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I HAVE TO KNOW THE LANGUAGE IT IS IN!
June 7, 2007 10:01 PM   Subscribe

Evan M. O'Dorney, a 13-year-old speller from Danville, Calif., won the 2007 Scripps National Spelling Bee, with the final word "serrefine". Here is an interesting interview with the winner. Did you say my name wrong?
posted by exlotuseater (112 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
You can see a list of the final words over the years here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scripps_National_Spelling_Bee

They seem to have gotten harder overall (1940:"Therapy").

Serrefine defined.
posted by unSane at 10:10 PM on June 7, 2007


A meme is born.
posted by collywobbles at 10:16 PM on June 7, 2007


What am obnoxious child. :D I would be foaming at the mouth... Kudos to the interviewer. Hilarious interview though ^^
posted by Phire at 10:19 PM on June 7, 2007


Public school bashing commences in 10...9...8...

This kid was homeschooled.

Not that you can tell or anything.
posted by dhammond at 10:23 PM on June 7, 2007 [2 favorites]


As most of the comments say on ifilm, I wouldn't doubt if he has Asperger's Syndrome.
posted by daninnj at 10:34 PM on June 7, 2007


If you are going to misspell a tag, this would be the wrong post to do so.
posted by YoBananaBoy at 10:35 PM on June 7, 2007


I didn't notice the tag... Haha... isn't it ironic, don't ya think?
posted by daninnj at 10:39 PM on June 7, 2007


Oh god. I think that interview prompted more cringes per second than almost anything thing else I can remember watching.
posted by the other side at 10:40 PM on June 7, 2007


I had to turn it off when they were trying to make him spell scombridae.

Jesus.
posted by Ynoxas at 10:59 PM on June 7, 2007


He's like Data before he learned how to be human.
posted by Justinian at 11:07 PM on June 7, 2007 [6 favorites]


Oh man have I felt exactly like that kid. During a trivia competition:

You asked what protocol governs connections over the internet, and I responded TCP! IP is a seperate protocol over which TCP runs! Had you asked what protocols, plural, are used in internet communcations, I would have responded with that answer. You, however, used the singular - and further specified connections, of which IP has no concept.
posted by phrontist at 11:13 PM on June 7, 2007 [3 favorites]


omg wtf lol !
posted by Webbster at 11:42 PM on June 7, 2007


This kid lives less than a mile away from me. I'm torn between the desire to congratulate him or to avoid him at all costs.
posted by BrotherCaine at 11:43 PM on June 7, 2007


From another article - "O'Dorney's parents are proud that he remains a well-rounded kid. He has a first-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do, takes piano lessons at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and plays piano to accompany his church's choir."

You know, they might want to think about adding a team activity or two.
posted by Liosliath at 11:47 PM on June 7, 2007 [2 favorites]


I hope he grows up to be happy and well-adjusted, but right now he kind of give me the heebie jeebies....hmmm I wonder if that is the correct spelling of "heebie jeebies."
posted by heatherbeth at 11:58 PM on June 7, 2007


I think he was just freaked out by (1) being interviewed on television and (2) being enthusiastically engaged in conversation by an attractive woman. He's a 13-year-old nerd, for crying out loud. In his position, at his age, I'd have sucked at least that hard.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 12:01 AM on June 8, 2007


S-E-R-I-A-L-K-I-L-L-E-R
posted by Justinian at 12:07 AM on June 8, 2007 [7 favorites]


He's the same way with Jimmy Kimmel. What I find disturbing about this clip is the kid is obviously floundering, stuck on that "I need the definition!" thing, and his parents are howling with laughter.
posted by Liosliath at 12:08 AM on June 8, 2007


The interview's loading too slow for me. Does anyone have a transcript?
posted by divabat at 12:10 AM on June 8, 2007


Here's one.
posted by Liosliath at 12:12 AM on June 8, 2007


I swear that kid reminds me of a nephew of mine, the son of my oldest Fundamentalist sister. I'm going to his high school graduation on Sunday. He was homeschooled so he's tagging onto the graduation ceremonies of a local Baptist school & he's enrolled to start at Bob Jones University in the Fall.

Yes, I know.

He wants to major in Construction at Bob Jones. I suppose it's an appropriate school, Jesus being a carpenter & all. Sigh.
posted by miss lynnster at 12:36 AM on June 8, 2007


My guess is the kid has high-functioning autism, which is probably the reason he's homeschooled. He has all the signs.

However it's crystal clear that the talking hairstyle was given no prep notes about the word she was told to ask him (probably a spur of the moment thing anyway), and no warning about his "odd" personality. Finding out a bit about one's subject before interviewing him is J-O-U-R-N-A-L-I-S-M, though, which is a bit hard, so that can't really be expected from these shows.

That Jimmy Kimmel clip is just cruel. The kid has no comprehension that he's even being mocked by these assholes.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 12:37 AM on June 8, 2007


I've never heard of Jimmy Kimmel before. Does his show always feature a bunch of cunts making fun of children? Why didn't they just give him a wedgie and shove his head in the toilet? Would have achieved the same effect.

SEMI-DISCLAIMER: I was our school's champion speller
posted by bunglin jones at 1:09 AM on June 8, 2007


However it's crystal clear that the talking hairstyle was given no prep notes about the word she was told to ask him (probably a spur of the moment thing anyway), and no warning about his "odd" personality. Finding out a bit about one's subject before interviewing him is J-O-U-R-N-A-L-I-S-M, though, which is a bit hard, so that can't really be expected from these shows.

You're shitting me. You mean to tell me you missed the part of the interview where the lady asks him about eating subway sandwiches before competition, and then lifts up a motherfucking footlong next to her face and smiles at the camera? Come on, man. Give credit where credit's due.
posted by phaedon at 1:12 AM on June 8, 2007 [2 favorites]


in depth journalism, baby.
posted by phaedon at 1:20 AM on June 8, 2007


H-Y-P-E-R-L-E-X-I-A.
posted by louche mustachio at 2:28 AM on June 8, 2007


What a coincidence, the same day he wins the spelling bee, he also wins the internet mockery bee. That takes talent.
posted by Rhomboid at 2:36 AM on June 8, 2007


And luck!
posted by louche mustachio at 2:48 AM on June 8, 2007


couldn't get past the first sentence
posted by moonbird at 3:34 AM on June 8, 2007


That's the most awkard interview of all time. I loved seeing the CNN presenter sweat.
posted by chuckdarwin at 4:02 AM on June 8, 2007


S-E-R-I-A-L-K-I-L-L-E-R

You, sir, owe me a new keyboard. And monitor.

