Wednesday, 4 June 2014INDEX

In praise of Asperger's

Many years ago my wife (as was then) told me I had mild Asperger's syndrome. She said mild, of course, because she was trying to soften the blow.

This, I now believe, was praising with faint damns. I'm quite sure she didn't intend it to be praise, but I've come to realise Asperger's syndrome is a really great thing to have.

You wouldn't believe this if you read the dictionary definitions which often describe the condition as a mild form of autism. Few would want to be autistic, though a recent book even makes a case for that.

But Asperger's is not like autism. We who have it can recognise and even share the emotions of others. We are not dysfunctional. We can handle society. It's just society has a problem handling us.

Most believe the world is mainly composed of people who have something akin to emotional whiskers. They use these to judge the sentiments of those around them so that they can modify the things they say and do in much they same way as a cat determines whether it can get through a hole. People call this empathy.

But those with Asperger's Syndrome are perfectly capable of empathy. If someone smiles they can smile back. It may not be a very good smile, but they can smile. If someone cries they can feel sorrowful.

The difference is (essentially) how highly attuned those whiskers are. Some (they call themselves people persons and tend to go in for jobs like HR) think of themselves as incredibly empathetic. They can pick up on the most obscure sign. They can feel the pain of others even before the others have that pain...

At the other end of the spectrum geeks like Spock (the Sci Fi character not the child psychologist) seem to despise emotion. They don't want to experience it, so have no desire to share it and think of it as a weakness in others.

But that is not Asperger's syndrome. That's closer to autism since you can't really function if you hate almost everything about the way the people around you behave.

Between the two extremes there are people who can be convinced of the emotional needs of others and so are capable of empathy, but they do not pick up on the slightest twitch of an eyebrow or movement of a hip to build a whole universe of ideas. They do not do this for one simple reason. Most information communicated in this way is nonsense.

I know someone who lost a valuable house because he was convinced that some old con artist was reputable and authoritative. It wasn't a question of the facts, He didn't have time for the facts. Few of us ever do. It was all down to trust and empathy.

This, of course, is a form of mental illness. To base your judgements, your relationships, your actions on a whim (the twitching of those empathetic whiskers) is ludicrous and dangerous.

People who use their brains rather than their feelings also have another advantage. They tend not to worry as much about what others might think of them. If they are not in touch with their own empathetic whiskers they are hardly going to bother about the empathetic whiskers of anyone else.

As a result they have a shield against public opprobrium. To put it another way they have hides like a rhinoceros.

Such people make good politicians. You are pretty dumb if you go into politics without expecting to get cart loads of mud thrown at you.

So how can people with Asperger's syndrome possibly perform a role in which the whole purpose is to pick up on public feeling?

The answer, of course, is they use their minds rather than their gut instincts.

So next time you leap to a conclusion based on half a surmise, some body language or some unaccountable empathy: just remember you wouldn't do this if you had Asperger's syndrome.

And when it all goes pear shaped, as any decision based on such intangible or insubstantial elements usually does, remember not having Asperger's syndrome is a form of mental illness.

Posted by Jonathan Brind.
Wednesday, 4 June 2014INDEX