Ask an Aspergirl

Essays and poems about Autistic experience, mental illness, & (post-) ABD life

Tag: peers

Details and gist: The interplay between cognitive reasoning and emotional reasoning

When I think about people I know well, I picture the first page of a script — the part listing their preferences and backstory. I’ve noticed that although I’m not particularly intuitive about people, I can make sense of them using intrapersonal details. Maybe that’s why I like television commentary. Television writers know how to analyze characters and scenarios in ways that make sense to their readers [1].

My memory for intrapersonal details helps me maintain relationships. I’ve read about the dichotomy that autistics can experience between cognitive empathy and emotional empathy. Although we have trouble figuring out what someone might be thinking or feeling based on nonverbal cues, we can make sense of their experience using reasoning skills. I’ve learned to think of back-and-forth interactions as a logic puzzle: Based on what I know about this person, what could I say next?

Using cognitive reasoning to fill in gaps in emotional reasoning is probably a workaround I developed to ease myself into social situations. I don’t know what to say, so I imagine myself entering the dialogue before I initiate conversation. As a kid, I tapped adults on the shoulder to get their attention and asked questions before the time for asking questions arrived. I suppose after receiving negative feedback for these social behaviors, I learned coping strategies for this lack of social intuition.

The only problem with these sorts of workarounds is the inevitable reluctance to enter conversations that accompanies my process. Trying to find my place in groups feels like a game of conversational tetherball. I don’t know how to begin speaking without inadvertently interrupting the current speaker.

My memory for details at the expense of gist can be scary when I’m trying to navigate potentially unsafe situations. A few weeks ago, a seemingly creepy guy at the library hugged me without prior warning (certainly didn’t ask for my consent). I didn’t recognize how disturbing his behavior appeared until he was already encroaching on my space. I missed the prior cues that he didn’t respect others’ boundaries.

I’m learning to avoid blaming myself when I miss these sorts of nonverbal cues. Yes, maybe I could have seen the signals earlier and avoided a scary scenario, but it wasn’t my fault that happened. Sometimes I love my detail-oriented nature. I remember people’s backstories in vivid detail, as if they were characters in a rich narrative.

When I talk with people who have been through familial trauma, I know what to say to them (and what not to say): Partially because I have shared experience, but also because I can see their narrative as a concept map — how their present and past intersect. This skill helps me listen and accept what they’re saying without needless questioning.

As frustrating as it can be to miss the forest for the trees, I’m “practicing being proud” of my memory for details [2]. My passion for information (and probably my path to graduate studies) comes from the same place that leads to missing gist. I can acknowledge and accept both of these parts of myself.


Cultivating safe spaces

Community hugIt’s been a little over a year since the blog began, or rather I began the blog. I’ve moved from jotting thoughts (and sometimes prayers) in well-hidden notebooks — thrown behind bookstacks or on high shelves — to sharing my poetry at open mikes. It has been quite the year.

When I considered the possibility I could be an Aspergirl — wondering what that meant, then gradually embracing that part of myself: I met fellow Aspergirl bloggers through reading and commenting in their online spaces. I’m feeling increasingly connected to other people whose stories are relatable.

When I began to read these bits of my narrative aloud — honoring my backstory and meeting like-minded women:  I became a regular at the neighborhood coffeehouse (barista friend says I’m  “earl grey latte girl”) and the local cafe with the good listening proprietor. I’m gradually unveiling my narrative in these spaces — “This is me and what I’m experiencing.”  I found a community of women writers through a flyer posted at that coffeehouse.

This has been a year of cultivating safe spaces and becoming (not finding) myself. I’m practicing self-disclosure and measured vulnerability: “right place, right time, right person” considerations in mind. This has been a year of coming back to myself as I’ve been learning to remain present, even as I’m waiting for waves of anxiety to pass — I’m learning to sit with them.

A little over a year ago, my chaplain friend suggested I start a blog. “Why don’t you call it, Ask an Aspergirl,” she said. I was a bit skeptical at first: “So I’m telling strangers on the internet about the worrisome and confusing things I’m experiencing? That seems weird.” And yet, I remembered telling my therapist, the previous semester, how I had few social supports, so she introduced me to chaplain friend and suggested I volunteer at the animal shelter. I’d been experimenting with social connections — maybe I could muddle through my thoughts via blogging — “It’s like curated journaling,” I thought.

I was sitting at the local cafe, waiting for a friend joining me for lunch, and remarked to the proprietor, “I have people now; when did this happen?” It was a wonderful feeling, but also unfamiliar. I know how to linger at a well-lit desk with a book and share thoughts with someone in line. It’s harder to maintain relationships. I forget people want me around until they say those exact words.

So dear readers, I’m reminded of a statement the cafe proprietor made as I think about my finding community this year: “You’d be surprised that most people you meet are lovely, if you give them a chance.” I’m glad we could have this conversation together.

