Asperger’s Syndrome and the Illusion of Friendship

Office birthday partyThis is the third in a series of articles designed to explore some of the issues and concerns that arise around what is currently called Asperger’s syndrome, which will soon be incorporated into the broader spectrum of autism disorder when the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) is published in 2013.

I had a client we’ll call Brian, a man in his mid-thirties with a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome who came to me to discuss what he referred to as “issues he was having with people at work.”

It is not an unusual request for a person with Asperger’s to want to work on the confusion that surrounds social interactions in general. Interactions at work often are more challenging because in the office, not only do the normal social protocols apply, but there often is an additional layer of a particular corporate culture overlaid upon this basic structure, invisibly directing everything.

Bryan was a pleasant and engaging man. He held good eye contact, spoke with precision, and demonstrated a light touch with humor. His demeanor changed, though, when I asked him about his colleagues in the office where he worked as a certified public accountant.

A quiet earnestness overcame him. He spoke clearly and without breaking to collect his thoughts or in expectation of response. He discussed one individual after another in great detail, including information about the kind of work they did, their areas of responsibility, and where they stood in the hierarchy. This was precisely the sort of information I expected to get from Brian on the topic of work relationships.

Then, however, he began to speak of his colleagues in more personal terms. He knew who was married and who was single. He knew who had children, their names and ages, and the schools they attended. Brian told me who had recently vacationed and where they had gone; who golfed and who played tennis; who had iPhones and who used Androids. He knew the makes and models of everyone’s cars. He knew the names of spouses. He knew which neighborhoods his coworkers called home. He even knew who had housekeepers and who did not.

It might appear surprising on first glance to read that I was given such detailed and personal information about others from a man with Asperger’s who came into my office with self-identified problems related to interpersonal relationships. But I have seen this before. Once you look at this apparent contradiction in another light, you may recognize it, too.

I’m talking about the illusion of friendship.

Further discussion with Brian demonstrated to me that he had gleaned all this information about his coworkers not from interactions with them over time, the way you or I might imagine getting to know the people we work with. Instead, Brian had developed his extensive knowledge of everyone around him by listening and even eavesdropping on conversations others were having around him, but in which he had not once been involved personally.

And he was having problems with his coworkers when he would make a statement revealing his knowledge about a person, info he had no apparently legitimate way of knowing. People became uncomfortable around him because of this and withdrew from him, which left him utterly confused.

Of course, this became the starting point for our work together. Brian had to learn about the ways that acquaintanceships and friendships develop over time. Importantly, he also had to learn the concept of reciprocity: It is not enough to know things about another person, but one must also share personal information about oneself as well in the give-and-take manner of casual conversation. This is how trust develops between people. This is the foundation from which we can make a statement such as, “Oh, yes, I know Brian,” with legitimacy.

Brian had to learn that knowing confidential or intimate facts about another person without that reciprocity was considered socially gauche, and that it had the potential even to be frightening to some individuals. Brian had to learn the difference between having friends and having the illusion that he had friends.

Once we began to tease this distinction apart, Brian began making progress in his social interactions. We used role-playing techniques and many “what-if” exercises, and Brian’s distress around the topic of his work environment noticeably decreased over time.

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  • Chad

    October 23rd, 2012 at 1:42 PM

    If someone knew so much about me,I would be creeped out too!But from what I understand,it was not Brian’s mistake either.He just did not consider the boundaries.Do social skills generally lack under Asperger’s syndrome?

  • Melissa

    October 23rd, 2012 at 5:30 PM

    Although I have had no experience with someone with Asperger’s the issue seems like something that could be a little sketchy but not threatening in any way.And if such behavior is observed then the people around the affected person should be in a position to identify. Otherwise it will lead to confrontations and a worsening of the symptoms in the individual.

    I would definitely look it up if such a thing happened with me.if a colleague of mine exhibited such behavior I would try to find out what he is up to.

  • Brittany

    October 23rd, 2012 at 5:37 PM

    How would you even get to the point where you think that it’s okay to have this much additional information about someone and they do not have this on you? Surely there is a part of you who knows that this is not quite right and that there could be a ton of discomfort about that?

  • Hannah

    October 24th, 2012 at 4:04 AM

    That’s just it Brittany- if you have Asperger’s these are not things that you will see as a problem. The brain just doesn’t process things that way with this illness.

