Have you ever had a conversation with someone who can’t move on from a particular topic no matter how much you try to steer the conversation in a different direction? Or keeps interrupting and seems oblivious to cues that you want to end the conversation?
If so, then it’s likely you were speaking with someone with Asperger’s syndrome (a high-functioning form of autism) but you didn’t know it. Such individuals lack self-awareness, have difficulty picking up on social cues that are readily apparent to others, and tend to “have no filter,” as they say, unintentionally coming across as inconsiderate.
I know because I have had the condition all my life but didn’t know it. I’m usually the person on the other end of the conversation.
Needless to say, having these characteristics makes doing well in life—socially, professionally, and relationship-wise—challenging to say the least.
I had always associated mental illness with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, dementia, and those personality disorders every college student learns about in Psych 101. Many of us have friends or family members who have tragically fallen victim to one mental illness or another. But we never think it will happen to us.
I was diagnosed with minor clinical depression years ago, and later with attention deficit disorder, but even though depression is technically a form of mental illness, I never thought of myself as mentally ill. My image of a mentally ill person was someone who can’t distinguish fantasy from reality, suffers from irrational paranoia, or hears imaginary voices in their head. Then there’s the stigma placed on mental illness, not to mention that it’s often confused with insanity, which is a completely different thing.
It wasn’t until about a year and a half ago that I realized mental illness comes in different shapes and colors and that I may actually have it. Why did I feel so different from other people? Why was life such a struggle for me? I knew something was wrong with me. It was figuring out what that something was that was the key.
My understanding of autism was limited at best. Like many people, I had associated the condition mostly with children, and assumed that most adults with autism lived in group homes or with their parents. They certainly didn’t function independently in the regular world. I was aware of the rare autistic genius inventor or founder of a tech company. I had heard the term Asperger’s syndrome only rarely, and it was usually associated with something extremely negative like a school shooter.
I don’t remember exactly why, but I began to wonder if I had Aspergers. After digging around on the Internet I learned it was considered a very high-functioning form of autism, seen in people with above-average intelligence. And until relatively recently, it wasn’t even considered autism.
Reading descriptions of Aspergers characteristics was like reading my life story. Oh my God, this is me! This can’t be coincidental. The awkwardness, lack of motor coordination, lack of self-awareness, social anxieties, difficulties coping in the workplace: it was all laid out.
I took several online self-assessments that confirmed my suspicion, one of the best-known being the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ) test. My results usually came back as borderline or just-barely Aspergers. It’s important to point out that these online Aspergers/autism spectrum quizzes and assessments are not meant to substitute for a professional diagnosis. They are just a starting point and no more. More about that later.
But they can give you an idea if you are even in the ballpark. And boy was I in the ballpark.
I learned that my depression, anxiety, ADD, and associated physical maladies (more about that in future posts) were in fact symptoms of Aspergers, not my core condition. Which is why the various medications to treat them had helped little or not at all. They were treating the symptoms and not the disease.
In my typical fashion, I proceeded to devour all the literature I could get my hands on about this condition. I found a surprising number of books dealing with adult Aspergers/autism and downloaded them to my Kindle. I read them at home, on trains, in waiting rooms. I felt like I had finally found the key to me.