Finding community in cafes

I find local cafes are filled with such kind people.

I find local cafes are filled with such kind people – both the baristas and the regulars . []

From Hemingway’s short story, “A Clean Well-Lighted Place”

“He disliked bars and bodegas. A clean, well-lighted cafe was a very different thing. Now, without thinking further, he would go home to his room. He would lie in the bed and finally, with daylight, he would go to sleep. After all, he said to himself, it’s probably only insomnia. Many must have it.”  (1)

I remember reading this short story in undergrad and being struck by the story of the older waiter who took care of customers who just needed a place to be and sit as the night grew later. I’ve found a few places like this, the clean, well-lit ones, in which I feel a sense of calm and familiarity. I remember calling the owner of my favorite cafe in town, after a  particularly trying day of gathering psych records and meeting with my new psychiatrist, and her offering to stay open until I could come by to pick up the cookies I promised to order. The windows are enormous there, and the owner is kind.

There’s a coffeehouse frequented by college students that I tend to go to when I have no desire to do homework, but know I need to do so. There’s a community of people at this place that do homework beside each other; I like to think that we’ve formed a club of cranky grad students just trying to get our work done. I’m not entirely sure when I became the “get off my lawn” grad student that I  am when the coffeehouse plays loud rock music or anything with a strong bass sound on the patio, but it’s nice to know I’m not the only one hiding from the noise. Most of us know where the good places to sit are, so creatures of habit that we are, we often find each other in these spots. It’s sort of vaguely comforting in a way — mind you, rituals and routines in general are pretty wonderful when the world seems to be spinning too quickly.

I’ve shared stories in cafes. I’ve cried in cafes (shout out to my friends who’ve sat beside me as I’ve sobbed over a variety of topics –as a person with GAD, dealing with life’s messiness can be rather exhausting). My womyn’s writing circle even meets nearby yet another coffee bar. These days, I drink tea in cafes rather than coffee. There’s a constant discussion going on in my mind: “Do you want to be ridiculously anxious or have that cuppa coffee?” “Make the healthy response there” — as I imagine my old psychiatrist eying me as I think about choosing the coffee, so I assemble my tea the English way, with a bit of milk and sugar or honey, sometimes even agave nectar if it’s available (good stuff — seems less viscous than honey — thank you college chemistry). I’ve watched way too many British sitcoms and television dramas to not love tea, and I love it all the more since I somehow became sensitized to the effects of coffee.

Cafes — the clean, well-lit ones I’ve found — are a source of comfort to me because of the kind people who make both lovely drinks and casual conversation in between our orders.


Developing friendships via popular culture

Paul and Sophie

Scene from In Treatment (2008) featuring Paul and Sophie discussing her journal, Hermione.

I find myself using a shared love of media to find people who enjoy my presence and could one day become my friend. Knowing that I have all-encompassing passions for films and dramas, it helps to surround myself with like-minded people (e.g., poetry circles and literary groups). I remember watching Sophie’s sessions on In Treatment with a friend in undergrad and finally realizing that my friend understood me. We nodded at the same moments onscreen as Paul’s adolescent client, Sophie, dealt with the complexities of her family, and we made conversation regarding interactions between characters over the episodes. Because I sometimes have trouble explaining my thoughts and feelings to others, it helps to have character dramas to analyze with a friend as I attempt to share experiences from my own life. It feels safer somehow to strongly empathize with someone onscreen than to attempt to describe events from my own life — at least at first.

Maybe I look for people who enjoy the same books, films, and television shows that I do because I expect that I’ll monologue about these subjects at some point. There are times in conversations when I’ll become so excited about particular media and completely forget that the other person may have lost interest. I’ve noticed lately that I tend to miss those nonverbal cues indicative of others wishing I would move on to another topic. When I surround myself with fellow bibliophiles and fans of character dramas (e.g., In Treatment), I don’t have to worry so much when I lapse into monologuing because if the other person is equally interested, we remain in conversation-mode.  My closest friends may not have the same passion that I do for particular dramas, but they can share in my joy about these things regardless.

Even when I’m making casual conversation in coffee shops, I tend to lapse into film, book, or television-related comments within the first 15 minutes or so. Because my speech is often sprinkled with pop culture references, I feel less awkward around media savvy people (which thankfully is a lot of people in their 20s and 30s because of the internet). But other times, I feel like that weird girl who keeps referring to things no one really cares about or understands anyway. On a good day, I begin such conversations, and then eventually ask if the other person still wants to continue the discussion, so we talk for a bit longer. On the best days, I find someone who’s equally nerdy about films, television programs, or books, and we have an emotionally intimate talk centered on these topics.

For me, pop culture can often serve as an emotional mirror: It’s a way for me to process my own thoughts and feelings as I attempt to understand others at the same time. Hence, many of my comments around others begin, “Have you heard of ______ [insert pop culture reference here].” But maybe that’s okay.

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