Rules to Live By

When you have Asperger’s Syndrome, sometimes life feels one long “if . . . then” statement. If someone is crying, then they’re sad. If someone is sad, then they want a hug. If I give them a hug, then they might feel better.

From childhood I’ve been building up a database of if . . . then rules, hardcoding them into my brain through repetition. This is one of my core coping strategies for dealing with my Asperger’s on a daily basis. Without my if . . .then database, left to my own devices, I’d come across as much more autistic than I do.

If . . . then allows me to pass in an NT world. If . . . then gets me through most days without randomly offending people.

If . . . then, if . . . then, if . . . then.

In high school, I took a computer class that consisted mainly of learning BASIC, the programming language that ran the TRS-80 computers that populated the new and mysterious computer lab. I immediately fell in love with the clean simplicity of computer code. Everything was accounted for. Everything was explicitly declared in the code. If it wasn’t, the computer balked. Computers don’t infer.

My first computer was a  Tandy-Radio Shack TRS-80 like this one. See that cassette player? That was the “hard drive.” Old school geekery.

How simple life would be if we had to declare everything up front. If every task and interaction had a neatly nested set of if . . .then statements to be stepped through.

I spent hours programming simple text games. If ‘yes’ then ‘turn right’ else ‘turn left.’ It was fantastically binary. The elegant addition of ‘else’ allows for choice, but only one. Turn right or turn left. Open the door or leave it closed. Each choice branching off in two directions, creating a tree of neatly predefined decisions.

If you’re thinking a few steps ahead, you’ve probably anticipated the roadblock my fourteen-year-old self ran up against. Working further and further down the tree, choices multiplying exponentially with each new level, eventually I would be overwhelmed by the possibilities and abandon the game I’d been so excited about an hour before.

If . . . then, if . . . then, if . . . then.

There should have been a lesson there, but I began again and again, erasing the tape that held the code and starting with a fresh scenario. You wake up to find yourself locked in a padded room . . .

The computer was apathetic. Each time I started over, it displayed the same blinking gray cursor. It lacked judgment or even any real memory capacity other than the one I allowed it to have.

There was a predictability in coding that was comforting. The choices were finite. As long as I thought things through, there were no surprises.

I tried imposing this kind of order on the rest of my life, but people seemed reluctant to be programmed. They liked unpredictability. They didn’t need to know how every minute of  the day would unfold to enjoy it.

They had their own sets of rules. They seemed reluctant to share them.

If . . . then, if . . . then, if . . . then.

I’ve always been more of an observer than a participant. I watch. I collect data. Patterns emerge. A rule forms. I catalog it. Apply it. Adjust, adapt, reformulate.

Watching is safe. Quiet is safe. This is one of the first rules I learned and it stuck in the way that few have since. If I’m quiet, then I’m not getting yelled at. If I don’t say anything, then there will be nothing for anyone to make fun of. If I watch carefully enough, I can figure out what the rule is here without having to ask and look stupid.

The rules kept me safe. They created a positive feedback loop, naturally rewarding me for following them and punishing me for deviating from them.

But over time, the rules boxed me in. There were rules for school, rules for work. Rules for marriage. Rules for motherhood. Slowly, unconsciously, my life narrowed, and narrowed further still. Like my game collapsing under the weight of exponentially growing options, the rules became more of a burden than a support.

I forgot about the elegant ‘else.’ Choice receded, rigidity crept in.

Breaking the rules was unthinkable. If . . . then. Stay within established parameters. If you can’t find a rule for it, avoid it. Breaking the rules causes dire consequences. So dire that they’re unknown.

If . . . then, if . . . then, if . . . then . . . else.

Understanding Asperger’s Syndrome has helped me rediscover the beauty of else. I have choices. The rules are malleable. I made them; I can unmake them.

The rules are supposed to serve me, not the other way around.

Editing the rules is hard, but I’m trying.

Many stay. They’re useful. Necessary. They’re how I pass. Offer someone a beverage when they visit your house. Leave an empty seat between you and another person on the train. Kiss your husband goodbye when he leaves home in the morning.

