, my mother said that. My father and I have not had an extensive discussion about it. I am not sure he “believes” in Asperger’s in general. There has been a general feeling all my life from his end that all such things can be conquered through willpower, including those of a medical nature. At least this is what he has held forth. This may be because he seems to have a lot of the tendencies I have, but would seem to have dealt with them better, and certainly isn’t lacking in willpower. He has found his solution through life. But, though he has had some level of understanding of what I face (as I mentioned before, being the only prior person that seemed to grasp the difficulties I was having), and has been able to offer the only suggestions which proved helpful as I was growing up, there was still a sizeable gap of understanding. Of course, when I was growing up, Asperger’s was not well-known as a condition. Autism was known (in fact, I have an early memory of my mother telling me to stop banging my head on the wall, that was what autistic kids do, she said, with a negative reaction. At that age for a long time, I thought “autistic” and “artistic” were the same word, so I recall some confusion about it. So I don’t remember what else was actually said about autism relating to me, if anything at all). Suffice to say though, the perception of Autism was of someone basically non-functional, with little concept of a spectrum. I’m afraid that perception continues today, despite the fact that even those people who may look “non-functional” do in fact often have quite a few functions going on. I remember one person said to me (I had not told her I have Asperger’s at that point) that she had been insulted when someone compared her to some kids with Asperger’s… “Those people,” she said, “can’t feel emotions or express love, and he thinks I’m like that!” I did not choose this moment to educate her about how in fact people with Asperger’s in fact do have feelings and express love, instead I recall having a rather sick sinking feeling and making a mental note not to mention my condition.
The eternal debate… is finding out as a kid better or more disabling?
I’m not sure it would have made a lot of difference growing up if my parents had known about Asperger’s or not, I don’t know that they would have dealt with me differently. Maybe it would have given them some more coping skills when things became difficult between us. However, my parents were and remain against the whole “labeling” concept, and (perhaps due to familial traits, perhaps due to raising people like me), don’t fall into the group of either giving special treatment or allowing anyone to rely on a “crutch” or making allowances. I suspect their answer still would have been to force me to learn how to deal with those problems in order to get along and become an independent functioning person of my own. Because despite saying “oh, there’s nothing wrong with you” when I brought that up, my parents weren’t completely unaware of my problems, by no means. I don’t think they were aware of everything, or WHY I had difficulty with certain things, but they told me about a lot of issues and told me to correct them. I didn’t pay a lot of attention to it growing up. For one thing, the reasoning often simply didn’t make any sense to me why I should behave a certain way. For a lot of the other parts, I didn’t know HOW to behave the way they were telling me. Not to mention the mixed messages you get about how to be yourself, vs how not to be yourself (hint: “being yourself” if you have Asperger’s, without modifications, seems to make everyone else miserable. Eventually you pick up on this and then you’re miserable too, especially because when other people become miserable, they tend to just avoid you). As I got older I realized that being myself and being tolerable to other people didn’t necessarily have to be an either/or deal, but it was certainly hard to balance.
Part of the problem, both with the feedback I received as a child (which is considerably more freely given) and as an adult (requires more extraction), is that NT people often aren’t able to frame what the “solution” is or even what the exact “problem” is. So I would get told that I was acting such and such way, when I knew I was not. I only appeared to be. Why anyone would think that, I didn’t know. In their description, NT people jump right to what they assume is behind the behavior. For example, telling a kid that they were rude to someone. My reaction would be, that I was not rude. If the discussion was carried further, I would ask what I did that was rude, I would reiterate what I did, they would say that it was rude, but it was very hard to pinpoint exactly what it was that was “rude” about it. I understood what rude meant. But often times in this type of scenario, I did not understand why what I did was rude. Concrete directions I could follow. I could respond, “Fine.” when someone asked how I was, rather than listing my various complaints or what injury I had recently sustained. This, I had learned, was polite. If I was really trying to be polite, I could extend it into, “Fine, thank you. How are you?” Perfectly polite. Yet such interchanges were still criticized. I “glared.” I “looked like I wanted to be somewhere else.” Generally speaking the criticism wasn’t constructive enough to build on, and usually whoever was commenting on such an interchange was fed up enough that they didn’t really want to go into detail on how to do better because a) they assumed I already knew and b) the average person hadn’t devoted a lot of time to thinking about the finer details of what, exactly, makes the delivery of these (pointless, I thought) niceties “polite” instead of “rude.”
