Imaginary Play

I believe a great chunk of my childhood can best be described as follows: my mind was entirely preoccupied with images and scenes from movies, TV shows, and video games. Much of my time in school, at home, in public, or elsewhere was spent mentally reenacting things that I saw on my television screen, often times acting it out physically. In other words, I was essentially trapped in this fantasy world that was governed by movies and television, the kinds of stuff that parents are supposed to limit their children’s access to. Boy, do I wish I listened to my parents when they tried to get me to spend more time outside or reading books.

Usually what I was fixated on throughout the day involved something like an animated Disney film, a Nickelodeon cartoon, a video game such as Crash Bandicoot or Sonic the Hedgehog, or any similar form of media. Pretty much anything animated and targeted at kids that I watched/played repetitively would directly influence my behavior, whether I was by myself or was around others. From what I can remember, much of what I acted out would vary based on what I was obsessed with at the moment.

For instance, I can recall one memory from Kindergarten where, out of boredom I guess, I fantasized about being in a scene from Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. Once or twice during recess in 2nd grade, I pretended I was in this computer game called Chex Quest (I doubt anyone here will remember it). Several times while I was playing at a park or hanging with friends, I visualized myself in some sort of trailer or commercial for a movie or television show. I even used to fantasize about being a Powerpuff Girl, or rather the Powerpuff Girls, pretending that each of the kids at school I didn’t like represented a villain from the show.

Whatever I was trying to act out, I was hardly in sync with reality during my “imaginary play.” I think I pretty much refused to acknowledge what was really going on around me, and I certainly didn’t concern myself with how others perceived me. Heck, I doubt I was even aware at the time that people thought I acted so bizarrely. I was usually far too busy trying to recreate images and scenes that I witnessed from a television set to notice anything.

Here is what my behavior typically looked like when I was engaged in my little fantasies: I would mumble, whisper, or talk out loud to myself; flail my arms about wildly; jump up and down excitedly; run all over the place like I was going crazy; fool around with different objects or pieces of nature that I found; or I might talk to someone while quoting some dialogue from something I saw on television. In other words, it truly did look like I was in my own world, oblivious to my surroundings and other people’s judgment.

I can also distinctly remember how people tended to react to my behavior. They were mostly confused, troubled, weirded out, deeply concerned, or sometimes just amused. My family and teachers would look at me slightly worried, unsure of what to tell me or how they might get me to stop. Meanwhile the other kids at school would stare at me as if I needed to be institutionalized, and would occasionally laugh at me or poke fun of me behind my back. For some reason, I didn’t quite understand why people would react to me like this until much later. It took till sometime in high school, I believe, when I realized that people didn’t see my imaginary behavior the same way that I did.

I would love to say that at some point as I grew up, this habit of mine faded away and I became far more conscientious of what I was doing. It didn’t. All throughout high school and even somewhat during college, I continued to publicly act out various scenarios I saw from electronic media. Perhaps it may have slightly improved over time, but alas it remained part of my regular routine for quite some time. What I did usually involved impersonating different characters from movies, video games, as well as online videos; imagining my own game or TV franchises, which were heavily based on already existing ones; and pretending to play various instruments in a rock band while listening to music. Heck, I was even playing with toys quite regularly while I was still in high school. I think that one of the reasons I don’t do it today is because I no longer have any toys to play with.

To an extent, this sort of does go on even to this day. I’m certain that I do it substantially less than I did , say, 3 or 4 years ago. Nonetheless, every now and then I will imagine myself in some sort of role derived from movies, television, video games, or videos from the web. It’s a habit that’s seriously tough to break, and it probably won’t be a while till I’ve completely grown out of it. Sure it might be a relatively harmless behavior, but I believe it will be necessary to stay in touch with reality for the sake of my own image. I really want to be perceived by others as someone who is approachable, sociable, and not trapped in his own little world.

However, I completely understand why many people with autism, whether they be children or adults, might choose to continue this sort of “imaginary play.” If I can be perfectly honest, it’s still rather fun; I mean, who doesn’t like to play pretend every now and then? I think for most people who do it regularly, it’s a perfect way to escape the real world when it’s too boring, disagreeable, or unfriendly for them, which it sadly often is.

