Asperger’s and Honesty

Can people with Asperger’s lie? It would be nice to say no, but the truth is most people figure out that saying certain things get them into trouble, and once in a while everyone lies, usually to protect themselves.

It is true that people with Asperger’s lack some of the skills needed to tell a good lie – body language, either consciously or subconsciously, may give it away. Or the tone of voice, or an inability to create a plausible story. I do admit to using the “Aspies Don’t Lie” concept in Asperger Sunset as a plot device, but it is pretty idealistic.

People with Asperger’s do, however, have a strong desire to follow rules. Anxiety and emotion create a chaotic world and rules sort things out. Children with Asperger’s often play meticulous games with their toys, lining them up and grouping them, keeping everything in order. Following the rules is rewarded with a reduction in chaos.

This ties into lying. One of the rules is “Be Honest.” Honesty is a personal trait of mine that I follow with almost obsessive precision. Over the years I’ve learned honesty that can hurt someone’s feelings often should not be shared, and I can be silent about something, but if faced with a direct conflict, I cannot lie.

This past weekend I ran into an odd situation regarding honesty. My family had gone out to dinner. As the children are now teens, their appetites are adult-sized and restaurant bills have gotten higher, so dining out is a treat for us, not a regular occurrence. We went to a brew-pub style restaurant, enjoyed our time together, and then got the bill.

My spouse started tallying the tip. My eldest, who is very budget-conscious, glanced at it and said, “that’s a really good deal.” My husband agreed. Just forty dollars, he said.

Forty dollars? No. For four of us, each having a dinner plus drinks plus an appetizer in a state with seven percent sales tax, that didn’t make sense! I asked to see the receipt. I spotted the problem immediately. Our harried waitress had forgotten to add our drinks!

I felt an overwhelming need to correct the problem. The place was very busy. Our waitress, thinking she was done with us, had moved on. The hostess couldn’t help us, so she sent us to the bartender. He was surprised that we not only had noticed the error but wanted to correct it.

Was it the right thing to do? Most people pay little attention to numbers – they wouldn’t have noticed the error in the first place. Others would say, “oh, cool, free drinks,” and gone home. For some reason I had to correct the problem. I had to pay for those drinks. It was being honest. And “Be Honest” is a rule that must be followed.

What about the fallout? The waitress may have gotten in trouble for ringing up the bill wrong. Or she may have seen the total and gotten angry because she thought we stiffed her on her tip, since we only tipped on the original charge. Or do they think we were total idiots for paying for something we weren’t asked to pay for in the first place?

I know restaurants make a huge profit on drinks. I also know most small, family-owned businesses continue to struggle in this economy. I could have left things as they were, pretended I didn’t notice the mistake and moved on, but something in me could not let it go. Maybe I made a deposit with the Bank of Karma – will the universe reward me in the future? I was embarrassed to be doing something almost no one else would do, but I followed the rule. It lessened the chaos. I cannot lie.

My mystery novel, Asperger Sunset, features a pretty honest fellow caught up in a murder. It’s available in paperback or kindle or can be ordered through your favorite local bookstore!

Theory of Mind: Why It’s A Two Way Street

In my novel, Asperger Sunset, Russ prepares a nice homemade meal for his sister, Misty, to thank her for taking care of him over several recent difficult days. But he is beginning to seethe with anger because she’s late returning home from work. He takes it personally – doesn’t she understand he’s put all this work into dinner for her? Why is she snubbing him by being late?

Then he remembers what he’s read about people with Asperger’s having trouble with Theory of Mind – he knows he’s put in a lot of time cooking, but his sister has no way of knowing that. She’s not late on purpose – any number of things could be holding her up. His anger fades as he reasons his way through the situation.

I believe people with Asperger’s don’t actually lack Theory of Mind, they just need to think through situations more methodically than most people, and they often find it difficult to truly understand something that has happened to someone else until they have experienced it themselves. That doesn’t make them broken or unable to empathize with other people, it means they take a different route to get there.

In the 2009 movie “Adam,” a character with Asperger’s Syndrome develops an intimate relationship with a woman named Beth. At one point Beth is describing one of the deficiencies in the relationship and she says she yearns to be with someone who can look into her eyes and know exactly how she’s feeling. Adam, of course, can’t.

