In business school, one of the first management skills you learn is how to do a SWOT analysis. SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. The idea is that by identifying internal (S and W) and external (O and T) positives and negatives, you can then set realistic objectives for a project or business.
Predictably, I have an issue with the way a SWOT analysis frames the “harmful” aspects of the model. I’ve found that weaknesses (and sometimes threats) can be just as helpful in achieving an objective as strengths. If you see a weakness as an opportunity to adapt, compensate or innovate your way around a problem, then that weakness is going to be helpful in the long run.
For example, because of my weaknesses in executive function, I’ve created all sorts of organizational systems and fail safes that make me far more organized at work than the average person. Not because I love being organized but because if I wasn’t super organized I would spend my days going in circles, accomplishing little. Out of necessity, I’ve taken a weakness and turned it into a super-competency.
A few words of preface to this piece: I grew up as undiagnosed autistic with a gifted label, so my experience is different from what doubly exceptional children today experience. There were no social stories or social skills classes when I was a kid. Asperger’s Syndrome didn’t become an official diagnosis until I was 25. If you’re younger than I am and grew up with the doubly exceptional label or you have a child who is doubly exceptional, I’d love to hear about the differences or similarities in your/their experience.
Remember how, back when you were in school, there was one day of the week that was better than all the others? Maybe it was pizza day or the day you had band practice or art class. There was always one day that you looked forward to all week, right?
In sixth grade, for me that day was Friday. On Friday, I got to leave my regular classroom and walk down the hall to the TAG classroom. TAG stood for Talented and Gifted–a town-wide pilot program that accepted two sixth graders from each of the five elementary schools in our small suburb.
Ten geeks, eight of whom were boys. Ten kids who happily poured over reference books on Blitzkrieg and backgammon while the rest of the town’s sixth graders were wrestling with the math and reading curriculum we’d finished the year before.
Looking back, in addition to being gifted, most of us were probably on the spectrum as well. We were all socially awkward to some degree. None of us had to be asked twice to choose a topic for our Type III independent research projects. We came to class lugging backpacks filled with resources. We had entire libraries at home on the subjects we wanted to explore.
No matter what we asked to study, Mr. M, the aging hippie who taught the class, encouraged us. When I told him I wanted to “study” MAD magazine for my second project, he explained the concept of satire and helped me work out why the comics were funny.
TAG was aspie heaven. If I spent the afternoon curled up in a beanbag with my stack of MAD magazines, no told me to return to my seat. If I was the only kid in the class who brought a bag lunch because I couldn’t stomach the school pizza, no one at the lunch table made fun of me. If I needed to have a joke explained, even a whole magazine full of them, there was Mr. M, sitting at his desk, ready to patiently answer our questions with humor and honesty and not an ounce of condescension.
He thought we were the coolest kids around and in that classroom, we thought we were too.
Today, kids like the ones I shared the TAG classroom with are labeled doubly exceptional or twice exceptional. Back then we were the geeks and the nerds. Particularly if you were a girl and you were smart, people seemed to expect you to be weird. “Normal” girls weren’t smart and smart girls were quirky.
Adults wrote off our quirks as a byproduct of our intelligence. They sent us out to the playground and expected us to figure out how to navigate the social minefields that lurked within kickball games and jump rope circles. We were smart. We would get it eventually. When we didn’t, they reminded themselves that we were smart and because we were smart, we would get by.
And we did, but not always in the way they hoped we would.
As the concept of giftedness evolved, some theorists put forth the idea of giftedness as “asynchronous development,” suggesting that gifted children reach intellectual milestones faster than other children but lag in cognitive, social and emotional development. Proponents of this theory say that children who are hyperlexic, for example, develop in a fundamentally different way because they have access to advanced ideas at an earlier age than other children.
While this may be true of some gifted children, for many it serves to shift the focus away from their developmental disability–explaining it away as a byproduct of their giftedness. It’s easy to look at this model and assume that these children will just magically catch up with their peers developmentally. After all, they’re smarter than their peers. What’s keeping them from being just as adept in the social and emotional realms?
This is a bit like taking a kid who’s a good baseball player, throwing him in the pool, then being surprised if he sinks like a rock. What do you mean he can’t swim? If he’s athletic enough to hit a baseball, surely he’s athletic enough to swim.
Does my metaphor of a drowning child seem extreme?
