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Sep
24

The Reveal

When I was six years old, my family took a trip to Florida. It was a typical summer vacation; we were setting out for a week of adventure in the southwestern part of the Sunshine State. My mom and dad were in the front seat of our rental car while I was in the backseat, the map an Alamo employee handed us upon departing the Tampa airport as my only companion. We had been driving for quite a while, but I wasn’t as restless as a typical kid my age would be. I had that map. I was enthralled.

“We’re lost,” I said in a matter-of-fact manner to deaf ears.

My parents ignored me. He’s six. How can he know where we are? We drove on for another twenty minutes before my dad finally pulled over at a gas station to ask for directions to the Tradewinds Resort.

I was right. We were lost. And the only one who knew it was the one who could barely read.

Where are we?

I open with this anecdote because it’s a lot like what I’m currently experiencing at 33. I feel lost. Until recently, I’ve been the only one to know it. Unless you’ve been paying close attention, you probably wouldn’t have even noticed.

I have Aspergers. 

This comes as either a shock to you or as a confirmation of what you’ve always suspected. I’m willing to bet it’s the former.

Before we move on, here’s an obligatory Wikipedia link to help give you some background on Aspergers. By pressing on, I assume you’ve either read that information or have a working knowledge of what I’m talking about.

I’m sure I’m not the only person you’ve heard say they have Aspergers. I get it. I really do. It’s the new self-diagnosis hotness of the day. It’s like going to WebMD and ending up taking a sore throat to the logical conclusion of having stage-four cancer. Looking around the Internet, Aspergers has become an episode of Oprah’s favorite things. It’s just a normal Oprah taping session when all of a sudden:

“Oh my goodness, Aspergers. I like Aspergers. Do you like Aspergers? Do you want Aspergers? Well, guess what…?

You get Aspergers!

You get Aspergers!

You get Aspergers!

Everyone gets Aspergers!

Look under your seat!

Because of this, I’ve been very thorough in my research. Meticulous. Could this be me? I’ve taken test after test after test after test after test to see if and where I fall on the spectrum. Across the board, the answer has been a resounding Aspergers.

What does this mean?

Stated simply: I have deficiencies in socialization and communication that are hardwired into my neurology.

My brain is wired differently than a normal person’s brain (in the Aspergers and Autism communities, “normal” people are called NeuroTypicals, or NTs, and I will use that shorthand here). The logical side of my brain acts like it’s on steroids while the other half of my brain struggles to even get to the gym. What comes naturally to NTs — for instance, reading body language in social situations — takes an extraordinary amount of effort for me. I need my brain to figure out meaning using logical tests and by systematically eliminating possibilities until I arrive at what makes the most sense, rather than just intuitively knowing. As such, my brain is always in overdrive. It’s exhausting. Because I expend so much energy trying to figure out what other people are really saying, I am completely worn out after any amount of socializing and need time away from everyone to recharge.

My communication issues probably aren’t apparent in this format because I have plenty of time while typing to fish for the correct wording and edit to my heart’s content. If you’ve ever had a conversation with me, though, you know that I have trouble expressing myself. Truth be told, I’d rather text you than talk to you. I just can’t say what I want to say in a conversation, no matter how hard I try. Give me some time and a written form, though, and you get stuff like this post. As you can imagine, this makes socialization even more difficult and frustrating for me. See a theme yet? It’s not you. Really. It’s me. How I ever got past an initial job interview or first date is beyond me.

I’ve had to deal with these issues my entire life. Thankfully, I’ve developed coping mechanisms over my lifetime that have allowed me to function as a somewhat normal person. I’ve made hundreds of mental notes over time, notes which cumulatively have allowed me to fake appearing normal in everyday adult life. Maintain eye contact during a conversation, but don’t stare. Mirroring body language has been one of my best lessons thus far. It’s probably gotten me through every awkward situation you can imagine, which is all of them if you’re keeping score at home. Even though you can’t understand why this person is upset, a furrowed brow and occasional nod will make them feel better. These social rules are my way of coping with my deficiency.

And rules. Oh yes, rules. I love rules. I love systems. Organizing things in my mind — creating overarching systems of how everything works — is my way of preventing myself from plunging into a chaotic panic attack. If it doesn’t make logical sense, it’s useless to me. Everything has to fit in the natural order of things. Everything is a system.

The greatest thing my parents ever did during my childhood was give me strict rules on how to behave. Yes, these rules probably made me act like an adult far too soon, but they were what I needed to survive. I was such a good kid because I knew what was expected of me and I met those expectations. I’ve always followed rules, given they were explained to me in a logical manner. Be nice to everyone. Done. Always be honest. Of course. I’m honest to a fault. I will always tell you the truth, regardless of the impact it may have on you or myself. I’m sure this has probably set me back on my career path a few times, but I have plenty of traits that have compensated for that. Such as my great memory (Aspergers). Attention to small details (Aspergers). Keen problem solving abilities (Aspergers). Ability to focus on mundane tasks for long stretches of time (Aspergers). List-making abilities (Okay, now I’m just adding stuff at the end as fluff).

Weren’t you talking about maps?

One of the stereotypical things you always see about media portrayals of people with Aspergers (Aspies, colloquially) is that we all have a very narrow area of interest that we focus on. We can talk for hours about this interest without noticing how bored our conversation partner(s) may have become.

Pac-Man Kill Screen

Yup, guilty.

Coincidentally, did you know I’m working on a perfect game of Pac-Man in time for Kong Off 3 in November?

