As I read a number of autistic bloggers, one thing becomes very clear: there are a lot of people with chips on their shoulders.
At some point, some autistic blogger will write a post about how someone somewhere at sometime did something that was offensive. So they write a post basically ordering people to stop doing whatever it is they are doing that the blogger finds offensive. But they usually don’t stop there. They then question the person’s motives, seeing them as not really caring about the autistic community.
I always find these posts tiring and whiny. Yes, some people do things that are insensitive; but we need to be more selective in dishing our outrage. For example, if you don’t like that someone calls you “a person with autism” instead of “autistic person.” You don’t need to act like this person or persons set fire to your house. Simply say to someone what you prefer. Sometimes people need a gentle correction, not the full force of political correctness.
There are things that do warrant outrage. There is a place to be angry. But not everything has to be treated as a capital offense.
There are times for outrage, but there is also time for educating. Sometimes we need to give a light touch, not a punch to the gut.
I have a love-hate relationship with the church.
Yes, that’s kind of an odd thing for someone whose job revolves around the church to say, but it’s true. Church can offer me comfort and challenge me in my mission of being Christ to others. But has also been a place of pain, a place where others misunderstand me and where I am constantly wondering if I’m doing the right thing and scared how people will react when I do get it wrong.
I don’t know how it is with other folks with Aspergers, what I am sharing might just be unique to me. But sometimes church has been a minefield, a place where I seem to do the wrong thing and not always know that until I get the angry email or conversation.
A lot of what happens in church revolves around unwritten rules. They are things that everyone else can see, but it’s something that I can’t understand let alone see it. Even when I think I’ve done the right things that won’t get me in trouble, somehow, I mess it up. I missed another rule.
The result of all this is that I live in quiet fear. I second guess my decisions, triple-check what I say, and wonder if the parishoner I’m talking to is mad at me and I don’t know it.
Church can be a minefield for pastors in general, but the church is even more of a minefield to me…and I don’t know where the mines are laid.
I don’t want to give the impression that church is all bad. I also don’t want to live in self-pity, blaming others for my mistakes. I also can’t expect my colleagues and the laity to have learned everything about Aspergers. I guess I just want people to see that am trying and learning to be better. To paraphrase Jessica Rabbit, I’m not bad…I’m just wired that way.
I’ve never been the guy that people want to hang out with. I’ve never been the person that people really want to confide in. For the most part, I’ve been the guy on the outside of the group.
None of this means that I have no friends. It does mean that there is a certain platonic intimacy that I haven’t fully experienced. It does mean learning to be alone.
I’m beginning to understand that the reason it has been such a struggle to make friends is because I’m autistic; meaning, I have difficulty communicating to others. I’ve started to liken this to entering a room where everyone is speaking German and I’m speaking Swahili.
Autistic blogger C.W. Wyatt notes that he is not the one that people want to hang out with:
Hanging out with friends seems to be something that most of my Facebook “friends” do on a weekly basis. Some seem to be hanging out nightly. They are the social butterflies I sometimes envy, because social skills matter personally and professionally.
I don’t get random emails, messages, or phone calls from people asking, “What are you doing tonight?” I can’t recall the last personal, non-work message, that was not initiated by me. People don’t reach out to me without a reason.
The other thing that makes communication difficult is that I’m constantly overthinking every damn thing I do. I obess over saying the right thing to someone. I get nervous that a sign of friendly affection might be taken the wrong way. I tend to think that I do things that are taken the wrong way. This has implications not just in social situtations, but also at work. I’ve ended up on the wrong side of a supervisor for doing something that got me into trouble.
I’m learning that I will always be on the outside. Please understand, this isn’t a pity party; I’m just understanding that no matter how I try to improve my social relationships, there will always be problems.
Last week, I had a conversation over the phone with a fellow pastor who is interested in planting a church. He share some of his plans and ideas. It seemed solid, so I asked him to share an outline of his idea that I could pass on to some other folks in the area.
While I’m excited to hear about his plans, there is a part of me that is wary, a fear that he’s just talking and not really that into planting a church.
