Monday, October 31, 2005

Self-Portrait, with hints of Asperger's

I remember learning to smile. I must have been eleven or so, and I read an article in the newspaper about the latest research on smiles. A smile that showed your teeth, and involved your eyes -- that was what people trusted. So I practiced in the mirror, till I got it right. Got the smile I still use today -- a happy grin, that crinkles up my eyes. I smile a lot. Partly because I'm happy or amused quite a bit, but also because it became my policy to smile when I was eleven. I had decided I needed to engage with people, and that was to be one of my tools. It's an important tool, when you're slow and awkward of speech. If you smile and nod and are responsive, people don't notice that you're not saying much.

I've been reading just a bit about autism and Asperger's syndrome. I recognized myself immediately. Way over on the light side of it -- I can simulate normalcy for as long as I like. Nonetheless I'm not normal. Most people don't learn to smile from a newspaper, or have to make a conscious decision to engage with other people. Most people have not spent hours at a time counting in binary under their breath, or weeks patiently rolling dice in order to randomly generate millenia of geneologies for imaginary dynasties. Faced with making thousands of similar edits in hundreds of files, I have to force myself to use my software skills and do the job in a few minutes. I would much prefer to spend hours doing it by hand. It's the kind of task that absorbs me, that satisfies a deep, obscure longing to participate in orderly patterns.

I have always been affectionate. "A little cuddle-bum," my mother used to call me. I'll hug anyone who will stand still for it. The casual contact of haircutter's or a dentist's hands delights me. This impulse is so strong in me that I suspect it's hard-wired. Not long after we got together, Martha recalled that when I had first proposed a backrub to her, she thought I was trying to seduce her. "That was before I knew," she said, "that for you sex was as likely to be a pretext for massage, as massage a pretext for sex."

Smalltalk, however, like smiling, is something I had to learn; while unlike smiling, it's never become second-nature. If people want human contact, why don't they just nestle together? If they want to establish mutual affection, why don't they say, "I'm fond of you"? What do the weather, the iniquities of the government, or the daily news have to do with anything? I do my best, but it all seems terribly roundabout and inefficient. I don't think I'll ever really get the hang of it, in this life.

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