Asperger’s, Max, and Me
I am addicted to the TV show Parenthood. In it, a 12-ish-year-old boy named Max has Asperger’s. On a recent show the entire family (and a huge family at that) waited anxiously in a hospital as one of the family was treated following an accident. Max was fidgeting until he couldn’t take it anymore:
“I WANT MY PANCAKES. YOU PROMISED WE WERE HAVING PANCAKES AND THAT WAS AN HOUR AGO AND I WANT THEM NOW!”
His Dad tried to calm him and asked him to be reasonable (something a very literal-minded Asperger’s sufferer defines differently than a ‘normal’ person). “Max. Your cousin is very ill. She may be dying. You’re going to have to be patient. We’ll get you the pancakes as soon as we can, but we’re all worried and waiting to hear from the doctor if she’s going to be live.”
“YOU PROMISED ME PANCAKES. I DON’T CARE IF SHE DIES. I WANT MY PANCAKES LIKE YOU PROMISED.”
Max proceeded to ‘have a melt down’, as it’s called in the Asperger’s world. (I personally call it ‘Having a loopy thing’ as it feels like I’m in a continuous visual/sensory/auditory loop of confusion and expectation that I can’t get out of and I have trouble breathing. Thanks to coaching and therapy, it now happens rarely.)
Later, as he was eating his pancakes, his Dad tried to explain to him about empathy, and that he owed his Aunt an apology for saying he didn’t care if his cousin died. To which Max replied: “Dad, are you mad at me because I have Asperger’s ?”
Of course, there is no simple answer to that question.
My ‘thing’ – and Aspies have a ‘topic’ they concentrate on – has always been systems: how people interact; how decisions get made; how mistakes happen; how families work; how communication works/doesn’t work. The good news is that with all of the years I’ve studied and developed my ideas, and all of the decades I’ve had coaching and therapy, I’m able to work with global corporations, and actually do some good in the world, albeit with a charming twist to my personality (I’m told. To me, it’s normal and I can’t figure out what is so unusual.).
As an Asperger’s sufferer, I don’t always know the ‘right’, or politically correct, thing to say. I have a set of time slots in my brain that everything gets compared with – so when I think someone should have responded to an email I might write back to find out what’s going on (called pushy by some), but which feels reasonable if I’m not given any other timeline (Why people don’t just respond “Busy now. Will connect next week.” is beyond me.). I sometimes miss nuance, and take things too literally. My speaking patterns are different from ‘normal’ folks, and I relate quite intensely and super-honestly.
When I was giving a speech recently, I began by saying that I had Asperger’s and folks might find my speaking patterns unusual, but if they could hang in, they’ve find my content thought-provoking, useful and visionary. And fun – I’m a lot of fun. My client came up to me afterwards and said that a handful of people came up to him saying that I was ‘needy’. “She told you she’s got Asperger’s. I found her charming, brilliant, and very authentic.”
I’ve had years of coaching, therapy, and group work to learn social skills, but I still have an ‘interesting edge’. Thankfully, it doesn’t seriously affect my ability to be professional, although it is noticable. With Bethlehem Steel once, the head of the group I’d worked with for 2 years was handing me off to another division head. I overheard the new guy ask my regular client: “Is she always like this?” to which my client replied. “Yes. And she’s wonderful. You will grow to love her.”
Over the years, I’ve been ignored, thrown out of groups, and walked away from, in situations where folks aren’t open to anything out of the ordinary (My clients are visionaries who relate to my brain and heart.). I’ve had wonderful meetings that turned to nothing as folks were uncomfortable with my communication differences. I’ve had people refuse to work with me, saying that I’m just different. When any of the above happen, I”m absolutely baffled. Sometimes I think that because my models are so challenging that folks use my style as an excuse to not have to consider something new.
Internally I can’t understand when or why or how I make some folks uncomfortable (and others not at all), or why when someone says ‘How are you?” I have to respond ‘fine’ even if that’s not true. (Why we ask each other how we are when we don’t want to know the answer is still a mystery to me.).
To be fair, I’ve also been given huge possibility and my brain has developed some truly creative/innovative stuff. And wonderful partners regularly move beyond their immediate comfort zone to think out-of-the-box with me becauses they easily trust my honesty and care. Because the same problem that causes my social issues gives me the ability to innovate and make a difference in the world.
I was deeply touched by Max’s question: are you mad at me because I have Asperger’s? Unfortunately for me – and for others who don’t fit into the norm – the answer is yes. Many of you are mad at me because I respond differently or ask unusual questions. But my world inside feels/looks different from other’s worlds. And I get very curious about things others don’t notice.
So the best I can do is find the right friends, colleagues, and clients who have open hearts, are seeking greater success and authenticity, and can feel/hear/see and love me as I am – with or without the pancakes.
Sharon Drew is a featured speaker at the Search Insider Summit – May 4 – 7 , 2011