As I settled into a cushy seat somewhere in the secret bowels of the Lightbox for a press screening today, I found myself unwittingly caught in the middle of a twitter triangle.

“We’re friends on Twitter,” the young woman next to me said to the man behind us before reminding him of her username.

They chatted for a minute, and then the woman on the other side joined in. “I guess I should say that we’re friends on on Twitter, too,” she said, adding her username to the mix.

“Oh…” said the man.

“What does ‘oh’ mean?” she laughed. “Is it what I said about the [name of forthcoming film] screening this morning?”

Then the two women launched into a spirited and animated conversation about said film while I sat in between them, feeling awkward and maudlin.

I wasn’t exactly good at networking before the advent of Twitter, but I feel even more behind now that the social networking tool has sunk its superficial, short-winded claws into the entertainment journalism world.

I do not understand Twitter. I have an account. I had a little fun fucking around on there when I first started, but I couldn’t keep up with it for more than a week. I try to go back from time to time, but I find the whole exercise exhausting.

First of all, I can’t say anything in 140 characters. I can barely express myself in 140 words. Brevity never has been my friend, and I’m not interested in a reconciliation any time soon.

Most importantly, though, I just cannot keep up. I have absolutely no effing clue how people manage to follow hundreds of other people, tweet their every thoughts, retweet everyone else’s thoughts, keep on top of trends and share all sorts of weird and wonderful links to other things. Every time I try to jump into that mess, I wind up having a Kanye-level “EVERYTHING IS NOISE! EVERYTHING IS NOISE!” freakout.

By the time I’ve read and digested something, and decided that I might want to respond, I’m already five tweets behind. It’s the only form of social media I’ve used that actually makes me appear less socially adept than I am in real life.

My knee-jerk reaction is to blame this issue on the autism, but I suspect that it could just as easily be on account of the fact that I am crotchety and prematurely old.

So, what do you think, all six or so of my dear readers? Is Twitter a generational thing, or a social skill thing?

I guess what I’m really asking is, who is it that I should be shooing from my hypothetical lawn: the kids, or the neurotypicals?

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Oh, my God!

April 11, 2011

There’s a series of more honest book titles and covers making its rounds of the internets right now. Most of them are quite funny and well done, but this one really, really, really hit home.

I’m actually reading A Confederacy of Dunces for the third time right now, as is my wont. It’s a sublimely-written book, one of the best I’ve ever read, with some brilliantly and bizarrely drawn characters. But I’d be lying if I said that part of the attraction wasn’t the fact that I really am just a slightly nicer, skinnier and (arguably, according to my husband) less flatulent Ignatius J Reilly who scribbles on WordPress instead of in Big Chief Tablets.

Friend Of Husband’s Whom I Haven’t Seen In Sixth Months And Don’t Know Very Well: How are you? How’s the move?

Me: It’s great! I found a new cemetery to run in.

Friend: … Cemetery?

Me:  I only run in cemeteries. They’re usually pretty empty, and running on asphalt is so much better for your joints than running on concrete.

I developed a bit of a fondness for improv in my adolescence. For me, it was just like socializing: I had to perform and think on my feet. But when I did it on stage, I got applause and laughter.

One of the highlights of my mildly illustrious improv career was pinch hitting for a theatre sports team from beautiful Thorold, Ontario. They needed a fourth member and a girl to be able to participate in a school board-wide competition. I had nothing better to do because I had no life. It was a match made in, well, Thorold, Ontario.

I became quite fond of my teammates. They reminded me of a lot of the geeks I had known in my three years in the self-contained gifted program and month in a Dungeons and Dragons club (I didn’t play, but I did pretend to in exchange for getting to spend winter recesses inside) and I had a soft spot for most of their kind back then. But I had an even softer spot for one particular member of the group.

R was most definitely geeky, but he was also about as good-looking as I thought that a boy with short hair could get back then, which made him both accessible and dreamy. We got along well, we shared an interest in improv and we both enjoyed my sense of humour. Even with my chronically low self-esteem, I figured that I had a good shot.

My original plan was to make my move after the competition, but an irresistible opportunity presented itself backstage before the show. As we were psyching ourselves up for battle, the boys started talking about butter fetishes. Having recently gone through a 70’s film phase, I figured that I knew exactly what to say to impress him. And so I flashed R my best attempt at a naughty smile and I made a perfectly timed Last Tango In Paris reference.

But it didn’t exactly go over as well as I’d planned. R just kind of looked at me blankly and moved on. I slunk away and hung out with my parents until showtime. We won the competition and I scored some platonic hugs and platitudes out of it, but it wasn’t enough to lighten my mood.