I’ve always loved maps. There’s just something about them that catches my attention and doesn’t let go. I mentioned the anecdote above about knowing we were lost in Florida when I was six, but I also had a map puzzle of the United States that I played with constantly as a kid. Whenever I found a new atlas, I made sure to study it from cover to cover. Always studying the cartography — the layout — to see how the mapmaker made sense of the world. How did he make such a large real-world system make sense on such a small sheet of paper? What sacrifices did he make to portray the intended message? Yup, once again making systematic order out of the world in order to make it make sense to me. Typical Aspie coping mechanism.

I consider myself lucky because I’ve been able to make a career out of my lifelong interest. If I lived in another time, when Geographic Information Systems didn’t exist to merge mapping with computer databases (also a strong-suit for Aspies), I may be just another unemployed Aspie. You can imagine how the traits I have — especially socialization issues — could be problematic for one’s career. Office politics are especially tricky if you cannot discern tone and intended meaning, for instance. But thankfully, I found my niche shortly after college and have thrived ever since.

So,… What’s the problem, then?

Exactly. I’m not entirely sure there is one. I just think differently than NTs, 99% of the population. I’m not defective. I’m not disabled. There’s nothing in me to cure. I’m just a PC in a Mac world.

The realization that I have Aspergers was life-changing… but it also wasn’t. It’s comforting to finally have a name for what has always made me feel different than everyone else. At the same time, it doesn’t change anything.

I’m still the same Jeff Pickles as before.

Not Jeff Pickles the Aspie.

Not Jeff Pickles the Autistic.

Just Jeff Pickles.

Aspergers is and has always been a major part of my life. I’ve known no other way of being. The only change is the arbitrary label. As long as I’m aware of the differences between my brain and those of NTs, I can focus on reducing my deficiencies while capitalizing on my strengths. And oh, that dichotomy.

Going Pro

Since I operate relatively normally compared to other people on the spectrum, I haven’t decided whether or not to get professionally diagnosed. Awareness of my issues should be enough to work on them, right? As such, the self-diagnosis seemed like it would be good enough for me. But after dragging my self-diagnosis process for a couple of months, it became clear to me just how badly my brain was hurting my marriage. As you might imagine, Aspergers is hell for relationships. How Marika stayed married to an emotional brick wall for seven years is a testament to how strong of a woman I found, but eventually she needed more. By early August, she was demanding that we seek marriage counseling and that I seek a professional diagnosis — mostly to make sure I wasn’t bullshitting her.

It was difficult finding the right counselor because my thinking is so black-and-white; for me, it’s either perfection or a failure, nothing in between. Combine that with my difficulty making decisions (this choice isn’t perfect, and neither is this one… and if I make either choice, here’s what I’d be missing out on… Opportunity Costs abound!), and I had a bit of an anxiety attack just trying to find someone who could help us. I mean, this is just the most important relationship in my life on the line here. We lucked out in finding a counselor within our suburb who specializes in Aspergers/Autism family counseling.

We began marriage counseling on my birthday. That first session was a blur of hurt and tears and anger. A lot of things came to light about just how badly I had damaged our marriage by being oblivious to what was obvious to everyone else. At the end of the session, Marika asked the counselor what he thought about me. Does Jeff has Aspergers? His response was that as a clinician rather than psychologist, he was not able to give an actual diagnosis; however, he made it clear that he thought I was on the Autism Spectrum and that he would have no consternation about saying I had Aspergers.

And so, for my 33rd birthday, I was given a semi-pro diagnosis of Aspergers.

For Marika, this came as a relief. That was enough to reduce her demands for a full professional diagnosis. As for me, it was an affirmation of what I already knew. Since that day, we’ve been working on our issues together and our marriage is better than it has been in years, albeit still a work in progress.

I’m still on the fence about a professional diagnosis. There aren’t many psychologists who would give adult diagnoses. Aspergers (like any Autism Spectrum Disorder) has a stigma that somehow only children can be diagnosed, and thus there isn’t a focus on adult diagnosis. Even if I could find someone local to diagnose me, the expense involved would be great. Most health insurance companies don’t cover adult diagnosis, thus I would have to bear the brunt of all of the session costs. And what would getting diagnosed get me? There are no drugs for Aspergers. No cure. Aspergers and Autism Spectrum conditions are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act, but I really don’t need accommodations. I’m already excelling in my career, I wouldn’t change a thing. So why introduce the stigma of Aspergers and make everyone assume I need accommodations?

About that stigma. That’s probably the largest reason why I’m not currently seeking a professional diagnosis. If I were to get a piece of paper with an Aspergers diagnosis on it (which isn’t likely since Aspergers doesn’t exist in the new DSM-V released in May of this year, as it’s been folded into Autism Spectrum Disorder), it wouldn’t be for me. I already know I am Aspergers. That paper would be to show everyone else. Then everyone would treat me differently. They’d treat me as the stereotypical Autistic person. They’d think I am slow. That I am defective. That I am disabled. I am not. Why open that can of worms?

So,… What Now?

Nothing, really. I just want you to know what I’ve been dealing with. This has been a huge weight on me for a long time and I just needed to get this stuff off my chest. I only ask for recognition and acceptance. I’m still the same Jeff Pickles I’ve always been. Nothing has changed. I ask you to respect that and act accordingly. Keep calm and carry on, if you will.

Obviously this probably gives you more questions than answers. By all means, please ask away. I need to work on my communication issues, anyway. And this is an area that I’ve become somewhat of an expert in. Just don’t mind the monologues. I’m still working on that.

1 comment

  1. Christie Jones says:

    Jeff, you have always been eloquent in your writing skills so never suspected a thing. Kudos for you on jumping in there and seeking answers. My thoughts and prayers are with you and Marika.

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