  • Tiara J

    October 24th, 2012 at 10:00 AM

    There’s someone similar to Bryan in my office.He hardly has any friends there.And the main reason for that is if you just say hello to him he will want to talk to you for hours together!Everybody literally avoids him because of this habit of his.He also asks very uncomfortable and personal; questions at times out of the blue and that has led to a few people just walking away from him in the middle of a conversation.

    I don’t know whether he has a problem but he certainly does not understand the nuances of social life.

  • Lisa

    October 25th, 2012 at 4:14 AM

    Honestly if someone knew this much info about me and we were not friends then I would feel kind of creeped out, you know? Like maybe this was a stalker or something.

  • alan v

    October 25th, 2012 at 8:15 AM

    what would be the best possible reaction to such a thing?I do realize how important it is to try and see if someone has a problem if they show weird behavior rather than to detest or turn away from them.because that could make it even worse for the person,something I’m sure nobody wants to cause.

  • Martha Dunne

    October 25th, 2012 at 3:55 PM

    For more understanding of AS and how it affects individuals and therefore their relationships, try reading “Wait, What Do You Mean?” Asperger’s Tell and Show. This book is being used in graduate training programs in both the US and the UK.

  • shel

    October 26th, 2012 at 2:34 PM

    Would it be some kind of violation of privacy laws to inform your staff of the potential issues that could arise as a result of hiring someone with Aspergers?

    As we all know sometimes knowledge and education are really the very best recourse to fight anger and discrimination. So maybe having just a little prior knowledge about the issues that you could face with a hire like this would have everyone keep the things that they want to stay private and only share what needs to be shared at the work place.

  • Amy

    November 10th, 2014 at 2:59 PM

    The people I know with Aspergers are very much like this. There is almost a child-like innocence and earnestness to their acquisition and communication of information. They think if something is interesting they should memorize it, and if someone asks a question (E.g. “how are you doing” or “why did he do that?”) they genuinely want a meticulous, 30 minute answer. And so they will dutifully give it.

    It’s kind of sweet, actually, and in some situations can be a strength instead of a “symptom” of a disease. It is a pity that so many people don’t give people with Aspergers the time of day to understand them better.

    One person I know very well who has Aspergers is one of the best people I’ve ever met in my life– conscientious, factual, honest, and completely non-manipulative. Very thoughtful too about other people’s feelings–but only after its been bluntly explained to them.

    Sometimes “healthy” non-aspergers folks seem to be the real ones with their heads on wrong– being impressed instead with the manipulative, showy, and smooth.

  • Colin

    May 30th, 2017 at 3:08 PM

    I worked in an open plan office for over a year and it was very easy to hear people’s personal conversations especially when they sat within a couple of metres. Also people seemed very willing to tell me all about their own lives in detail but did not care so much to ask me about mine. After a while I found it annoying because I just wanted to focus on my own work. I find that detail sticks in my brain. This is good for my working but I find details of people’s lives sticking in my brain quite problematic. After a while I was not interested.

  • Raewyn Mae

    May 31st, 2017 at 11:25 PM

    I have aspergers & are 42, 2 failed relationships & extremely hard to make friends, I do have some friends but
    no really close ones I can tell my problems too, I get incredibly lonely sometimes even if they are around as I think good now we can go shopping, watch dvd’s etc, but then it doesn’t happen, & I thought I might as well be home by myself watching the. I LOVE watching dvd’s because I can go into a fantasty world which would be like mine if I didn’t have aspergers.
    I have a reborn doll I do take out sometimes to baby shops & get clothes etc, @ least people think I normal & people cluck over him too, he looks so real.

  • Mary

    August 15th, 2019 at 8:10 PM

    If a younger Aspie asked my opinion on whether or not they should work in an office, I would say no. There are so many games and manipulations. I have Aspergers and have found office work so difficult. It is not about how good a job you do. It is about how many people want to hang with you over coffee. How many people will suck up to you out of fear of not being bullied by you. I taught in a college and had the highest rating of any professor. People in my team would pretend I stole ideas and pretend I had promised to cover for them for classes. It was pure made up bullshit. I cannot handle dishonesty. I don´t know how to respond or hit them back. I just want to do my stuff and be left in piece. I have lost two jobs in offices and will never work in an office again. It is just too hard. I am so disappointed in other people. It is a bit controversial, but I wish more people were Aspies and less were normal. I have never met an Aspie who wanted to hurt anyone or purposely tried to make people feel less worth, shame or anything like that. Aspies are the golden retrievers of the human race. More simple but never mean. We would give the clothes of our back to help other people. It is a compulsion. So many normal people enjoy taking advantage of that trait.