It never occurred to me that the problem might have had more to do with my reference than me back then. I had begun to learn to start conversations at the beginning and provide context when talking, because other people couldn’t read or follow the thoughts in my head at that point, but I was probably still a year or two away from realizing that different people have different cultural references.

On that night in the late nineties, I genuinely believed that every sixteen-year-old boy knew their Bertolucci. And I knew for a fact that I was the only girl to ever fail to get a sixteen-year-old boy’s attention with an anal sex joke.

PRELUDE

Despite my Asperger’s, misanthropy and general surliness, I did manage to have two extremely brief relationships in my teens.

J1 and I went out for a few months when I was in grade seven. Everything seemed to be going well until he started calling me on the phone and expecting me to call back. I was pretty fond of him but, to paraphrase Meatloaf, I would have done anything for like (but I wouldn’t do that). If analogue clocks are the Sauron of my autistic odyssey, telephones are definitely the Saruman. I didn’t hate the part where I actually talked to him, but making or receiving calls proved to be more than I was willing to invest in a relationship with a boy who loved Metallica over me, so I just stopped calling. He ended up dumping me and taking up with another girl while I was home with pneumonia. I felt nothing but relief and gratitude.

J2 and I had a brief flirtation when I was sixteen. We spent half of our summer watching movies and making out. Then I decided that I wanted to share one of my favourite films, Videodrome, with him. He thought that I was showing him a porn flick to get into his pants. He was half right: I had been trying to get into said pants, but whatever yearning I had for him quickly fizzled in light of his assessment of my precious Videodrome. Didn’t he get any of the underlying themes of mass media control? Did he really think that I just sat around at night, rubbing one out to the new flesh? Could I really fuck someone who wasn’t smart enough for Cronenberg?

As it turns out, I couldn’t. And so he moved on to someone whose genitals weren’t governed by Canadian cinema and I spent the rest of the summer trying to write scathing songs about him with lyrics like “But he thinks Videodrome is just about sex/ And his eyes went blank when I said ‘McLuhanesque.’”

Unfortunately, it turns out that girls who rhyme “sex” with “McLuhanesque” don’t get to have the former in high school. It wasn’t for lack of trying, though. The language of love is supposed to be universal, but my adolescent self desperately needed an interpreter.

“There can be be ability with endurance sports such as marathon running,” big-name AS expert Tony Attwood writes on the subject of movement and coordination in “The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. “Once the running movement has become efficient, the person with Asperger’s syndrome can be remarkably tolerant of discomfort and able to just keep running.”

I often think about this comment on my runs.

It is true for me that I needed to train myself to run efficiently. As a child, I had the kind of awkward gait that is often symptomatic of Asperger’s. In my case, it involved toeing in and a rather unfortunate shift in the hip joint that was only efficient in shifting and sculpting my shorts into some monumental wedgies. The issue had become almost invisible by the time I first dabbled in running in my late teens after becoming obsessed with Run Lola Run, but it was enough to cause all sorts of pain and frustration. If any boyfriend of mine had lost a bag full of money on the subway, he’d clearly have been fucked.

Since then, I’ve tried and quit a number of times, but it’s only within the past couple of years that I’ve become strong, muscularly balanced and bodily aware enough to run with any sort of success. My gait still isn’t perfect, but it’s only really noticeable if you study footage of me, and it’s been modified enough to take care of my chronic issues with shin splints and foot flop. It’s enough of a transformation that it could probably merit a Bob Lamonta-style Lifetime movie.

But “remarkably tolerant of discomfort?”

I don’t think I’m as sensitive as I could be. I did once compete in a jiu jitsu tournament after breaking a toe. But I did also flop around on the mat like Gollum and almost vomit after the injury occurred. So I’m not a complete wuss, but I’m not exactly the portrait of high pain tolerance that is often a symptom of AS. I’m high enough on the sissy scale that I consider myself cheated on this account. In fact, it’s probably third on my list of Cool Benefits Of Aspgerger’s On Which I Totally Burned, behind savantism and interests and abilities in subjects that actually make money, like maths and computers.

I have a bit of a mental advantage on long distance runs, because I actually really enjoy doing the same thing a million times in a row and I consider putting one foot in front of the other for miles on end to be soothing as opposed to mind-numbing, but it’s not exactly a fair trade. Yes, I can happily run without music. I can write entire articles in my head on the run. Hell, I can even get in some mindfulness meditation while I’m out there. But I’d give all of that up for even a touch of that remarkable tolerance.

You see, I ran my first race ever yesterday, a rather hilly 8k course. It went far better than I expected, especially considering the fact that my last few weeks of training consisted of messing up a tendon while moving and taking a week to rest and recuperate, the Chariots of Fail run detailed a few posts back, and another week off with a menacing cold. I came in a little under the 50 minute mark, which is about what I was hoping for at this point in my running career, especially with that elevation gain.