So as an adult, I revisited such issues with renewed weight. But now, I got less feedback. So I do think that knowing as a child might have helped me learn better skills earlier, rather than struggling on my own to figure out what was wrong and how to fix it, or even that it needed to be fixed. That is, if I’d had additional constructive help from somebody who actually knew how to explain such things, like my friend with Asperger’s. He grasped it because he’d lived it. And quite possibly someone had explained such things to him as well, since he knew about the condition. But, I also don’t completely discount my parents’ method. Considering that most people still don’t understand it (I’m fairly hesitant to tell people I have Asperger’s, unless I know them well enough) it might have caused even further problems for me, or it may have made me more reluctant to do things on my own. As it was, I had little choice, I rose to meet expectations on paper, but on a personal level, I was drowning. I do not think one approach works for everybody. People, as I told my friend before I watched the show, are different. Even people with Asperger’s.
Getting back to the show, I thought about this whole situation as I observed how the family characters interacted with Max, the kid with Asperger’s, in terms of accommodating his needs. To me it seemed unnatural, unrealistic. Certainly unlike the sink or swim method of survival I’d grown up with, and from what I’ve heard from other adults with Asperger’s what many of us have grown up with. Did the real-life producer’s family actually deal with their kid this way, I’d wondered? Was it even possible for an entire family to be this… sensitive (overly sensitive, I thought) to his demands? After further considering I have less problem with this approach. For one thing, the fact that the family is in fact tiptoeing around Max a little too much becomes a plot point in several later episodes. Often, people hesitate and want to avoid taxing him when it turns out Max is strong and resilient and can, without pushing, actually deal with challenges successfully, in his own way. This tends to surprise the family members (who try to conceal it from him of course). This reaction from them is slightly irritating to me that they think he’s so incapable (if I put myself in Max’s place). But unrealistic? Maybe not. I realized that the show was in fact trying to demonstrate that Max didn’t need quite the amount of pampering he was given. By the same token, I understand why the show would give Max a loving family who doesn’t want to throw him in the deep end or tough it out. There are very few programs about Asperger’s. Perhaps in a way the show is trying to illustrate a better way of dealing with the condition than many of us have experienced, as an example of how it could be handled. Perhaps, a hope to other parents. Not a perfect way. But the show is not supposed to be about a perfect family by any means, so this is their imperfection in dealing with his condition.
Max didn’t know he was “different”?
I did also suffer some skepticism about Max’s reaction to finding out he has Asperger’s. Not the way he portrayed the character, which I don’t really have any qualms about, but the fact that Max apparently had no idea he was different from the other kids. Now, again, all I really have to go off of is my own childhood experience (and the description of other’s childhood experiences from adults). However, at Max’s age (8, I think), I was already aware of being different, being shunned, being called weird and set apart from other kids. I remember asking, what is wrong with me? Why do they say I am different? Why do they say I’m weird? At that age, that was about how much my awareness of it was. I was very lonely. I interacted with other children, but I thought we had “deeper” connections than we did. I was made fun of a lot, and reacted over emotionally to this which did not tend to help matters when it came to other kids. At this time, I hadn’t begun to suffer from a blow to my ego about why things kept going bad (that is: that I was the cause), but I had still received feedback to this end. I had negative reactions from adults at that age too but those didn’t really phase me because I didn’t care about those connections as much, and as a kid, I received a lot of instruction about my behavior from adults anyway so it was all part and parcel. Kids, on the other hand, don’t tell you to behave a certain way at that age. They tell you you’re weird, and mock you, and refuse to play properly. My sense about Asperger’s is that even at an early age, we seem to be inwardly focused, and so think about such things and take note of them. However, another aspect of Asperger’s is a kind of cluelessness about whole vast areas, so maybe Max’s unawareness could be accurate for some people.
Perspectives: What’s the Issue?
The biggest revelation to me, as an adult, was about the external behavior aspect of Asperger’s. This, I think, was (and is) one of the most valuable takeaways for me from the show. And it’s precisely because it’s written “from the perspective” of the parents of someone with Asperger’s. I am not a parent of someone with Asperger’s. I’ve certainly come to appreciate some different things about being a parent (and how hard it must have been to parent me) since having my own little son, but nothing to the extent which I realized on watching the show.
