A dark non-comedy of errors

I feel that this illustrates the problem of growing up as an Aspie/Autistic and not knowing. I had no diagnosis to work with until I was 35, and unfortunately I wasn’t able to stay in a niche that worked for me. I was torn between consuming special interests and desperately wanting social connection. I didn’t seem to connect with people who seemed like me – those “geeks” or “nerds”.

The errors were all unknown at the time, and the people closest to me did the best they could. Everyone who met me was probably making these errors without any awareness.

  1. I was normal but just shy
  2. I just needed encouraging to be social
  3. My behaviour could be interpreted in the context of “normal” development
  4. My facial expression communicated what I was feeling
  5. I am insolent
  6. I am rude
  7. I am bored
  8. I have no sense of humour
  9. I’m not interested in people
  10. I’m not trying hard enough
  11. I experience problems “everybody” has in the same way

This might not be a comprehensive list. It does enough to illustrate the problem with late diagnosis. Unintentional ignorance caused me years of depression and anxiety and genuine fear of other people.

My lack of self-knowledge combined with everyone else’s lack of a proper frame of reference to interpret my behaviour.

Experiencing “self” and “other” simultaneously – company

One of the themes I came across from Donna Williams’ The Jumbled Jigsaw was a problem with experiencing company. She stated that she got to the age of 30 until she had actually experienced being “with” rather that just “at”. She has explained it as having a “simultaneous sense of self and other”.

You can read about that in her book, but here is my re-interpretation of it. It was a while before what she was describing sank in properly and I could see this problem at work in my own life.

I think it goes a bit beyond being able to enjoy the company of another person or several people in a group, because there are so many ramifications of not having the ability to maintain “self” and “other” at the same time.

I have wondered why my recollections of being with other people have little information about the mental states of these other people and what they said and thought. Why do I remember being in a place but not anything about the people?

I often have trouble making sense of why I went along with certain decisions in my life. Why was it that I often agreed to things that later on didn’t seem to make sense once I’d thought about it? Why do I feel so unsure when trying to verbalise things?

In interactions with other people there can be information processing problems. For autistic people if can manifest as having a sort of “mono-tracked” mind. This is not quite the same as the typical understanding of not being able to multi-task, something that conventional wisdom says that women are better at. In reality I think it’s just that in that case men and women have different scopes to their area of multi-tasking. For an autistic person the difficulty is at a far lower level that is in most people’s unconscious processes.

In order to be in company “with” another you have to be able to converse. This is not a discrete task – I have seen people who can check their email and listen to a conversation at the same time. Regardless of whether this is considered rude or not, people can actually do it! Conversation in itself requires that you are able to listen to the words another person is saying, figure out what those words mean, at the same time as working out what you think about the meaning of what they have said in order to formulate a useful response. What will happen with an Aspie is often a delay that is longer than normal people expect, which can be interpreted as rudeness or boredom most likely. If you can’t formulate a response that must mean you aren’t interested in what the person is saying surely?

Unless the autistic person has encountered a topic before in an almost identical context there may genuinely be no idea of what they think about a certain thing. I have found this happen to me in situations where some opinion is expected and I just have nothing available to say. I marvel at other people sounding so sure of what they think about something they have just been asked about. This is probably one of the things that has led me to think I was less intelligent than others and had a bit of a hit on my self-esteem.

In conversation my difficulty is working out what to say next at the same time as listening to another person. I regularly time things badly and try and get things out because I won’t have a hold on them later. Conversations are a rather hit-and-miss operation where I may not recollect much about what the other person was saying, possibly because my head was full of what I was going to say next and there was only partial space for the other person’s words.

There can be the additional problem of processing visual input that is relevant in that moment. “Face blindness” is something often used to describe the difficulty in reading people’s expressions, but I wonder if it has more to do with the processing of detail irrelevant to conversation. I’ll remember what someone is wearing or the colour of their shoes and have no useful information related to what they were trying to express, or what their mood may have been. I’m sure this causes problems in figuring out what people are like and what they are interested in.

