Lost In A Forest
When you have Asperger's, things that are easy for some people become hard.
Living with Asperger's Syndrome (Autism Spectrum Disorder) has particular rewards and difficulties.
The rewards are noticeable. We tend to be good students, reliable employees and model citizens once we understand what the rules of institutions are, and receive support in learning how to live by them. If we are given chances to participate in these institutions fairly and without prejudice, we can help to contribute to them, and possibly change them in positive ways. We thrive in situations where we know exactly what is expected of us and how to meet these expectations in the workplace.
Unfortunately, those supportive situations are not often available and that can leave people with Asperger's feeling like driftwood on a river shore, forgotten and unsure of how to proceed with their lives.
The biggest stumbling block for most neurotypical people in understanding Asperger's is that it is a mental disability, and therefore an "invisible" one. Unlike physical disabilities, there are no outward signs of the disability. It occurs within the person's brain, and it is difficult for even the most intelligent, or "high functioning", people on the spectrum to put their disability coherently into words. Moreover, if you have met one person with Autism, you have met only one person with Autism. That is, while people on the spectrum share some characteristics, each is unique in their level of intelligence and how they process and interpret information.
In the workplace, we may find a large amount of continued social interaction, such as regular strategy meetings, difficult. We may also have a greater sensitivity to change in routines and things that stimulate the senses, and these things, such as noise levels, the temperature and particular smells, can affect our ability to focus. It may contribute to what is known as "autistic inertia", where we may be unable to work if these things bother us too much or we don't have the proper support or instruction to perform our assigned tasks for the day.
Some employers have attempted to alleviate these issues by providing solutions, such as the use of noise cancelling headphones to remove that stimulus. But not all do, and that weakens the ability of people on the spectrum to contribute to work environments effectively.
However, our perspective may be an asset in areas where continued direct social interaction is not required, such as in freelance writing, where we may be able to provide unique perspectives on issues and events that others may not.
Put simply, we have a different way of thinking, processing and interacting than the rest of the world, and we are, intentionally or not, often punished mentally and socially for not thinking the way the rest of the neurotypical world does.
You might consider us to have the Diesel automobile engine of brains, as opposed to the standard internal combustion model. A car that runs on Diesel fuel needs that particular kind of fuel to run and no other. Now imagine trying to operate in society on Asperger fuel, but discovering that most of society has only stations for neurotypical fuel.
And nowhere is this perhaps more the case that in the online world.
To use another metaphor: the Internet to people with Asperger's is often like living in a cottage on the outskirts of an ancient forest, with no clear entrance or exit, and no way of figuring out how to get in or out of the place without the sort of guidance and friendship there that we crave. The people with Asperger's had no role in the creation of this forest. The people who planted the trees knew little about our needs. So they grew the forest to suit their neurotypical needs only.
Thus, we have social media websites that are built around neurotypical notions of what acceptance and popularity are, and how to increase that acceptance and popularity, which run counter to the ways in which people with Asperger's would approach those ideas. Worse, there are no clear instructions given at the outset of joining these organizations about what they are and what they are to be used for.
So how are people with Asperger's supposed to know how to use them in the "right" way?
It's not just social media. So much of art and commerce is online now that it is impossible for anyone, Asperger's or neurotypical alike, to get along without having some sort of presence there. We are told that we "have" to be there in order to "succeed", and that we "must" follow patterns of practice and behavior that we found difficult and alienating in the real world, let alone in the online one.
If you go into the forest without a map and a compass, you will get lost. Online behavior and practice poses similar risks for people with Asperger's.
My own behavior, online, has tended to be limited due to these concerns. Yet, as both a traditional and a self-published author, I am expected to do a considerable amount of promotion for what I have written and published, as my publishers provide little or no help. This is difficult as Asperger's people are not gifted with the kind of interpersonal skills that help with promotional efforts.
It has created other difficulties. I am a devotee of animation, and I’m a published author on its history. The advent of streaming services, with their overwhelming plethora of programming, their habit of "dropping" large volumes of content all at once, and their bait-and-switch manner of making content available or not, has played havoc with my accepted Asperger's notion of watching a certain show at a certain time.
I grew to adulthood with the Internet as a secondary feature in my life, rather than a primary one. As a result, I developed habits that many newer media organizations have "disrupted" to a major degree. And the operations of many media organizations I used to trust have been taken over by people with different ideas of communication. It is essential for institutions which are used by all people to have input from all of those people, and be easily accessed by all of those people. Intentionally or not, online and in the real world, neurotypical people have long had a monopoly on discourse because they possess and use means of communication to which people with Asperger's have had limited access. Therefore, they negatively affect people with Asperger's with even the simplest words and deeds, and are completely oblivious of it because no one criticizes them for it.
There is one simple solution to this: give people with Asperger's the tools and the support they need to navigate a strange world they did not create. If so, you will have our eternal gratitude, support and loyalty- our greatest and most enduring personal qualities.
That's not too much to ask for, is it?
David Perlmutter is a freelance writer based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. He is the author of two books on animation history: America ‘Toons In: A History of Television Animation (McFarland and Co.) and The Encyclopedia Of American Animated Television Shows (Rowman and Littlefield), and five self-published books of speculative fiction: Orthicon, Honey And Salt, Let’s Be Buddies, Nothing About Us Without Us, and The Singular Adventures of Jefferson Ball (available through Amazon Kindle and Smashwords). He can be reached on Twitter at @DavidPerlmutt10 and Facebook at DavidKPerlmutterandFriends, and his stories and essays can be read at Medium, Curious Fictions and Vocal.
This essay was first published in 2021 at Manitoba Possible. ca
It is also available on Medium: https://dkperlmutter.medium.com/lost-in-a-forest-9d8ac2cbdd65