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Sunday, September 21, 2014

Aspergerian conversational patterns

I've known two women with Aspergers who would say something, then later deny having said it. Whenever I've pointed out that what they're saying contradicts they've said before, they'll simply say, "I never said that," with an air of finality.

I'm not sure exactly what their thought process is when they do this. Are they thinking they're pulling the wool over my eyes? Have they somehow actually convinced themselves that they never said it? Or are they somehow thinking that by being so definitive in their denials they are somehow "retracting" their previous statement? The first explanation implies dishonesty, the latter two insanity. Aspies are generally not dishonest, and are usually not quite certifiable; but I can think of no other explanations.

At the same time, Aspies will often tell me I've said things that I know I haven't said. Or they'll so completely misinterpret my words that my meaning will become unrecognizable.

We are all guilty, to a certain extent, of merely waiting impatiently for our turn to talk without completely processing what the other person is saying. But Aspies really do it, even when they're ostensibly asking you a question.

I've had one Aspie ask me what the weather forecast is for that day, and when I said I didn't know, she would immediately shoot back, "Oh, so it's going to be in the 60's?" (This happened on multiple occasions.)

Another pattern: the lamer the excuse, the more Aspergerian the personality.

Back in June, during the publicity surrounding the 70th anniversary of D-Day, I overheard a conversation between a man and a woman whom I happen to know has Aspergers. The man said disgustedly that several recent headlines had proclaimed that "350,000 American military personnel" had been killed during WWII. He then asked, why couldn't they just say "350,000 men," since that's who died.

The Aspie, a doctrinaire feminist, replied, "Oh, well you know, a lot of women died too." She had no clue how many had actually died, she just said that because she wanted women to receive equal credit for sacrifice. The man replied, "Right, sixteen." (I looked it up later; that number is accurate.)

The Aspie hemmed and hawed, then replied, "Oh, well, you know, once you add in the women who died in the factories back home, it was a lot more." She had no clue about this, either, but seemed to feel that this was a face-saving rejoinder.

Let's think about that statement. How many women would have died in factories during those four years? Twenty? Fifty? Two hundred? And how many of those deaths would have been essentially from natural causes, like heart attacks that probably would have happened anyway? A few factory deaths certain doesn't alter the balance of deaths by gender; but the Aspie couldn't admit to being wrong, so she came up with that incredibly lame retort.

A normal person would have replied, "Oh, I hadn't realized the disparity was that great," or something to that effect, and let it go. But the Aspie had to scramble for something, anything, to keep from admitting she was wrong, no matter how lame.

Whenever I've tried to have conversations with Aspies, the feeling I've always been left with is that I've been talked at rather than with. I've had to struggle to get a word in edgewise. And whatever I've said has ended up either misinterpreted or ignored.

In the end, it's an experience best avoided.


Steven said...

I just read the Rosie Project about a geneticist with aspergers looking for a wife scientifically (he doesn't know he has aspergers but its obvious). The author said he didn't get the character traits from a textbook but from people he'd worked with in IT and physics.

The aspie was the narrator and was a sympathetic character. He was rigidly ethical, innocently accepting in certain ways, and at times quite capable of empathy. He was socially inept, didn't fit in with most people, had disastrous dates and certainly upset some people but he was basically likeable and good.

I wondered what you'd make of it. Heard of it? I certainly came away from that with a more sympathetic view of aspergers than I get from your blog!

It has occurred to me too that men were always the ones who went to war and that this is an a aspect of gender inequality in women's favour. On the other hand, the wars were all started by men (even if not the men who died in them!).

John Craig said...

Steven --
I explain my feelings about Aspies a little more straightforwardly here:

I've always said that aspires aren't evil, and in fact in many ways are the opposite of sociopaths (they couldn't be manipulative if they wanted to be). Some are extremely ethical, more so than most people.

But if you've ever dealt with them on a long term basis, they can be extremely frustrating people to be around, and much of their behavior ends up being extremely hypocritical. (Criticizing others all the time but melting down whenever they get criticism would be the best example of that.)

No, I'm not familiar with the Rosie Project.

True, it seems unfair that men have to go off to war and women don't. But somehow that's an aspect of gender inequality most feminists don't dwell on.

Steven said...

If an Alien went to, say, a welsh mining town in the twenties it would see one gender that spends most of their waking hours burrowing into the earth in terrible conditions to buy food for the other gender, which spends their time at home. Which would they guess is the privileged gender and which the oppressed?