  • E

    December 24th, 2021 at 1:41 AM

    “How would you even get to the point where you think that it’s okay to have this much additional information about someone and they do not have this on you? Surely there is a part of you who knows that this is not quite right and that there could be a ton of discomfort about that?” The thing is that one might not be aware of others not having the same information. If you say you like chocolate chip cookies, that might become part of your profile. But if the person with autism/aspergers says they don’t like yogurt, neurotypicals don’t usually register it. It’s like Sherlock.

  • Brian

    May 11th, 2022 at 12:12 PM

    I’m not diagnosed but I very much suspect I am on the autistic spectrum. I learned early on my limits or when I was going too far with things, in a situation such as this. Even if I know more then I should I keep it to myself, as not to be creepy. I have read many on the spectrum tend over share in social situations, with me I’m the opposite., over the years I’ve become more and more tight lipped with my personal life.

    I don’t work in an office but in a warehouse, rumors and stories travel very fast and people get to know each other a bit too well. After being sucked into drama at work in my 20s and early 30s, I decided it’s best just to keep to yourself and not get involved in things. Socially, I do enough just to get by but keep it at that. As far as I’m concerned, my co-workers personal lives are none of my business and I could care less about someone’s kid, the vacation they took, and what type of car they drive.
    There tends to be a lot of fakeness where I work, fake acting managers and gossipy co-workers. I no have tolerance for lies and bull, so socially this tends to isolate me. Also, I’m one of the best workers in my department but rarely get credit for it, as I don’t do “Water cooler talk” or whatever.
    My rule is work stays at work. Workplace and personal life stay separate, Social media and work is a big no no to me as well.
    It sounds like Brian(or Bryan) is lonely and is living in the world of fantasy in a sense, I hope he fell off this proverbial horse because IMO, this could definitely be construed as stalking which could lead to law enforcement getting involved. The autistic mind can go dark places and I hope Brian has overcome this.

  • T-Mak

    October 31st, 2023 at 11:49 AM

    I have Aspergers myself , me personally its not weird that he knew so much, because sometimes people talk to much and to loud. It only became strange when he brought it up first. If he never spoke to those around him , but then one day they decide to speak to each other , then he starts telling them stuff he knows about them ,then yes. He should have let them lead that conversation , and then the other person would tell him themselves. It wouldn’t have been new informtion to him, but the conversation would be more natural, plus its a way of determining whether or not he likes them as an individual.

  • Alice

    April 4th, 2024 at 12:52 PM

    UnDx Asbergers Here. I Have known for a long time though, I hit real high on any online test I take.
    Anyway, Here’s the deal. For me anyway. Sight, Sound, both they get sucked up, think of a recording video or audio like amazon ring, only it is organic, natural, it is not intentional it is a biproduct of exiting. So, if said information is happening in the vicinity, we are inadvertently processing and filing it. Personally I care not for sharing my recording, but it can be helpful in screening out who I would befriend down the road. I do not share with others what I know, because said things could have changed as does life, and I always let them lead and follow with Q and As etc…should the occasion arise.

    I think people are of the opinion that its very very weird, and I think this is because they lack the extreme observation skills we are naturally inclined to, they must put not only Effort into observing things, but have a functioning attention span that allows for this. The attention span for the general population is like what 10 seconds? Ours is literally infinite and built in requiring no effort at all (probably what leads to Burnout I suspect). So, if one looks at it from the other side, yeah they probably think its odd.

    Its ruff sometimes. for sure. At the end of the day, I feel that I have always been able to stay one step ahead of the general population because of this.

    Now, another observation I have made is this. When I was young and they were trying to figure out why I couldn’t take tests or learn on a Left vs Right brain plan, I went through a saga of tests. The finalization of which yielded that I am neither right nor left brain that I was given the title of Bi-Hemisphere, that is the tests said I used my left brain in equal proportion to my right brain right down the middle. I have seen very little out there on this, and this testing was done in the early to late 80’s over the course of years, using phycologists, phychs, eggs, ect…it went on and on for years until I got this information. So I wonder how many of us if tested would show Bi-Hemisphere brain thought processes (think they call it Bi-lateral now) and how that arrangement fits into the Aspi life.

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