Aspies aren’t nice to have around???

While browsing through recent blogs on Asperger’s, I came across a review of the novel, The Rosie Project, about a man on the autistic spectrum who creates a list of criteria for a spouse and sets out to find that woman. The reviewer felt the social aspects of the novel rang false, and said, “Asperger’s is a disorder. . . An inability to connect emotionally with others means that Asperger’s sufferers . . . are not nice to have around.”

Moment of stunned silence. WHAT?!? I raced down to the comments, ready to defend the Asperger’s community against such a cold-hearted statement. Not nice to have around? How mean can you get? The comments had been closed. No chance to respond.

My world is filled with people who have Asperger’s and this statement seemed so heartless and so cruel and, as I thought about it further, so true, in many sad ways.

Fiction wants happy endings. I’m a huge fan of “The Big Bang Theory,” and of Amy, in particular. Though everyone talks about Sheldon being a classic Aspie, Amy is a classic female Aspie, with some of the significant – and occasionally tragic – differences that occur in women.

Amy is very aware of social norms, yet rarely experiences them. She’s with Sheldon because she genuinely likes him, but also desperately wishes he was more “normal” at times. She has misunderstood her level of friendship with Penny on numerous occasions, most notably in the episode where she commissioned that huge, awful portrait of the two of them.

The episode that stands out to me, though, was the one where Penny and Bernadette went shopping for bridesmaid dresses – without Amy. She found out, and was crushed. This is where the “(Aspies) are not nice to have around” comment comes in. Amy wasn’t welcome. She was deliberately left out. In the show, Penny and Bernadette apologize and draw Amy back into the group, but in the real world, in a world not controlled by comedy writers and actor’s contracts, that wouldn’t happen.

More likely Amy would have discovered the rejection, sadly accepted it, and left the group entirely.

So, my heartless blogger was correct, in a grain-of-truth sort of way. People with Asperger’s experience a great deal of rejection due to their quirks, because other people don’t want them around. I counted the birthday invitations that didn’t come through, the dates that never happened – and how many Aspies ever attend their high school prom? These are direct rejections by peers, and they hurt.

However, Aspies CAN have successful friendships! They can get married. I know of one couple closing in on 50 years, and another going 24 years. They can have long-term friendships. In fact, to have an Aspie friend is to have a loyal, die-hard friend who will do almost anything for you – as long as you are clear on what you need. Aspies do not see friendship as disposable, because friends are precious and rare.

If people can get past the “not nice to be around” concept, past the quirks and oddities that pop up, especially as young Aspies are learning to navigate the world of friendship, people can find companions who will stick with them through the most difficult of times, who offer genuine friendships. So maybe the idea of a happy ending isn’t so far-fetched after all.

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Asperger’s and the Social Benefits of Creativity – But Where are the Aspie Writers?

Asperger’s Syndrome and creativity – the two are certainly not mutually exclusive. People with autism see the world differently and should be encouraged to develop their creative interests.

Everyone has a natural desire to express themselves, and creativity provides a golden opportunity for socialization. I’ve always been uncomfortable at large family gatherings and I have a driving desire to document things. Throw a camera into the mix and a few basic scrapbooking supplies and something happens…

I started scrapbooking before scrapbooking was “cool.” I’m not fancy. I do fairly simple layouts on various colors of paper with a few sticker embellishments and lots of descriptive captions, especially names and dates. I put together a photo album each year and I always bring one or two of them along to family gatherings. People love to look at the books, we talk about the people in the pictures and my comfort level in a crazy, overstimulating environment improves immensely.

Kids with autism who paint or draw or play music can be encouraged to share their talents, and they often do. This creates healthy social interaction and builds confidence. But where are the writers?

Many people with Asperger’s write non-fiction, and that makes sense. Who better to describe what it’s like to have Asperger’s than someone with the condition? But finding fiction written by people with Asperger’s is extremely difficult, and I’m not entirely sure why.