If you spent your recesses and bus rides and summers at camp getting mercilessly bullied, physically threatened or worse, you probably wouldn’t think so. For kids who are developmentally disabled but intellectually gifted, expecting them to get by on intelligence alone is the equivalent of throwing them in the deep end of the pool without teaching them to swim first. It’s leaving them to drown–emotionally and mentally–all the while telling them how smart they are.
When a Strength Isn’t Always a Strength
Not that encouraging intellectual strengths is a bad thing. Unlike kids labeled developmentally disabled and given a deficit-based course of therapy designed to “fix” them, doubly exceptional kids have an advantage in their intelligence. It allows them to mask a huge portion of their disability.
Oh, wait–is that really an advantage?
Masking our disability with coping strategies and adaptations means that when we fail to hide something, people assume we’re not trying hard enough. Or we’re being deliberately obstinate. Or that we’re lazy, defiant, insolent, shy, ditzy, or scatterbrained.
“What’s wrong with you?” they ask incredulously. “You can memorize the batting averages of the entire Major League, but you can’t remember to put your homework in your backpack?”
And so the doubly exceptional child grows up thinking, “If only I tried a little harder . . .”
No matter how hard she tries, the refrain never changes.
Can’t hold down a job. Can’t finish a degree. Can’t maintain a relationship. Can’t seem to do the things an average adult can do.
“What’s wrong with you?”
If only I try a little harder . . .
There is no gifted class in adulthood. No one cares if you can memorize all 20 spelling words after looking at them once. You don’t get to escape life on Fridays, reading MAD magazine while the sounds of the playground drift in through the open windows.
When you arrive in adulthood lacking the social skills that most people have mastered by sixth grade, life becomes exponentially more confusing and hard to navigate. For much of my adulthood, I’ve had the odd belief that someday I would “grow up” and suddenly feel like an adult. That I was just a little behind the curve when it came to social skills and one day everything would magically fall into place.
I don’t know when or how I was expecting this to happen. It’s illogical. Maybe it stems from the belief that social skills are intuitive rather than a skill set that needs to be learned.
Neurotypical people acquire social skills primarily by absorption; autistic people need to be taught social skills explicitly. When we’re not, we’re no more likely to learn them intuitively than a typical person is to pick up algebra intuitively.
Maybe that’s where the problem lies. Adults often assume that if a kid is smart enough to learn algebra in elementary school, he or she is smart enough to figure out social rules too. But who would expect the reverse to be true? What rational adult would say to their kid, “you’re smart enough to find friends to sit with at lunch, why can’t you figure out how to solve this linear equation yourself?”
I (Actually Don’t) Know What You’re Thinking
Even as I write this, I find myself cringing internally. Do I sound like a whiner? Shouldn’t I be thankful for the advantages my intelligence gives me?
Again, I find myself arriving at the notion that if I just tried harder, just applied the intellectual resources I have, I’d be fine.
Yes, intelligence helps. In particular, it helps me identify patterns and come up with rules–rules that any neurotypical adult could tell me, if I asked them.
If I thought to ask. Which I often don’t.
For example, at a get-together at a neighbor’s house, I accidentally knocked over a wine glass. The glass broke; I apologized.
Years later, while reading an etiquette book, I learned that I should have offered to replace the glass. This sounds like common sense now, but it’s not a rule I would have intuited or even thought to ask someone about.
Perhaps this is why the invitations for drinks at that neighbor’s home abruptly stopped? Did they find me insufferably rude? I have no idea.
Worse, when I mentioned the rule to my daughter, she frowned and said, “You didn’t know that?”
There are hundreds of unwritten social rules like this one. I have no idea how people learn them. Perhaps they don’t. Perhaps after a certain point, it becomes all about the dreaded perspective taking. You break a glass and think, “If I were the hostess, what would I want my guest to do to make this better?” And the obvious answer, when I think about it like that, is “offer to compensate for the loss.”
One Rule at a Time
Generally, I learn a social rule by reading about it, having someone explain it to me or seeing it in action. Unfortunately, many rules are executed privately, so there is no chance for me to observe them. The polite guest gets the hostess alone in the kitchen and asks about the cost of replacing the glass. (So says Emily Post.)
Even more frustrating: I’ve had people offer to replace something that was broken at my home. To me, that rule is, “If a guest breaks something in my home, they’ll offer to pay for it.” I don’t instinctively reverse the rule to apply to myself as the guest. If you’ve heard it said that autistic people aren’t good at generalizing, well, there you go.
