The Badge of Asperger’s: Am I a Phony?


A software engineer discusses his existential struggle as a result of having Asperger’s Syndrome.

Am I a phony?  

My first article about Asperger’s and about myself was posted hereIt solicited some good comments and replies which initiated more thoughts.  One of the comments led to title of this piece:  Am I a phony?

Why does that occur to me?  In that article was the statement that it is difficult to make friends because I “misbehave.”  The word was used in a vague sense and as a catchall.  I don’t have friends so presume to have misbehaved in some manner.  The question was asked how I might misbehave. Buried in there is a major problem. 

Here are some words and phrases I have learned to say to people:  As much as two thirds of communications between people is unspoken.  It is in the mannerisms, tonal inflections, prosody, body posture, and other things I don’t even know about.  You don’t even think about them.  You just kind of know where the conversation is going, what to say, and what not to say.  I don’t have a clue.  The results are that you think I am aloof, I don’t care, I am weird, or I don’t know what.  You just don’t like me.  You may not know why, and I certainly do not know why.

Having written that, please return to the first sentence of that paragraph in that those are words I have learned to say.  Here is why those words were chosen.

I may meet a woman, have a conversation, and walk away thinking:  That went well.  Meanwhile, she walks off thinking all the negative things I listed earlier.  End result, she wants nothing to do with me.  She will be polite and kind to me, but she just does not want to be around me, much less be a friend.  Or maybe she does not consciously think those things.  She simply has no interest in me at all.

If I knew what she was thinking, I still probably would not have a clue as to why.  When taken in context those words I have learned to say are hollow and pretty much without meaning to me.  Why?  Because, as compared to you, the conversations are just words to me.  The words have meanings, often powerful meanings, but there is little unspoken language in my world.

Ok, there is some.  Yes, I can see when you are obviously sad, angry, or what not.  But the subtle clues that I read about, those that you use to know where to take the conversation and where not to take the conversation, they don’t exist to me.  

How do I know all this? Only with help from my psychologist and evaluation of the history of my life.  I had no friends as a child, teen, or young adult. There are only two names I remember from Junior High School and High School, and one of them was killed in Viet Nam.  I still have no friends.  I have learned to be rather good writing software and configuring computers.  The end result is that I travel in a very small circle at work.  Those people respect me.  But not one has ever asked me to do anything with them outside of work.  Not one ever stops by just to chat.  I don’t see anything missing in our relationship, except for friendship.

To the title of this essay:  Am I a phony?

After having thought a great deal about this, having rehearsed out hypothetical conversations multiple times, and now in real life I may present my case, to you, as an Aspie.  I tell you that I am an Aspie and if that seems to interest you, I will present the pertinent traits.  My hope is that will you delay judgement about me for a while until you get to know me a bit.

Then I run into problems.  I have met a few people with Autism, and have attended an Asperger’s support group.  My difficulties are much less severe than those that I have met.  That presents a bit of a predicament.  From what I observe, I am quite normal.  

Except, that little point, that I have been essentially without friends for all my life.  And that other little point that two psychologists say that my Asperger’s is rather obvious to them.  I usually don’t feel like an Aspie.  The obvious question jumps up at me: Am I using Asperger’s as an excuse for bad behavior?

To belabor the point a bit, I do not see that I miss much of the conversation.  Everything is fine to me.  It is difficult for me to really buy in to the notion that I am an Aspie and I really do not have those skills essential to successful human interactions.  So when I tell you about those attributes, I am being a phony!  

I am using every trick I can to get in good favor with you.  And yeah, my bag of “tricks” is rather shallow and unreliable.  If I have written this well, you might know that better than I.  And “bag of tricks” is an apt metaphor.  I cannot just be me and hope or expect that we will probably be friends.  I misbehave and haven’t a clue as to when and how I do that.  

If I can’t be me, then who can I be?  I don’t have the skills necessary to be someone else.   My best option seems to be to tell you a bit about me and hope for the best.  Hence the badge of Asperger’s.

History and past experience tells me this:  We start off well, then I open my mouth and we immediately enter a death spiral.  By the time we finish the first few sentences I am already circling the drain.  I have learned enough to know that a new relationship is a bit like fragile raft.  It takes two, working together, to make it strong.  I seem to begin all relationships already circling the drain and I need to paddle like hell to keep away from the swirl in the center.  But that fragile raft will not yet support my strenuous paddling.

Back to those words I have learned to say, and here we go in our death spiral.  I am a phony.  Having written all this, and maybe asked you to treat me different, I’m a whiner.  That does not sit well with me.  But my options for your friendship are few.

As in life I often don’t know when and how to end a conversation on a proper note, so an abrupt halt will have to do.  Irony and metaphor abound.