Last year, when I was still leading New Church Ministry Team in the region, I had a number of people call me and tell me that they wanted to plant a church. Each time I was excited and hopeful. It seemed like God was doing a new thing in the area. But everytime nothing came of it. Most of the time I’d never hear back. I had one person who said they had plans to start a church in the East Metro and was given items to start the church. This person even went as far as printing business cards. And then, nothing. He got cold feet or realized he wasn’t that interested after all and abandoned plans to go farther.
All of these aborted plans do have an effect. As I sit here a year later, I feel heartbroken. Since I am so literal, when these people said they wanted to plant a church, I believed them. Maybe there was an interest, but seeing so many people not take their idea to the next level kind of hurt me in a way. I’m not saying this to blame folk, just to share it had an effect.
So a year later, someone says they want to plant a church and I have a hard time believing them. Being the Aspie pastor that I am, the things I am passionate about are things I am REALLY passionate about. I am passionate about new churches. I want to see new Disciples of Christ churches in Minnesota. So, when I hear someone casually say they want to plant a church, my heart goes all in. This makes the letdown that much harder.
I sometimes feel that I’m alone in this passion. Everybody else seems concerned about other things, but no one else seems to want to plant new churches.
Part of the reason for my passion comes from my evangelical upbringing. While I don’t always agree theologically with evangelicals these days, I still admire their passion for sharing the gospel. I don’t see that happening as much in the more liberal waters these days. There are people like Nadia Bolz-Weber and a good chunk of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America that do want to tell the good news. Bolz-Weber has a liberal evangelism that I love. I wish there were more people like her, wanting to tell people about the love of Jesus.
A while back I shared my frustrations with a fellow pastor. He suggested going and planting a church. I have to say that is tempting, but I’m already busy trying to revitalize a congregation so I don’t know if I can.
All I can do right now is pray to God that this time, someone is truly serious in starting something new.
I hesitate share all of this, because I don’t want this to be “Dennis having a pity party.” But I also need to be honest about how I’m feeling. And right now that’s a bit of heartache.
When I was in high school, I ran track. I didn’t run well, but I did run track. Practice would take place after school. I remember heading into the locker room to change, and passing by this front room set aside for physical therapy. Every time I passed by there were people my age chatting and having a good time.
One day, I decided I was going to join in. I came in after practice and walked into the room. Unlike other days, the room was mostly empty save for one student who was being attended to by a teacher. I walked in and sat down hoping to engage in some conversation. The teacher stopped what he was doing and looked at me. “What are you doing here?” he said. I gave him a confused look and started to think I had made the wrong decision. He pointed to the door and ordered me to leave. I walked out feeling ashamed that I had even bothered to come in.
I share this story because it serves as an example of the ups and downs of one person with Aspergers trying to be social. Looking back, I probably should have known that social situations change. But in my mind, everything repeats. If there were people goofing off one day, then they would be there everyday. Obviously there were time it was okay to be in the room and times this wasn’t possible. But that nuance was lost on me.
Relationships for someone with Aspergers is like walking into a room that’s pitch black. You can’t see anything. The darkness is scary and you feel very alone. The result is that you are always scared, scared that something in the darkness is coming after you.
This all makes it hard to simply be. You are constantly worried you are going to say something stupid and when you do, all hell breaks loose. So, you withdraw feeling more alone and isolated.
It’s not just that you don’t know how to act with potential friends, it’s also that you don’t know how to act with fellow co-workers. A conversation that I intended to be helpful was interpreted as being hostile. I nearly lost my position because of it.
And let’s not even talk about romantic relationships.
In many ways, I’m still that 16 year old boy trying to figure out human relationships and failing miserably. It’s trial and error, finding out what works and what doesn’t.
The thing is, after being rapped on the nose more than once you start to become risk averse. You feel like a trapped animal with eyes darting about; seeing others as a potential threat or potential friend.
