Aspergers – ‘reluctance’/’freezing up’ explained

Unless someone has worked (or been) an Aspie, it is extremely difficult to appreciate the ‘reluctance’ factor.

To an outside observer, it often looks like ‘failure to parent’ or ‘spoiled brat syndrome’.  I assure you, it is nothing of that sort.

To the parent/teacher, it often looks like obstinance,  pig-headedness, intentionally not paying attention, rudeness, antagonism …well, you name it.

So, how does this ‘reluctance’ actually look?

Typically, when an Aspie is displaying ‘reluctance’ in a given situation, they will just sit or stand there, perhaps nod their head in acceptance when a task is assigned to them, and look kind of ‘not there’ (or, if this is a reminder/nagging to get something done, they may look extremely ‘guilty’ or ‘remorseful’).

Their face may display anything from ‘blank’, ‘looking bored’ or ‘spaced out’, looking ‘straight through you’ or ‘around you’, from ‘uncomfortable’ to ‘guilty’, from ‘doubtful’ to ‘compliant’ to ‘not really there’. Or, especially the younger ones, may throw a fit.  Or, the more resourceful Aspies may try to talk their way out of it.  But, most will have a submissive or passive demeanor.

Then, once the task is assigned, they will not perform it.

It may look like they are willfully avoiding actually doing it.  Fidgeting,  Staring into space – even if it means sitting at their task for hours, without getting any of it done.  Wandering off.  Changing the subject.  Or, just turning into a lump…

It is important to understand where this ‘reluctance’ comes from.  In this post, I will only address one of the many possible reasons for this ‘reluctance’ – but one I think that affects us more often than we’d like to admit.  (A lot of ‘soul-searching went into this one…)

Most Aspies like things to be exact.  According to rules (their rules).  Just so.

Personally, I would rather not start something if I know I cannot do it right – up to my standard, according to the rules.  Not succeeding fills me with very, very bad emotions of failure and inadequacy (something many of us, Aspies, experience more often than other people).  These emotions flood me uncontrollably and, in a weird way, interfere with my ability to think – and ‘do stuff’.

While we feel the same emotions as other people, I suspect that most Aspies process them very differently. We are not good at it.  We process emotions badly, and we know it.  Having an emotion, and processing it badly, and knowing we are failing at yet another thing – well, that makes us feel bad….so we try to hold the emotions back for as long as possible. (That could be why so many people think we don’t have them.)

Of course, when the emotions get strong, we usually fail at controlling them.  The emotion wins and floods through our system.  It won over us!  More failure, more bad feeling…

Many of us agree that we cannot stand being flooded by strong emotions – whatever that emotion may be.  And this is not just on an emotional level – it is a physical reaction.  Once it ‘overcomes us’, we have a sudden release of hormones into our system….and this is bad. It makes us physically feel sick.  Sometimes just a little ‘shaky’, or ‘antsy’, at other times it is stronger…and worse.  I don;t have the proper words to describe it….but it is, in its way, a physical pain.

Perhaps what is worst of all is that it interferes with our ability to think!

We can still see just how badly we are reacting, but can’t seem to stop it because our brain does not work right with all these chemicals streaming through it.  It is a horrible feeling, because by interfering with your ability to analyze, it is – in a very real way – temporarily cutting off a part of the essence that is you!  It is a partial loss of the self!

So, now that we have ‘frozen’, we are to ‘produce’!  Or ‘perform’!

How are we  now supposed to go and finish that very task we found beyond our abilities when our mind was clear and we were able to reason?

It’s just not going to happen…

Of course, what makes this even worse is that once we have felt that way about a certain task, the very memory of it will ‘push the replay button’ – so to speak.  We dread tackling any task that reminds us of our failures, because we will actually do this ‘guilt-flood of emotions-freeze up’ thing to ourselves!!!

The upshot of this is:  once something made us feel bad like this, we will do anything to block it, not ‘replay it’, pretend it does not exist…  And even if we honestly try to tackle the task, we will certainly not be able to concentrate on doing it, because we will be beaten down by the ‘refrain’ in our head:  “you have failed at this”, “you are behind even the ‘stupid’ people by not being able to do this”, “you will just fail again and humiliate yourself”….