Some stay in spite of their apparent uselessness. They’re harmless. They give order to life. Always swim an even number of laps. The bowls face to the left in the dishwasher. Dry your hair first after showering. The blue towel is mine.

The bad rules get deleted, though not without a struggle. The house has to be spotless if guests are visiting. Items on the ‘to do’ list must be finished by the end of the day no matter what. Iced coffee has to come from Dunkin’ Donuts.

People gift me with the rules that I fail to intuit. When you say goodbye, look at the person you’re talking to, not the direction you’re about to walk away in. If you have something important to say, wait until you’re face-to-face to start the conversation.

New rules emerge, from conscious thought not patterns. Think before you automatically say no to a spontaneous change of plans. There is more than one right way to do something.

If . . . then, if . . . then, if . . . then.

I add, delete, overwrite, reorder, sort, categorize, refine. Rules that make my life easier. Rules that help me struggle less. Rules for order and rules for efficiency. Rules to create structure. Rules for navigation.

I develop if . . . then tests for the rules:

1. If a rule prevents me from making a spontaneous choice then it’s too restrictive.
2. If a rule negatively impacts someone I love then it’s probably doing more harm than good.
3. If a rule was created more than five years ago then I may have outgrown it.
4. If a rule makes me sad, angry, tired or anxious then I need to question its origins.

The rules continue to evolve. I’m learning to break the ones that need breaking. Sometimes that’s freeing. It leads to laughter, spontaneous joy, new discoveries. Other times: resignation, regret, disappointment, confusion, fear.

This is life.

Life is not a TRS-80. Life is a wondrous, messy, untamable process.

So here is my newest rule: worry less about the rules.

Be more authentic. Embrace my quirks. Trust myself.

23 thoughts on “Rules to Live By”

  1. I remember programming on a TRS-80. The good old TRON command was my favorite. Living by logic. I honestly don’t understand how the other half lives without it. How do they actually make it through a day without rules to live by?

    John Mark McDonald

  2. Very good! I’ve got no programming experience, but I can so very much relate to social if… then rules as key social navigation tools.

    I can also relate to ‘behaviouralising’* principles of technology. For example, my orientation as a pedestrian improved heaps after I had used a navigator in my car for a while. If I need to get from point A to B in a confusing, overcrowded place then I imagine a coloured line on the floor in front of me that ignores all the details and movements of the place and outlines the shortest/simplest route to the exit… just like the navigator in the car. So I can just follow the line; it helps me to keep focus and be less overwhelmed by irrelevant details and changes in the physical environment.

    *Officially this word does not exist.

  3. Just read your piece having found it because I know VBA code and sudenly thought, ‘I wonder whether my Asperger’s son could be programmed, or better still program himself’. Not that I view my son as a machine of course – I was simply musing on the possibilities of mapping his thought processes to those of a…er…processor. I actually typed ‘if…then..else aspergers’ into Google and found your blog! Great minds… A very well-written and thoughtful piece and gives us non-aspies (or at least us undiagnosed aspies: I believe we are all somewhere on the autistic spectrum) an insight into potential thought processes that, in your case, mimic the binary nature of if statements. Of course, you don’t need me to tell you that with Select Case you can afford yourself many more possible outcomes than a standard if…then..else! Have you also applied similar rules with regard to Do loops or For…Next statements? Could a strategy be developed using this kind of logic, or even top down programming practice like JSP etc.? Hmmm…

  4. … This reminds me of my mental flow charts. I have flow charts for most social situations. I like flow charts more than IF, THEN constructions because in my house growing up, dialog trees even for smalltalk were rarely binary and so my scripts wouldn’t work fast enough if I adopted a binary construction, but flow charts allowed me to spiderweb and have more than two possible choices offered yet still have scripts that work and make sense. I think this might also have to do with being bad at deciding which IF, THEN to use – I like the order of having all possibilities mapped out, instead of having to assess which IF, THEN is relevant… As a teenager, I went so far as to make some parts of smalltalk into a routine on occasion, except that inevitably some NT will decide my smalltalk is too samey day after day and then go off-script and I find myself getting irrationally annoyed with them – you’re supposed to comment on the weather after asking how I’m feeling, not before! – so I stopped that because their intuitive grasp of the rules lets them know when it’s okay to comment on weather before asking the other person how they’re doing, where I don’t (I think it has to do with when there’s something extraordinary about the weather going on, but I don’t like to let myself comment on it lest I start monologing about forecasts and weather fronts and have the other person get annoyed at me for not smalltalking in smalltalk).

