Richard Whelan

Asperger Syndrome and Not Fitting In


When I moved to Germany, my social anxiety stayed behind. It was the language, you know? Deliberate sentences about explicit subjects, and I spoke only rudimentary German. Small talk didn’t feel as valued, jokes were structured differently. Germans don’t know how to slag people and neither do I. The pressure to say something witty decreased once my vocabulary consisted of only the names of sandwich fillings.


When you put so much effort into socialising it can feel draining. It can tire you out. You find yourself making excuses: “I have a meeting in the morning,” you say at a packed birthday party, “I’ve had a lovely time but I have to get up early.” The birthday girl’s face drops, “Oh,” she says, “Well, thanks for coming!” And you know that she wants you to stay. You want to stay, intellectually. But physically you really, really don’t. You go home. Slowly, your social fabric comes apart, and you keep trying to stitch it together in short bursts before you have to go home again. It keeps happening. It’s exhausting.


Life only makes sense when you run it through a pre-approved programme. I like writers’ biographies. There’s a biography for every situation. When my friend told me about his worries of not getting enough work straight out of college, I said “Paul Auster moved to Paris after college. He didn’t get a proper job for years.” My friend took little solace in this. Why would he? He’s not Paul Auster. I don’t mean that as a criticism; it’s just that he knows he’s not Paul Auster, and I think I am Paul Auster. Not literally, you understand, but he is woven into me.


I wrote my undergrad dissertation on Rainer Werner Fassbinder and, because my social alienation can feel so acute at times, I bonded with Fassbinder more than with most of the living humans in my life. He’s been dead a long time, but he was my friend. Fassbinder understood the world the way I understood it, though I know if we were to meet up our relationship would fall apart. But in books he’s safe. The richness of detail in his life and films, and in the criticism written about his work, were the crevices in which I lived. There I could control life. Life consisted of information. Information can’t tell a joke. Information can’t throw you quite the same kind of curveball you’re bruised by in everyday social situations. Information respects your need for discourse, and it doesn’t value small talk.


I liked Fassbinder so much that I started learning the language. I became good at it quickly, and moved to Germany for seven months to learn more. My German surroundings could be dealt with in terms of information. No small talk, no jokes, no curveballs beyond basic language learner questions. Every time I spoke to an English speaker I insisted we communicate through German. I had to learn the language. I had to practice this sentence, then that. I had discovered an easy way to get through social situations, and I wouldn’t throw it away by speaking English. “I have to practice my German,” I’d say, but really I had to ease myself into the social world.


Then I came out.


For somebody who used to suffer from acute social anxiety, coming out as having Asperger Syndrome released me. I no longer had to watch my every word. When people asked me if I’d come to the pub on a Saturday night, I didn’t have to lie; and I didn’t feel so much pressure to fit in. “I’m not going out,” I could finally say, “I’m staying inside to work on creative projects.” And people understood. And I understood. Most important was that I understood. I didn’t have to enjoy socialising all the time. It was okay.


So why do I think I’m Paul Auster? There’s little disconnect between what I read and what I live. People with Asperger Syndrome tend to learn conversational skills from movies, books, TV shows. When I was a teenager I’d quote much more liberally from Firefly or Redwall, or anything I could get my hands on. Now it’s less pronounced. But when I read about Paul Auster I still feel like I am in Paul Auster’s world. When I read about Rainer Werner Fassbinder, I sense viscerally that I am in his world. He is not an interest. He is a part of me. My identity is rooted in these people; amongst others. When I show a girl a film, I am showing her a part of myself. I can’t emote well enough to create a real sense of intimacy with anyone, so I show them these parts of myself. When they don’t like the films, I feel insulted: They don’t like me. These films and books aren’t just passions. My reality and their reality have a shared root. I have learned to live from a reflection of reality.


Even now. The stylistic and emotional root of this essay doesn’t come from me, or from my life experiences. It doesn’t come from a diffuse range of influences. It’s a persona I’ve adopted based on one essay I read recently. I am that author. I think that’s why people with Asperger Syndrome make such good writers and actors. We don’t know who we are, so we become other people. We don’t fit in, but our personae can; for a limited time.


I don’t fit in. But not fitting in is okay. What I’ve taken from my experiences is that the mainstream is very small, and outsiders are everywhere. Art college. Literature. Film. These places are full of people who don’t fit in. And beyond my friends, I read about old writers who are said to have fit the diagnostic criteria for Asperger Syndrome. Samuel Beckett. Herman Melville. Franz Kafka. They become a part of my reality. They become my friends; just as real as the living people in my life. We can not fit in together.




Richard Whelan teaches Cultural Theory to ungrateful undergrads. He divides his time between Hamburg and Dublin.