Photo: Flickr – hepingting/”Autism”


  1. That was a very moving article you wrote, and it doesn’t sound at all phony or inappropriate to me. Maybe you could meet people doing activities you enjoy outside of work. If you signed up for some sort of activity (computer games? Walking?) then you could spend time doing the activity with them and talking about it. Sorry if that’s not helpful or if you already thought of that. But you sound like a really thoughtful person who people would want to know.

    • Bryan Kelly says:

      About two years before learning than I’m an Aspie I started dance lessons. I discussed this with my psychologist and she agreed that was a prescient decision. Dancing is great. I show up, the ladies show up, and we work as a team to accomplish our goal, learning new dance steps. It is a limited and structured environment. One of the best decisions I have ever made.
      Thank you for your comments.

  2. Nope. You aren’t a phony. You’re a fellow human being trying to function in an alien world. I say this, because I’ve always thought of myself as ‘normal’, and “OK”, and nominal, but have had people point out more than once (especially when I was younger) that I was not normal at all. At least, not ‘their’ sort of normal. I finally got my own DX of Aspergers in my late forties. Understanding that my head is wired differently from so-called ‘neurotypical’ people has been both a relief, and has opened up a whole new library of questions to ask.

    Being female, I had my rougher edges sanded off me at a younger age than guys do. I had to learn how to read those subtle cues of body language, and it’s a bit like learning a new language or trying to see a new color- difficult, but not totally impossible. I still speak ‘normal’ with a decidedly Aspie accent. I have friends- they accept me for who I am, and the kind of friend I am- the one they know they can call at 3AM, the steadfast, rational, reliable one. I learned to listen more than speak, and ask questions that draw out other people. Catering to their self-interest seems to amplify their positive perception, I’ve learned.

    Small talk still eludes (and frankly, bores) me, but I’ve ‘scripted’ enough of it that I can get through a casual encounter with an acquaintance without too much difficulty. I use personas, too- they help get me through the day and interactions with others.

    I do not know how old you are, Bryan, but you might find some comfort in considering this: Our brains are more slow to mature and make connections than normal people’s brains are. I figure it’s because our neurons are so much dense. This is my own personal, internal observation, and it has provided me with the internal encouragement to keep going, growing, and learning. I’m a lot more comfortable in my skin in my fifties than I was in my twenties and thirties. All people keep learning- but I think that for Aspies, our learning is a deeper, slower thing. Just because you might be body-language blind right now doesn’t mean you’ll still be so in five or ten years time. Focus your formidable intelligence on it, and treat it like an engineering problem. That might create a resolution for you.

    And consider this: folks like us helped make the world a better place. Steve Silberman, in his article “The Geek Syndrome”, reminded us that we geeky folks preferred to mess around perfecting stone knapping techniques than gossip around the fire. From there, things got better.

    • Bryan Kelly says:

      Nice reply. The comment about an alien world was unexpected, and pretty much right on. Not entirely alien, but enough to make things uncomfortable.
      I still have a difficult time with small talk. If someone might ask what I like to talk about my answer would be: What do you think is important? If it is important to you, and you have any significant amount of passion, then I think I will also find it important.
      I am 65 and think my skills have improved over the years. I accept that those skills will never equal the average person.
      Thank you for taking the time to post.

  3. Bryan,

    My experience has been different from yours, but I have struggled with some of the same feelings about being phony. My perspective now is that feeling phony and being phony are two different things.

    I was finally diagnosed with AD/HD in my forties, which at least helps provide some context.

    Keep working on ways to reach out and try to listen to the responses you get without taking them too personally. I heard, but did not listen, to people telling me to calm down for ages before I realized that my level of just being interested in talking about something was perceived as being very intense by others.

    • Bryan Kelly says:

      Re: … my level of just being interested in talking about something was perceived as being very intense by others.
      Good Point. Sometimes I think people have disdain for those that get excited about something. We should be “cool” and just go with the flow. I am not fond of that position.

  4. Jennifer says:

    You do not seem a phony to me. I also have High Functioning Autism, and wonder same about myself.

    I have logicallly learnt what to say in conversations; however, because it is thought-out logic rather than instinct or feeling, social interactions are mostly draining and exhausting for me. I also have mostly learnt from books, films, and television so that leaves me feeling more of a phony. I wonder what it is like for neurotypicals to instinctively feel what is right to say. I certainly FEEL emotions, but cannot express them properly.

    I cannot really make/keep friends, either, because my ‘misbehaviour’. I’ve misbehaved before I realise I have done. I’ve probably misbehaved here, too. I apologise.

    • Jennifer

      No you do not misbehave here.
      You write “I wonder what it is like for neurotypical to instictly feel what is right to say”.