There’s something at work here that has nothing to do with intelligence.
I’m smart and I’m developmentally disabled. One does not cancel out the other.
I don’t mean alone in the sense of being unattached; I’ve been married for more years than I’ve been single. By alone, I mean in a solitary state. I’m tempted to say not in the company of other people, but I can be alone in a crowded room as well as in an empty room.
If you’re not an aspie, this might make you feel sad for me.
Don’t. I enjoy being alone. I know this can be hard to understand. The Scientist often tells me that I should go out more, that it’s not good for me to be home alone all day. One of the enduring themes of my childhood was that I needed to make more friends. It showed up on report cards and in parent-teacher conferences. At one point my parents discouraged me from visiting my best friend, in the hopes that it would force me to make other friends.
Mostly it all made me angry. I didn’t see the point of interacting with a lot of people. Having a couple of friends left me plenty of time to do the things I liked to do alone: riding my bike up to the reservoir, walking in the woods, listening to music, reading, organizing my collections, shooting baskets, rollerskating, throwing a tennis ball against the wall, playing board games. Continue reading Alone→
The blog will be on hiatus through the holidays. Thank you for reading, commenting and sharing these past few months. I hope you all have a safe, happy and peaceful holiday and I’ll see you in 2013!
I was going to start this out by saying that being an aspie has certain challenges. I was going to acknowledge how those challenges can be quite severe and then talk about the positive traits of Asperger’s in a measured, careful way.
But you know what? Screw that. Today I’m going to celebrate being an aspie.
I’m going to celebrate myself.
My Aspie Strengths (or How Asperger’s Has Made Me Awesome)
Many of my Asperger’s traits are double-edge swords, gifting me simultaneously with challenges and strengths. Impaired perspective taking? It makes it harder for me to work out people’s intentions but it also makes me nonjudgmental. Trouble with generalizing? That means I have to learn a similar lesson many times over, but gifts me with a dogged optimism and unconventional problem solving skills.
Curiously, some of my aspie strengths are a direct result of my funky wiring but many are coping mechanisms that I’ve developed to survive in a neurotypical world. Asperger’s has made me a survivor–forced me to adapt, by choice and necessity. The result is a unique set of strengths. Here they are, in no particular order:
I’m nonjudgmental. I take people at face value and will give someone the benefit of the doubt until they prove me wrong. A lifetime of being judged on appearance and first impressions will do that to you, I suppose.
I have a strong attachment to the truth. Telling it. Seeking it. Hearing it. If you ask me a question, you’ll get an honest answer. Perhaps more honest than you’d like. If you lie to me, I won’t forget it. I value honesty above many other traits–probably because I’m so bad at detecting dishonesty.
I’m curious. Insatiably so. I love learning, discovering, knowing. If you’re passionate about something and you want to share it with me, I’ll listen with genuine enthusiasm. My interests are wide-ranging and ever-evolving. My need for knowledge feels limitless, exciting and empowering. Give me an answer and I’ll have a handful of questions in reply.
I’m loyal. My attachments to people are few, but when I do form a bond with someone it’s a strong one. I will stand up for the people I care about in the face of a great deal of opposition. When Temple Grandin said that an autistic child will run into a burning building to save a person they love, she wasn’t kidding. That’s me in a nutshell.
I’m sincere. Perhaps naively so. I don’t have the patience or energy to be manipulative. I’m generally good-intentioned. When I do something for another person, I do it wholeheartedly. People often seem puzzled by my sincerity, disbelieving, as if being sincere is in itself some elaborate form of manipulation.
I have well-defined values. The black and white thinking of Asperger’s means that I’ve developed an elaborate and clearly delimited value system. This can be a blessing and a curse. There is a thin line between being principled and being stubbornly dogmatic. At most times, though, my values are my compass and my rudder, helping me navigate the ambiguities of a neurotypical world.
I’m an unconventional problem solver. I’m not afraid to ask wild questions or examine solutions that appear to have little hope of working. My instincts can get way ahead of my ability to verbalize them. Often, I’m told that things won’t work or don’t make sense–right up until I go ahead and do what I have in mind and it works. Or doesn’t. It’s a crapshoot, but that does little to dent my confidence and willingness to try.