I suspect the obsessive-compulsive bit of our brain (most Aspies have an industrial dose of OCD) just keeps us focused on the fact we are ‘bad’ at this, effectively preventing us from actually focusing on the task itself…

The weird thing is…  Sometimes, a perfectly ‘normal’ thing will – somehow – get ‘linked’ in our sub-consciousness with this ‘bad feeling’.  It could be something completely ‘not complex’ – something we easily perform in other situations.  But, here, in this particular instance of it, it has somehow started to ‘trigger’ this ‘negative reaction’.  And, no punishment, no real-life consequence, could make us go through with it and experience this feeling.

For example:  I love to cook, but I will NEVER follow a recipe EXACTLY.  NEVER.  There is no way anyone can make me be bossed around by a anything – especially a piece of paper!  I’ve been bossed around by… and so it goes.  And, once I get off onto this track, I will not cook anything.  The pain is just not worth it – even though I LOVE to cook.

Perhaps I used a bit of a hyperbole to describe this ‘freezing up’… but, in some instances, this is not that much of an exaggeration.  I hope it was helpful in getting across a little bit of the ‘flavour’ of the ‘reluctance’, or ‘freezing up’ we, Aspies, display in performing (or, rather, flatly refusing to perform) some specific tasks.

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Aspergers and ‘painting music’

Over the last few decades, there have been very big changes in classroom attitudes – at least, in this part of the world.  Many teachers are of the opinion that academic rigour stifles self-expression, and in an attempt to foster creativity in their students, they have systematically dismantled structured teaching.

This might work for some students.  Yet, many students do not do well in this new environment, do not learn well using this new method.  Yes, I do focus on kids with Aspergers, but they are not the only ones who are having difficulties.  Many ‘normal’ kids find this ‘unstructured’ method of teaching makes learning more difficult.  The Aspie kids get completely lost in it.

Let me give you an example:

During a series of grade 3 art classes, the teacher played different types of music.  The assignment was to ‘paint’ the music while the students were listening to it.  I thought this was the height of idiocy:  no skills were being taught, and precious school time was being wasted.  But it was explained to me that I was being boorish, that this ‘exercise’ is scientifically designed to stimulate different areas of the brain to synthesize information, which is what kids at this age need more than anything else.

Please, do not misunderstand me.  I don’t have anything against art classes in general:  to the contrary.  My mother teaches art, and I have a deep love for it.  However, I think that kids actually get more enjoynment out of art if they are actually taught about it.  They will derive pleasure from drawing if some of the rules of proportion, or different  fun techniques are broken down into steps for them, so they can master the skills.  Once they have understood the rules, it will be more fun to ‘bend’ them to express their own artistic talents (and no, I don’t mean after years of study….rather, teach a specific skill, rules that govern it, and how to bend them and have fun with art).

Well, my son was in this particular art class.  He was in it because that teacher had gone to receive specific training on how to teach kids with Aspergers.  And then she got angry with an Aspie kid for ‘not being able to paint the music’ he was listening to????? 

Of course, what she was expecting was just non-sensicals colourful swirls – but she would never tell the students that.  With a prim smile, she insisted they ‘paint what the music makes them see’.  Questions of ‘How?’ were met with ‘That is up to YOU!’

Just before setting marks onto the report card, she called me to warn me that my son is about to fail art…  Let’s just say that I found it somewhat difficult to keep my temper.  (The problem was the frustration he experienced in being asked to complete a task he did not have the tools to perform, asking for help and being denied it, then penalized for failing by a bad mark.)

I explained to her that in that case, by her own standard, my son should have received an A+ for his artwork:  the music did not make him ‘see’ anything, so that is what he painted.  Or did not paint.  Either way, the result was accurate, and that he made a bold artistic statement by leaving the page blank.  Quite literally, he ‘drew a blank’!  In other words, I tried to ‘out-pretentious’ her.  It did not work – I’ve never been very good at it. 

However, the teacher said that if my son does 3 of these paintings and hands them in by Monday, he will not fail art.  So, we were left with the task to ‘paint music’.  My son and I talked about it, and it became clear that his frustration level was higher than usual.  But I came up with a solution I am still proud of!

Selecting a Physics textbook which had a good, simple explanation of ‘sound waves’, we read it over together and I explained all the diagrams to him.  Now, here was ‘sound’, represented visually!!!!  We were making progress.  Yet, many Aspies are sticklers for rules – my son could not paint the different types of music the same way!!!  And I was ready…

Rummaging around in the basement, I dusted off our old logic analyzer and brought it up.  Then I set up the display to emulate an oscilloscope, and we played the different types of music.  It worked!  The different sound waves made the oscilloscope display different curves.  Lifting his brush, and dipping it into the green paint (the display was green), my son went and happily painted the different types of music!