Blogger and fellow aspie Penelope Trunk has said that people with Aspergers don’t have friends and don’t have the emotional need for friends. I tend to disagree with this. I want to have friends, especially close ones, I just don’t know how to start a friendship let alone maintain it.
Below are some things that I’ve wanted to say to people, but for whatever reason, I haven’t. Most of these sentences apply to more than one person or one occasion. Here they are:
- You mean a lot to me and that I’m proud to call you my friend.
- I actually do care, even if my actions tell you otherwise.
- I know I can be a loose cannon at times, but I mean well. Really.
- You are not as nice as you think you are.
- Thank you.
- I’m not scary.
- I really want to talk to you, but I’m so nervous of saying the wrong things.
- I thought we were friends.
- I didn’t tell you about the time I came to work on a holiday to set things right for you.
- I’m proud of you.
- Why do you treat me differently than the others?
- Please let me know what I did wrong so I can fix it.
- We need to see each other more often.
One of the things that my husband Daniel has observed is how I tend to just do things rather impulsively. He is correct, I do tend to just throw myself into things without planning. The reason for my behavior is because I have a weak executive function, a result of Aspergers.
What is executive function, you say? Well, I found this definition from the blog Musings of an Aspie:
Executive function is a broad term that refers to the cognitive processes that help us regulate, control and manage our thoughts and actions. It includes planning, working memory, attention, problem solving, verbal reasoning, inhibition, cognitive flexibility, initiation of actions and monitoring of actions.
The blogger goes on to explain how this plays itself out in daily life:
If you have poor EF, people might mistake you for being disorganized, lazy, incompetent, sloppy, or just plain not very bright. Why? Because executive function encompasses so many essential areas of daily living. Nearly everything we do calls on areas of executive function. Cooking. Cleaning. Parenting. Work. School. Self-care.
I know that people around me see my poor EF and think I’m either incompetent, stupid or a bad egg. I’ve been made more aware of this because of an action that took place a few days ago because of poor EF. I don’t say this to excuse myself, but to put it in context.
Over the years, I’ve tried to keep my poor functioning in check. I’ve learned to control my impulses to best of my abilities.
That said, because I have a poor EF, I will slip and do something stupid. Not because I want to cause problems, but because I don’t have the safeguards that neurotypical persons do.
In my role as a pastor, I have to remember to be less impulsive. It doesn’t look good for your spiritual leader to act like a 10 year old. But again, even with all the training, my impulses can just take over.
But I also think there are good parts of my faulty executive function. Sometimes my jumping in without looking means that I can take risks that might cause others to hold back. Sometimes I’m at my most creative when I allow my impulses to take over. The thing that is a thorn in my side is also the thing that can make me a good worker.
Another lesson in the good and bad that comes with Aspergers.
There are people in your life who’ve come and gone
They let you down and hurt your pride
Better put it all behind you; life goes on
You keep carrin’ that anger, it’ll eat you inside
-Don Henley, The Heart of the Matter
I’ve come to the conclusion that I have to be the oddest gay man around.
Maybe it’s because of my aspergers, but I don’t tend to carry a whole lot of bitterness that some gays and lesbians that I know have. The uses of the Bible to justify homophobia didn’t leave me afraid of the Bible. I don’t doubt that God loves me and always has. I just don’t live with the anxiety that many gays and lesbians have inside of them.
Maybe that’s why it’s hard to relate to people like John Shore. For the unitiated, Shore is a gay man who leads a ministry helping gay Christians that have been kicked out of their churches. Some of his writings tend to be full of bitterness, the result of how he has been treated and seeing others treated the same way. One his most recent posts includes a letter he received from a lesbian that is trying to live out her faith holistically. She writes that at times she still feels nervous and even finds it hard to read her Bible. Shore responds in his blunt style. A lot of what he says is realistic, LGBT persons do feel a lot of anxiety when it comes to the church because of past experiences.
What bothered me was Shore’s own ambivalence about the church. He can get Jesus, but wishes he could just give up on Christianity.
