Asperger, Us, and the Yomim Noraim
The “us” are non-Asperger people. For those who live with Asperger Syndrome (AS), much of life is about navigating the strange rules that we “typicals” impose on them. Understanding how they do it might help and inspire some of us in the avodah of the coming days.
Imagine that you had been told for as long as you could remember that you suffered from something called Asperger Syndrome, and this is why people thought and treated you as somewhat – different. Then, one day, they told you that AS no longer existed. They couldn’t confidently tell you why, but they cautioned that the reclassification might – just might – affect the programs and services to which you had previously been entitled. Previously, they thought you were different for one reason. Now they still thought you were different, but for other reasons. Maybe.
This happened on May 22nd of this year, to be precise, when the American Psychiatric Association released the DSM-5, its latest revision of its manual of diagnoses. Previously, AS had been seen as related to, but distinct from, autism. The revision created a new cholent, putting both groups on the same continuum, now to be known as Autism Spectrum Disorder. AS as a diagnosis has disappeared.
It was one of the lesser imponderables that Asperger people (or former Asperger people ) have to deal with. So much else of the way the rest of us run our world makes so little sense to them.
In the last few months, my wife and I have had the pleasure of hosting a young couple for occasional Shabbosim. Both live with AS. (For the sake of simplicity, I will use the term that most of us still use, the APA to the contrary. The couple know that I am writing this; we’ve discussed the content. They are quite open about their experience. Nonetheless, I am not going to mention their names.) Both are frum. The husband is finishing his doctoral dissertation; his wife works with special-needs kids. They are very, very bright. (One of them often periodically gives me a hard time as a commenter to Cross-Currents.)
“Open” is somewhat of an understatement. He has written about the world seen through the eyes of AS people, including how he and his wife interacted during courtship. (They would ask each other to explain the reactions of other people: “Did I just do something inappropriate?”)
Inappropriate, that is, to everyone else. AS people have no problem functioning in most areas of life, often outpacing others. They are seen by “us,” however, as just not “getting it,” i.e., they are not as responsive to social cues as we are. They may continue a conversation without noticing that we have tuned out. They may blurt something out that we wouldn’t, or fail to respond to a hint that we think they should get. They have a hard time figuring out whether we mean something tongue-in-cheek, or seriously.
At several times during our typically-long leyl Shabbos seudah, Mrs. AS inexplicably bolted from the table, only to return without explanation a short while later. Mr. AS told us afterwards that functioning in a social setting can be extremely stressful for AS people, because they have to process each line of incoming conversation, without pause.
Why? Because “our” world doesn’t make any real sense to them. They don’t understand it. It seems unnatural and arbitrary. (They may be closer to the truth than we are!) How they get by is intriguing. Since they can’t really make our rules second nature, they cope with them by laboriously learning protocols of reaction. They learn, step by step, how to interact with a person whom they do not know. They memorize steps of conversation that they may hear, or should initiate. They learn phrases with which to deal with the conversation they cannot comprehend. For example, when faced with something they are not sure was said in jest or not, they will interrupt and directly ask the intent of the speaker.
In a social setting, they often have to deal with input from multiple speakers. For each, decisions need to be made. Do I launch into Protocol E after that last remark, or should we try Protocal S? After a while, their brains begin to resemble an overtaxed and overheated CPU. Aside from the stress, none of it ever really makes sense. Dealing with the arbitrary is the price they must pay, without ever entertaining the hope that they will understand. This is life; deal with it by obeying arbitrary rules, responding with fixed modes of response. Every minute can mean a new challenge of having to consult this rule book, and responding according to what they have been taught. Every slip-up, every deviation, will exact a penalty and price.
It occurred to me that if, as the gemara says, Hillel obligates all the poor, then AS people obligate the rest of us. We chafe – consciously or otherwise – at having to live with rules we often do not understand. We groan under the weight of so many restrictions and limitations. We don’t like the pressure, nor the fact that we cannot comprehend why we must obey these rules with such exactitude.
Listening to G-d’s rules is not at all like obeying the human variety. We are maaminim, bnei maaminim. We know that HKBH is never, ever, arbitrary. We have perfect confidence that His rules make Divine sense, even if not humanly comprehended. We have the advantage of sensing the depth and beauty of most of His rules – it is a minority that trouble us. We know that the stakes are much higher than the social acceptance that is at stake for AS folks. We can appreciate that if He asks us to live our lives constantly checking with His rule book for the propriety of our next decision, then it is possible to live life in this way.
Franz Kafka’s The Castle came to mind when I visited Prague on the occasion of the 400th yarhzeit of the Maharal. You could not miss the imposing figure of the castle that gave the book its name. It was once the home of the Holy Roman Emperor, standing on a hilltop overlooking the city. One interpretation had it that Kafka’s castle was a metaphor for the way in which G-d runs His world, or at least the way it appeared to human beings. The castle stood in the distance, aloof, removed. Its ways remained mysterious, if not contradictory. Its most important resident was inaccessible. Kafka was railing at the incomprehensibility of G-d and His ways
Kafka aside, this is not the way we Torah Jews understand HKBH, even as we cannot understand much of what we observe. We have a deeply ingrained sense of His goodness, and His sensibility. We trust that He is not arbitrary, and that all His rules are for our sakes, not His.
Perhaps we can take away some inspiration from the way AS people manage to get by, without all the advantages that we have.
A final thought. AS people live their lives with an ongoing feeling that the rules that are forced upon them by everyone else are really irrelevant. Irrelevance can sometimes be a good thing. והותירך ד’ אלוקך בכל מעשה ידיך The Kedushas Levi reads this as, “Hashem will make your actions superfluous and irrelevant in dealing with you. He will not limit His beracha to you by the good you have done. He has a vested interest as a loving, giving G-d to showering you with blessing beyond what you deserve.”
May we all merit in the upcoming judgment to be seen as irrelevant.
בברכת כתיבה וחתימה טובה