      We don’t Jennifer.
      Or let me speak only for myself.
      I watch the expression in the other persons eyes. If I start talking to a strange I will not stop if he takes a step back away from me or turns his head and look the other direction. Nor will I continue if he does not respond like a ping pong ball coming back to me fast. It does not matter what he say when he responds, unless it is a clear indication of hostility or he say he wants to be left alone.But that has never happened.
      The look in his eyes, him moving himself away from me ,taking a step back tells me to stop.
      Or if he just opens his smartphone or news paper and start reading.

      What we say when we small talk is not important as long as we know not be to be personal and not be intimate but simply talk about issues not personal,like the weather, it takes time to wait for the train etc.
      And if he or she warms up, become friendly and show interest in the conversation then I can become more personal pretty quicly.

      You Jennifer do not misbehave here .

    • Bryan Kelly says:

      Your response was well thought out and quite appropriate. It is what you feel. KIM’s response to you was good also.
      I like your response and thank you for taking the time to post.

  5. I didn’t believe my first diagnosis, got a second opinion. now seeing my 3rd psychologist, they all say i have Aspergers syndrome.
    There are still times I think they got it wrong but I accept that that i have ASD most of the time.

    I’ve only told a few people. Had a couple of people dismiss it as “only mild” or say “everyone has those kind of difficulties relating to other people”

    I can’t get along with other people, I don’t know what i’ve said or done, they just don’t want anything to do with me.

    The less I have to do with others the better.

  6. Hi Bryan,

    I posted a couple comments on your earlier article about how my father has Aspergers and how that affected me.

    I wonder if some of the problem may be your conversational style. Do you listen? do you talk over people?Do you make eye contact? do you stand too close or talk to loudly? do you speak in a way that comes across as self centered, or challenging or hostile? Conversation is like playing ball, you have to toss the ball back and forth.

    These are things you could maybe learn with a coach who specializes in Aspergers.

    Everyone feels like a phony sometimes! Manners, social rules, it’s all phoniness in a way, but you have to learn it. Extroverted people, from my observation, are actually very attuned to social rules and theynare constantly observing people, learning and copying others, and modifying their behavior to find what works. That’s why they are good at it. Just like salesmen get trained on how to interact with customers. It’s a skill that can be learned,

  7. I have the opposite problem – I take in everything, and I can’t process it fast enough. If neurotypicals see the unspoken elements of conversation through a soda straw, it sounds like you can’t even find the straw. In the same analogy, I have a firehose. There are times when I want to shout “Aah! Turn it off!”

    You are who you are. I am who I am. I can understand your uncomfortableness, albeit from another angle, and I want to say ‘You are not a phony’; don’t sell yourself short because society can’t handle it.

    I was in IT for a long time, now I’m trying a new career that almost requires one to be an extrovert: teaching high school. I may not make it; one of the few criticisms of my style is, “You’re too flat; you have to be more outgoing, more engaging.” Yeah, well, no. I literally cannot do that, I’ll drown. I have to find my own style that works or look for another career.

  8. Of course you’re not a phony. You’re probably more real than anyone else. You have a neurological condition. You deal with it the best you can. I have ADD. It’s both a blessing and a curse. But I’ve learned how to use it and it allows me to be MUCH more productive than many of my peers much of the time. Just be you. Smart people get that. You’re fine.

    • Bryan Kelly says:

      Hello Mark,
      I do not have hyper activity but I do have ADD. Sometimes it is really difficult to not think about other things. As it happens most of my days are alone with several computers. That makes it is bit easier to stay on task. But even with someone I am interested in, it can be rather difficult to ignore events around me.
      Yes, I’ll just try to relax and be me.
      Do other people have a problem with this site being really slow?

      • Bryan

        Other people have all sorts of problems with this site !
        Lots of issues all the time .
        And no my computer also warns me against the Getty image they use ,.

      • Gosh yes we have problems with this site being slow! Also the oops you’re posting too fast-slow down, the posts that don’t show up, the refresh rates in the middle of a reply. This is one of the most unstable platforms out there, and one that such an important topic generator should be moved to other platforms. can’t even edit your own responses. How lame is that?

        • Bryan Kelly says:

          Hello Becca,
          Yes, my conversational style was pretty bad for much of my life. I didn’t know it then. My style was, hmm, I don’t really know what my style was. I am probably still not good, but do understand the need for improvement. I do see a psychologist regularly. That is a good topic to open.
          Thank you for your post.

        • Bryan Kelly says:

          I just received the message:
          You are posting comments too quickly. Slow down.
          Unfortunately I could not find the button that is labeled:

          No, I am not! I often type much faster and my computer keeps up just fine. So do many other web sites I visit. You need to work on being able to keep up.

Speak Your Mind