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Not allowing myself peace: Anxiety and Me

Throughout much of my life, anxiety has been an unavoidable burden for me; a consistent obstacle to long-term serenity and self-confidence. No matter how much I try to escape it or reduce it by getting some work done, playing video games, doing a bit of exercise, and talking about it with counselors and therapists – it always finds a way to take over my thoughts and slow down my productivity. It is thus probably one of my more serious issues, and it’s one that my family and teachers have been trying for years and years to help me cope with.

I am not completely sure why, but it’s sort of like my mind has this continuous need to feel anxious or worried about something. It isn’t exactly that I’m always paranoid about the future or frantic that something terrible is about to happen. It’s more like I’m constantly under a presumption that there is at least something for me to be concerned about or something that I need to address soon. A lot of times, sadly, I cannot fully settle this issue that’s bothering me, or at least I’m unable to satisfy myself enough to soothe the tension. Therefore, it’s a little rare for me to feel truly at ease with myself or self-assured that everything is going to be ok.

I think that in most cases, what’s making me anxious is this lingering notion that I’m NOT doing what I should be doing. There is this consensus in my head that whatever I’m doing or wherever I am at the moment: I’m “not doing enough” or I’m “hurting myself” in one way or another. It doesn’t really matter what kind of task I am currently performing, there will be a voice in my head to incessantly remind me about all the other things that I need to work on or need to improve on. As much as people tell me to stop being so hard myself and not demand so much of myself all at once, it’s hard for me to let go of this ongoing sense of urgency; this desire to have everything resolved.

Let’s say, for instance, that I’m working on a homework assignment for one of my classes. I might be working pretty diligently on it and possibly even making some good progress on it. However, what will probably come to dominate my thoughts is the stress of my other assignments, other important tasks, other commitments- just about anything constructive that I could be doing. I will obsess over the fact that I still have studying to do for another class; running to do as part of my regular exercise routine; friends that I need to remain in touch with so that I have a social life; reading that needs to be completed for other classes; the fact that I am not up to date on the news; or perhaps I could be at some charity event that would make me a “better person.” As a result, the homework assignment will take longer than it should to be finished, because I spend so much time worrying and trying to vainly appease my own demands for perfection.

In any case, I’m frequently under the assumption that I am wasting time and sacrificing other things that I feel have to be addressed at some point. It seems that there is always SOMETHING for me to obsess over: whether it’s my lack of a fulfilling social life, whether it’s my heavy load of schoolwork, whether it’s a controversial social topic, or whether it’s my feelings of inadequacy when compared to other people. I can’t help but repetitively hear in my head: “Everything is NOT ok. You cannot feel at ease or allow yourself to simply let go. Something is wrong!” In other words, I always give myself a reason to be worried, upset, doubtful, or self-critical.

Of course there are moments here and there where I might be too distracted to be restless, like when I’m watching a movie or relaxing at the beach. Plus, it’s not like I’m so nervous and insecure that I’m completely unable to sleep or finish any task at all. Rather, my anxiety tends to take over whenever I am encouraged to add something to my schedule, or when I’m given a chance to analyze myself as a person. What makes it worse, I believe, is when I have a number of responsibilities and commitments at once, whether they be mandatory or recommended, and can’t be given specific instructions on how to manage them all.

There are three main factors that seem to be the most commonplace sources of my anxiety. They include tremendously poor time management, difficulty with focusing on single tasks, and lingering uncertainty over what I should do in a given moment. I might go over each of these issues in more detail in later posts, and I have a feeling they similarly affect several others with Aspergers. Anyhow, this mixture of problems not only makes it exceedingly difficult to avoid stress, but it also serves as a justification for having these fits of anxiety. It’s not at all easy to feel relaxed when you know that you are bad with keeping a steady schedule, you can’t concentrate on things you want to get done, and especially when you can’t figure out what you ought to be doing right now. How can someone who is constantly worried about their own productivity give themselves permission to calm down and go easy on themselves?

Fortunately, as of late I have found some hope in overcoming this cycle of stress and nervousness. After so many failed attempts in the past, it looks like my parents and therapists are finally starting to get through to me on how I need to stop being so harsh and demanding on myself. It seems that I’m actually getting the message this time that I don’t need to have every single concern resolved at once, and that I can only improve by one itty-bitty step at a time. Additionally, I am currently trying out things such as yoga, guided meditation, positive affirmations, and support groups. Trust me, to anyone out there who might be suffering from similar problems, these tools are infinitely helpful! Though my anxiety issues are nowhere near resolved, I have been making considerable progress so far. Hopefully it won’t be too long before I am able to handle numerous tasks without having to stress myself out in the process.

