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Lifelines: Checkmate

C. Saphir

Wednesday, June 22, 2016


I was never officially diagnosed with Asperger’s. 

Growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, no one even knew what that was. My rebbeim and teachers loved me because I was the smartest kid in the class; my classmates hated me for the same reason. I was friendly with the few other gifted kids — the geeks — but the rest of the kids either bullied me or wanted nothing to do with me. 

When people talked about body language, I had no idea what they were referring to. Communication, to me, was purely about the words that were said. A raised eyebrow, a mocking tone, an exaggerated gesture — none of those meant anything to me. I never knew if a question was meant rhetorically, or an expression was being used idiomatically. Once, in elementary school, my teacher punished me by sending me to the corner and telling me to sit there for a minute. I counted 60 seconds on the clock and then went back to my seat. When my teacher scolded me for returning to my seat without permission, I was bewildered. 

Another time, my teenage sister, who struggled with her weight, went out shopping with a friend. My sister came home from the outing in tears. Apparently, her friend had tried on a top, and when she saw that it was too big on her, she handed it to my sister and said, “It’s too big on me, so it will probably fit you.” My sister was deeply wounded. 

I couldn’t understand what the problem was. I completely missed the subtext of the friend’s comment — the implication that my sister was heavy — and I wondered why my sister didn’t realize that her friend was simply trying to help her by handing her a top that would look good on her. 

Not having a very vibrant social life, I filled much of my spare time playing chess — mostly with myself. I would read about chess games between grandmasters that were covered in the newspaper, and I would recreate the boards printed in the paper in order to figure out the best move. I read books on chess strategy, teaching myself how to control the center of the board and carry out combination attacks that would freeze my opponent (me).

I also possessed strong language and pattern recognition skills, which allowed me to become fluent in Spanish and Hebrew. They also helped me to learn a totally different language: the language of normal communication. Like a blind person with a highly developed sense of hearing, I taught myself the algorithms of communication through a system of trial and error, as well as with what I called the “moron test.” 

Operating on the assumption that most people in this world are not morons, mean-spirited, or mentally ill, I paid close attention to the feedback I received from people. Once, a classmate of mine complained that I was not listening to him. I was puzzled by that statement, because I was actually listening intently. 

Applying the moron test, I concluded that he was neither lying nor delusional. There must have been a valid reason, then, for his accusation.

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