And pants.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:23 AM on June 8, 2007


omg ASPIE! That video is great...he is so LITERAL. "I don't know what my mom said, you have to ask her". I also like how he lights up when he is spelling.

On the Kimmel clip he gets thrown off because they don't do it the way they are supposed to. I am surprised he didn't have a panic attack!! I thought he was so cute.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a Broadway musical all about the Evans of the world. (If it is ever performed "blue" near you....I highly recommend going to see it!!)
posted by gminks at 4:28 AM on June 8, 2007


I haven't seen this kid, but I heard a pretty sympathetic interview on NPR, and he still kind of gave me the willies...
posted by jalexei at 4:44 AM on June 8, 2007


you all suck. he's just a kid. he's probably more like you than you are like anyone else...

i was once in charge of a high school 'computer club.' it was so sad to have the nerds slagging each other and forming little cliques.

people suck.
posted by geos at 4:45 AM on June 8, 2007


That video is great...he is so LITERAL. "I don't know what my mom said, you have to ask her".

This is one of the many reasons I found this interview compelling.
posted by exlotuseater at 4:52 AM on June 8, 2007


metafilter: people suck.

I thought the interview awesome, if only because watching a CNN puff piece get handed its own ass is extraordinarily satisfying for me.

After it was over, I bet she was calling for more 'debate' over the iraq war, since they've got a unholy amount of wankers who'd pontificate willingly on the subject.
posted by Busithoth at 5:13 AM on June 8, 2007


I had to turn it off when they were trying to make him spell scombridae.

That was my favorite part, because he got excited and engaged when presented with that opportunity. It was also interesting to see how his mind worked when it came to spelling a word-- getting the definition, asking whether the origin was French or Latin, and then puzzling it out from there.
posted by deanc at 5:15 AM on June 8, 2007


WTF is wrong with you people? The kid is thirteen. Why do we expect anyone in the spotlight to be media savvy? I was an effing dork at 13 and also obnoxious to adults. Media interviews are difficult for adults, and this kid probably got the same questions from every interviewer and got sick of it. The world is not a scripted reality show where everyone has a quip for each setup question. This kid won a national competition. What had you achieved at 13? What national competition have you won even recently? The people who posted to this thread are the real assholes and serial killers. Have some sympathy.
posted by about_time at 5:15 AM on June 8, 2007


That Kimmel clip was horrendous. How could they have stuck to their script when they saw how agitated the poor kid was becoming? At least they got their bullshit laugh at the end.

I hope his parents refuse to let him do any more of this bullshit - you'd think that they'd be a bit more protective of him (although maybe they know their son well enough and figure this stuff will roll right off him)
posted by davey_darling at 5:21 AM on June 8, 2007


I think you are right, Davey. If the kid really is an aspie, this sort of ridicule will not be considered relevant in his mind. He will be more frustrated at the inability to get any answers right, without personalising the impossibility of the situation.
posted by AmberV at 5:43 AM on June 8, 2007


Whatever. I have a hard time not envisioning the supremely dorky yet somehow arrogant adult he's going to be become.
posted by ghastlyfop at 5:48 AM on June 8, 2007


Although yes, if autism and aspergers are involved, all is forgiven.
posted by ghastlyfop at 5:52 AM on June 8, 2007


Not being media savvy is one thing, being completely odd is another. I suspect that a lot of MeFIers were nerds/geeks (or still are), so they know a little about being socially inept and uncomfortable - this kid is that multiplied by ten. I have a lot of sympathy for him, actually.
posted by Liosliath at 5:52 AM on June 8, 2007


WTF is wrong with you people?

Seconded. What a depressing "discussion."
posted by languagehat at 5:55 AM on June 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


The Kimmel clip is also guilty of just not being funny.
posted by ghastlyfop at 6:23 AM on June 8, 2007


See I blame the interviewer for a lot of the stuff, the kid in essence says he wasn't surprised to win and the next question is were you surprised to win. She holds up a sandwich and expects that to be interesting, and choosing a word you can't pronounce and putting the kid on the spot is a terrible idea. Yeah the kid is extremely awkward, but the bizzare mishandling of the interview is kind of a perfect storm of awkward.
posted by I Foody at 6:47 AM on June 8, 2007


Yes...she should have asked "What did your mother say to you?"
She really should have clarified. I didn't know what the fuck she was talking about either.
posted by ghastlyfop at 6:55 AM on June 8, 2007


I thought it was great too. It's nice to see somebody being truely genuine on television, even if he doesn't really have a choice in the matter.

Great interview. Puff piece gone rough-piece.
posted by JBennett at 6:58 AM on June 8, 2007


Pretty much every interview with this kid has gone the same way. He threw out the opening pitch at an Oakland Athletics game and they were interviewing him afterward and it went the same way.

- Are you excited?

-No, I'm not the type to get excited. If I discover a theorem them maybe I'll jump up and down a little.

and then it goes downhill from there.

I'm not going to offer a medical diagnosis, but I'm wondering why the parents keep putting him in front of cameras where, regardless of why he doesn't perform well in front of them, he ends up being mocked.
posted by obfusciatrist at 7:08 AM on June 8, 2007


I'm not going to offer a medical diagnosis, but I'm wondering why the parents keep putting him in front of cameras where, regardless of why he doesn't perform well in front of them, he ends up being mocked.

This is an excellent point. In contrast, Ellen Feiss's parents specifically decided to keep her out of the spotlight, turning down offers of appearances on the late show and other forums specifically to avoid making her more of a public spectacle than she had already become-- and she was probably confident enough to handle it. It might be that Evan O'Dorney's parents are simply just as clueless as he is.
posted by deanc at 7:18 AM on June 8, 2007


Whatever. I have a hard time not envisioning the supremely dorky yet somehow arrogant adult he's going to be become.

