Why people with Aspergers seem so awkward around others

Rudy Simone

Non-autistic people or neurotypicals see safety in numbers. We see threat. Unless we are shipwrecked and have been floating at sea in a dinghy for four days with no food we don't see safety in other people. They stimulate the amygdala in our brains, causing adrenalin overload and a fight or flight reaction. So we may feel testy, want to flee, or, because we've trained ourselves to do neither, we simply become awkward--stiff, jerky, even suffer from a temporary inability to speak. Some of us, because of the adrenalin rush, switch into performance mode, and we can seem both witty and charming for a short period of time. This tricks people into thinking we are socially adept. It's a smoke screen. Performances are tiring and we can't keep it up for long-certainly not an entire work day, or any other lengthy gathering. Eventually, we become exhausted and depleted and must retreat mentally or physically.

Sensory overload is a daily battle and is now part of the criteria for autism spectrum disorders. For some with AS, a ceiling fan that spins beneath a light is like being in a disco with strobes after one too many cocktails. Even driving down the road with the sunlight slanting through trees hurts our brains and can make us sick. Busy patterns on wallpaper, carpet, etc. make us dizzy. Flickering fluorescents at the checkout will have us curling into a fetal position on the counter. The offices/warehouses/stores that we must shop or work in, and the restaurants and bars we eat/socialize in, are filled with so many sources of sensory overload, from cheap lighting to bad pop music, we may as well try to have a nice chat in front of the percussion section during a John Philip Sousa concert. So even if we don't have a meltdown, we are certainly not going to be relaxed or cheerful in such environments.

We don't have good facial recognition and have patchy memories. Some people who are autistic savants can recreate anything after seeing it once. We can often remember a string of sounds, sensations and images like a video recorder, but can have a hard time remembering what people's faces look like. We might pass you in the hall, on the street, thinking you look vaguely familiar, while you're saying "what's his/her problem?" By the time we realize who you are, you've turned a corner and it's too late to say hello. We can also remember an argument verbatim, or all the presidents in a row, but we might not remember where we were yesterday.

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