Aspergers: paying attention

Paying attention at school can, at times, be trying for anyone.  It can be even harder for kids with ADD.  Yet, for Aspie kids, there can be an additional thing at play!

I am an Aspie, married to an Aspie, raising a couple of kids who are Aspies – not a professional in this field!  For a ‘boilerplate explanation’, please see my ‘Guide to my Aspie posts’ page.

One of the ‘things’ that define Aspies’ is the inability to innately read and comprehend body language.  However, many of us (especially ‘girl Aspies’, or ‘Aspiettes’, if you’d like) tend to realize we have this ‘blind spot’ and we try to compensate for it.

This often involves becoming more ‘observers’ than ‘doers’.  It means an Aspie trying to ‘decipher’ this is more likely to choose to be present for a lot of ‘social’ situations, but not actually actively participate.  Yet, the Aspie will keenly observe everything that happens in order to try to analyze the situation for behaviour patterns which would give us our personal ‘rosetta stone’ to non-verbal communication.

This process, by itself, is enough to alienate (‘creep out’) many ‘neurotypicals’ who are our peers – resulting in more ‘shunning’ and greater social isolation….which leads to more ‘Aspie frustration’!  After all, you are only trying to learn the patterns in non-verbal communication:  with your usual OCD intensity…  Yet, THAT is not the point of this post!  The point here is to point out how many Aspies’ attempts to pay attention are really misunderstood.

Let me use myself as an illustratory example:

I was raised in Central Europe – with a somewhat different schooling system.  50% of our mark was based on written tests – just as 100% of it is in North America now.  The other 50% was based on ‘oral/verbal testing’:  the person ‘being tested’ gets called up, stands in front of the class and the teacher, and is asked a question they must answer.

There IS quite a lot of merit to this form of testing.  For one, many of us (especially Aspies) are WAY better at demonstrating our knowledge verbally than in writing.  Also, if we have concerns about the question (often, test questions are so vague as to be meaningless), we can ask the teacher for clarification.

The other – and often unnoticed – benefit of this form of testing is that no two people will explain the same material in exactly the same manner and wording.  So, when a student is being tested, the whole class is being presented with a repeat lecture presenting the material, but in a slightly altered manner.  The teacher conducting the test will correct any incorrect statements by the student – and this is really key in helping other students correct their own misconceptions and learn!

Thus, testing students by calling a student to the front of the class and asking them to demonstrate their understanding of the material taught acts to both reinforce the lesson to the rest of the students, as well as correcting misconceptions and presenting alternate explanations of the material.  To me, this seems like a win-win-win situation…as it also helps people overcome fear of speaking in front of an audience.

Usually, there is several days of ‘study time’ between the time new material is presented to students and when their testing on it begins.

Sorry for the long explanation – but it is important to ‘set the stage’, if you will.

I was in grade 6 when I became most acutely aware of the whole ‘facial expression/body language’ method of conveying ‘colouring’ to one’s statements.  Predictably, I became completely fascinated by this weird and counterintuitive phenomenon!  When someone would speak, I would begin to obsessively ‘superfocus’ on their ‘non-verbal’ message, so that I could relate the two to each other later, when I ‘replayed’ the experience (in my memory) for analysis.

Except that there was one tiny-little problem:  when I would superfocus, I would – wanting to or not – block ALL other stimulations!  Unfortunatelly, this meant that if I focused on ‘non-verbal communication’, I could not help but block out all sounds…  Yes, it kind of defeated the purpose.

Well, this one day, I was in a history class.  The teacher (who had issues with my Aspieness – without understanding it was Aspieness) was actually presenting an extremely interesting lecture!  I was totally fascinated by it, and did not want to miss a single word!  I was determined to pay full attention and not miss a single word, no matter what!

Yet, I knew that if I started looking at the teacher, I would ‘skip’ into the ‘superfocus’ mode, where I would ‘record’ every bit of her body language and facial expression nuance – but I would loose everything she said!  And I was too interested in the lesson to want to miss what she was saying!!!

So, I did EVERYTHING I COULD to pay attention to what my teacher was saying!

To keep myself from ‘getting stuck watching my teacher’, I forced myself to pointedly stare out of the window.  When that started failing, I looked at the ground under my desk.  Then I stretched my arms out on my desk and tried to burry my head in them – as aggressively as I could – so that I could prevent any visual stimulation which would distract me from listening to my teacher!  However, the temperature in the classroom was pretty cold, so even this was difficult.  So, I started hitting my head on my desk – just a little bit – to force myseld not to look at my teacher – just enough to keep focus so that I could pay attention to what she was saying.