You see, the parts of Asperger’s which have been forefront in my life are the social aspects from the perspective of: I need people, for some reason. And yet, I’m not good at connecting with them. I’m good at other things, but if you aren’t good at connecting with people, those things somehow become less important, at least for me. And people don’t care about them as much. They may appreciate your skills, but without appreciating YOU, it’s the same as appreciating the skills of a good coffee machine. I have often thought, if I could be happy living alone, on a mountaintop somewhere, surrounded by peaceful nature, I would. I would in a heartbeat. But for some reason, some aspect of my nature, I need people, and I feel like I need to have deep, meaningful connections. I have been envious of those who seem to be able to operate completely in their own world and are satisfied by that. I have really wished I could be satisfied with that, because that world makes sense and runs pretty smoothly without outside involvement, most of the time. But something keeps making me venture out.
As a reference point, here are some “traits” that tend to be common with Asperger’s. This isn’t an exclusive list, you can find lots of other info online, but just to give a general idea: List of Female Asperger’s Syndrome Traits. Some main Male/Female differences. Obviously (well, maybe not), I’m female. I didn’t make this chart, but it mostly applies. I think as adults there are more behavioral differences than as children, especially because naturally men and women with Asperger’s experience different social expectations, just as those without Asperger’s do, and that will tend to “suppress” or “allow” some behaviors more than others. But I don’t really think we’re all that different in terms of Asperger’s between male and female, on the inside. I find that the “logical thinking” aspect of Asperger’s tends to be more in line with classic male responses and less so with women, at least from what NT people say, but I’m not sure how much of that is social construction. I have noticed that, as children, at least in modern US society, I think girls have more freedom as to which kinds of activities they pursue, how they dress, etc. It’s permissible in many circles for girls to do things which are “boy activities” but the reverse is less often true. For example if a girl is a “tomboy” and wears jeans and plays with trucks and guns, it may be noticeable but not strongly disliked and suppressed. The same reaction is not so much true if a little boy wants to wear sparkly pink clothes and play with dolls, despite the fact this may have been perfectly acceptable a few centuries ago. Meaning: it’s a merely a social construction which defines this. Thus I think it’s possible that girls with Asperger’s get to have somewhat less control imposed over their activities and personal preferences, which may be strong. However, once you grow up, that changes some. As adults, it seems to me that men *in general* are not “expected” to be as polished socially, paying as close attention to dress/personal habits, going along with different friend activities as opposing to focusing on what he is interested in, etc. The nerd/geek “type” has been overly associated with Asperger’s, but, it remains true I think that an adult man who is “set” in his ways and not as invested in social protocol (as may be perceived with Asperger’s) is considered more within the normal realm than an adult woman who operates this way. Obviously, the type of environment one grows up in as a child and young adult, and the type of work one does as an adult has a huge impact on what these expectations are.
Anyway, as I was saying, the type of things which tended to occupy my interest when it came to working on self-improvements, both as a child and growing up, in different ways, tended to be about making operations with other people go more smoothly. People basically fell into two groups for me: I cared about them a lot, or I didn’t care about them and had little use or energy for facilitating affairs with them. I also had limited energy to invest because it took so much effort to try to make things work with the people I did like (especially as I grew older and actually learned some techniques instead of floundering) so I tended to work very hard at some relationships and interact as little as possible in others. When I cared, I cared a lot. Otherwise, it wasn’t very important. Also, being a perfectionist, and constantly screwing up in the area of other humans, was devastating. Not to say I comported myself with ease in every other situation. I frequently had what is generally described by parents nowadays as “meltdowns.” I fell apart easily when things didn’t go right, be it an attempt at a friendship, or some plan being changed or promised treat being withheld. I insisted on fairness, and lack of justice drove me mad (it still does, what can I say. I’m just … less likely to pitch a screaming fit about it nowadays or dissolve into tears on the spot).
