A friend of ours had been watching an episode of Conan Oâ€™Brian a few weeks ago when he had Rose Byrne as his guest. She was there to promote the movie â€œAdamâ€ which has been out since the end of July. The plot follows a man with Aspergerâ€™s Syndrome and the relationship between him and a girl who moves in to the same building. The tagline? â€œA story about two strangers. One a little stranger than the other…â€ Having seen a snipping from the movie, our friend thought we should see the snippet too. She knows about my Aspergerâ€™s.
Diana and I watched the snippet with no small amount of trepidation. It is since only recently that we are even aware of what weâ€™ve been dealing with in any real sense. My condition has otherwise been like an invisible elephant in the room with us. The scene is of Adamâ€™s apparent obliviousness to Bethâ€™s (Beth is Rose Byrneâ€™s character) need for assistance hauling a heavy load of groceries. The scene is funny to a lot of people. Itâ€™s not particularly amusing to Diana or to me. Weâ€™ve been there and done that. We were able to smile and think, â€œRemember when you did something like that?â€ The un-funny part is that I am that oblivious sometimes and the movie scene was an uncomfortable reminder of that.
Before I continue with my story I should explain a little bit about the inner workings of my mind. I relate many of my experiences to scenes in movies and literature in an idiomatic way. Itâ€™s almost a foreign language to people not familiar with it (thatâ€™s a series of stories that could have its own category), but it is a way to communicate my feelings in an indirect way that others can understand (if theyâ€™re well versed in the same movies and literature, etc.). Iâ€™m also prone to use computers and other things with which I am quite familiar as the basis of analogies to illustrate my way of thinking or feeling. Iâ€™m going to use one such now.
For those not very familiar with computers and programming these terms might not mean much so Iâ€™ll try to give some brief definitions. An algorithm is a step-by-step series of procedures or instructions followed to compute or solve a problem. A computer program is perhaps familiar enough, but a subroutine is a program within that program which is set up to pre-compute or pre-parse the data the main program processes. The movie referenced a book called â€œPretending To Be Normalâ€ â€“ a title which immediately made perfect sense to me. I use algorithms and subroutines in my mind to â€œpretendâ€ to be â€œnormal.â€
I have struggled my entire life to be accepted and treated like everyone else. My earliest memories of school are filled with teasing, derision, loneliness and isolation. As I began to see how my behavior differed from that of others I began to try to emulate it. This proved disastrous at first. In fact, it can still be disastrous even now. Itâ€™s very difficult to explain, leave alone be the difference between simply mimicking the behavior of others and being yourself but copying the performance characteristics of other peopleâ€™s interactions. Nevertheless, this is what I tried to do. I was a very lonely guy as a consequence. This isnâ€™t to say I didnâ€™t have friends. I did, after a fashion. But as I â€œreplay the tapesâ€ in my mind, I can see that many of them were very tolerant of my idiosyncrasies but did not really know how to categorize me. As such they were only as close to me insofar as they were comfortable. On one hand I greatly appreciate their tolerance and acceptance. On the other I marvel that they could have been so accepting. I feel as though that â€œmeâ€ was so clueless that the â€œmeâ€ today would have a hard time with him too, even knowing about Aspergerâ€™s. It has been a long, drawn out process to create and maintain the algorithms and subroutines that maintain that facade of normalcy. More still, I have created â€œtriggersâ€ and detection mechanisms to initiate stored procedures and subroutines. When A is observed, perform these tasks, watch for B, proceed with caution, etc. Itâ€™s a series of actions specifically designed to compensate for my shortcomings. They donâ€™t always work, but theyâ€™re what I use to â€œpretendâ€ to be â€œnormal.â€
For instance, I pointed out to Diana (after the movie) that I forced myself to learn and remember as many double-entendres as I could because I didnâ€™t want to be the guy who didnâ€™t get the joke. Being the only one not laughing at a joke can be embarrassingly painful, especially if you have a look of â€œhuh?â€ on your face. I was never able to be witty on the fly in school. I always envied others the ability to do that. I did everything I could to remember each interaction and stored it in a massive, brain-based database from which I could recall it in an instant, if need be. It was only last night that I realized that my retention of odd facts, movie quotes and other bits of information is actually part defense mechanism.