His teacher was thrilled!  She told him she knew that if he tried, he could paint music!  He told her they were ‘music waves’ and that he saw them.  I did not tell her that he saw them on an oscilloscope screen – somehow, I did not think that would please her.  Why spoil her pleasure? 

XKCD – Aspie Humour

Many people claim that Aspies do not have a sense of humour.  NOT TRUE!!!

We certainly do enjoy humour.  Some of us naturally find some things funny, others need to learn the rules of humour – but we certainly enjoy it.

In my never-humble opinion, teaching kids with Aspergers the rules of humour may be helpful with overall social skill development.  I have done this, and seen the improvement in their ability to interact with their peers and the resultant increased comfort level with themselves.

Here is how I might go about ‘explaining humour’:

There are several things that constitute ‘humour’ and different people will find different things funny – so there is no need to feel bad when you understand a joke, without thinking it is funny.  Some people think that anything to do with bodily functions is funny – and they will laugh when someone farts, or of they burp.  Other people think this is gross and not at all funny.  So, it is normal that not everyone finds every joke funny.

Many poeple laugh when they find themselves in situations which either do not go as expected, or when some danger is lifted.  This is done to release tension which people experience in such situations, and which is unpleasant.  It demonstrates to others that either the danger has passed, or that even though things are unexpected, the new course of actions is acceptable.

Perhaps that is why so many jokes are ‘funny’ because of an ‘unexpected’ or surprising ending.  It might even tie in with why ‘strange’ or ‘different’ or ‘unexpected’ is sometimes called ‘funny – but not as in ha-ha’.  Puns are an excellent example:  the correct (or correctly sounding) word is used, but in with an unexpected meaning.

It is not easy for Aspie kids that many cartoons rely on facial expressions to convey humour.  That is why I was so entertained when I came across this (not aimed at kids) comic, XKCD.  To me, it screams ‘Aspie Humour’!

And since along with a sense of humour, many people incorrectly describe Aspies as lacking feelings or empathy, I have selected, for your viewing pleasure, these few XKCD comics:

We like to spend time with our loved ones.

We love to spend time with our loved ones - XKCD


Passion reaches new levels for us!

Sharing thought - XKCD


 Of course, we may have a hard time remembering names….  Nothing personal!

forgetting names - XKCD


 Yet, we can be very particular in whom we select as potential mates:

xenocide - XKCD

Personally, I could not date someone who did not thing ‘Ender’s Shadow’ was the best book in this series.  Ok, if he were cute, I might settle for ‘Shadow of the Hegemon’.  But ‘Xenocide’??? Really!

And ‘pillow talk’ is much easier if both of you are Aspies….

pillow talk - XKCD


And many of us fully appreciate the advantages of online interactions with others (my husband claims this ‘has to be’ taken from one of my online comments….):

venting - XKCD


Here is a good example of how not everyone ‘gets’ every joke.  For example, in the following one, I do not understand why the characters are implying this practice is unusual.  Surely, it is the norm!  (See my posts on Old Men in the Bible)

graphs - XKCD


But we all enjoy good quality entertainment!  (And no, this is NOT just a cheap ploy to get ‘Papyrus font’ onto my blog!  Though, who could resist the allures or ‘Papyrus Font’???  It’s even better intelic…)

 River Tam - XKCD

 EVERYONE loves River Tam!!!

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Aspergers and writing

Writing is one of the major woes for people with Aspergers

It is difficult to describe the depth of despair most Aspies suffer when trying to put pen to paper.  And it starts very, very early on.  There appear (to me) to be at least three different ‘subsystems’ in the brain that are conspiring to make writing next to impossible for young Aspies.

The first one to be encountered is the ‘mechanics of writing’.  Many Aspies have less ‘sidedness‘ differentiation, so their ‘writing hand’ is less ‘dominant’ – and thus has less fine motor control – than most peoples.  This is often encountered early on in childhood – as a result, the kids may not enjoy drawing, or they may draw with both hands.  Regardless of drawing, however, Aspie kids usually display severe difficulties when learning the mechanics of writing.  This is more pronounced in cursive writing, where forming letters needs to be combined with smoothly moving the hand along the page, so many Aspies end up printing instead.  

