Asperger’s: “I felt out of place in this world”
[Published by the Press Association 22/08/2009]
People suffering with Asperger’s can find it very difficult to interact with others. Kate Hodal takes a look at the syndrome as a new film on the subject, Adam, brings this problem into the Hollywood spotlight
“Most people have an autopilot, but having Asperger’s means I don’t,” says 44-year-old James Christie.
Diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, a rare form of autism, seven years ago, the Glasgow-based data assistant say he lives each day “by manual control”.
It’s not known exactly how many people suffer from the lifelong form of autism in the UK, but experts estimate as many as half-a-million.
Characterised by having difficulty with social interaction and communication, those with Asperger’s find social cues which we all take for granted, such as body language and tone of voice, very difficult to understand.
“It’s like the culture shock of being somewhere foreign all the time, except for the fact that I’m at home. I have to think, ‘How do I say: Hello, how are you? How do I approach this, or any, situation?’,” he explains.
It’s a way of life that Christie, a charmingly eccentric and eloquent man with a penchant for science fiction, has got used to over the years.
But it has not been easy. Jobs and relationships have suffered because of his condition – with his inability to multi-task or read sexual cues infuriating managers and alienating potential girlfriends.
A new film has just come out which focuses on the difficulty of “Asperger relationships”.
Adam, starring Hugh Dancy, is about a young man with Asperger’s who falls in love with his neighbour Beth (Rose Byrne).
Christie watched the film with his mother and strongly related to the eponymous hero, who finds it very difficult to express his love.
“I thought Dancy ‘nailed Adam’ in his portrayal,” he says.
“My mother would turn to me at points and say, ‘That’s just like you do it, too’.”
Growing up with Asperger’s was stressful for his family, he admits.
“I don’t like to talk about it very much. It was pretty awful. I didn’t fit in, couldn’t understand very much. I felt physically and emotionally alienated from the world.”
Despite growing up in a family who worked in the health service – his mother is a former nurse and his father worked with adults with mental-health problems – Christie wasn’t diagnosed until 2002, at the age of 37.
“I had no idea about autism except what I saw in Rain Man,” he explains.
“My problems were too well hidden and the clues too well compensated for by my achievements in other areas to be noticed until many years later.”
However, his late diagnosis is a fairly typical problem, says Caroline Hattersley, of the National Autistic Society.
“Asperger’s is what we call a ‘hidden disability’, as you can’t tell that someone has it just by looking at them,” she explains.
“It was first written about during World War II, but it’s only in the last 15 years that it has been properly recognised. In fact, there’s a whole generation of people in their 40s and beyond who were never spotted or, indeed, were misdiagnosed as having mental-health issues.”
Despite having trouble holding down steady jobs, making friends, playing sport and learning, no one in his family, school or workplace picked up on Christie’s latent health problems.
It was only a chance reading of a newspaper article on Asperger’s seven years ago, he says, that got him wondering whether there was a reason for his lack of social skills.
“I felt a strange sense of familiarity,” he says.
“I didn’t believe that I could be autistic – I’d had jobs and travelled around Australia on my own – but I wanted to find out one way or another.”
A series of tests revealed that Christie is extremely articulate and has very good writing skills, but very poor information-processing abilities – a clear indication of Asperger’s.
“That’s why I like to say I’m part near-genius, part low-grade moron,” he laughs, stressing that he still needs people to talk to him clearly and bluntly for him to properly understand.
The diagnosis has allowed Christie, who cares for his mother and is one of an estimated 13% of adults with an autism-spectrum disorder able to hold down a full-time job, to understand himself better.
Ritualising certain aspects of his life and not overworking his brain help him to live more comfortably with his condition.
“People with Asperger’s do things in a certain way for reassurance because our ability to cope with the information flooding in from the outside world is severely limited,” Christie explains.
“We need a routine and a narrow, limited range of interests to keep us focused: heavyweight boxing, Scottish history and Buffy the Vampire Slayer are mine.”
He has even written a short story called Drusilla’s Roses, which picks up where season five of Buffy left off, as well as a book about Scotland.
“People with Asperger’s think logically first, then emotionally,” he says.
“But writing Drusilla really got me working on my own emotional reactions.”
And – perhaps ironically for a guy with emotional detachment issues – Christie describes himself as “sentimental bag of mush at heart” who is still looking for “the one”.
Sadly, and for no known reason, Asperger Syndrome is more common in males than in females. And having loved and lost just twice in his life, Christie is still struggling to find a girlfriend.
“I once was a natural loner and learned, without question, that the single life is not the way to be,” he says.
“Courting and etiquette are a set of certain rules that can be learned over time, and I learned – painstakingly – how to be a good man in my last relationship.
“That said, I think it’s a great pity that those who have the social skills I lack so often seem to squander them.”