Awkward, Agnes, and Asperger’s in Women

Yesterday I attended the Social Science Librarian’s Boot Camp in Boston, a gathering of academic librarians to hear about faculty research, grad student use of libraries, and new methods in surveys, data analysis, and spatial data.

It was a gorgeous day. I met great people, and rediscovered how much I love downtown Boston as well as Somerville.

But aside from the scenery, I was caught by the faculty presentations on research. For instance, Calvin Gidney used sociolinguistics to uncover the effects of animated TV shows: what do kids learn when the “good” lions in the Lion King have NPR accents, while the “bad” ones sound poor and black?

And Jennie Pyers looks at how sign language helps deaf children understand what other people are thinking (aka “theory of mind”).

Identifying awkward

But most interestingly, Ruth Grossman looked at what makes kids with autistic tendencies seem ‘awkward’: is it what they say? Their facial expressions?

This reminds me of a handful of people I know. Many kids on the now-called autism spectrum disorder are highly intelligent and want to connect. But when they try to connect with others, “all the signals they send, the words are usually fine, but the body language, facial expression, tone of voice—what we call prosody…” are a bit off, leading other kids to avoid the spectrum kids.

Grossman found that in just seconds, neurotypical kids and adults can peg someone as “awkward”—and then exclude, ignore, or otherwise avoid them. This is awful for the awkward kid, who becomes distressed and isolated–and may then act out more.

awkward turtle

Its… it’s a subtle sign.

So how do we change that cycle? Grossman’s slides have more on the specific vocal and facial expressions that produce “awkward,” and how we can help people connect.

Dealing with awkward: the imitation game

I found this all fascinating, because being in a nerdy data profession, I  meet a lot of quirky. There are many folk who can pursue their passions while still fitting in–but it’s definitely a balancing act.

And all of us, whether ‘neurotypical’ or ‘spectrum,’ can have these experiences. A few weeks ago, I joined the softball team at my workplace. Now, I’m nervous about sports. I haven’t been on a team since my childhood spit-on-your-hands-and-‘Good-Game!’ soccer days. But I did want to meet people and have fun.

So I showed up. I watched closely, imitating how others stood, how they threw, what they joked about. I made mental notes while scanning my environment. I closely copied everyone else, slipping a mitt onto one hand and walking onto the field.

And I was a terrible throw – too high, too low, a softball landing on my colleague’s foot. I seemed to have lost all athletic skill…

At least I’m not alone.

…until a good thirty minutes later, I realized that I was throwing with the wrong hand.

Yep. As a lefty, I should have done things differently from everyone around me. I couldn’t do it their way, but as soon as I switched from doing things their way to working with my strengths–I did great.

If nothing else, this was a good reminder that trying to get spectrum kids to fit in may only harm them. It reminded me to take a closer look at how I relate to others, and what it means when we expect everyone to do things the same way as the most mainstream people.

Wellness: is it neural processing or social connection?

You’ll notice I talked about autism above, not Asperger’s. That’s because Asperger’s Syndrome is no longer a formal diagnosis. As Amy Lutz writes, it wasn’t deemed precise enough.

But cutting the diagnosis of mild social quirks hasn’t been a popular move with everyone. What about people who are mostly getting along in life, but find that something’s a bit off? In this respect, psychiatry doesn’t do wellness well. Because American medicine focuses on fixing illness, it doesn’t work when nothing’s definably wrong… but also not quite right. It forces us to seek a severe diagnosis, when all someone might need is a minor adjustment.

And this gap in how we think about mental wellness can tear at those who experience mental, social, or emotional challenges in adapting to our culture and world.

I know a fair number of people who gravitate to the Asperger’s label. I suspect that for them, it has been useful. As Hanna Rosin writes, “the term Asperger’s was becoming shorthand for hyper-focused, often precocious talent and a socially awkward personality.” She quotes the story of John Elder Robison, who found diagnosis “staggering. There are other people like me. So many, in fact, that they have a name for us.

It became a way of reframing difference, saying that it way okay to be unique, to have other goals, to be peculiar in one’s place.

Aspie as a way to recognize female experiences

So while not a formal diagnosis, Asperger’s is still an interesting cultural shorthand. And it’s been especially useful for some women, who have “been told for so long that we’re not allowed to admit to feeling socially awkward, shy or simply genuinely disinterested” (Seventh). Even women with high cognitive talents, such as female engineers, face more pressure to perform socially than then male colleagues (page 73)–for no extra reward, and in a way that can draw them back from their primary work.

All that extra pressure on women makes it helpful for some people to safe space to admit when they feel out of place, make a mistake, or don’t quite know how to connect.

unwritten rules

I’ll stop before laying out some grand theory of Asperger’s-as-cultural-idea, although I’m sure it comes out as a ‘thing’ in contrast to mainstream expectations for work, school, and socialization in America. If you’re curious about the details, you can read Tania Marshall’s traits of Aspien Women or Samantha Craft’s checklist for women with Asperger’s.

The Agnes comic strip: awkward as comedy

Instead, I’ll look at comic strips. Agnes is a comic figure drawn by Tony Cochran, a girl who lives in a trailer park and hangs out with her best friend Trout. It was syndicated in midwestern newspapers when I was growing up. With shades of Charlie Brown, Zits, and Calvin and Hobbes, the strip is by turns funny, inane, and critical/misogynistic.

Yet the charming thing is how unabashedly quirky Agnes is. Below, I’ve pulled comics that remind me of some of the more common ‘Aspie’ traits. At any rate, I hope these make you smile!

Agnes…

Approaches social situations logically:

Maybe not quite on trend:

Thoughtful and deliberate about facial expressions:

A bit jittery:

But observant of her internal states:

Telling it like it is:

Tries to figure out the social hierarchy:

Yet likes everything in order:

 

Wants to be a leader: 

And to connect with people:

But a bit of an overshare:

And doesn’t always track with social conversation:

Tries to adapt to society:

And to  understand everything:

Doesn’t pick up on romantic cues:

 

 

More creative than popular:

But has a few close friends:

And is determined to succeed!

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