My Touch of Wellsperger’s

Because I know next to nothing about Asperger’s Syndrome, but believe that I present a few of the symptoms; and, furthermore, that reviewing my life in terms of cognitive gaffes, which appear to be the most striking aspect of the malady to healthy people, seems to explain a good deal of hitherto obdurately inexplicable behavior; and, finally, because I’m mindful that there are many sufferers whose lives have been crippled by the disorder, while mine has merely been inconvenienced, I have decided not to talk about Asperger’s at all. While I was in the hospital – under the influence of morphine, no doubt – I ran into many language labyrinths. I could never say “Percoset” right off. First of all, I had to reject “Prednisone.” Then I would thrash my way through verbal salads of “Penobscot,” “Pemaquid,” finally landing on “Butternut.” The Butternut phase was followed by an easy ability to say “Percoset.” All the while, I was thinking, in this or that connection, “That’s my Wellsperger’s talking.”  

In the essay that I linked to a couple of weeks ago, Tim Page makes the extraordinary claim that he learned how to interact with people from Emily Post’s handbook of etiquette. I had the advantage of direct tutorials from my mother, who would take me out to dinner before a Philharmonic concert every now and then. (As always, I went overboard. I wasn’t supposed to like the music; I was there to learn to sit still.) Ordinarily contentious, our relations during these evenings were almost playful. I was learning a game, and the object of the game was to fool waiters and headwaiters and other adults into regarding me as a well-behaved teen-ager, a “young man.” In the ad-libbed environment of high school free periods, with no script to work with, I was hopelessly clumsy. Every once in a while, I came up with a clever remark, but that made me tolerable, not admirable. Having absolutely no lust in my own breast, I couldn’t explain the knack that classmates had – especially the attractive, popular ones – for making themselves miserable because their passions were not satisfactorily requited. I hope it won’t offend readers to learn that I sailed through adolescence – and the rest of my life – untroubled, if that’s the word, by “nocturnal emissions.”

So I learned how to make friends and influence people from the outside in. I whistled happy tunes.

I whistle a happy tune
And ev’ry single time
The happiness in the tune
Convinces me that I’m not afraid.

Make believe you’re brave
And the trick will take you far.
You may be as brave
As you make believe you are….*

Eventually, I didn’t even have to whistle. This was a mistake, of course, because I still had much to learn  about people, and the memories of mistakes and inadvertent insults that I compounded during my twenties (when I was also a lobster out of water in Houston) can still make my blood run cold.

In any case, the idea of “acting naturally” strikes me as totally outlandish. I can fake acting naturally, but only after I’ve had thirty or so minutes to study my environment.

Here is the note that I want to close on, this morning: the time and effort that I have put into honing antennae and sizing up a roomful of people have cost me, if not a Nobel, then at least a MacArthur grant. Am I resentful? Certainly not! It’s a relief to know why.

* Rodgers and Hammerstein, The King and I.

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