Processing is often delayed. After a conversation or perhaps an experience of a group situation, possibly several days after I’ll have processed the words or possibly the meaning associated with the words.

After playing things over in my head many times I’ll have realised what might have been a useful response. In this way I end up having many normal conversations in my head that are unlikely to happen in reality because I won’t have to words available unless I can trot out a response that seems to apply to the context, but may not have any relation to what I actually think or feel.

The difficulty of trying to track conversations in a group situation usually leads to me becoming silent. I’ll be unable to focus on one and end up bouncing between several and failing to participate in any of them unless I’m asked something specific. My guess is that this results in people not remembering you were there or that you had anything much to add.

The dangerous element here is that one can be so involved in the “other” with little sense of self that you will end up agreeing with statement and going along with suggestions because you can’t work out what you actually want in time. In order to go with a social situation you compromise your own self because it isn’t possible to say you’ll think about it and give a reply tomorrow.

This brings me back to some of those initial questions of why I went with certain decisions in my life, when after the fact I have no idea how I ended up with those decisions. Why did I end up spending time with people I didn’t like, and doing things that were perhaps contrary to my own nature? Why did I end up in a destructive relationship for more than ten years?

The answer, I think, comes with this problem of having a simultaneous sense of “self” and “other”. My self will make one decision, and “other” can often come along and I’ll have gone along with someone else’s point of view.

This account can’t really tell someone, or me, how to manage to be in company reliably. I can only maintain this sense occasionally and usually by accident. The feeling is good, but very difficult to re-capture. I know that it is more likely to happen with other Aspies, which is why support groups are helpful for allowing Aspies to meet one another.

The Art of Mindful Driving

City Traffic by Scott Meltzer

City Traffic by Scott Meltzer

I have to drive quite a distance to the office I work in when I am not working at home. It may take me up to an hour and a half to make the journey. Fortunately it isn’t every day of the week, but it can still be tiring.

Much of this is due to the way people drive, and it can be easy to go along with the flow of traffic on a fast road or highway. It seems that on a commuting run, many drivers are far too aggressive and follow each other too closely. They seem to be in a great hurry to get to the office or get home.

After spending some time driving like this, I paid more attention to what people were doing. Behaviour gets even more strange in slow-moving traffic. Anyone who has been in slow moving traffic passing through a city knows there is a lot of stopping and starting, but how many have realised that this is because drivers rush to close any gap in front of them as fast as possible? This usually extends to any gaps left by a car directly in front. I have seen drivers execute risky manoeuvres in order to fill a gap of tens of metres in front of me, to continue at the same speed a few meters ahead of where they were before – these are often drivers that I pass later on.

That constant stopping and starting means extra strain on the legs – less so in cars with automatic transmission, but there is still breaking and accelerating. This is taken to extremes by some drivers who floor it when starting up and slam on the brakes to stop a short distance ahead. I watch the traffic and it is clear to see how it moves in waves as the cars bunch up creating a “blockage” which is only relieved once cars have moved off too the front.

This is just evidence that few drivers are thinking about what they are doing, and whether their behaviour actually does anything to facilitate them getting to where they are going quicker or is in fact positively dangerous.

I can slip into aggressive driving still, but there was one situation that I remembered where I finished a familiar journey of about an hour and realised that I felt somewhat less tired afterwards, and less stressed. On this particular day I had been forced to drive slower on single lane roads, and rarely went above 55mph.

I had demonstrated that driving fast, changing lanes a lot, overtaking and getting impatient with other drivers made me more tired and stressed. It was not the fact of driving on busy roads that led to exhaustion, it was the manner of driving that was to blame.

So what would mindful driving be like? One could start by considering the fact that you have your own personal machine that can propel you at high speed. Most people in the world do not have this luxury for a start (although some might say it’s more of a curse). There is also some responsibility to be careful with a heavy vehicle that can cause considerable damage and fatality when driven carelessly. Although serious collisions on the road are referred to as “accidents”, many of these are due to dangerous or inattentive driving.