I’m an optimist. I live in the here and now. I have few regrets. I view situations starting from zero. Aspies aren’t very good at generalizing from one occurrence to another similar occurrence, which I think leads to an irrational level of optimism. Sure something went wrong in the past, but (my brain always seems to say) this time will be different. Sometimes it is. Either way, I’ve found that taking the optimistic view of life makes me happy.
My Aspie Superpowers (or How Asperger’s Has Made Me Who I Am)
One of the myths of Asperger’s is that all aspies are savants–that we’re born with some profound skill, like the ability to name the day of the week for any date in history, draw the New York subway system from memory, or do complex mathematical calculations in our heads.
Some aspies are savants, but sadly, I have no savant skills. I’ve always been fascinated by people who do. I think it would be amazing to have a photographic memory or to instinctively understand a system like mathematics.
Like a lot of aspies, I do have a few overly developed traits. They aren’t at the level of a savant skill, but I’ve started to think of them as my aspie superpowers. They’re the things about me that people comment on as being out of the ordinary or above average. They’re a significant part of my self-identity:
I’m perceptive and detail oriented. I notice everything: changes and irregularities, patterns and habits. I can analyze the hell out of things. I see patterns where most people don’t. My affinity for details began as a coping mechanism, I think–a way to identify patterns in social situations that I couldn’t work out instinctively. Now it’s become my default mode for making sense of the world around me.
I have a high IQ. This may not seem related to Asperger’s until you think about what an IQ test is: logic, problem solving, pattern recognition. Especially pattern recognition. The question about what number comes next in the sequence? Pattern recognition. Which shape is missing in the grid? Pattern recognition. Is the sum of the odd numbers between 1 and 12 an even number? Yep, that one is pattern recognition, too. Or it is if your brain works like mine.
I’m calm in a crisis. If something goes wrong, I have an almost superhuman ability to separate myself from the situation and think clearly. Poor executive function combined with impaired perspective taking lets me focus on the facts at hand when others get overwhelmed by panic or “worst case scenario” thinking.
I’m dependable and disciplined. Both of these have roots in my Aspergarian need for routine. Once I get a routine in place, I can do the same thing day after day without tiring of it. I can keep the books, walk the dog, sort the mail–day after day, like clockwork–as long as it’s part of my daily schedule. I’m the kind of person people rely on. I get things done.
I’m determined. Perseveration has a huge upside. If a problem or task catches my attention, I’ll go at it like a doberman with a ragdoll. I’ll work at something long past the time when a more rational person would throw in the towel. A big part of success for me is simply not giving up too soon.
Okay, looking back on that list, it looks rather boring. There’s a reason The Scientist jokingly calls me “Data” at times. But Data saved the Enterprise as often as Picard, right? I like my boring superpowers. They’re useful. They’ve served me well.
Asperger’s or Personality?
The line between my aspie traits and my other more typical personality traits can be a fuzzy one. In the absence of Asperger’s would I still have the strengths that I do? Doubtful. I’d be a different person. Look at my list of strengths. Do you see compassionate, caring, or intuitive on it? How about spontaneous, sympathetic or a team player? I am all of things in varying degrees, but they aren’t my strong points.
My strengths are typically Aspergarian. Without Asperger’s I might be a less extreme form of myself–a blend of my current traits with neurotypical traits. I fear that I’d lose most of my superpowers, though I might gain other superpowers in place of them.
Do NTs have superpowers? Surely they must. I think The Scientist has social superpowers. He’s remarkably charming, persuasive, likeable, confident and intuitive. It’s as hard for me to imagine what he would be like with an aspie brain as it is for me to imagine myself as an NT.
Not that I ever really do. I like being an aspie. Sure it’s a pain in the ass sometimes, but take away Asperger’s and I’m no longer me.
I like me! Have I said that? Are you tired of hearing it yet? Because this is important. I’m autistic and I like myself. There are people who would find that hard or even impossible to believe.
I like being a little different. I like my aspie strengths and superpowers far more than I dislike my aspie weaknesses. Let’s face it, everyone has weaknesses. Everyone faces challenges. The perfect person, the perfect life–that doesn’t exist.
What Are Your Strengths and Superpowers?
The idea of a distinct set of aspie strengths has its roots in Tony Attwood and Carol Gray’s “The Discovery of Aspie Criteria.” They proposed seeing Asperger’s as a set of strengths and talents rather than a syndrome of deficits. If you’ve never seen the list, you can find it in that article–scroll down a few screens until you see the numbered lists. If you haven’t yet identified your aspie strengths and superpowers, it’s a great place to start.
