Friday, June 8, 2012

Playing the Part

It all started a couple of months ago. I was listening to a new pod cast of This American Life (my favorite radio program). The last segment of the podcast  (#458: Play the Part) was about a married couple who had made a breakthrough in their relationship after determining that the husband had Asperger's. Through the course of the segment, the couple and interviewer discussed Asperger's, how they came to the diagnosis and what they did about it. It was fascinatingly insightful and I've since played the segment for all sorts of people. (I posted an excerpt from the podcast here if you'd like to listen.)

One of the methods that the husband came up with to address his social misfires was imitation. Basically, he listened to and watched others who were socially adept. He looked for patterns. For example he, analyzed how they spoke paying attention to changes in pitch, rate, volume and inflection. He translated his analysis into techniques and methods that he tried out and practiced. He became good at sounding as though he were neuro-typical and when you hear him speak on the podcast, there's nothing in his voice, cadence or inflection that would indicate anything but a gregarious, social adept.

Yet he's not (at least not yet). He's simply playing the role of someone who is neuro-typical. As the couple and interviewer discussed this, the basic sense was that what he's doing isn't real; it's just pretend. Therefore it's less satisfying or, in some ways, invalid. Still, the wife preferred someone playing the part of a neuro-typical husband over someone who was simply neuro-atypical.

That's where it started.

A few weeks back our friend Renee dropped off a book for us to read. It's called Look Me in the Eye (my life with asperger's), by John Elder Robison.

Iris and I sometimes read a book together so that Iris can practice English pronunciation. Look Me in the Eye seemed a good opportunity for this.

We sit down together on the couch and Iris begins reading the prologue by the author and the forward written by the author's brother, Augusten Burroughs, author of Running with Scissors. I normally skip past prologues and forwards. However, in this case, I'm hooked by the end of the first paragraph.

Iris launches into the first chapter in which Robison talks about his childhood. His writing style is crisp, clear and to the point. As Iris reads, I find myself thinking, "Hmm... I did that when I was that age." or "Wow, I always felt that way too." or "Man, I've had exactly that experience."

After a bit I ask Iris to stop so we can talk about what she's just read. The interruptions become more and more frequent. It makes getting through the chapter a little challenging, but for me (and I think for Iris), a lot more satisfying.

As with the husband in the podcast, Robison talks about imitating others who were neuro-typical. The difference is that he did this all on his own as a child of five who'd not been diagnosed with Asperger's.

We finish the first chapter and I have to stop to process it all.  The sense I get from Robison is that he also doesn't consider his imitations of neuro-typical behavior to be "real".

So that brings us up to this morning.

I've been thinking a lot about two things. First, although I'm recalling events from forty to fifty years ago, my recollections of my experiences, actions and emotions as a child so closely resemble those of Robison, I can't help but think that were I five today, rather than in 1962, someone would have diagnosed me with Asperger's if not autism.

It seems really strange, because I'm not very Aspergian. Nonetheless, my internal evidence is stacked in favor of my having been Aspergian. Further, a lot of my strengths are tied to my ability to tap into Aspergian qualities such as persistence to the point of obsession or the ability to visualize and analyze large, complex systems.

Second, if it is the case that I would have been diagnosed with Asperger's, then what happened to change all that?

I keep coming back to imitation. As far back as I can remember, I've been able to imitate others: the sounds of their voices, the ways they walk, the mannerisms they use, even how they think.  Further, as a socially inept kid desperate for a lasting friendship, I was strongly motivated be good at imitating people who were able to develop lasting friendships. I became a student of the socially adept; I imitated and practiced, obsessively.

I think the main difference in my experience is that the imitation became real. Maybe it does for anyone who does it long enough. Maybe it does if you don't think about it not being so. I don't know. I just know that it did for me.

Where's this all going? I don't know. However, writing it down this morning has been really clarifying for me. Thanks for listening.

Happy Friday,

1 comment:

  1. Sounds very much like your comment in the "Victim of Training" post or your comment to it.


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