I suspect this is a motor issue, and could be overcome by ‘overdoing’ the practice.  This has, to a degree, been my case:  where I went to school, we started out learning cursive, and we were marked on our handwriting.  I totally sucked at it, for the longest time.  Then, I saw what handwritings the teachers marked as the best, and shamelessly immitated them.  And yes, I spent endless hours practicing, because I was going to be *%$#*^# if those air-headed girls with ‘pretty’ handwriting got better marks than I did.  The result?  I am told I have extremely beautiful, though almost completely illegible, handwrititng!

Another problem which Aspies encounter when writing is – and this is based on my observations, not an expert assertion – a problem with short term memory.  At least six different kids with Aspergers have described it as ‘the ideas going by so fast, by the time I’m done the first letter, I don’t know what word I am writing’.  Now, this is very interesting, but worthy of a post of its own (soon, I hope).

The third major problem I have observed is a little more complicated.  I do not know how frequent it is, but again, I have observed it in very many Aspie kids.  It has to do with language, its use and the very words that make it up.  Also, many Aspies perceive there to be a big difference between what is spoken and written.   Perhaps a little explanation is needed…

Asperger Syndrome is often described as ‘verbally expressive form of Autism‘.  Now,  it is important to make a distiction here:  just because Aspergers falls under the same spectrum of disorders as Autism does, or that the spectrum itself may have the word ‘Autism’ in it, does not mean that it is nearly as crippling as Autism can be.  Comparing Aspergers to Autism (as the Ontario Government recently did, in order to deny Autistic children proper treatment) is about as accurate as comparing a sinus infection to pneumonia – both are respiratory system infections, but they are not the same in severety or affect.  It would be an inappropriate comparison.

While Aspies are usually able to speak extensively on a topic, most have a difficult time writing on a topic.  This is very curious and puzzling to many parents and educators:  it can appear as defiance! So, what is it that makes it OK to say things, but not to write them down?  Perhaps an unusual form of perfectionism could be at play here.

It is my observation that Aspeis, especially children, consider anything that is written down to be much, much more serious, important and permanent than what is spoken.  Even when practicing forming letters, some of these kids will be extremely anxious about not being able to get the shape just perfect.  Not Aspies are this extreme, but I certainly was, and so was one of my sons.  He was so terrified to commit an imperfect letter onto paper, we ended up getting him to practice writing onto clear plastic sheets (of the type you can put through the printer, to use for overhead presentations) with easy-wipe-off markers.  And even thought he could wipe off any letter he did not like, before anyone else could see it (and at first, he wiped off all of them), it was still hard for him.

It is my suspicion that in a similar way, it is difficult for Aspies to write ideas down because they are not sure if their idea is good enough to be commited to paper.  And even if they get over that, and judge the idea worthy – and this is the key here – it is next to impossible to express their idea accurately, using everyday language.

I have often wondered – and would appreciate feedback from those who have observed this – if something similar could be at play with Autism…  Many (not tall) autistic children are said to begin learning language relatively normally, but then at some point, they revert and begin to use language less and less.  Could it be possible that as they learned language, words attained ‘colouring’ – secondary, or implied meanings – unrelated to their ‘object or action definition’…. and that these words became perceived as no longer accuratley describing its original meaning, and therefore discarded?  I don’t know, but I would be curious what others think about this.

It is often asserted that Aspies use language somewhat rigidly, or sound very pedantic.  Could it be that a similar perfectionism in expressing an idea, a similar subconscious frustration with the inaccuracy of language, is at play when Aspies try to put ideas onto paper?

I love debating, and do it online.  And, people have noted, that whenever I get into a serious debate, I spend most of my time defining the specific and narrow meanings of every word I intend to use (plus a few others, that I exressly will not use).  Many people find it redundant, annoying and boring.  Some think it is a ploy to manipulate the debate.  But I do not intend it as any of these:  before I can express what I mean, I need to ensure that there is no ambiguity in the language I use to express my point.  General language simply cannot do the job!

There is no simple answer to overcoming this.  

Each Aspie may require a completely different approach, what works for one may not work for another.  It will take years.  And it will always take much more time and effort for an Aspie to write something than it would take most people.  (It usually takes me 2-6 hours to write any single post – and some, I have spent 14+ hours composing.)

Yet, Aspies can learn to write.  And when they do, the documents they produce are usually very well researched and accurately expressed!