I got told off for disturbing the class!

You must understand, back then and there, NOBODY knew (or was allowed to know) about Aspergers.  Even migranes – which I suffered terribly from since early childhood – were not a ‘legal’ diagnosis….  My mom, who got me to see a doctor at the hospital (not an easy task in a socialist country where the medicare is ‘free’ – she had to call in a bunch of ‘favours’ and give out a number of non-monetary ‘gifts’ to get me to be seen by a specialist) was told that my symptoms ‘would be’ a textbook example of migranes, except that officially (read ‘political correctness dictating medical diagnosis’), migranes were ‘something upper-class, bored ladies pretended to get to make themselves more interesting’ – and as such, ‘migrane’ was not a permissible diagnosis in a progressive, socialist country that did not have ‘bored rich ladies’…  It was CERTAINLY not an acceptable diagnosis for a little school-girl! The doctors would loose their jobs…

IF Aspergers had even been part of either the educator or medical training, it would still have been stigmatized, along the lines of ‘migranes’….but, it most definitely was NOT taught or mentioned at all!

Predictably, in the classroom, my many attempts to pay attention were greatly misunderstood!

I got into trouble for NOT paying attention!

Frankly, there was nothing I could do to pay attention more!  Yet, my teacher seemed (as usual) extremely angered by  my behaviour… 

And she did something unusual and unexpected!  (I knew it was unusual, because I had not witnessed this before.  I realized it was unexpected by analyzing the surprised and shocked noises and (YES! I had learned this much!) facial expressions of my classmates:  my teacher called me up to the front of the class to test me on the material she had just finished presenting!!!

Frankly, I think I shocked her.

I could repeat everything she said, every date she presented, understood and could explain every ‘reasoning’ she had presented to us in her lecture!  As she gave me an ‘A’, she said she was shocked because she ‘saw’ I was ‘totally not paying attention’ during the whole class, and this was meant to ‘discipline me’!  Looking back, I think she thought me defiant when I truthfully said I had NEVER tried to pay attention as hard as I had that day!

So, what is the point of this post?

When Aspies look like they are doing everything NOT to pay attention – they might truly be escaping into their own world of interests….OR, they might be doing their best to truly and honestly listen to what the teacher is saying!!!  Just because their behaviour does not conform to that of other children who are paying attention does NOT mean that Aspies are not paying attention, nor does it mean that they are not TRYING to pay attention!

Just as Aspies ‘suck’ at ‘reading’ body language, there are times when we just as much ‘suck’ at PRESENTING body language!  We are VERY BAD at emulating the ‘cultural norm’ external body language ourselves (especially when we are young and before we have learned to emulate/fake it).

Yet, just as WE are bad at ‘reading’ the body language of ‘nerotyoicals’, the ‘neurotypicals’ are eaqually as bad at reading OUR body language!

This may lead to ‘Aspergers’ so called ‘specialists’ of the past (hopefully not the present) to put inappropriate emotive labels on Aspies:  claiming we are lacking in empathy, social belonging, inability to sympathize, stunted emotions and so on.  Nothing could be further from the truth!

These false charges and many misunderstandings only hurt young Aspies and further undermine our regard for our abities, our self-confidence.  It is one of the many ‘drops of poison’ which causes many Aspies to shut themselves away from ‘the world’ and limit ourselves to our ‘internal worlds’, where such hurtful undermining of us is not a daily reminder of our inadequacies.

So, the next time you see a person whose body language you think inappropriate, please, consider the possibility that you are simply unable to understand THIS person’s non-verbal communications – just as much as that person is unable to understand yours.  Respecting this difference – and learning from it – is constructive.  Rejecting or ridiculing such a person – well, this is not so nice…and can ruin a person’s ability to EVER truly believe in themselves again.

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One Response to “Aspergers: paying attention”

  1. Catana Says:

    A lot of points to think about here, but because my personal experience is so different, it’s also a warning not to overgeneralize. Many aspies, including me, are far better at written communication than verbal. My own differences from yours: terror at being called on to “perform” in front of a class, auditory processing problems (not understood till very late in life), so that listening is my worst way of taking in information.

    I’m consciously an observer now, but I have no idea if that was true when I was young. Possibly it was going on, unconsciously, but if so, it didn’t do me much good in socialization. 🙂


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