What angered me about Beth’s comment is that while Adam can’t read her thoughts or emotions, quite frankly, she can’t read his, either! She doesn’t understand him any better than he understands her. The Theory of Mind “deficiency” seems to only apply when dealing with “normal” folk, and that’s unfair.

I have a vivid memory of my own first encounter with Theory of Mind. I was nine years old, and my grandmother called during the day – this was unusual. From my mother’s side of the conversation, I was able to figure out the call was reporting the death of my great-aunt, a distant relative who had recently suffered a stroke. After a couple of minutes my mother gave me the phone and my grandmother and I chatted about the usual kid stuff – school, activities, and so on. I returned the phone to my mother and she hung it up.

I remember feeling uneasy, sensing I should say something, but I didn’t know what. The call had come at an unusual time of the day, and hearing from my grandparents was usually a pleasant thing, so to break the tension, I said, “that was a nice little phone call, wasn’t it?” As you can imagine, I was met with a very angry response as my mother was processing the grief of my aunt’s death and found my comment profoundly insensitive.

From my point of view a very distant relative died, I had little understanding of death, and I did, in fact, have a nice conversation with my grandmother. I had no clue that I needed to incorporate my mother’s feelings before I tried to engage her with the comment about the “nice little phone call.”

When dealing with someone who is socially challenged and they say something that seems inappropriate or out of character, take a moment to see if there is, in fact, an extra step that’s missing. People with Asperger’s rarely intend to hurt other people’s feelings, but the Theory of Mind roadblock often leads to comments that are perceived as insensitive. A little more understanding from both sides can go a long way.

 

Tell Me a Story – And Keep It Simple, Stupid

“Which writers have influenced your work?”

Wow, that’s a tough question. I can tell you who my favorite writers are, but it seems so pretentious to say they influenced Asperger Sunset. Besides, I write what I can’t find to read. When I realized there was little in the way of fiction featuring characters with Asperger’s Syndrome, I thought it would be fun to write something, so I did.

That said, I had to learn the craft somewhere. I’ve always been a reader, willing to pick up a story in any genre. As a writer, I am aware of style and technique as I read, but I can’t just point and say “Stephen King is one of my greatest influences.” Or can I?

A writer didn’t inspire my first story, though, it was a filmmaker. When I was 13 years old, the summer event movie had just been born. In recent years, we’d had Jaws, Star Wars, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. In the summer of 1980 we headed to the theater, eager to see The Empire Strikes Back. It was amazing! Fantastic! Even better than Star Wars! And then – it ended! Before it was done telling the story! The rebels had retreated, one of the heroes was on ice (well, carbonite), the bad guy was still in control, and we had to wait THREE MORE YEARS to find out how the story ended.

Three years? I couldn’t wait three years. That was forever! So what did I do? I went home and wrote the ending. I even typed it, single-spaced, on little half-sheets of paper so it looked like a book. Oh, it was awful fan-fiction, but playing in that universe, commanding those characters, creating situations for them, telling their stories – that was intoxicating! I was hooked.

As I continued to write, I discovered the style I wanted to develop had to be clean. In the mid-80s, I discovered Stephen King and was a fan of novels like Misery and The Dark Half. His prose was easy to read. No excessive description, no long dissertations on the meaning of life, just a set of characters in a twisted situation trying to find their way out.

Elmore Leonard, who died recently, has been famously quoted as saying “I try to leave out the parts readers tend to skip.” His readers didn’t want excessive description, they wanted to know what was going to happen next.

When I write, I try to tell the story through the words and actions of my characters, and apply KISS (keep it simple, stupid) whenever possible. And, unlike The Empire Strikes Back, I promise to wrap up all the major storylines. A few minor ones, however, may be left undone… and if someone, somewhere, wants to take a shot at finishing them, they could discover the gateway to an amazing hobby!

Asperger Sunset is available in paperback or Kindle at http://www.amazon.com/Asperger-Sunset-Carol-Shay-Hornung/dp/1482735776/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1378683113&sr=8-1&keywords=asperger+sunset