    The problem with spiderwebbed flow charts rather than pure binary constructions is that it’s easier to slip up and choose the wrong option in the tree or to accidentally repeat yourself which is considered rude because it makes others think you’re not paying attention (even if you are, you just accidentally followed the same loop). So, I gain a better ability to respond to nonbinary situations and speedier responses to input at the expense of more concentration required and a greater chance of falling off-script, repeating a script, or messing up my script order. I find that now that I’m in a more orderly environment, I’m starting to IF, THEN more whereas when I visit my folks in their disorganized and spontaneous environment, I spiderweb – takes more energy to spiderweb than to IF, THEN.

    1. I’m curious whether you generally feel like you think in a spiderweb configuration? Like, is that how you store thoughts and facts and such? I’ve realized that often to access something, I need to step through some of the adjoining pieces of data in my brain in a sort of spiderweb pattern. I’m not one of those people who has a mental filing cabinet where they can simply pull open the right drawer and pluck out the necessary data.

      I’m such a fail at small talk. I think I’ve given up even trying in most situations. If I don’t prepare ahead of time, I’ll either default to uncomfortable silence or say something totally off the wall and inappropriate. Once at university I was chatting with a seatmate as papers were being passed out and he expressed visible shock at something I said about one of the handouts. When I said something like, “tell you me weren’t just thinking the same thing” he said, “sure, but I’d never say it out loud.” Story of my life. 🙂

      1. If my conversations hit a repeat loop in the script, I just blame bad memory. This disarms the idea that you are not paying attention. My favorite phrase to play this off is “If my memory were any worse, I could plan my own surprise party.”

        John Mark McDonald

        1. Doesn’t work too well when you’re asking the other person how their day was 2 minutes after asking the last time and the fourth time in the conversation (this is why I’ve stopped trying to smalltalk on days when my concentration is spent on other stuff) but yeah, I do that, too. My line is, “I’d forget my head if it weren’t attached.”

      2. I definitely think in a 3-D spiderweb, and when I’m trying to remember something, I follow the threads of my spiderweb until I find it. Sometimes it’s hard to remember which path I have it stored on, so I have to let my brain explore subconsciously, but yeah, I spiderweb all of the things, and it gives me a great memory because every connection I make strengthens the structure of my spiderweb. I’ve actually been jokingly referred to as the Steel Trap because I pretty much don’t forget anything ever. I might not remember when I want to (see getting lost in the spiderweb), but I don’t ever forget it.

        This makes me very good at seeing connections between stuff and at seeing patterns. Most of the time, others can’t follow the connections I make until I break them down.

        My father – a doctor – would say I engage in knight’s move thinking, but I don’t, I just forget that in the sequence A->B->C->D->E, B->C->D->E isn’t intuitive to most people and so when I skip those steps, others don’t follow me and it can seem like I’m knight’s moving.

        But it’s not that I’m knight’s-moving, it’s that my mouth can’t keep up with my brain. If I could talk as fast as I think, it’d be great.

        1. I’d never heard the phrase “knight’s move thinking” but that’s a perfect description. I have a ridiculously good storage facility for facts but as you said, the retrieval process can be tricky because of the need to find things by making connections. I do the same thing when I can’t remember something, letting my brain free associate nearby ideas until I hit upon the exact thing I’m looking for.

          1. People say I have a photographic memory, but I don’t. I do have a highly vivid memory, yes (for example, when retrieving definitions for tests in school, I imagine I’m reading the page where the definition is and I get the tactile feeling of the book in my hands and the smell of the paper and, yes, the image of the words on the text), but it’s not photographically perfect. Irrelevant stuff is seen to me when I remember it as formless blobs, and I do misremember on occasion. When I’m learning a new kata or something, though, I don’t remember the kata as if it’s brand new, I remember a path through my martial arts move mental nodes. I remember all of a kata I learned how to do for the first time on Saturday and only went through once, but not because I photographically remember the kata. Instead I remember the order of the moves and the flow of the kata. If I don’t already have the moves, a kata takes me much, much longer to learn.