If they looked closer they would see the men were in charge and there was an ideology that men were physically and intellectually stronger but can't miss the first part.

John Craig said...

Steven --
Yes, well put.

Glen Filthie said...

Are you a psychologist John? I'm just curious because when I talk to people like that I have always assumed they were idiots and generally avoided them afterward.

This isn't a wise crack against you - but I wonder if maybe we aren't making mountains out of mole hills? Like the teachers that medicate their students with mind altering drugs for ADS rather than spanking them or disciplining them?

I'm just asking, I don't have a background in the sciences. I have gotten by - by classifying idiots into two groups: the first group of idiots have clinical screws loose and for one reason or another can't help being idiots. The other group are the idiots that are deliberately and willfully idiotic and should know better - but refuse to for one reason or another.
I would be interested to know how much of your observations are grounded in hard science and how much is opinion.
(Again - no offense, no snark or insult is intended).

John Craig said...

Glen --
No offense taken.

I'm not a licensed psychotherapist or anything like that. As far as official degrees, I do have a BA in psychology from Harvard. But, the fact is, everything I've learned about sociopathy and narcissism And Aspergers I've picked up on mown, after college, either from reading about it or from personal observations. I'm an autodidact when it comes to these things, but I think I understand sociopathy particularly well, better than most psychiatrists, as it's been a pet obsession of mine ever since I was 25 (35 years ago).

True, some people are just dumb, and don't have the wattage to understand things. But others are willfully obtuse, and in those cases there is often some narcissism or Aspergers at work.

I'm very interested in where psychology an politics overlap; I actually think narcissistic personalities are more attracted to certain political philosophies, as I wrote about here:

Anonymous said...

John -

You can vent all you want - it's your blog! There are just some people on this earth who can literally drive you nuts, aggravate the _ell out of you (e.g., my kids' dad for instance). Venting is helpful to the one who experiences the constant annoying behaviors. I approve of venting (it's good for one's well-being).


John Craig said...

Birdie --
Thank you. I have to admit, my posts on Aspies in particular do incorporate a fair amount of venting.

Anonymous said...


Try not to take anything that most people say to heart, having figured this out late in life. People are who they are and we can't change them. When you're around two aspies who are having a conversation (which I've never had to deal with), you can remove yourself from their vicinity or politely listen but try not to contribute to the conversation. In my case, my ex is not the brightest light bulb in the pack, doing things that literally drive me up a wall (because his actions impact my children). I do vent at times about what we've experienced, but also try to get myself on different mental track (path), one that's more positive.


John Craig said...

Birdie --
Thanks, good advice, but not always doable.

gambino dellacroce said...

"But the Aspie had to scramble for something, anything, to keep from admitting she was wrong, no matter how lame.

Whenever I've tried to have conversations with Aspies, the feeling I've always been left with is that I've been talked at rather than with. I've had to struggle to get a word in edgewise. And whatever I've said has ended up either misinterpreted or ignored."

Thank you. I had been searching for this confirmation. That it was not just me, my imagination or I was misinterpreting things.

I observed these phenomena in my previous workplace, a small consultancy with one boss with Aspergers. On a day to day basis, I came to realise that all work, including all communication flows on projects had to radiate solely from him, despite the considerable expertise and experience of senior staff.

I found myself constantly 'pushed out of the conversation space' (if you imagine a space between two people); I would seemingly be invited into the space at the beginning (e.g. him talking to me) only for me to then be pushed out again when I tried to participate in the 'conversation'. Inevitably, after a few attempts at two-way conversation, I would give up, realising the futility. You realise you are merely an audience, an external sounding board for his thought processes.

Further, any attempts to reflect back what he was saying were painstaking, unless you used the exact same phrases or terms to describe a situation, it wasn't 'correct', invalidating anything you had to say.

I noticed the more senior staff having to raise their voices extremely loudly and forcefully before he would notice they were in the conversation. It was like a club over the head that needed to be used. When he wasn't in the office, the volume and energy level were much lower and people would speak at normal volume. Any conversation had to be on his precise wavelength and precisely relate to the thoughts in his head, otherwise you had no chance.

I frequently experienced the words being put in your mouth - I would initiate a conversation to clarify some issues I had and he would cut me off and answer something I hadn't asked. This would happen multiple times in the same scenario - absolutely infuriating!