Put this all together and what have you got? A walking, breathing human â€œgoogle-ingâ€ computer. Ask me a question, I run my internal search engine and put together a response based on the saved database of catalogued interactions I have observed in myself, others, movies, etc. Sometimes I feel like Iâ€™m a big pattern matching engine. Thatâ€™s what I use to â€œpretend to be normal.â€ When I run out of data or am in a situation where I am so stressed out that I am disconnected from my database (analogous to being out of CPU cycles or having a failed network connection) then I fall apart and you get to see what my Aspergerâ€™s really looks like.
It seems strange to me now that it should be so. It feels like â€œnormalâ€ to me. I donâ€™t know any other way. I only apply these subroutines and algorithms to save myself the pain of loneliness and isolation, and also to not make others feel uncomfortable around me (which makes me sad, believe it or not, regardless of how unemotional I may appear on the surface). I donâ€™t often find myself conscientiously thinking about doing it. Thatâ€™s one reason why I call it a subroutine. The stress levels Iâ€™ve endured lately, however, have pushed me to the edge of my ability to cope with algorithms and stored data.
So, now we come back to the movie. After we saw the snippet and watched a few trailers (neither of which do the movie justice, by the way) we decided we really wanted to see the movie. It isnâ€™t everyday that you get to see a dramatization of your handicap in a well-made movie. This movie is kind of like the â€œRain Manâ€ for HFA/Aspergerâ€™s sufferers. Hugh Dancy does a remarkable job portraying an â€œAspieâ€ as Adam termed it. My review will be tainted, of course. Itâ€™s not really a movie review. Itâ€™s more like a â€œif you want to see a dramatization of what my life is like and have it be 90% accurate, hereâ€™s whyâ€ kind of review.
Watching the movie was… interesting, to say the least. I was uncomfortable many times, mostly because I saw myself. Anyone who knows me well and watches the movie will likely (and quickly) say, â€œbut youâ€™re not like that at all!â€ You need to look a little deeper to get it. It is true. On the surface I do not appear to suffer as badly as Adam. My interpersonal skills appear to be much better than his, even to the point that most would not quickly notice that I suffer from any discrepancy at all. I refer the reader back to my discussion of subroutines and algorithms. Yes. They can make that big of a difference. Like Adam, I have a tendency to speak uninterruptedly about any subject for which I am both knowledgeable and passionate (yes, we aspies do get passionate about things. Adam was that way about astronomy). This was clearly demonstrated in the film not once but many multiple times. Beth had to squeeze Adamâ€™s hand to gently remind him he was going to far. Been there, done that. It sometimes feels like Iâ€™m trying to stop an avalanche or a landslide on my own when I forget and catch myself running off at the mouth. Yes, this still happens, though Iâ€™d like to think Iâ€™m making progress in that area. I donâ€™t want to make this an â€œAdam did this in the movie and so do Iâ€ kind of post, but Diana said that sheâ€™s observed me doing nearly everything that Adam does in the movie, and that was difficult to swallow.
At the end of the day, all that most of us â€œAspieâ€™sâ€ want is to be loved and accepted for who we are, whether because of or in spite of our handicaps and idiosyncrasies. The movie shows that Adam makes progress. The difficulty is that to the viewer, if you are unfamiliar with Aspergerâ€™s, you have a tendency to think heâ€™s just grown up. While that is possible, it is much more likely that Adam has improved his algorithms and subroutines, expanded his database and added some new trigger points to watch for certain behaviors and act appropriately in response. Yes, itâ€™s that difficult. It is hard to watch because I go home from the movie the same as when I walked in, even if I have been on a journey of (re)discovery in watching it. Itâ€™s my life, not a movie.