If this sort of reaction that keeps you from dealing with who people are and what they're like NOW, then I imagine that more often than not you are just helping to fulfill your own prophecies.
posted by hermitosis at 7:19 AM on June 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


Interesting to see the neurotypical response on here to an autistic teenage achiever: sneering because he is good at what he sets out to do; smirking because he makes no attempt to deprecate his own ability or to collaborate with people who assume they have the right to mock him.
posted by MinPin at 7:38 AM on June 8, 2007 [6 favorites]


One could argue that it's equally cruel and unkind to assume that he is autistic and not simply kind of weird and lacking in basic social skills?
Of course the interviewer's questions are asinine, and it could just be that the kid's overwhelming social awkwardness is just manifesting itself in what appears to me as "attitude."
If anything, maybe this is just an argument against homeschooling - the poor kid is simply unable to play along and answer even the most basic of questions. And yeah, the real question here is why do his parents continue to push him in front of the camera?
posted by ghastlyfop at 7:44 AM on June 8, 2007


neurotypical! Someone's been reading Oryx and Crake.
posted by RustyBrooks at 7:47 AM on June 8, 2007


Those of you saying "he's just a kid" must have no exposure either to neurotypical kids, or to kids with high functioning autism or Asperger's.

The tipoff is at the very beginning, the question about what his mother said when he won.

The vast majority of neurotypical people would understand that sentence, parse it correctly, and answer it immediately. Honestly, what else COULD it mean? It would take almost purposeful misunderstanding, or being a pedantic, literal dickhead ("I don't know what she said, I was up on stage, ask her. Neener neener.").

He stumbles for a good bit, then decides the appropriate answer is he doesn't know what she said, and that the interviewer should ask her.

Also understand he had to have been asked that question at least a half-dozen or dozen times before. Every interviewer would likely ask "What did your parents say (to you) when you won?", as that is a completely normal, expected question.

Context is often completely lost on AS kids.

The typical response for a 13 year old nerd on national television would be to be nervous and bashful. This boy is not at all bashful, but he certainly acts oddly.

I'm with obfusciatrist, I think the parents are the real question in this... I expect since they are homeschooling him they have little to no exposure to other children, and they think their little professor is perfectly normal and typical. How many trainwreck interviews do they have to expose him to before they decide it is a bad idea? They are just so confident in their little wonder that they keep throwing him in the path of oncoming cars, trusting he'll learn how to negotiate the danger himself. (metaphorically speaking, for any AS out there reading).

My bet is that professional psychologists and educators could spot this kid a mile away, but his parents have likely never even considered he might be different.

However, let me clarify in saying that there is nothing wrong with being different, odd, AS, or anything of the sort. The contention here is what appears to be a fairly obvious case of HFA/AS, but the parents repeatedly place him in situations that they should know he has no ability to handle adequately.

This isn't "hey look at the weird kid", it's "why do his parents keep letting him get on camera?"
posted by Ynoxas at 8:04 AM on June 8, 2007 [4 favorites]


Thanks for the insightful comments, Ynoxas, and in light of what you're saying, I now realize that I was pretty thoughtless in my conclusions. Clearly there's something beyond simple weirdness at work here.
posted by ghastlyfop at 8:17 AM on June 8, 2007


I'm with obfusciatrist, I think the parents are the real question in this... I expect since they are homeschooling him they have little to no exposure to other children, and they think their little professor is perfectly normal and typical.

This is something I've been pondering, now that I'm in adulthood and the idea of having a family doesn't seem so remote-- is there something about becoming a parent that makes people completely clueless? Surely these parents must encounter other children occasionally or remember having been a child.
posted by deanc at 8:18 AM on June 8, 2007


Ok, can I just say that it was hilarious to watch him tell the CNN anchor that she had misprounced the word and start spelling it all over again? And also that it was hilarious that she assumed he got it right when he hadn't? Yeah.

(That would be hilarious because the anchor was flustered by this weird kid and not hilarious because he's weird. He's kind of charming in his oddity.)
posted by grapefruitmoon at 8:22 AM on June 8, 2007


"why do his parents keep letting him get on camera?"

Why, should he be shut up in a closet somewhere instead?
posted by hermitosis at 8:25 AM on June 8, 2007


You people are mean. He pretty obviously has Asperger's.
posted by callmejay at 8:47 AM on June 8, 2007


Well, for those of us with little to no experience with Asperger's, I think it's easy to make the mistake that the kid was just copping an attitude and being kind of a dickhead. In light of the possibility - or probability - that it's a clinical problem, then yeah, it's absurd to make fun of him.
posted by ghastlyfop at 8:56 AM on June 8, 2007


And also, keep in mind, the clip is edited to emphasize the weirdness and the awkward pauses.
posted by ghastlyfop at 9:00 AM on June 8, 2007


gminks, I just had to come in here and say that your comment is the best one in this thread. I re-watched the video with an entirely different frame of mind.
posted by oneirodynia at 9:09 AM on June 8, 2007


How much of his social awkardness is due to Aspergers or autism, and how much is due to home-schooling? I believe that home-schooling, even if the academic education is superior to (more) public education, robs children of the millions of social experiences that they need to be well-adjusted adults. And, really, is there much functional difference between not being able to process social context and having a very small grab-bag of social experience from which to draw?

In this poor kid's case, he can't communicate effectively with other humans but golly he can spell hard words. I can't imagine that will serve him well in life.
posted by LordSludge at 9:35 AM on June 8, 2007


I saw the interview with him right after he won, and immediately thought "Asperger's?" It was small things - not "getting" that the interviewer was joking around with him, explaining he liked math because he "liked the way the numbers fit together", not making eye contact with people speaking with him. I asked a good friend of mine (who is mom of a son with Asperger's) if she'd seen footage of the spelling bee winner, and she said she had, and was positive that Evan is an Aspie.