I’m happy with my performance. I’m very happy with my mental focus, especially given the fact that I’m not used to running in crowds. But I wasn’t thinking about my achievements, my burgeoning competitive spirit, or my “inspirational triumph over disability” as I struggled up the final hill, a 600m beast intent on turning my aching legs, asthmatic lungs and bowels against me. I was mostly thinking “Tony Attwood’s full of shit.”

Neurotypicals are supposed to be the ones with the innate mad social skills and superpowers in the ancient art of nonverbal communication, and yet it’s the people on the autism spectrum who have to train themselves to behave differently so as not to offend the delicate sensibilities of their more “normal” counterparts.

And so I, as a person with Asperger’s, must dedicate a fairly significant amount of my energy and mental faculties to modifying my behaviour so that I don’t make people uncomfortable. I’ve become pretty skilled at a lot of the tasks. I can talk about the weather like a champ. For the most part, when people ask me how I’m doing, I don’t actually tell them the truth. The demon eye contact continues to baffle me, though.

Part of it is that eye contact can be quite unpleasant for me, as it is for many people on the spectrum. But I think my biggest issue is that I just don’t get it, and it’s hard to constantly engage in any ritual that makes no effing sense to you and gives you no useful feedback.

The weather? That one was relatively easy. I simply went and developed an actual interest in it. I walk to the subway every day. I do most of my running outdoors. Therefore, I am actually quite connected to the weather and have an investment in its patterns. If someone comments on it, I don’t have to be annoyed by this thing that normal people call small talk, because the subject actually has relevance to my life.

Responding to “How are you?” with “Fine, thanks, and you?” is starting to become a more natural reflex. I mess up sometimes, and actually tell people how I am (and then I occasionally tell them other stuff, as detailed a couple of posts below), but I at least logically understand and appreciate the exchange. “How are you?” in NT basically means “I acknowledge and welcome your presence in a friendly but distant manner in accordance with the extent and depth of our acquaintance” in Aspie, and I can appreciate that sentiment, so I at least try to respond in kind with a “Well thanks. And you?”

But eye contact? I’m told that it helps NTs feel like I am paying attention to them and that I care about what they are saying. Personally, I tend to try to demonstrate these things by paying attention to people and giving a shit about what they are saying, but NTs apparently have some sort of wonder twin power where they lock their eyes and just feel the other person’s attention-paying and shit-giving. At least that’s what it seems like, from the highly refined research I’ve done on the subject: a heady and highly academic blend of articles on Asperger’s and eye contact, and a bunch of song lyrics about eyes (except Dio, because his people have ocular rainbows, and I suspect that’s a different thing). I don’t really feel any of that when my eyes fix on another pair.  Sometimes I look at the veins in the person’s eye. Sometimes, if the eyes are shiny enough, I am fascinated by my own reflection in them. But that’s about as much as I get out of the experience. It actually makes me less connected with and focussed on my conversational partner(s), because making and maintaining eye contact in a way that is not creepy takes a lot of work.

I don’t really try to make the ole’ EC with close friends and loved ones now. They seem to like me well enough as I am, and they’ve never complained about the fact that I tend to look anywhere but their faces, so I prefer to channel all of my energy into my shit and how much of it I genuinely give for them. But when I’m interacting with someone outside of that circle, and I know I’m going to have to go there, my brain splits in two: One part is the nervous pageant participant, so eager to smile, perform and please. The other part is the stage mom, lingering in the back of my brain, reminding me of all the steps:

You can’t just set your eyes on the other person and leave them there, because staring is creepy. And even if it’s not creepy, it can end up looking like a “blank stare” and that makes people think that you are dumb or not paying attention. So you have to look away sometimes, but don’t look down, because that implies that you’re lying. But sometimes looking to one side means that you’re lying and looking to the other side means that you’re recalling a memory, or maybe that was just some made up nonsense that I caught on an episode of CSI. Looking up is good, because that looks like you’re trying to recall something important. Also, some well-meaning souls have told me that looking at someone’s eyebrows can give the impression that you’re looking at their eyes, but the few times I’ve remembered to try this, it’s been just as complicated as the more authentic alternative and… oh god, you’re looking at their teeth again, aren’t you? Why do you always look at people’s teeth? Look at their eyes, for fuck’s sake! BUT NOT TOO MUCH!!!

And, somehow, I manage to listen to that voice in my head, obey it to fair extent, and still craft and engage in reciprocal conversation (which is a whole ‘nother monster). Some of the time. At any rate, my personal take on awkward seems to be leaning more toward cute or tolerable than off-putting and disquieting these days.

Now, my dear neurotypicals: I love you guys. I really and truly do. I mean, I’m willing to make eye contact for you. But I’d also love to see you try to pull that off.