People with Asperger’s have a keen sense of detail – something valuable for a novelist. Aspies are known for having sharp memory skills, handy for creating and maintaining a storyline. Since Aspies need to actively learn social behaviors, they have a strong understanding of what’s needed to motivate and develop characters. Aspies are all about rules, so reading a few books about the writing craft sets up a terrific structure to build upon.

There may be Aspie authors out there, just not writing about Aspie characters. I wonder about Jeff Lindsay, the author of the Dexter novels. While Dexter is a psychopath, his observations and confusion about human behavior are delightfully Aspie-like, and I’d like to think that’s an extension of the author’s world-view.

Jodi Picoult wrote a novel, House Rules, about a teenager with Asperger’s, but honestly, I never felt she got very far inside his head. She did a lot of hard work and research, but that neurotypical essence still crept through.

One of the reasons I wrote Asperger Sunset, my mystery novel, is because I couldn’t find anything else like it out there. But I’m looking for more. If you know of any books featuring characters with Asperger’s or works of fiction written by authors with Asperger’s, please share them with me. Did the writers do well? Why or why not? Celebrate creativity!

Non-Verbal Communication and the Expression of Theater

Words mean a lot to me. Especially dialog. When I’m working on a novel, just plowing forward to get the story down “on paper,” my scenes are often little more than dialog between characters, to be fleshed out later.

Why? As a novelist, you’d think I’d be more hung up on description and detail. Then I realized a lot of my training as writer actually came from exposure to the theater.

Dialog is an important part of a novel, but only a part. The novelist has many different tools for telling a story, and should use all of them to the best of their ability.

In the theater, though, dialog is almost everything. I live near the world-class American Player’s Theatre, and have been a volunteer usher and a loyal patron for many years. I’ve seen dozens of different productions, experienced the brilliance of playwrights from Shakespeare to Shaw, and gradually got to the point where I hear my characters telling their stories when I write.

So how does non-verbal communication figure into it? While APT has expanded their repertoire to include more modern plays each year, they still focus on Shakespeare, and few do it as well as they do. I’ve often said Shakespeare needs to be seen, not read, to be understood, but I didn’t realize why until recently.

When you perform Shakespeare, especially to a group of middle school students exposed to it for the first time, it’s a lot like communicating with people who have Asperger’s Syndrome or high functioning autism!

Autism is a communication disorder, and people with high functioning autism often miss out on non-verbal cues. A group of school kids going to see a Shakespeare play are going to be similar, yet opposite. They will be blind to the language – part of the communication process is going to be missing. And yet, APT successfully performs for hundreds of students every year, and the kids not only understand the shows, they have a great time as well!

How do they do it? With a combination of actors who truly understand the words and know how to use strong non-verbal communication. The actors at APT are masters at accentuating the significant words, and also using tone of voice and body language to convey the meaning of those words with power, all the way to the back row.

This past summer they did “Hamlet,” a play everyone – except 12 year olds – is familiar with. So how do you handle the famous “To be or not to be” speech?

The actor playing Hamlet steps forward to a quiet corner of the stage. Most of the other lights go down, tuning out distractions. Good for autistic folk as well as distractible pre-teens: focus here. “To be, or not to be, that is the question. Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” he speaks in a low, melancholy voice. He has his dagger in his hand, playing with it, drawing the blade gently up and down his wrist… “Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing” – his hand stiffens the blade, as if to slash his wrist, “end them.”

For a kid who has no idea what suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune means, he can read the language of the dagger, the sound of Hamlet’s voice, and gain his or her first understanding of one of the greatest speeches in English literature. He’s sad. He could kill himself. Should he?

I realized, looking back, that I learned a lot of non-verbal communication from these shows. I’d go the first time to figure out the characters and basic plot, then, the second time to understand the whole thing a little better. Actors have to project their characters to the entire audience so their actions are very clear and obvious. When you become familiar with the obvious actions, the more subtle day-to-day gestures between ordinary people become clearer, too.

With modern movie fare becoming little more than loud, flashy assaults on the senses, it’s worth taking the time to pursue the art of theater, and the combination of verbal and exaggerated non-verbal language can be especially helpful to someone with an autistic spectrum condition trying to learn how to understand others better.