It may have been a tough decision for the parents about his schooling - Aspies tend to be a lot brighter than kids their age, and maybe the local public schools weren't challenging enough for him. How do you balance the kid's need for social interaction and learning the social cues that most of us learn naturally against the need to educate him at a level appropriate to his intelligence?
posted by booksherpa at 10:06 AM on June 8, 2007


Thank-you, Ynoxas.
posted by MinPin at 10:35 AM on June 8, 2007


My daughter is an Aspie. We always knew she was weird...but everyone in my family is weird (shockingly autism is genetic), all my friends have always been strange, to me weird == good.
It took her failing in school because she couldn't handle the social or sensory stresses before I really started pushing to figure out what was up. I know the exact moment when my search went into full throttle....she was in 8th grade. I finally got the middle school to do testing. She had a 27 point split between her verbal and non-verbal score. She was failing classes, mostly from not turning in homework (she aced every test she took), and they told me that there was nothing they could do to help her because she was too smart. I asked...well obviously something is wrong. What will she learn if she gets held back? Obviously she understands the material. The principle told me that she would learn to obey and follow the rules. I hate that woman to this day!
One of the first things I learned about kids with Asperger's was how literal they are with language , which is why this kid cracked me up. I used to have to ask my daughter...are you being a smart ass, or do you not understand what I am asking? Thinking back now it's funny...I wish I could have enjoyed her silliness then.
I believe having autism is just a different plane of being, it's just a different way at coming at the world. Since the majority of people don't process information in the same way aspies do, they won't understand her, and she needs to know how to have bridges between herself and the rest of the world so she is able to survive (being a hermit is not an option, as much as she likes to think it is). I think this entire thread proves that.
posted by gminks at 10:47 AM on June 8, 2007 [4 favorites]


Television interviews like that are absurd to begin with. To me this is more like Jon Stewart asking Tucker Carlson to "please stop", than an indication of any problem in the kid.
posted by Chuckles at 11:27 AM on June 8, 2007


The principle told me that she would learn to obey and follow the rules. I hate that woman to this day!

I don't blame you. It's frustrating when kids have to be all lumped together as the same - when kids just don't work like that.
posted by gomichild at 11:33 AM on June 8, 2007


Blimey.

So many emphatic comments!

I think it's best to salt your syrupy sympathy with the acknowledgement it's a little bit funny and that - even with the putative medical diagnosis - the kid was a little bit awkwardly entertaining.

I even thought the anchor was somewhat competent, certainly not as fluffy as her honey looks might have implied.

I don't think that my reaction proves me a totally prurient monster (I'm a mother of teenage boys, for my sins).
posted by Jody Tresidder at 11:38 AM on June 8, 2007


To me this is more like Jon Stewart asking Tucker Carlson to "please stop", than an indication of any problem in the kid.

I don't believe there was any such self-consciousness on the part of the kid. At all.
posted by ghastlyfop at 11:39 AM on June 8, 2007


Ya.. I didn't mean to imply the kid was consciously taking the shit out of the interviewer. I think the kid realized the interviewer was a bit of an ignoramus right away, and either didn't understand he was supposed to play along, or wasn't capable of it.

For me, it was like Jon Stewart.
posted by Chuckles at 11:48 AM on June 8, 2007


Sorry, the kid probably does have aspergers or something, but it was still damn funny. Things can be funny and yet sad at the same time.
posted by Justinian at 11:52 AM on June 8, 2007


I mean, she literally had a submarine sandwich to display. What was that! Was he supposed to start salivating like Pavlov's dog?
posted by Chuckles at 11:52 AM on June 8, 2007


I mean, she literally had a submarine sandwich to display. What was that! Was he supposed to start salivating like Pavlov's dog?
posted by Chuckles

Maybe there is something wrong with me.

C'mon, what's your objection to the subway?

It was a light visual prop to the feel-good bit of news. Some researcher had done their best trying to give the item a handle...jeepers, it wasn't meant to be a Platonic dialogue.
posted by Jody Tresidder at 12:13 PM on June 8, 2007


I mean, she literally had a submarine sandwich to display. What was that! Was he supposed to start salivating like Pavlov's dog?

Come on, I even posted a jpeg upthread. :(

Anyway, this kid is the epitome of "unintentional contrarian". He is a representative of some of the amazing things children with autism can do. He is the face of total ennui amidst scrolling banners, blinking logos, stock reports, plastic surgery, split screens. The way he turns his head to the side, or his back to the camera, it's wonderful. It drips with "Who does this broad think she is?"

The fact that this kid repeatedly fails to "capture the magic" by misspelling words outside of the Scripps Bee is also a testament to the fake bullshit media outlets like CNN shovel at us in order to make us feel better. Exclusive interviews. In-depth analysis. Breaking news - Paris Hilton back in jail. Go fuck yourselves. When the interviewer feels uncomfortable, we feel uncomfortable. And that's great stuff.

CNN Anchor: "Ding ding ding. You got it. So not only did you win the most important one - the one that gave you the cash - you won the little American morning one as well."

Thanks for clarifying.
posted by phaedon at 12:29 PM on June 8, 2007 [2 favorites]


Why, should he be shut up in a closet somewhere instead?
posted by hermitosis at 10:25 AM on June 8


Yes, that's exactly what I'm saying.

Are you on crack?

Surely there is a middle ground between "parading across several TV networks" and "lock him in a closet".

If it was imperative for some reason he do all these TV appearances (like an agreement with the spelling bee people) then surely the parents should be with him to help guide him through, besides just stranding him on camera looking around for help.
posted by Ynoxas at 12:30 PM on June 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


LOCK HIM IN THE NETWORK!
posted by phaedon at 1:09 PM on June 8, 2007


This is my Asperger's story; I'll put it way down here at that bottom so it probably won't get read (I'm kind of ashamed of it).

I've never tested very high on IQ tests or anything of that sort. I'm not a bad test taker, but I guess I'm not very intelligent - in the formal sense of the word. I'm very good with language and I've always excelled at reading people - chatting with them, figuring out their patterns and responding in ways that consistently illicit a positive response. I'm kind of a bullshit artist par excellence. I test extremely high in the EQ spectrum.