            1. Yes! When I get distracted in the middle of a kata, I often need to just start over because if I can’t physically “feel” what I just did, I have no idea which move comes next. I know some people can mentally run through the moves in their head and pick up in the middle but I have a hard time doing that because I learn them as a physical linkage rather than as something I memorize visually or spatially in my head.

  5. Yes, yes, yes, but none of this was noticeable to me until my brain started getting creaky due to middle age. My steel trap must not be stainless steel, because it’s definitely getting rusty. The information is there, but the retrieval is not what it used to be. Despite being a little alarming, it’s been a blessing because I’m not talking as much, which can be a good thing. Also, ever since I’ve started taking magnesium (Natural Calm powder dissolved in water) I’m less compelled to run through my unhelpful rules and if…thens and just be. It’s also afforded me a good night’s sleep, which makes a ton of difference for me.

    1. I’ve noticed that middle age has made a lot of my autistic traits more noticeable. I’m convinced that it was a breakdown in my ability to hide my traits that caused me to finally realize that I’m autistic. Until I hit about 40, I was very good at compensating and hiding things. The past few years, it feels a lot harder to do that and I guess I’m just plain tired of trying. I wonder if this is why so few people say they were diagnosed in their twenties – it seems like either childhood or mid-30s and upward are the most common.

  6. Funny that you would mention programming here, since autistic people tend to make for excellent IT professionals. Computers don’t infer, and they have to be taught how to do each thing they’re supposed to do. Everything has to be organized and in its proper place, or the computer won’t know what to do. Computers can be taught to recognize facial expressions and other social cues, but these don’t come innately, and the outcome is only as good as the rules they’re taught to follow. I could go on, but it should be obvious already that autistics can understand computers so well because they can relate to these traits.

    Maybe allistic people don’t like to be treated like computers or a series of rules to follow, but they do it to each other instinctively, so why can’t we do the same more overtly? I think it’s because they feel uncomfortable with the idea of being equated to something they use as an everyday tool. Computers don’t know how to say “No, I won’t do that because I don’t want to.” Computers lack free will. Computers will give up everything to please us, because wants and needs are a foreign concept to them. But that’s what makes us different from computers, whether we’re autistic or allistic. We can make choices of our own rather than having to follow someone else’s rules.

    So I’m going to make use of this thing called free will. Maybe I don’t need to give up everything I want today to try to please allistic people. It’s exhausting, and it’s unilateral, which is hardly fair. At the same time, I can’t abandon all the rules I worked hard to figure out, or else very bad things could happen. Instead, I’m going to force the issue and make this a bilateral affair. Today, I’m going to keep using my rules for dealing with allistic people, but I’m going to tell them a few of mine too. I’m going to focus on explaining the rules that help me deal with the things I struggle with the most, and by the time I’m done, either I’m going to find out I’ve been trying to please a bunch of jerks, or my environment will be dramatically easier for me to function in.

    Actually, this sounds like it would take a while, so I’m going to spread it out instead. I probably wouldn’t be able to adequately define and explain more than one rule a day, so let’s go with that.

    1. I think it’s totally reasonable and actually a good idea to share the rules we use to navigate the world with others. I’ve found that explaining why I have certain rules helps people to both understand respect them. Not all of them, of course, but at least more than if I didn’t make an attempt to explain.

      1. I still have to figure out what my rules are, to be honest. I’m just now educating myself on my diagnosis. Before that, I had no idea what it meant aside from that I wasn’t very good at understanding social cues. Now I realize it’s so much more, and I’m even learning things about myself that I wouldn’t have noticed on my own.

  7. “The blue towel is mine.”
    Heeheehee, that’s me! Although it’s more of “If blue, then mine.” Any item. Doesn’t matter. If blue, then mine! It’s my favorite color. 😛

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