Again, my Asperger’s makes me process things differently. When I faced difficulty in church for being gay, I could see that being the fault of one person or a church, but I didn’t somehow see this as a sweeping indictment of Christianity. I could see the tree in the midst of the forest.
My way is not how most deal with this. One bad experience can make people think all churches are bad and that experience lives with them for years.
I can’t really say that others are doing it wrong. But if I had magic powers, I would try to help LGBT folk only focus on the good people who care and not see all the church as rotten. I would help them know that God loves them even when the church has issues.
I think that at some point we have to let go of the anger and fear and trust God. But I also know that is easier said than done. My experience was pretty tame compared to others. But I still think we have to learn to let go of the pain, not because we should be abused, but because it does tend to be rather corrosive on our souls.
Maybe I’m speaking out of my element. Anger has its uses. But too much of a good thing can be harmful.
Aspergers is an interesting thing. Having an autism spectrum disorder means that you have communication issues. Because it can be hard to communicate with others and because you kind of live in your own little world, it’s hard to know when you might be acting out. In my time as a pastor, I’ve sometimes acted impulsively and wasn’t always diplomatic when tact was needed. I’ve had to learn how to keep my emotions in check and that lashing out wasn’t always a good thing.
I’ve had to learn to control my Tasmanian Devil.
I’ve sometimes described myself as a flesh and bone version of the Looney Toons character in relation to my Aspergers. The spinning vortex full of sound and fury can sometimes describe me. The not knowing how to respond to people is one way I can act like Taz. The other shows itself when I work. I can come of with idea after idea and try to do this and that. Because executive function is also deficient in persons with Aspergers, I sometimes can be somewhat manic in my work and not learn to edit; to not try to do everything I think of.
The thing is, I have to teach myself to be in control in more ways than one.
Sometimes people mistake Aspergers with being extremely introverted. There is some shyness there, but the real issues deal with how we relate with others, how we communicate with them, how we act around others and how we think. I have to learn not simply how to be more outgoing, but how to not to say the wrong thing at the wrong time, how to manage my time and how to limit myself. I know that my behavior has hurt my jobwise over the years. I don’t want my wild devil to cost me in the workplace.
I’m still learning how to channel my passions into positive efforts. Taz isn’t bad, but I have to learn to tame him. The manic way I can think and act has a place in the world. I just have to make sure it’s used for good.
After 44 years on this planet, I’ve come to a startling conclusion:
I really suck at making friends.
It’s not that I don’t have friends. It’s just that I haven’t been good at making close friendships.
You have to understand something when it comes to people with Aspergers- since we miss social cues we basically fly into relationships of all stripes blind. Where others can make friends easily, it’s an uphill climb for me. It’s like having to play a piece of music, without seeing the notes.
How do I act around a person? Do I try to be more at ease and blunt? Do I just stay on the fringes, keeping quiet?
I do think my confusion when it comes to friendships and acquaintences have led to some unfortunate encounters which also have an effect on my job. What was my attempt to be honest and blunt have been interpreted as disrespect and malice. I was also criticized from others who saw my reserved nature as proof that I didn’t care about their pain.
It’s frustrating; because of my misses, I’ve kept myself from really having close friendships. I don’t want to piss someone off again- it’s far easier to just remain back and protect myself from making another mistake that is interpreted into something far worse.
British Aspie blogger Ben Forshaw wrote a wonderful blog post a year ago about a rare close friendship. Like me, he has faced his share of social difficulties. He writes lovingly about the joys of having someone that is patient enough to want to understand you:
To my friend: we first met at work; you were friendly from the start, you had been told about my condition and had taken the trouble to understand – that meant such a lot to me. You were explicitly approachable and made the effort to make me feel part of the team. I always felt that I had your support and after only a matter of weeks I came to trust you.
You have never given me cause to doubt that trust.
Maybe at some point I will figure this all out. I’m glad Ben was able to find someone to confide in and relate to. As for me, it’s going to be a long stop and start process. Maybe I will form a significant friendship. Like a lot of things in my world, finding strong friendships will result in trial and error.