Recently, someone contacted me out of the blue via a social networking site. She explained that she would be attending my school next year and that we had literally dozens of things in common, including our background. This isn't completely uncommon so I invited her to a gig I was playing (as per my explanation above, I love rocking out in bands and smiling at audiences.) Anyway, I showed up at the bar and there she was. Only, she seemed extremely frustrated. I sat down next to her and introduced myself - and she sort of just stared at me for a second and said, "uh huh." She shook my hand and we sat in silence for almost a full minute before I started sweating and prompting her with some canned small-talk. I spent the whole evening thinking that she was profoundly angry with me for something I had said or done and I left feeling extremely confused. Only, I arrived home to find a lengthy email from her describing what a wonderful time she had had and asking all kinds of questions, namely, when we'd be able to hang out again.

I recounted this story to another female friend, and she asked for the link to the young woman's website. She checked it out and emailed me back, explaining that, "her blog states clearly that she has Asperger's syndrome." Her blog? Why would I ever read someone's blog? I can figure a person out in five minutes, flat - I wouldn't need to read their online diary to get introduced to them.
I was unfamiliar with Asperger's and read up on it. I was still hopeless. A few more emails were exchanged and it looked like I needed to make it clear to her that there wasn't going to be a dating-type relationship. I didn't know how to continue. My friend suggested that I be completely straightforward and honest and that she wouldn't be offended.

This is the thing, though. I have a really, really hard time being totally straightforward. I had never realized it until this exchange, but I'm always, always going to try to get my point across in such a way that both parties leave feeling as though they have gained a positive experience. I am the penultimate "it's not you, it's me," guy. I put it off for a while.

The crux of the issue was my complete inability to effectively communicate with this person. When we talked in person, I couldn't get a bead on her. I couldn't tell what she was feeling, so I couldn't mirror her emotions or respond empathically. I was floundering around like a fish out of water. She completely disarmed all of my interpersonal resources.

Eventually, when I had to deal with it, I wrote her back and explained as clearly as I was able that I wasn't interested in a relationship.

She wrote back and thanked me (actually thanked me!) for being totally honest and straightforward. I had thought that she would read my letter as frigid and assholish (honestly, it's how most people probably would respond) but she didn't.

I learned a very important lesson - I learned that it wasn't her condition that was a barrier to our communication, rather, that it was my conditioning, my socialization, that made me unable to effectively communicate with her. My language skills are totally non-analytical - they're based entirely on trial and error - gauge the listener's response and adjust accordingly. When there's no response, or when I can't read any code in the response, I'm totally helpless. I am the one with the disability, not the person with Asperger's.

That experience taught me a whole hell of a lot about the words that are coming out of my mouth throughout the course of an average day. I may be able to deceive myself into thinking I'm actually communicating, but when the time comes to cut through all the nuanced ephemera that accompanies small talk, I'm pretty much lost.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 1:16 PM on June 8, 2007 [26 favorites]


My bet is that professional psychologists and educators could spot this kid a mile away, but his parents have likely never even considered he might be different.
posted by Ynoxas at 8:04 AM on June 8


It probably has been pointed out to the parents. I'm guessing that the "different" remark goes over their heads, and they gush proudly in response, "Yes! Our son is different. You're just jealous." ::thwack:: Sometimes, parenthood comes with tunnel vision.
posted by Xere at 1:25 PM on June 8, 2007


Thanks for posting that long bit, Balrog. As someone with AS myself, it is quite interesting to hear accounts how others view individuals similar to myself.

The key thing is what you came to grasp toward the end of the post: The way I verbally communicate with others is on a completely different plane of motivation. When I sit down to type like this, I am much more comfortable, because written conversation actually distills most of the "difficult" things out (though I have been told that varying amounts of my conversation "oddness" does come through in the way I write). Many of the things that you clearly wrote down, you would attempt to pass along to me nonverbally if we were talking face to face. You would gesture, infer, using inflection, and a number of other tricks to communicate without saying. All of these would be completely lost on me, without an intense amount of concentration and reasoning running in parallel with your dialogue.

And that just addresses the full spectrum of person to person conversation, not the motivation. I speak to transfer information, period. I have no ulterior motives. If I open my mouth to say something, it is because I have an observation to share about something that interests me. I don't automatically think to share things outside of my area(s) of interest, and I am never motivated to speak for emotional reparte. That last part is very integral, I think, to where conversation can get frustrating. While there are plenty of times that you'll share information, you most often share information to gather or reciprocate an emotional reaction. It is probably not even something you are aware of, because it permeates every angle and thought you have. I can see it, because it has no effect on me, but I can only see it with a ton of practice and experience.

When I was Evan's age, that is precisely what I was like. I only answered the literal part of the question, and any question that required excessive context or emotional backing completely confused me. Now that I am an adult, I have to expend large quantities of energy essentially emulating normal conversation; which I can do for short bursts of time. Enough to manage in society. Prolonged exposure, especially over long periods of time, will completely drain me and turn me into a vegetable. I'll revert to the way Evan converses. Depending on how "active" the other person is, this reversion can happen within minutes or months. With someone like that news anchor, I wouldn't last that long at all. She is just too inane and from my point of her; her existence judging from that sample of her conversation, is utterly useless to planet Earth. I lack the reactive, innate ability to see that she is just putting on an act and attempting to exchange emotive packets with her conversant, for the emotive benefit of an invisible audience. I can sit here and write about it intelligently, but put me in the chair opposite, and I have to do all of that in real-time, mentally and consciously. Most people realise all of that without even thinking about it.

If it were simply motivation and plane of thought, it would be somewhat easier to overcome with emulation, after all everyone is challenged with these two things in differing percentages every time they talk to someone new. The main difference is in degree. Imagine someone which you share no common motivations with, who utters things that make no sense to you, and then amplify that to everyone around you, to a degree where you cannot even pretend to understand. Nodding and grinning isn't a natural response for someone with AS. If it doesn't compute, you either challenge or shut up. Unfortunately even all of that is not everything. There is also the sensory overload. I'm not sure why it exists, but often people with AS are hypersensitive to stimulus, and will often get caught up in the phonemic or even waveform properties of speech to the point where speech loses meaning and just becomes interesting sounds accompanied by a unsavory smell.