“Tim, please… keep it to yourself.”

Who here has ever asked themselves these sorts of questions:

“When exactly am I supposed to talk?”

“When am I supposed to be quiet and listen?”

“Why do people seem to hate it whenever I talk?”

“How come hardly anyone seems really interested in what I have to say?”

“How come I can never find the right time to raise my thoughts during a conversation?”

“Why do I keep going on some tangent whenever I start speaking?”

“Why do I have so much trouble with shutting myself up and listening?”

“Should I even enter this conversation at all, or should I leave it alone?”

“How can I possibly contribute to a conversation I have no interest in to begin with?”

“Why does it have to be such a chore for me verbally interact with other people?”

If these questions seem at all familiar to you, then you are definitely not alone. It’s always been tough for me to understand exactly when I should open my mouth, and when I should just stay silent. Aspergers Syndrome often makes it difficult for people to communicate fluently with others, and so the appropriate time to provide verbal input isn’t always clear to them. As a result, engaging in a productive, two-sided dialogue does not usually work out for me like it does for most people.

This is not to say that I can never a good, meaningful conversation with anyone; very far from it! I have had the pleasure of enjoying countless discussions that were fun, amusing, informative, friendly, comforting, and thoughtful. I mean, I actually really enjoy chatting with people whenever I can, preferably those I know fairly well. It’s just that I need to learn how to be a more responsible, self-restrained speaker.

For one thing, I have very frequently found myself going off on a tangent as I discuss a certain topic of interest with others. What happens is that once I perceive an opportunity for me to speak out, I immediately take it and then quickly end up talking endlessly about what’s on my mind. Without thinking at all, I get carried away and establish myself as the center of the conversation, inadvertently failing to give the other person their chance to speak. This usually leaves people a little agitated at me and completely unengaged in what I’m saying. They anxiously wait for me to be done with my monologue, occasionally trying to find a polite way of telling to be shut up and let them speak. Unfortunately, I won’t realize I was dominating the discussion until it’s too late, feeling regretful for being so inconsiderate to the other person.

Meanwhile, when trying to have conversation with others, I tend to talk about things that only I want to explore- regardless of how everyone else feels about the topic. Sometimes I might begin a conversation, usually out of complete nowhere, concerning a subject matter that I desperately feel like sharing, simply for the sake of “getting it out there.” Alternatively, I might find a way to bring this subject into an already active conversation when it is not the least bit relevant. In most cases, this dissolves into the one-sided rant that I mentioned earlier, meaning that people have to listen to me jabbering on and on about something they really don’t care about. Even though I may have gotten better at this, I still find myself committing the same mistake rather frequently, mostly unaware of what I’m doing wrong until later.

This brings me to one of my more regrettable habits, which is constantly interrupting people in the middle of talking so that I can give my thoughts. Despite my efforts to try and give other people their space to talk, it remains somewhat of a challenge to keep my mouth shut and pay attention while others are talking. If I feel like I really have get my thoughts out, then I may not be able to wait my turn and save what I have to say till the other person is done.

This is especially prevalent when there is some disagreement between me and the other person. If I really do not want to hear what someone is communicating to me, I may try to block it out by simply cutting them off and abruptly offering a counter argument. A good example of this is when I used to talk to my parents about schoolwork or my behavior. Whenever they would try to say something that I didn’t like or made me somewhat bad, I would instinctively try to shut them up and say something like, “Y-yeah, buuut…” or “I know, I know. Just lemme talk now.”

What makes this even more interesting is the fact that I seriously hate being interrupted myself. Indeed, if someone tries to correct or disrupt me before I finish speaking (which, as you remember, will often take a while), I often react irritated and insist that I be allowed to finish.

Similarly, I often have trouble identifying when I may contribute to a conversation with several people. In many cases, I desperately want to join in on a discussion that apparently isn’t allowing me any room to talk, which makes me feel irritated. I keep trying to find an opportunity to share my thoughts, typically when it seems that someone else is done talking, and unfortunately I can’t find the right moment. This is because either the other person continues to talk, or someone else jumps in to speak instead. Of course, I may eventually grow very impatient and just decide to interrupt someone else so that I may express what I wish to get out. I basically get tired of waiting my turn, so I sort of “take my turn.” In other cases, I may simply give up on trying to contribute at all to the conversation and either stay completely silent, or possibly walk away and leave the discussion altogether.