And the lame justifications and excuses, for someone so academically gifted, were mind blowing. Any pointing out of how they impacted others was met with Olympic gold medal standard deflections and blaming of others.

John Craig said...

Gambino Dellacroce --
You understand perfectly. Talking to an Aspie is like talking to a brick wall. They're impervious to input from others, they are the extreme example of people who talk but don't listen. As a rule, they hear only what they want to hear, and you always get the impression that they talk at you rather than with you. Or at least that's been my experience.

Thank you for that description, it really rings true.

As I've said elsewhere, Aspies aren't bad people, the way sociopaths are. Aspies don't seem to be able to help themselves, they can't help but be what they are, and act the way they do. But in a lot of cases, that means that they're impossible to deal with.

Anonymous said...


"Waiting to talk" is EXACTLY right. As someone who was diagnosed with Asperger's as a teen, I can tell you that's exactly how I (unconsciously) approach conversations. I always have to have the next question or statement planned out in my head- coming up with questions and such on the fly is almost impossible for me and light-hearted banter between normal people seems incredibly quick-witted. I'm just not fast enough!

Another barrier to normal social skills is that I tend to view conversations like one of those old programming languages with open and closed threads. Say someone mentions something and I know an interesting fact that I think they'd also find interesting, or I have a question about it. Even if the conversation has moved on I feel an almost OCD-like need to return to whatever the previous subject was and make my point, even if it was five minutes ago! Keeping the question in my head and looking for an opportunity to bring it up obviously distracts me from giving someone my full attention, but I can't bear to let something go either.

As an adult I've been struggling to overcome the condition (with some success) but I still retain many of its hallmarks-the lack of facial expressions (don't feel the need to emote), the formalism (who uses words like "retain" anymore), and the extreme lack of empathy (it -never- occurs to me to think of something from another's viewpoint). Not exactly sure how I got it- the most likely cause is being born three months premature and not being touched because I was in the NICU incubators for a third of a year. Physically/mentally unaffected, just psychologically. Stats on NICU stays/autism might be interesting.

Your blog is great and I'd like to say that all the howling mad parents/Aspies who comment are fools for celebrating the illness. Indulging the kid's sensitivities does him no favors later on. Life can get very lonely sometimes, since you try hard to "fit in" by being polite and gracious but since you have -no idea- what makes other people tick you never get that laughing, boisterous group of friends that's the media ideal. And even if you do, you're paranoid about it- are friends hanging out because they like my company or are they hanging out because they pity me? You can't tell, because you can't read people! Good times haha

Overall, not fun, and parents who go the way of deaf people who stop their kids from getting cochlear implants are monstrous.

Keep up the good work!


John Craig said...

Sam --
Thank you, and thank you for your honesty as well.

I guess you've been through the comments on the first post I wrote on Aspergers in 2011. It was actually good of them all to unintentionally confirm what I'd been saying about them.

Interesting theory about the NICU incubators; that could well be, someone should do a study.

I find that the Aspies who write in seem to fall into two categories, those who like the commenters on that post from 2011, react with outrage. And those who take a more reasoned approach, like you. Hard not to suspect that there's an IQ difference there, and it's also hard not to suspect that the outraged ones are intolerable when you meet them personally, whereas the more reasonable ones like you are far better company in person.

Anonymous said...


Thanks! Maybe there is an IQ difference- I've done quite well on tests (99 ASVAB, scored 135 in first grade for gifted qual) so it might be that I (and your other easygoing commenters) are intelligent enough to realize that there's something off and adapt accordingly.

Or it might be that my parents took the tough love approach to a shy kid, from about the age of 4 onwards- they forced me to interact with people at church, teachers, neighbors, etc. Had to say six sentences and look whoever I was talking to in the eye. Naturally I hated it at the time, but I think that it really helped- certainly it was better for me than letting me stay in a bubble.

I wonder how many adults would be coping better if their parents had taken an eat-your-veggies approach to social skills?


John Craig said...

Sam --
Thank you for proving me right re: the IQ thing. There are two other frequent commenters on this blog, Ga and Gethin, who've told me that they have Aspergers (Gethin is not fully convinced of his) who are also good indications that high IQ Aspies are more reasonable and open-minded.

Are you in the service now (or before)? Which branch, if I may ask?

I think you're right about the eat-your-veggies approach, in fact that I think that approach works best with all kids, Aspies or not.