I experienced significant social delays when I was growing up due to a variety of issues with non-verbal communication. I had a tough time understanding the structure of conversation; I couldn’t quite grasp all of the codes and unwritten rules that accompany an interaction. As a result, I wasn’t able to successfully begin making friendships until high school. (It’s worth noting that Asperger’s Syndrome did not yet exist as a diagnosis when I was growing up; the delays could have been shortened with a diagnosis and proper guidance.)
It was only when I finally made those friendships that I began to understand some of the reasons my social life had been difficult. Having a peer group meant that, for the first time, I was able to compare shared experiences. And in that sharing (which involved hanging out, talking, exchanging thoughts) it became apparent that my mind was processing information in a different way.
What I learned from that insight: I was not only struggling with social pragmatics (the structure and unwritten rules of conversation). Creating friendships was also difficult as a result of perceptual differences. Differences I had never noticed until I began to converse more openly with others.
I can think of one example that hopefully helps clarify what I mean.
Nothing drove home these perceptual differences more than getting together with friends and watching a movie.
After a film, we would discuss our reactions. I would express my opinion and, without fail, no one had any idea what I was talking about. Conversely, when friends discussed their opinions, I could not make sense of what they were saying. How could we watch the same film, yet have such different reactions?
What I know now that I didn’t know then: my brain processes visual information in a different way. I have a hard time seeing the “center” of a film, both visually and thematically. I don’t stare at the middle of the screen or at the primary action. Instead, my eyes scan the sides, the background; they drift from place to place, soaking up random data that appeals more to me than the “center” of the screen.
Instead of the plot, I will have a much stronger sense of the camera movements (or color schemes or lighting). I like characters, but I don’t really care how they fit into the story or “theme” of the movie. I mostly like facial expressions…or postures…or gestures. (I recently posted a you tube video where I discuss my obsessive interest in watching body language in film, click here for that.)
To me, a film looks like a broken mirror, with dozens of vibrant fragments, each one holding it’s own reflection of an image that is always shifting, elusive. When I watch a film, it feels like my eyes are trying to scan each of those fragments, trying to piece the mirror back together, so that I can “see” it all more clearly. Looking exclusively at the center of the screen doesn’t feel right…it feels like I’m missing too much data, too many pieces of the mirror.
Friends, on the other hand, would generally see the film as it was intended. They would see the story…the character traits that are consistent over the course of the film…the general themes and such. They were able to focus on the central ideas/visuals and exclude all of the extraneous information I tended to notice.
They thought I was weird. I thought they were missing all of the good parts.
I learned pretty quickly to withhold some of my reactions to a film. If I droned on and on about an unusual doorknob in the background of a random scene…people really didn’t go for that. And their tidy, limited reactions were equally annoying me.
So to an extent, these perceptual differences created tension, made interactions more difficult. But there’s an upside: once I understood that I was just seeing things in a different way, I was able to make sense of why social interactions were sometimes difficult. It helped me to identify problem areas and more easily navigate conversations. With that self-awareness, the confusion and frustration levels improved over time.
Social pragmatics remain confusing, but I’ve learned that with Aspergers, the goal isn’t to solve all problems. Just solving one can create a bit of breathing room, make life more manageable.
I don’t live in some closed off reality. We don’t perceive separate worlds. We just see different facets of the same broken mirror. And that’s okay.