Asperger’s: The “Invisible” Disability

by KLS

I can almost always tell when people think I’m a little off, or a lot off for that matter. They get a look like they’ve expected to swallow fresh milk but it’s turned sour in their mouths instead. Sometimes someone who’s overheard the exchange will make an excuse for me, or attempt to cover over whatever it is I’ve said. The verb “smoothing” comes to mind, like I’ve just disarranged the couch cover in front of honored guests. That’s when I feel most visible.

Often, no one in this awkward social moment is aware–except me–that I have Asperger’s Syndrome. I am most at risk of being inadvertently exposed as lacking socially when I am concentrating on a topic of interest. Then, all of my cognitive energy is coursing into thinking about that subject, and none of it is left for expressing my thoughts about it in a socially careful way. It does not occur to me that I will express my opinions too forcefully or too bluntly. It does not occur to me that for others in the conversation this is a social dance with as many ritual mating gestures and noises as island birds’–instead of what I experience: a direct conduit between logically engaged brains all focused on the pursuit of accuracy, truth, solution.

It is not that I don’t care about the feelings of the other people with which I’m talking. I do care. I’m a person who values kindness over nearly anything: intelligence, correctness, ego. As soon as I’ve understood that I’ve disturbed or upset someone, I am alarmed, embarrassed, unsure. To be honest, sometimes I’m also frustrated, especially with people who are overly sensitive about their pride being hurt. Those people tend to fall into one of two groups: people who are used to others deferring to them because of their status and people who are used to thinking of themselves as the smartest and most informed person in the room.

It’s a commonplace that people with Asperger’s don’t defer, and in the workplace, that can give us difficulties with supervisors. A lack of deference, however, is not necessarily a lack of respect. People with Asperger’s tend to want structure and be oriented to follow rules; it’s hardwired into us. Our love of patterns is an expression of our love of order. This translates to the workplace as an inherent respect for a supervisor. A supervisor is a giver of rules. A supervisor serves as an important organizing node in the workplace’s structure. Now comes the “but.” A supervisor also needs to be corrected if he or she is mistaken, because a misinformed supervisor disrupts order even more than mistaken co-workers or subordinates. A mistaken supervisor can set bad project parameters, for example, or put into place processes that don’t work as effectively and elegantly as possible. And here’s the thing.

People on the spectrum tend not to be loyal to people. We are loyal to our organization, and even more importantly, to its mission. We are idealists by nature. We are all about work, and when we devote all of ourselves to work, it has to matter. It has to mean something. It has to get a real result. Anything that gets in the way of that needs to be corrected, even at a cost to ourselves.

Bear with me through this apparently unrelated for instance.

When my son was a toddler, he did not care for action figures. He would not play with anything that had a face. These toys simply did not interest him. This concerned me, because I would watch other children his age, say, another little boy, excited about holding a superhero and zooming around with it as if he were the one flying. “Normal,” socially-oriented little boys might gather their superheros together to fight a bad guy, talking all the while about who had the better superpower. My son identified with machines and operations instead. He was a bulldozer, or even the brains behind the operations of a busy train station. He was focused on what these toys did, and how they did it, rather than on any personality with which they might be imbued or how they related to one another as individuals with inner lives.

Now, fast forward a couple of decades or more. Take this same child and plunk him down in a workplace. When working, he is not primarily interested in the people with whom he works as personalities, as individuals. He will relate to them as mechanisms within an operation. He will focus on what they can accomplish together toward a specific work product and the objectives that inform that product. What would he say, if he could, to the timetable in train station if it malfunctioned, sending the trains onto the wrong tracks at the wrong time? He would provide it with a correction. He would ensure that order was restored and organizational goals were met.

And this provides me with a good metaphor: track switching. Those of us with Asperger’s are capable of track switching, just like trains. I can be running on a mental track that is all about the best and correct way of accomplishing a goal at work, devoting all of my energy to it. And then, I can switch tracks to a social course, in which I am thinking about how other people around me are feeling and what they may be thinking about what is going on between us. These tracks do not run in tandem for me; they are separate, distinct mental tracks. What’s more, although the social track matters, because of my intense interest in certain subjects, like the subject of my work, when I am running on the work track, it matters much more to me. It is not easy for me to leave it. And if I am forced off that track abruptly, by someone getting angry, for instance, I am utterly derailed for a time.

Over the years, I have learned that it is sometimes desirable, before moving to the work track, to run for a bit on the social track: to make small talk (which usually bores me), to set up an assurance that I intend to be collaborative, to offer that there are many solutions and that the one I’ll present is just one. Unfortunately, that doesn’t solve the whole problem of interacting with others well in the workplace, or of being made suddenly visible as someone with ASD when I would prefer to be as invisible as Liu Bolin. Although Asperger’s is often called a “hidden” or “invisible” disability, that label can be misleading. Given the social deficit which is the essence of my Asperger’s, I know that however much I try, eventually I will say something too bluntly or go on at too much length. I will question when I should agree, I will state an opinion when I should have none. With Asperger’s, it is impossible to truly remain invisible.