To this day I haven't met another person with AS, I've often wondered what that would be like.
posted by AmberV at 1:56 PM on June 8, 2007 [36 favorites]


"...attempting to exchange emotive packets with her conversant..."

Exactly! That's what wasn't happening. There was absolutely no emotional exchange taking place. And it seemed as if at time she would try to "force" it - if there is such a thing - and often times it would come out as extremely awkward.

You said something else, though, that fascinates me - "She is just too inane and from my point of her; her existence judging from that sample of her conversation, is utterly useless to planet Earth."

Do you feel that someone has to justify their existence according to their usefulness to the planet Earth?
posted by Baby_Balrog at 2:19 PM on June 8, 2007


Do you feel that someone has to justify their existence according to their usefulness to the planet Earth?

No, of course not. What I was attempting to convey is how my brain works in the Moment of conversation. If somebody is trying to talk to me, and all they can commit to the conversation is "chit chat", they almost cease to exist in my mind. Since they are not sharing information, I get stuck, trying to find the information, and if I cannot find it, I either blurt out something inappropriate or just stare. You could see Evan do that at several points; he would get a blank look on his face, almost frightened at how little information he could distill from the woman's comments, and at times he would just blurt out a non-word or sound. A common problem in this situation is that a neurotypical person will get frustrated or exasperated, and actually amplify their emotional speaker level. This is useful between neurotypicals, as it can act as a homing beacon to get people synchronised from a non-attentive state. To someone with AS, it just gets more confusing because the higher the emotional content the less sense it makes. You can see her amplifying with no effect, several times. :)

Conversely, as I have very painstakingly come to learn over the years, is the notion that "chit chat" is very important to people because it allows them to create an emotional bridge between themselves, without committing any volatile personal information. The "icebreaker," as they say. The icebreaker has no reason for existence in my world, none at all. Even though I get this, and can write about it, I still get tripped up and stumble over my thoughts whenever a clerk asks me how my day is going. My brain just goes straight to processing literally how my day is going, which is often a very complicated and involved answer, and by the time I stammeringly get a word or two into it, they nod and grin and tell me how much the total for the order is. It just isn't something I can learn. I've been asked thousands of times by clerks how my day is, and I still haven't grasped in the moment of the question that all I need to say is "fine."

To see things the way I do, you have to strip out the context entirely. Look at the woman in the interview, and judge her entirely by the content of what she is literally saying; close your eyes if you have to, so you cannot see her expressions. Reading the transcript would be even better. Now strip away the context of this being a fluff piece on a news network. Strip away that it is an interview. The only thing that defines her right now are the literal words she is saying. Based on that, and that alone, she is pointless. The conversation is pointless. My brain moves on in fits and starts, torn between how dull and confusing this is, and her obvious need for response. (Maybe, or maybe she still makes sense to you; I cannot think of any other way to explain this.)

With practice, you can somewhat play this game, though as you noted, it can often come off is really forced and awkward to those who are keenly aware of emotive nuance. To someone Evan's age, that sort of back-and-forth is probably impossible.
posted by AmberV at 2:40 PM on June 8, 2007 [19 favorites]


AmberV, what's interesting is that your writing style doesn't convey anything out of the ordinary. I doubt I could tell the difference between your writing style and Baby_Balrog's, though I'm sure you both come across very different in person.

My brain just goes straight to processing literally how my day is going, which is often a very complicated and involved answer, and by the time I stammeringly get a word or two into it, they nod and grin and tell me how much the total for the order is. It just isn't something I can learn.

This fascinates me, because my entire ability to interact with people comes from having learned it. I can distinctly remember observing people introduce each other and realizing that "nice to meet you" was an appropriate response to a personal introduction and adopting it. The idea that this sort of thing can't be learned by some people to make it a reflex is kind of alien to me.
posted by deanc at 3:01 PM on June 8, 2007


deanc,

I think the Internet as a form of communication has been the single greatest advent for people with various forms of high-functioning autism, and to a degree, other people with social abnormalities. The thing is, I have an excellent grasp of language, and if I'm not put into a situation where I have to engage in rapid back-and-forth with another person, I can come off as eloquent and highly intelligent. It starts to get problematic when I have to respond to statements that do not make logical sense to me, as described above.

Another positive aspect of written communication is that I can spend as long as I need to form a response. I can edit what I say, and make sure that it is relevant to what the other person said; I can hit preview and make sure I didn't leave out a paragraph that I thought I typed, but really only Thought. When I'm talking with another person out loud, I often only think of what I should have said or done about five or ten minutes after the event; and by then the other person is most likely gone.

The high level grasp of linguistic concept and formulation is common to people with AS, and feeling much more at ease in an environment that is conducive to that, like here, is a wonderful thing. It is not uncommon to see an AS child many grades ahead in reading and writing comprehension, but many grades behind in social skills. I only wish that I could engage in conversations like this all of the time. The difference is between Language and Conversation. Conversation contains language in a superficial sense only. Written conversation only contains small portions of actual conversation, in a form I have the time to deliberate over, and much larger quantities of my greater asset: Language.

Re: Learning vs. innate. I think you are right in saying that learning communication skills is an ordinary task for all humans. The difference comes in aptitude--whether or not the way your brain works is suited for the high bandwidth, complex thing that it is. Compare it to high level math. Very few people can grasp complicated math without learning it, but to some they can learn it very easily and it becomes second nature to them. Communication is the same. A person that is on the autistic spectrum simply lacks the wiring that most people have to make most aspects of communication something you don't even think about. We are analogous to the types of people that will *never* understand high level math, no matter how many decades we spend trying to understand it.

To me, it is equally bizarre that someone can walk into a room of strangers, and without a single moment of preparation, strike up a conversation with someone. For me speak to someone, I require a lot of mental preparation and stamina. I do have reflexes, it just that my reflexes are not synchronised with the normal mode of engagement. My reflex is toward literal honesty, and it takes a lot of work and concentration to keep myself from hurting people's feelings or making them feel really awkward, minute to minute, every day.

