The first thing that convinced me I had Asperger's: Dyspraxia

I have talked in previous posts about various online questionnaires that indicate one’s likelihood of having Asperger’s syndrome/autism spectrum disorder, and also how they’re not a substitute for a professional diagnosis but a starting point. It was through these types of tests and the available professional literature on the condition that I did my own preliminary self-diagnosis.

There were two things that clinched it for me. The characteristics of ASD include many that are widely shared. Someone can be socially awkward, introverted, anxious, oversensitive to stimuli, and such things without having Asperger’s. But I came across two unique issues that had haunted me all my life, which constituted my “a-ha moment” and made me go: Oh come on you’ve got to be kidding!

Poor motor coordination/clumsiness. Fumbling with things, dropping things, tripping over or bumping into things, inability to walk in a straight line, lack of skill in playing team sports. According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms of ASD include “problems with coordination or odd movement patterns, such as clumsiness or walking on toes, and … odd, stiff or exaggerated body language.”

Fixation with esoteric or specialized interests, often to the point of blocking out all other reality. This can manifest as everything from collecting and cataloging stamps or other memorabilia, to memorizing and compiling different figures and facts (e.g., sports stats and the like), to obsession with a particular person/place/era or event in history. Of course, lots of people do this and don’t have Asperger’s. The difference is that people with ASD take it to an all-consuming extreme that can become unhealthy, isolating, alienating, and stunt their development as a well-rounded person. Instead of a hobby or diversion, it becomes a crutch and substitute for relationships and other things fundamental to personal growth.

Why all my dishware is plastic

My whole life, I have been clumsy. All thumbs. Two left feet. Dropping things, spilling things, knocking things over. Not having MS, Parkinson’s or any neurological disorder which should affect my motor skills, this has always been a frustrating mystery to me. I had to conclude I was just naturally careless and clumsy.

I also have difficulty walking in a straight line; when walking down the street side-by-side with another person, I’ll often bump into them for no reason. I tried to take ballroom dancing lessons once and it was an utter joke. I couldn’t figure out why I was so hopeless at anything involving coordination. What was wrong with me?

When I was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder in 2002, it went a long way toward explaining my disorganization, inability to concentrate, forgetfulness and lots of other qualities. It also explained why I am constantly losing and misplacing stuff, another source of lifelong aggravation. But when I asked my psychiatrist if ADD explained my clumsiness, she said no, that was not a characteristic of the condition.

If I had a dollar for every glass I’ve broken over the years I’d be in the Forbes 400. My wine glasses and everyday dishware must be plastic. Poor hand-eye coordination naturally carried over into sports and failure at same. Attempts to play softball, kickball, basketball, volleyball, or anything that involved catching or throwing a ball resulted in humiliation. The expression “throw like a girl” was coined for me.

A non-team sport like tennis suited me better, but even with that I was hardly a natural. Lessons and practice elevated me to mediocrity. I envied people who were natural all-around athletes. By tenth grade, I jumped at the chance to take Junior R.O.T.C. in lieu of Phys Ed; just the idea of suiting up for gym made me sick to my stomach, literally. Marching around with a World War II-era rifle on my shoulder playing cadet was just fine with me.

Because our culture over-values athletic skill, it was devastating to my self-esteem. Like with other ASD characteristics, it was perceived as some kind of personal defect, even moral weakness. Almost as if it were a deliberate thing. The dread associated with it served to drive me—already a shy kid–even further into my shell, withdrawn and reclusive.

Looking back as an adult, I concluded that I sucked at sports because I had had no one in my life growing up who taught me how to play them. Little did I know that I wasn’t even in the ballpark, no pun intended.

I just resigned myself to my general physical awkwardness. So to read in the literature that poor motor skills and hand-eye coordination were a hallmark of Asperger’s Syndrome–something in my brain that is out of my control and always was–lifted a mountain of lifetime self-loathing off my shoulders.

Dyspraxia

Praxis is the brain’s ability to direct meaningful movements. [An] individual…may have significant difficulty bringing several movements together to do something [ ] in daily life.

Someone with impaired praxis is said to have dyspraxia or apraxia… An individual with dyspraxia may be able to move his arm but not coordinate his arm movements to throw a ball. [H]e has difficulty “putting the pieces together” to produce a fluid movement to achieve a specific result. Dyspraxia is not a diagnostic feature of autism*, but like other developmental symptoms, it occurs at a higher rate in the spectrum than in neurotypical individuals. It can interfere with everyday activities that many take for granted. It can mean that when [a person] attempts to throw a ball at a target, the ball goes directly in the ground.

Understanding Autism in Adults and Aging Adults: Improving Diagnosis and Quality of Life
Theresa Regan and Janet Angelo (2016)

People with ASD can often solve the most complex problems but struggle with relatively simple tasks. We may also have impaired motor skills and issues with coordination, making us easy targets for bullies. …Many autistic people are [clumsy] …less coordinated than neurotypical people, so there are not many top sports people in the autism community, particularly in the realm of team sports.

Very Late Diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome: How Seeking a Diagnosis in Adulthood Can Change Your Life, Philip Wylie (2014).

According to Tony Attwood in The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome (which like a lot of the ASD literature, focuses on the condition in children more than adults), “[A] child may be identified by parents and teachers as being clumsy, with problems with coordination and dexterity. …problems with tying shoelaces, learning to ride a bicycle, handwriting and catching a ball, and an unusual or immature gait when walking or running.” He also lists “clumsiness in terms of gait and coordination” as one of the many characteristics of AS.

Besides finally explaining all the foregoing issues, this also explained why, for reasons I could never fathom, I am literally unable to hit a ball with a pool cue. People have tried to show me, but no matter how I’d try, I could not make the tip of that cue connect with a ball to save my life. I knew of no one else like this. I just figured billiards was something I would never be able to do, like some people never learned to ride a bike or to swim (both things I got the hang of with little trouble).

My next post will deal with the second feature that convinced me I had ASD: Obsession with special interests.

*When the DSM-V subsumed Asperger’s syndrome under autism and labeled it autism spectrum disorder, it did not include poor motor coordination as part of the official diagnostic criteria for ASD, but in my opinion and those of some others, it should have.

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