Consider that driving fast costs you quite a lot of money. 85mph is considerably less efficient than 65mph. In the UK, where we pay about £1.40 per litre for fuel (that’s $5.30 a gallon, which I notice isn’t far off US prices now), driving fast all the time is getting to be expensive. I have a car that can do up to 60mpg – the drivers of V8 SUVs must be feeling the pinch at about 20mpg.

To improve mileage, and in fact reduce wear on the car and save on servicing bills you can slow down a bit (or a lot) on the highway and relax a bit. Controlling acceleration is another way to limit fuel consumption. Rather than using all your car’s power to speed up as quickly as possible, take some time to increase speed, and there will be reduced wear on the tyres of your drive wheels, so it will be longer until you have to replace them. Slow down gradually and save the wear on your brake pads and discs.

Think of the momentum your car has, and don’t accelerate so much when going downhill. It’s possible you can maintain speed without even touching the accelerator. There is usually no need to brake hard to stop your car, you can just let your foot off the accelerator and allow the car to stop with its engine braking. After a while of thinking like this it gets easier to judge how you can come to a stop with minimal braking.

If you just got out of work find a way to relax while driving. It’s possible to listen to an interesting interview or an audio book for example, and concentrate on that rather than the traffic jam you are creeping through.

Pay attention to what is happening on the road ahead so you can react to traffic in good time. Having to stand on the brakes too often can be stressful, as well as the stress of having to respond in less time. If you are aware of what is happening around you it is possible to react calmly and not feel like you have just avoided bumping into the car in front.

Try to get through slow moving traffic on a highway without stopping entirely. Although cars seem to stop and start, overall they all flow at an average speed. If you can judge what this average speed is, the gap in front of you may expand and contract but you will still get through in the same time, but without stopping, less gear changes (in a manual) and less braking and accelerating.

The goal is to prevent driving becoming unnecessarily tiring due to your own behaviour and anticipating what others might do on the road.

For my particular commute, I have noticed driving more mindfully has perhaps added 10-15 minutes to the journey time. Also because I listen to music I am interested in this is an extra 15 minutes that doesn’t bother me particularly. In some instances I am even looking forward to the drive because it is time I get to listen to my favourite music.

So I think I have managed to make a change of attitude transforming something that could be considered a chore to get over with as quickly as possible into something that is an exercise in mindfulness and finding a way to make the time in the car more valuable.

Following Passion

I have been thinking quite a bit about the tendency people have to talk of “finding your passion” in relation to work or career. It started with Joshua Millburn’s and Ryan Nicodemus’ short essay on “What is your mission?”

They deal with two things – there is no obvious single passion that a person is meant to pursue, and that it’s possible to get stuck or settle for a job or career path that is to a certain extent predetermined by its ability to deliver more money, responsibility and status. They suggest picking something you are passionate about and pursuing it to find if it makes a difference. To turn a passion into a mission is to actually do something about it.

They have taken much from a man named Cal Newport who has been testing the idea of trying to “find your passion” and then finding a job in that area, which seems to have become something of a career advisory mantra. His main point is that chasing after a “passion” can often be a rather bad thing to do.

I recall a bit of school career advice (in England), and it seemed to amount to little more than the suggestion to take what you’re interested in and do that. Either that, or whatever it is you think you want to do (for whatever reason), advice is given on how to get into a specific career. “Get lots of qualifications” is another thing that sticks in my mind.  I can’t recall anyone saying “follow your passion” exactly, so perhaps it is more of an American phrase. In England we tend to be a bit more realistic in some ways, but the overall impression one gets is of finding a career track to get on and follow.

For me “follow your passion” has been something that I’ve seen more in the personal development blogoshpere rather than standard career advice. There is much said about how to find out what your passion is and how to work at it.