Does this all sound familiar to anyone?

“Ass-Burgers”? What’s that?

I believe that the first order of business on this blog should be to clarify what is meant by “Aspergers.” What exactly do I mean when I say Aspergers Syndrome?

Well, I think it’s important to understand, first and foremost, that this disorder affects everyone in different ways. As I mentioned in my introductory post, the experiences of people with Aspergers greatly vary: not everyone with Aspergers acts in a uniform manner, and they certainly don’t all think in one way. There is a large number of ways in which it can develop inside people, and it not possible to make any judgments of someone’s Aspergers without getting to know them first.

However, much like with any disorder or common identity, there are ways in which we can summarize its effect on the human brain and on typical behavioral patterns. According to WebMD, Aspergers Syndrome can best be described as a pervasive development disorder (PDD), a “group of conditions that involve delays in the development of many basic skills, most notably the ability to socialize with others, to communicate, and to use imagination.” (See http://www.webmd.com/brain/autism/mental-health-aspergers-syndrome)

In addition, it is often identified as a high functioning form of autism, although it may not share a lot of the same limitations on cognitive development or learning. In fact, it is widely shown that people with Aspergers usually function quite well in those areas as opposed to those with autism, sometimes even better than “neurotypical” people. The noted similarity between these two disorders lies, rather, in how they usually affect interpersonal behavior.

There are six main symptoms that are regularly associated with Aspergers Syndrome, each of which can be tied to me in some way.

1) Weak social skills: Among the most widespread symptoms of Aspergers involves serious limitations with social skills. To put it simply, we Aspies will often find it quite challenging to engage successfully in a social setting without seeming awkward or feeling uncomfortable. As far as I can remember, making friends and spending time with other people was hardly ever a simple, straight-forward task. A good chunk of my life has been spent alone because I felt uneasy trying to socialize with others, embracing the moments I enjoyed with friends and family.

2) Compulsive, repetitive behavior: Something else that is widely noted in people with Aspergers is habitually performing these eccentric activities, often in a similar vein to autism. In most cases, this means doing something with our bodies such as fidgeting our fingers, kicking our feet, rubbing our faces, biting our nails, pulling our hair, and making noises with our mouths. For example, I used to pull my hair so often that visible holes formed on my head, so my parents eventually had no choice but to shave it really short (I ended up keeping that haircut to this day).

3) Unusual habits: Some of the day to day activities that Aspies choose to engage themselves in can sometimes seem a little odd or bizarre in the eyes of strangers. Aside from the compulsive behaviors that I just discussed, people with Aspergers tend to have these “abnormal” routines in their schedule, or just have an unusual way of doing certain things. One instance that I can remember from my life is how I used to eat things like broccoli and left-over dinner for breakfast. To this day, I still refuse to eat most normal breakfast foods such as eggs and pancakes.

4) Focused, singular interests: While most people tend to hold several interests at once, those of us with Aspergers prefer to keep our focus narrowed on one or two things. For some reason, we can only remain interested in a certain subject at one time, while much everything else is deemed irrelevant to us. My parents would constantly tell me all throughout my childhood that I was “stuck on an idea,” talking incessantly about one particular subject. This made socialization further problematic because I would generally talk to other kids about things that they weren’t at all interested in, but I was obsessed with.

5) Communication troubles: There are a couple of ways in which Aspergers can make verbal interaction somewhat problematic. For one thing, it is often really difficult for us to make good eye-contact with the people we are speaking with. Especially as children, we will often involuntarily drift away in the middle of a conversation and focus our eyes on things around us. If there’s one thing that people would often get frustrated at me over, it’s the fact that I wouldn’t keep looking them in the eye.

6) Skills and talents: Believe it or not, there is something immensely positive that’s frequently associated with having Aspergers. It turns out that people with the disorder tend to show remarkable talent in certain fields, often possessing skills that can exceed the work of “neurotypicals.” This can include fields such as mathematics, music, computer science, writing, acting, or even economics. I am frequently told by my professors at college that I do exceptionally well at composing papers. Meanwhile, you would be pretty surprised just how many of our greatest talents in the world had some form of Aspergers or autism- Danny Beath, Susan Boyle, Vernon L. Smith, Donna Williams, Stanley Kubrick, and Albert Einstein, to mention a few.

Does anyone care to share any similar details about Aspergers?