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Mind Over Grey Matter

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"Who do you know who is nice, but not really affectionate?"

"Name someone who is not smart despite being well-educated..."

"Do you know anyone who is materialistic but who doesn't live ostentatiously?"

My son asks me questions like these all day long, from morning until night. In our family, we call them "database questions." They scare the hell out of me.

I am, despite having hit the half-century mark six months ago, the proud possessor of many quirky facts. I can list all of the stages of cell mitosis from interphase through telephase; I can -- in one large breath -- rattle off all 58 prepositions from "above" through "without"; I can even enumerate the major bones of the head, even distinguishing the zygomatic from the vomer. My brain is awhirl with mnenomic devices from my own high school and college education as well as memory aids invented for my kids.

Still, when my son starts firing off database questions at me, my hard drive shuts down completely. The formerly gleaming and glistening well-oiled machine that used to be my brain is reduced to a festering heap of porridge-like grey matter. Help.

I have been wondering lately why my son with Aspergers syndrome poses these questions with such regularity. He recently explained to me that when he hears an answer to a database question, it is "soothing," "like heaven," "nirvana-like." Clearly, this quirky question and answer exercise provides my son with much-needed reassurance, and offers him a sense of framework and structure that his fragile nervous system craves.

Indeed, my son seems to be on an ongoing quest to deconstruct and understand the puzzling world around him. Recently, my friend Alex (see my past blog "The Unsinkable Alex Brown") and I were musing about what it must be like to have Asperger's syndrome. I offered that perhaps it is a little bit like driving in the rain without windshield wipers. A bit disorienting, a bit muddled, lacking clarity. If this is indeed the case, it is no wonder that my son is on a quest to unravel the wayward strands of complex social interactions, the multifaceted nature of friendship and of basic human emotion. Database questions have become his way of honing in on all of the incoming data that tends to overwhelm him. The answers that he is (sometimes) given help him to categorize people, sensations and actions, and to untangle the maelstrom of incoming stimuli.

One of the trickiest things for my son to understand is that not everything or everyone is black and white. He is truly baffled when he sees me chatting gaily on the phone with a girlfriend after we have had a minor, half-joking tiff the day before. I need to explain then to my son that despite our earlier disagreement, Becky and I are still strong friends. Yes, it hurt my feelings a tiny bit when she told me that I looked like a martian-prostitute in my black flared mini dress and off-the-shoulder jumper. Still, I know she was only teasing. Our friendship, I explain, is strong enough to weather a thousand wardrobe malfunctions. And besides, maybe martian-prostitutes are very attractive? My son looks utterly confused (I check the history on our Mac later that night to see if he has googled "martian-prostitutes," but thankfully, the coast is clear). In short, trying to understand that all is not black and white, and that grey areas are an integral part of all human relations, is a challenge that my son will need to face.

Now, back to database questions... asking these questions and more importantly, getting responses to them allows my son to understand better how the world works. It is almost as if he is constructing one large, experiential spreadsheet of his life experience. I am sorry that my answers tend to be vague and faltering. If only my son would ask me about mitosis...