Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Between Penny and Sheldon

Much like Isabel (who, as seems relevant for the content of this post, I "know" only via blog), I've been following the Asperger's stories as they appear, from the perspective of someone who reads these things and thinks, uh oh! And then remembers: no, not really. We all of us feel special and different and unique and all that fun stuff, and those of us with concrete evidence to support it (consider your standardized-test-score to gregariousness ratio) can't help but wonder.

But this is what I've concluded, anecdotally of course:

-There is definitely a thing, whether we're calling it Asperger's, mild autism, or something else, that explains a certain type of behavior that anyone who's taught, anyone who's been a student, certainly anyone who's spent time in nerdy environments will recognize as being more-than-nerdy, more-than-awkward. It's if anything more obvious in a geeky milieu that this thing is not simply awkwardness, because there's so much run-of-the-mill awkwardness around. People with the capacity for speech, but not for holding a regular conversation. I can think offhand of two kids in my high school class (one boy, one girl) who fit the bill. And then there were the Magic kids, the mathiest of the math kids, the debate kids, etc. Many would have been outcasts at a normal high school, and had that distinctive know-it-all speech pattern, but they were (and are, I suspect) functioning just fine if not far better than fine. I can think offhand of maybe two kids at my high school who didn't fit this, and they were these upbeat blond girls on the soccer team who were always kind of mysterious, like they'd been dropped in from a New England prep school and weren't entirely sure what to make of their surroundings.

-So there's another thing, a type of person who, when introduced to the 40 peers with whom they'll be sharing a Birthright Israel bus for the next ten days, or the 35 other kids in their gym class, will prefer to be alone or to gravitate to one or two like-minded sorts. There will be a requisite libertarian phase. Do you mostly prefer staying in to going out, but sometimes you do get stir-crazy? Do you attract friends who are snarky and/or good at math? Do you have a blog that isn't devoted to posting cute outfit pics? This is the Daria-Sheldon spectrum, and if you're on it, you know who you are, and I have my doubts that this sort of person is any more deserving of a medical diagnosis than someone who's incredibly outgoing and up on the Kardashians. There are entire milieus of people like this, and if you're like this and you find yourself in one, bingo. You won't suddenly want to go out every night, but nor will you feel that only a couple of people get you.

Personally, I'm something of a hybrid between this second thing and no thing in this regard whatsoever. If I'm around a bunch of Pennies, I'm a Sheldon who can pass as a Penny but who, given a Jane, will be a Daria. But if I'm surrounded by Sheldons (which is where I'm most comfortable), I'm aware of my Penny-like nature, my VIP status at Zappos. If we're defining "the spectrum" to begin with Penny and end with Sheldon, I'm on it. But if it starts with Sheldon and ends with severe mental disability, not so much. The question that I (and all the other NYT readers, no doubt) keep coming back to is whether "Sheldon" is a medical condition, or simply a personality type with its plusses and minuses like all the others.


PG said...

I think being unable to grasp sarcasm -- i.e. having difficulty grasping social context and individual tone -- is a significant distinction between Sheldon and Daria, and could at least be a symptom of a medical condition. Even those noble personalities who abjure sarcasm for themselves generally can *recognize* it in others. Although if we use that symptom in isolation, does that mean Betty White's otherwise very non-Aspie character on "Golden Girls" might have the same condition?

Phoebe said...

First off, I don't think I've ever seen a full episode of Golden Girls, so can't speak to that.

As for the rest, this is why it's a Daria-Sheldon spectrum. It's always about standing in a corner with a couple close friends and being snarky, but Daria is sarcasm, while Sheldon needs it explained to him. But we might be running into one of the problems with using TV characters as examples. Sheldon not getting sarcasm doesn't quite fit. I've known plenty of Sheldon-like individuals - so, so many - and they're all plenty sarcastic. Meanwhile, the super-literal, diagnosable-problem-having sorts generally don't have a nice little friend group like Sheldon does, and otherwise are quite a reach from that character.

Matt said...

Perhaps worth mentioning that "treatment" for autism spectrum disorders today involves teaching the parents to play with their children in a way that any child who was close to the spectrum would benefit from. There was a time when it was thought a diagnosis was far too stigmatizing and no treatment was effective, so many clear cases went undiagnosed, except in the doctors' and parents' unexpressed thoughts; however, today, from what I've gathered (having recently had a autism-expert prof) there's not really a worry about "treating" people who are marginal cases, at least not at young ages.