 

Now if I look at my own life I can see why going down a road prompted by “passion” isn’t necessarily helpful. From a very young age I was attracted to computers and making them do things, and I was quite interested in getting into creating computer games, after I had an idea I wanted to design computers. I did some work experience at Bullfrog in the 90s, and briefly met Peter Molyneux. At the same time I was also fascinated by astronomy and cosmology. I also had an enthusiasm for writing science fiction and spent much time in “world building” in a similar manner to Tolkein.

You might say I had a “passion” for each of these things, and these passions tended to swap around a lot. For most of my school years I thought I’d be doing computer science, but something happened to switch me over to wanting to study astronomy about the time I was looking at going to university. I followed this passion and enrolled in an Astronomy programme. My parents were a little confused by this as computing seemed to be a stronger interest for years. Looking back, I’m a little confused by it myself.

By the end of my degree, I was starting to look for a way to get back to computing by combining physics and programming, and by the time I’d graduated I was looking for jobs the combined the same things. Unfortunately this was a tricky market in the early 2000s, and having a degree in Physics wasn’t enough to walk into a job. I was also very bad at interviews. In fact studying at university does nothing in itself for preparing you for the job market, but everyone is so often told that a university education makes a big difference.

In the end I picked up a junior IT job near my home, a job that I could have walked into when I was 16. I don’t think my physics degree demonstrated any more facility for the job than my high school education.

This is what following my passion led me through. A relatively expensive education that had questionable value in helping me find employment. In fact it has taken me a long time to “let go” of making a four year mistake. I have tried to convince myself that it added something valuable to my life, but I don’t believe I got much beyond what I could have done studying by myself. I may have picked up certain learning skills, but I could have done the same thing in a computer science programme, or just getting a job and learning that way.

It is a bit difficult for me to say this was entirely a bad thing to have gone through the process of eliminating career paths, but a bit more time could have been left before committing to a rather expensive course of study that failed to find much of a focus.

Returning to Cal Newport’s investigation, the main thing to remember about passions is that they are changeable and temporary. Following passion blindly can push you in odd directions. It can’t necessarily be maintained. It can lead you to construct elaborate fantasies about what your life would be like if your career was “matched” with your passion.

If following your passion is unwise, what should you do instead? Cal suggests cultivating passion rather than trying to find some all-consuming desire to do something different. Passion for your work is a result rather than a precondition.

My interpretation is that passion is a fickle thing, and what a person is looking for is something more reliable and constant. Rather than considering “True Passion” against short term excitement, I’d define passion as closer to lust. Once you have the thing you desire it can often end up being disappointing. Cal cites a story about a man who was convinced he would be happy as a Zen monk, but after he’d burned all his bridges and joined a monastery he came to the realisation that he couldn’t make that one thing his whole life.

There is much wisdom in considering what you already have and how you can use that to get your life closer to what you want. Cal uses the term “career capital” to explain what people accumulate through their experience of doing something for a long time. To simply switch without doing some work in a different area simply dumps a huge amount of investment.

For me the career capital is in the Information Technology industry, which can become quite stressful or dull depending on the sort of job you have. I was once presented with a choice of joining an academic research department in Canada when I had a “relapse” of interest in Physics, but I had some realisation that the path I was on in the area of computing was still more suitable after already having made progress to a much greater income. To make the change I’d have been getting the pay of a Graduate student, and ultimately the interest in the research could not make up for this.

Although I haven’t always been that proactive about making the most of the “career capital” I have, sticking with things has enabled me to get into what I consider is a balanced position where work isn’t taking me over or leaving me very bored.

I think what Cal’s research has done has taken away the potentially dangerous characterisation of “passion” as being something magical that a person is looking for. I have stopped thinking in terms of passion and more about putting in the hours to get better at creating music and writing about it. He has also validated what the Minimalists have done to change their lives, and the constant is always that there is a lot of work involved and you have to keep at it for years in order to start getting results.

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