However, my difficulties in “dealing” with day-to-day things and difficulties, while I operated on something of an emotional rollercoaster and encountered dozens of unacceptable occurrences in my environment constantly, was not the type of thing I was really focused on. Perhaps it is because I realized that the interactions with other people were at least 50% dependent on what I put into it, and I figured if I put something else into it, it had to go better, if I could figure out what. As a young adult, I spent a lot of time thinking about what that was and how to do it. I spent less time thinking about how I reacted to things, because, in my perception, that was everything else intruding. When the wind whipping around my face drove me mad, someone teased me, the tag on my clothes made me itch, I fidgeted and ate loudly, I couldn’t stand the whine or flicker of a light, I was not given a food I wanted, plans were disrupted, etc and I reacted poorly, I didn’t really think about what I contributed to this dynamic. I liked to have things a certain way. The way they should be. I made other people agree to these ways in an attempt to keep them stable; then I found that other people didn’t put the same weight on such an agreement as I did. These types of behaviors are an aspect of Asperger’s as well, as was my inability to “cope” in what was considered an acceptable way when things did not go “right.” However, I was pretty much focused on the whole communication/interaction part of things to the exclusion of that. The intellectual end of things. Well before I learned about Asperger’s, I started to become interested in non-verbal communication, and it seemed to me that this was the answer to my troubles. I had no problem getting along with animals. They made sense. We understood each other, even though, or perhaps because there was no talking going on (I thought). So I observed this. Later, I studied people’s non-verbal reactions, documented them, experimented with copying them. Copying them was a lot harder than being aware of them, but once I began to try this consciously, I was astounded by the different reaction I got from people. This was a way to control the communication issue, I thought. I explored the ways which I could use it to my advantage, often without the other person realizing what I was doing, because most people in fact don’t think about non-verbal communication and don’t have to study it in order to put in action. Of course, I was only brushing the surface of what I was doing “wrong” and I had an enhanced idea about the types of problems it would solve. It did nothing, for instance, to deal with the fact that I was unwittingly broadcasting other “nonverbal communication” unconsciously, except it was sending a message that was inaccurate, simply because I wasn’t doing the normal acts (which I believe are learned as well, but not for the most part learned the way I studied them, but through more of a natural mimicry).
This aspect of things (non-verbal, and later, verbal as well) had been the main focus. Along the way, I also realized that the “overreaction” business (as other people tended to term it once you get past a certain age) was a problem. As for appropriate vs. inappropriate social behaviors I was entering a whole new world of that in which I was completely lost. It was no longer about being rude or polite, it was about sending a signal to other people, and now especially the signals between the opposite sex had a whole other set of rules. This, again, took the forefront over things like coping with my emotional outbursts or difficulty coping with things that were not right (for sensory reasons, unnecessary change, or simply because I felt that way strongly). I would return to that topic repeatedly, of self-control, and better than that, acceptance. I had methods, some better, some terrible. Generally I returned to that topic when I was forced to by circumstance. It didn’t tell the story, for me.
Now, fast forward to watching Parenthood and Max’s family dealing with Asperger’s. Max represented a wide array of Asperger’s traits in a way that seemed accurate. I was pleasantly surprised by his portrayal. But the most recurrent thing which I kept wondering about was his so-called “meltdowns.” First, in the classroom, an altercation with another student and throwing an object gets him referred to somebody which eventually results in the diagnosis (episode one). However, over and over again it comes up in the series where he gets upset about something and ostensibly has a “tantrum.” The other characters are alarmed, shocked in some cases if they haven’t seen his behavior before. My reaction was, essentially, so what? This is a big deal? You see, Max’s “tantrums” were nothing compared to the sorts of things I went into as a kid. Similar, yes. But I was way more out of control than that. I even remember it. I have fairly clear memories of childhood, at least in terms of my own experiences (not so much other people’s reactions). Now, keeping in mind that Max is 8, he might be past the flinging himself on the floor stage (though I wasn’t, depending on the circumstance… for that matter do we ever really outgrow a good flingdown, albeit choosing a softer surface like a bed in concern for aging bones?).
However, I also didn’t consider that my behavior growing up in terms of having “fits” about everything was that out of the ordinary. It wasn’t something I’d added to the “Asperger’s” side of things in my head, though I’ve known now since I was 24. It’s funny that way, because although I knew by that time that certain things were considered odd based on repeated feedback from others, I’m still adding to that list to this day. When you are a certain way, and you can’t see yourself, the only way you know is if somebody tells you (and you take them seriously) or you see yourself compared. Even when people told me things sometimes I didn’t really believe it or see what they meant. For example, I’ve been told I walk in a peculiar way. Descriptions range from “too fast” (most common) to loping, swinging my shoulders too much, stomping my feet, etc. I’m also quite clumsy, which I figured factored in, and while I will make moderate attempts to slow down to accommodate pokey people (I don’t like to be left behind, so I don’t leave people behind), I must admit I kind of took it as an overreaction, surely my “walk” wasn’t that unusual. Then, not long ago, I saw a video of myself when I was in college. I rarely see video of myself… there was I suppose some footage when I was kid but camcorders were enormous and bulky at the time. However, since I see “ordinary” people of all sorts walking around me every day (I often have to dodge them, in fact, since I’m moving much faster), and I don’t normally see myself walking, I was in fact taken aback at how I walked in this video. It definitely looked different from everybody else in the video in the way I moved. In a peculiar way, I have to admit. Did I go out next day and try to change my walk? No. I have to set priorities, and frankly that’s not high on the list when you consider all the other things to ‘work on.’ But I was surprised, even after all this time, and after having received plenty of comments.