To bring this back to contrasting with written conversation. See, it strips the reflex! Entirely different parts of the brain's speech centres are utilised to form a written response. Another asset is that chit chat is more rare online. You didn't start with your response with, "Hey Amber, it is nice to meet you, how is your day going?" You just jumped right into the information, which is what I thrive on! If we had been sitting on a couch in the MetaFilter lounge, you would have almost certainly started with an icrebreaker of some sort, and I would have been tripped up, wondering why you think it is nice to meet me, when we clearly haven't even met, and so on.
posted by AmberV at 3:37 PM on June 8, 2007 [4 favorites]


If anything, maybe this is just an argument against homeschooling - the poor kid is simply unable to play along and answer even the most basic of questions.

I expect since they are homeschooling him they have little to no exposure to other children, and they think their little professor is perfectly normal and typical.


both these bits and every other one of you "blaming" his obvious Aspie behavior on being homeschooled have outed yourselves as being completely clueless about what homeschoolers do and how they interact with the world.

firstly, there are loads and loads of people who homeschool their Aspie children, for obvious reasons: they often have nothing but trouble in the school social milieu, it doesn't get better by just forcing the kid to "deal with it", and by getting them out of the constant social stimulation maelstrom, they are able to relax and get into the things they really care about rather than whether they're going to be beat up that day. which is why they can win national competitions.

secondly, very very few homeschooled children are locked up at home with no social interaction. (usually because their parents are insane or they live way the hell out in the middle of nowhere.) i live in a small city, and it takes only a little tiny bit of effort to find social events for homeschoolers while other kids are in school (after school, of course, they can hang out with any kids they want). people who live in suburban or urban areas who homeschool often say that there are more events than there is time to do them. (we are hosting a homeschoolers' picnic tomorrow, incidentally. there will be many children there, playing, hanging out, and doing all the things that kids normally do if they have the time to do it.)

in any case, i have to repeat all this stuff until i'm blue in the face, when it's just absurd. anyone who's actually met more than one glaringly socially inept homeschooled kid (wonder how many socially inept kids go to public school?? do you blame public schooling?) will find that they're far more relaxed in most situations when speaking to an adult, and personable in ways that a kid who's basically age segregated for much of h** waking hours cannot manage at all. (and i have lots of experience to base that on, having been a teacher for many years.)

if you met the kid i homeschool, you would never wonder if he's socially segregated. i've watched him have conversations with college students while we're on the bus in the morning that would blow your mind. (he's only 10, and talks freely about the video games he's into, the novel he's writing, and how fun it is to spend all day reading if he wants to or digging around in a frog pond.) it would never occur to you that he homeschools, but you might wonder where the kid got his precociousness, or the time to study WWII in depth or the confidence to volunteer for community theatre. those personality traits, that confidence and amiability were nonexistent before he dropped out of the fourth grade.
posted by RedEmma at 4:12 PM on June 8, 2007 [3 favorites]


If we had been sitting on a couch in the MetaFilter lounge, you would have almost certainly started with an icrebreaker of some sort, and I would have been tripped up, wondering why you think it is nice to meet me, when we clearly haven't even met, and so on.

Actually, I'd probably use, "Wow! Those are great shoes! Where did you get them?"

:)
posted by deanc at 4:22 PM on June 8, 2007


That Jimmy Kimmel interview is really painful. I can't believe they didn't jump in to help him out (although Guillermo did give him a hug at the end, but that didn't seem to mollify him). It's interesting to contrast that with the interview he did with the Scrabble team champs. Those kids don't seem "media savvy," per se, just normal and having fun.
posted by bluefly at 4:48 PM on June 8, 2007


Am I the only person who can't figure out what he did that was so obnoxious?

Also, most homeschooled people are better socially adjusted than people at schools. Think about it: Most actually get a chance to interact with a wide range of people, not be crammed into a setting with primarily people their exact age to learn all kinds of immature crap from. It'd take more than homeschooling to make someone as socially awkward as everyone seems to say this kid is.

I wasn't homeschooled by the way (at least not for longer than a few months).

I am autistic. When I was 14 I did a lot worse with a reporter than he did, I actually had speech cut out on me completely (I managed one or two disjointed words and that was it), which totally confused the reporter. I still don't know exactly what was so obnoxious about him but he certainly at least managed to hold onto the conversation, which is probably more than I'd have done in that situation at his age.

A lot of the comments I've seen about him are disturbing though. They seem to be like, "He's socially awkward, therefore it's acceptable to hate him."
posted by silentmiaow at 5:07 PM on June 8, 2007


he simply, straightforwardly unmasked the anchor, as well as the bee ("just a bunch of memorization" - actually not what he seemed to be doing, but i guess you have to take his word for it) - and that is clearly not easly forgiven. (plus he beat a cute, blond well-adjusted canadian kid for the trophy, which will have cost him further popularity points.)

his mom, on the other hand, does make me just a little uncomfortable (coupled with his comment that he "had to" be in the bee), both in this interview, and for the choices they seem to be making re: the media.

oh, and: scrabble, bluefly, scrabble...
posted by progosk at 5:49 PM on June 8, 2007


Oh, and Jimmy Kimmel is a dick.
posted by RedEmma at 6:00 PM on June 8, 2007


here's a nice rally to evan's defence.
posted by progosk at 6:09 PM on June 8, 2007


Racist crap. Really disgusting.
posted by Chuckles at 6:11 PM on June 8, 2007


What are you referring to, Chuckles?

RE - I agree about Jimmy Kimmel, his 'Man Show' was painfully humorless.
posted by Liosliath at 6:15 PM on June 8, 2007


progosk, she says it so much better than i do. sigh.
posted by RedEmma at 6:31 PM on June 8, 2007


That kid is pretty awesome and here is why:

a) does not give a fuck about bullshit CNN interviews
b) is one of the best spellers in the world

What's so great about you?
posted by Optimus Chyme at 7:07 PM on June 8, 2007 [4 favorites]


Yes, Kimmel.. I thought I would get in right after Red Emma, which would have avoided some ambiguity :P

Occasionally, I don't hate him, but the Guillermo bits are always bad. This one was especially tasteless. Somehow as host of the man show he can be interpreted as ironic, or something, which takes some of the edge off of the offensive content. As a night time talk show host he is mainstream, which makes the offensive content really ville.
posted by Chuckles at 7:23 PM on June 8, 2007


MeTa.

it's a good one this time.
posted by exlotuseater at 8:07 PM on June 8, 2007


If somebody is trying to talk to me, and all they can commit to the conversation is "chit chat", they almost cease to exist in my mind. Since they are not sharing information, I get stuck, trying to find the information, and if I cannot find it, I either blurt out something inappropriate or just stare.