Being married to someone with Asperger’s Syndrome is challenging.
Okay, that’s an understatement. Some people might go so far as to say it’s impossible. A quick internet search on ‘Asperger’s marriage’ will turn up plenty of horror stories.
Being married to an aspie is hard work. There are times when the neurotypical partner may feel more like a caregiver than a spouse, especially if the aspie partner’s symptoms are severe.
But if you’re in an Aspergers-neurotypical marriage, you didn’t get there by accident. You’ve made a deliberate choice to share your life in what is essentially a cross-cultural partnership. Like any cross-cultural exchange, an aspie-NT marriage can be a rewarding experience or a nightmare.
There isn’t a lot of self-help literature available for those of us in aspie-NT marriages, especially for aspie women married to NT men (the reverse combination is far more common). Beyond the usual factors that determine the success of a marriage, there are a few unique areas that can make or break an aspie-NT marriage:
How severe the aspie partner’s symptoms are
How socially skilled the NT partner is
How willing both partners are to work on the areas they can improve and accept the ones they can’t
As a woman with Asperger’s Syndrome who’s been married to a neurotypical partner for 25 years, I feel like I’ve lucked out in all three areas. I’m at the higher functioning end of the autism spectrum and my husband, The Scientist (as he’ll henceforth be known here), has solid social skills. Most importantly, we’ve become very good at both adaptation and acceptance.
It hasn’t always been easy. Sometimes it’s been damn near impossible. More than once we’ve considered whether we might be better off apart than together. But we’ve also found some surprising benefits to our aspie-NT partnership. Hopefully some of what we’ve learned will be helpful to other couples that have taken on the challenge of making an Aspergers-NT marriage work.
In no particular order, here are 12 lessons that we’ve learned (often the hard way):
Divide up household and family responsibilities according to each partner’s strengths.
I have a good sense of my strengths and weaknesses. I’m good with organizing and scheduling. I suck at ironing. I have the patience to help with homework and sit through two-hour soccer practices. I should never be allowed to handle power tools. I enjoy the research involved in managing the household finances. The thought of calling up a neighbor to confirm that we’ll be attending a party causes me to procrastinate for days and need a nap afterward.
If you’re lucky, you have a partner with some different strengths and weaknesses than your own. Dividing up the household responsibilities accordingly makes life easier on both partners and addresses one of the biggest potential pitfalls in an aspie-NT relationship: the tendency for the NT partner to feel like a caregiver rather than a spouse or a lover. If the aspie partner has some clearly designated responsibilities at which she excels, delegating her weak areas to her partner can feel less like a failing.
Successful partnerships are built on a rational division of labor and a marriage is no different.
Apologize when you do something that your partner finds hurtful.
This is true for both partners, but especially for the aspie partner. There are times when it’s hard for aspies to see why something is hurtful. Get over it. It doesn’t matter if what you said or did was unintentional. It doesn’t matter if you meant well. It doesn’t matter if you think it’s silly or meaningless. Just apologize.
I know this can be difficult. My first instinct is often to say, “but that’s not what I meant” or “what’s the big deal?” This is a bad idea. If your partner is hurt by your words or actions, then it is a big deal. Ideally, your NT partner will be able to calmly identify what you did and how that made him feel: “I feel hurt when you point out in front of other people that I wasn’t paying attention to the conversation.” And then you can just as calmly consider his point of view and apologize: “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize that would bother you. I’ll try not to do it in the future.”
Obviously, having this conversation calmly and lovingly can be a hard place to get to. For a long time, my husband thought I had a mean streak. After learning more about Asperger’s, he began to understand that my AS wiring is responsible for a lot of the dumb stuff that comes out of my mouth. Now he tries to calmly point out when I’m being insensitive.
We’ve both realized that even when he tells me that something bothers him, I may still do that something again in the future. I’ll try not to, but there’s no guarantee because Asperger’s makes it hard to generalize from one situation to the next. There’s a good chance I’ll say something similar without realizing it’s hurtful, because in my mind it’s not the exact same thing. It takes a leap of faith for the NT partner to give the aspie the benefit of the doubt when this happens, but this kind of trust may be one of the things that saves your marriage in the end.