So, the first thing I did about the meltdowns question was to ask my friend if these in fact seemed out-of-the-ordinary reactions for a kid, as portrayed on the show. She confirmed that they did. I was reminded of some recent cases in the news (which alarmed and angered me) about even younger children receiving ridiculous reactions in the classroom, in my opinion, for “tantrums,” items knocked or thrown, etc. Obviously, by the time I was in college I was not throwing things around a classroom in anger, my meltdowns had channeled into different forms (in fact even when I was younger I didn’t generally like to throw things, if there was any chance of damage, because I really disliked things being broken. The impulse was there and I occasionally threw other things in anger–a stick outside, for instance–but I knew that breaking an object of value would be even more distressing). When I’d read and heard others reactions to these children having tantrums I was greatly surprised as I considered this fairly normal behavior, as of course I had to hold it up to my own behavior as a kid. And I’d seen other kids besides myself have tantrums and fights of course, though it did seem like other kids would deliberately throw a fit in order to manipulate their parents, I was aware of this as a kid, and that this was not my particular intent, I just became overwhelmed and stubborn.
As I watched more, again realizing that Max’s behavior in this area was considerably milder than my own, I began to feel rather badly about it. I had not really thought about how this aspect of Asperger’s might stand out so much to everyone around him. Indeed, it was perhaps the biggest characteristic to the rest of the family, or so it seemed, and caused them a lot of grief. I guess it dawned on me then, in a different way, how difficult it was for other people to deal with this aspect of my behavior, not only when I was growing up, but of course in the manifestations that continued as an adult. Perhaps, it was as mystifying to them as it seemed to be to those portrayed on the show, and to my friend when I asked her if this wasn’t “normal,” and to the other people reacting to children doing this at school.
I imagine that different parents might see such behavior in varying lights: if all one’s children tended towards this type of behavior, or if their discipline methods were different or effective with their kids (I’ll just say, in light of all the comments I’ve read about how a good spanking–or worse–ought to set things right, it didn’t do one iota of good for my behavior, just made me more angry and resentful). In the case of my own family, I was the middle child, and I don’t recall my older or younger siblings having the types of “meltdowns” I did, but then, we each dealt with things in our own way. However, to gain some additional perspective (since my mother seems to have a somewhat rosy and faded view of the past, now that we’re on better terms), I have occasionally asked my older sister about these episodes as a kid. It’s clear they were a huge source of irritation to her as a kid (and perhaps worry, since she was supposed to be the responsible one). She described non-stop screaming from a young age when I was upset (for example, on doctor’s visits, which I actually don’t remember in any particularly negative light, but since she was forced to accompany me it apparently made an impression). I do remember, however, screaming, crying, and flinging myself down on numerous occasions. I don’t often remember them in connection with what particular thing set me off. Becoming overly upset at situations where people expressed shock that I was getting upset or couldn’t handle things was a common occurrence, though I learned to handle it in ways other than screaming. However, as one grows up, any type of emotional outburst starts to become problematic if one does not remain “calm,” and people do not react well. It may not come out in screaming and physical altercations anymore, but it has to come out somehow. I realized that those people who have had to live with me at close quarters, especially my family, must have seen my behavior from a rather different viewpoint (whether or not knowing or even “believing” in Asperger’s), perhaps a very troubling viewpoint for them, for to me on the inside these things make sense. I wasn’t happy about my outbursts, but with my internal viewpoint I not only focused primarily on “correcting” other behaviors, but didn’t realize how strange and confusing the behavior might be since it made sense to me on the inside as a way of coping. The show did make me see things a little differently and more sympathetically, especially in this area, both in regards to the past and the present things I need to work on. Anyway, I’ll be looking forward to the next episode. Maybe you’ll want to check it out as well.