Since mentioning in past posts that I had Asperger Syndrome, I have received many private messages on this topic….and requests to explain how it affects me – and what strategies I employed to develop coping skills.  So, every now and then, I will write a bit about my experiences in this area.

 However, before I start, some qualifications are in order…

I am not a physician, and the closest I ever came to being a therapist was an after-school job in a gift shop down the hall from the hotel bar with a pianist so loud, the bartender could not hear ‘life stories’ over the music – so I had to fill in!  Whatever I post about Aspergers are my personal experiences, observations and ideas – and are not to be mistaken for an expert opinion or the prevailing medical opinion -or, in fact, any respected opinion on this topic whatsoever.  These are just my musings!

Yet, I hope that it might offer an insight into how at least one ‘Aspergers’ brain processes the surrounding world, and help to relieve the frustration that people often experience when dealing with an ‘Aspergers’ child or colleague.  And it CAN be challenging!!!

Perhaps I am completely off on this, but it seems to me that what we call ‘Asperger Syndrome’ is actually several very different conditions.  They may present similarly, but have underlying causes…and if you read my rants, you know how I abhor it when people confuse symptoms with causes!  I can only address my particular variety.  ;0)

Aspergers has been described in many ways, given many nicknames:  the absentminded professor syndrome, the Silicone Valley syndrome, the uber-geek/nerd syndrome…there are more labels.  When I was in high school, I watched the original Star Trek series in order to figure out why some of my classmates kept addressing me as Ms. Spock…  Yet lately (and perhaps due to the success of people like Bill Gates – I don’t know if he has Aspergers, but he does have the appearance of a ‘nerd’, just as many ‘Aspies’ do), there has been a literary (well, as close as TV comes) explosion of characters who undeniably portray different manifestations of the Asperger syndrome – outside of the ‘Trekkies’.

This list is not meant to be exhaustive, rather, it is meant to demonstrate the very different ways (and severity – it is much more like a continuum than an on/off thingy) that Aspergers people behave  (or, at least, ones that we, Aspies, consider to be ‘our ways’):

Dr. Gregory House

Mr. Monk

Just about everyone (excepting Penny) on ‘The Big Bang Theory’

Dr. Spence Reid from ‘Criminal Minds’

Chuck Bartowski

 …and that does not even account for Mr. Bean!

So, if this topic is of interest to you, drop in every now and then – more on Aspergers is going to trickle in!

Am I black or am I white?

OK, sounds pretentious, but…what if, one day, you realized that people with whom you identified ethnically thought you an outsider?  A few years back, my (then) neighbour told me she had had to come to terms with exactly that…


At that time, my son was still a toddler, and her daughters (only a few years his seniors) thought him a doll.  They would play with him endlessly, and he ate it up:  big girls like me, Mom!  And as is neighbourly, we would often chat as we watched them play.

This lady had many interesting stories.  She was ‘black and proud of it’!  Her origins were Caribbean, but she grew up in North America and derived a lot of her strength and self-identity from the achievements of great leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  She used to get mad when people would use endless euphemisms to avoid saying the word ‘black’ or ‘negro’, demanding that those are beautiful words, and nobody should shame them.  You get the picture.

Her husband was also an immigrant, who came here from Western Africa.  One day, she told me that when they first got married, they decided to visit his family in Africa so that he could introduce her to his parents.  Wonderful, his parents loved her, she loved them, all went better than they had hoped for.  My friend told me she felt newly alive, reconnecting with her (generations removed) African heritage.

Yet, it was there, in that small African village, that she had to face this existential crisis.

One day, she was walking to the market, and the usual crowd of kids were running after her, calling out happily.  After all, they were not used to many visitors from so far away – and they were happy and friendly.  But, by this point, my friend had learned enough of the local language to understand what they were calling out:

“There goes the white lady!” and “The white lady smiled at me!” and so on…

At first she looked around, thinking there must be another visitor:  but no.  In their eyes, she was ‘the white lady’!

My neighbour laughed as she told me this story.  But she added seriously, until that day, she never realized that the lighter shade of her skin would make her appear ‘white’ to black African kids.  And that she kept thinking about this, for years….

Oh, don’t get me wrong:  having re-examined who she was, she came out strong and laughing.  But, next time you look into the mirror, ask yourself: if people suddenly saw you as the opposite of who you think you are, would you be able to come through it laughing?

All of us humans came from Africa at some point…