Whoa. You just explained in two sentences something that I have been trying to pin down for my entire adult life. I cannot "do" small talk in the usual sense, precisely because much of the time I do not find anything at all meaningful is being exchanged in chatting blandly about nothing. Where I'd guess we differ in this is that if there is genuine emotional information being exchanged, I see that as information, but when it comes to meaningless small talk about nothing with people who don't want to genuinely connect at all, I feel exactly as you describe.

A common problem in this situation is that a neurotypical person will get frustrated or exasperated, and actually amplify their emotional speaker level. This is useful between neurotypicals, as it can act as a homing beacon to get people synchronised from a non-attentive state.

I have never read an explanation of this phenomenon which better explains it. And I guess I'm neurotypical, since it certainly sometimes seems to work to help me establish a connection with someone else. But only if it's sincere. Or at least "reads" as sincere to me.

Reading such a concise analysis of "neurotypical" behaviour is fascinating. Thank you AmberV, your comments in this thread have been some of the most interesting and enlightening things I've read in a while.
posted by biscotti at 8:59 PM on June 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


Biscotti, you are most welcome!

And, I agree with you. Emotion is certainly "information" in the broad sense of the term; but is of a type that I cannot readily connect with "in the moment." Afterwards, deep inside, I always feel.
posted by AmberV at 10:35 PM on June 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


Heh. The winning word in 1937 was promiscuous won by, presumably, Ms. Waneeta Beckley.
posted by porpoise at 11:32 PM on June 8, 2007


nbc cuts a much better figure in their interview with evan (pretty sure they studied their competitor's mistakes...) starts at about 3 minutes into the video; interesting insights into his mindset
posted by progosk at 1:38 AM on June 9, 2007


AmberV, I'd like to add my thanks—your comments here have been extremely enlightening.
posted by languagehat at 6:24 AM on June 9, 2007


The other thing that's confusing me is the idea that even if he's autistic, he needs to somehow be kept from appearing on television.

I could see an argument for not subjecting a child in general to that experience. I just went through it earlier this year and it's pretty unpleasant and grueling, including the amount of unwanted attention you can get afterwards.

But what I don't see is the idea that he should be kept off because of the way he looks and communicates, and the way people will react to that.

Whether he's autistic or not -- some people look different. Some people look very different. I've been criticized for "making a fool of myself" by putting myself on video before. But this is how I look. If I'm going to communicate in a medium where people are looking at me, this is what they're going to see. Some people are going to point and laugh, call me names, and even make unspeakably crude remarks about me, but they're the ones showing what kind of people they are at that point. You don't usually get to see many people like us on television (especially outside the context of saccharine feel-good crap), and I'd think that'd be an argument for an unusual sort of kid to be on there, not against it. People need to be exposed to more than shiny pretty perfectly-polished people all the time. (Not that there's anything wrong with them either.)
posted by silentmiaow at 12:23 PM on June 9, 2007 [5 favorites]


The other thing that's confusing me is the idea that even if he's autistic, he needs to somehow be kept from appearing on television.

certainly not what i'd hold - except they really should have known better than to put him through that skit on kimmel. his deconstructionist (or, if you prefer, bullshit-filter) effect was lost to most, i surmise.
posted by progosk at 3:34 PM on June 9, 2007


You don't usually get to see many people like us on television (especially outside the context of saccharine feel-good crap), and I'd think that'd be an argument for an unusual sort of kid to be on there, not against it. People need to be exposed to more than shiny pretty perfectly-polished people all the time. (Not that there's anything wrong with them either.)

Totally. What's "bad" tv-wise is really most of the population, i'd think.

I wonder how televising the competition itself has changed the participants--it's a very recent thing, and the media attention paid to it is recent too, i think. The pressure the kids are under to begin with, and then add in lights and cameras and stuff--ugh!
posted by amberglow at 5:54 PM on June 9, 2007


AmberV--thanks.
posted by LairBob at 6:32 PM on June 9, 2007


Every time I accidentally come across Jimmy Kimmel's late-night show, I wonder why the man is still on air. And why there are actual people in the audience. (Perhaps they pay them to be there ... I can't imagine anyone actually enjoying his tripe.)
posted by Xere at 10:18 PM on June 9, 2007


(he's like a Paris Hilton of late-night, Xere--supposedly his father is a billionaire in Philly)
posted by amberglow at 5:44 AM on June 10, 2007


i concur that it is unfortunate that his parents didn't seem to have a very good filter on about what shows to appear on and which to say "yeah, no thanks" to. this is a problem with the american fame complex, i'm afraid: being on the teevee is seen as somehow a good thing, without discrimination. but perhaps they had no idea who Jimmy Kimmel was, and the kid doesn't, like, have a PR person to say, "gee, that Kimmel guy's an asshole. say no."

the kid should not be hidden away in the slightest, just protected from dickheads who will take advantage of his innocence. this requires a sort of media savvy that most people just don't have when their fifteen-minutes knocks them over the head.
posted by RedEmma at 5:16 PM on June 10, 2007 [1 favorite]


Absolutely - I have a feeling that someone with a brain in their head would take the time to communicate with this kid (Meredith Viera, Jon Stewart, et al), while Kimmel is nothing but a jackass.

I still think his parents are kind of stupid - I didn't find the Kimmel skit funny in the least, and they're laughing like there's no tomorrow.
posted by Liosliath at 9:00 PM on June 10, 2007


Stereotyping a spectrum of pro-social behaviours as "neurotypical" is as counter-productive as stereotyping a spectrum of anti-social behaviours as Aspie. Personally, I am concerned at the eagerness of some people to adopt an emerging Aspie subject position as a defence against engaging emotionally and socially.
posted by meehawl at 9:05 AM on June 19, 2007


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