An event from some years ago. I don’t remember when. I’m not good with dates.
While stopped and waiting to turn right my friend and I were approached by a stranger. With no inhibition and in a flat, unemotional tone he looked at my bumper and began to give us very detailed instructions. All pleasantries were ignored. He didn’t ask any questions or for that matter even pause to catch his breath. This was not a conversation.
My bumper had been torn off in a fight with a fence post and this stranger was going to tell my friend and me exactly what we needed to do to fix the situation. Exactly and with a precision completely off the charts including the serial number for the part required which he correctly identified as a fascia, not a bumper.
If we needed a mechanic instead of a parts store he knew of several in the area, their exact distance from our current location and how to get to each garage. His driving instructions included all the vitals but he also went on to describe in minute detail the landmarks one might find useful including buildings categorized by architectural style and building material, species of trees and notable (to him at least) elements of urban infrastructure. And of course the distance to each destination down to a tenth of a kilometer.
No opportunity was given us to engage with him except to listen (very carefully).We thanked him, mouths agape, which he ignored and walked away. He appeared to be neither offended nor happy to have been of assistance. But I knew this experience may well have required a monumental effort. Not for the incredible recall and coherent, nano-detailed instructions but rather for the fact of his even approaching two people from whom he was probably utterly incapable of reading social and emotional cues.
“Wow, how Aspergerian was that!” I said to my friend after a long silence.
Personally it was less the birth of a neologism that stuck with me. I had been fascinated with Autism since working with Autistic children – albeit in a limited capacity- as a young man. Asperger Syndrome , a part of the Autistic spectrum, is also known as Autistic Spectrum Disorder. What struck me about this fellow was that his attempt at social interaction (probably a very brave one for him) turned out to be such a naked exposure of his affliction.
Aspergarians will often completely overlook generalities while possessing an overwhelming recall of – and ability to detect – detail. Dates, places, numbers, patterns. These abilities can be very useful in certain occupations and also prove to be debilitating as Aspergarians cannot easily grasp abstractions, metaphors and most importantly lack the ability to read (what for us are blatant) clues necessary to read the feelings of others.
This does not amount to lack of empathy -that is sociopath territory – more the inability to read others. Social illiteracy.
I have used this term “Aspergarian” around others. Some, a social-worker/family therapist find it offensive. Some, like my psychiatrist, find it useful as a descriptive term and he has even noticed others at his clinic beginning to use the word.
But a word is not a diagnosis. I am not in any position to make a diagnosis. It is descriptive, yes, but runs the risk of becoming derisive. Asperger Syndrome is a disability. The word needs to be used with care.
My interest runs deeper in any case.
Just as political extremes can diverge to such a degree that they almost meet at other end , so the Aspergerian shares much with his opposite. Problem is, that opposite is not clearly defined.
The opposite would be the person who is so sensitive to social cues they become deafening. Like the Aspergerian this is not about empathy. In fact for the Sensitivian, over-reading can mean paranoia and delusion – the assumption that a person or people feel a certain way when they do not. Or at last not to their knowledge.
The slightest, most subtle nuance or gesture can provoke the Sensitivian into a highly exaggerated response – whether externalized or not- which is completely out of scale with the triggering cue. Out of scale, but not entirely inaccurate.
Similarly, the Sensitivian can be overwhelmed by his physical environment, especially if it is new or foreign, something else shared with the Aspergerian. But the Sensitivian is far more likely to respond by translating his experience of the physical world into an abstraction.
This can come in handy for the artist, musician or designer but such hyper-sensitivity can make engagement withe the outside world so unpleasant he loses touch with the very sources of his imagination.
The similarities are as numerous as the differences. The Sensitivian often engages in rumination (patterned and highly repetitive thinking) to drown out the deafening cues and hem in flights of imagination for example. He can become anxious in new social situations and can rely heavily on routine. He may feel misunderstood and isolated and, like the Aspergerian, tend toward depression and obsessive-compulsiveness.
The Sensitivian Zero.