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Free ebooks ==> Sharon 71 painfully aware of her difference from other children, and confused about why nobody liked her. At one point she realized that she was trying so hard for people to like her that she was making a fool of herself. One time she tried to tell a funny story, but somebody would always interrupt her. She would start again, and again be interrupted. This went on for some time—she might try to tell the story ten or eleven times, not realizing that nobody wanted to hear it. The other girls were just egging her on. But she only realized this as she lay in bed at night going over the day’s social fiascoes. Then she would become mortified by the experience. It was hard for her to start a social interaction and even harder to alter her behavior once she got going. She would get stuck in a particular way of responding and could not use the feedback from her peers to be more socially adept. She could not learn the rules of the social game, which were becoming more complex with each passing year. It was clear to me that these social difficulties were indeed longstanding and were present from an early age. Sharon’s problems were clearly of a cognitive nature; they did not fluctuate with her mood. She was not depressed; no mood disorder was clouding her ability to evaluate accurately social interactions. Admittedly, she was anxious in social situations, but the difficulties ran deeper than that. It sounded like a complex cognitive problem, one that was embedded in the spontaneous matrix of peer interactions. If she thought about it, she knew what to do. It was at the level of social intuition, at a preconscious level, that Sharon was having difficulty with making friends. If it were a simple matter of logic, she would have had no trouble. But her powers of logic were not available to her on the schoolyard. The to and fro of social intercourse was too fast for such leisurely contemplation. She did not feel the complex emotions of guilt, humiliation, and embarrassment in the schoolyard when the event occurred, when she was teased or rejected. It was only in bed at night, under the excruciating microscope of her logic, that she felt these emotions, when she realized with the blinding clarity of reason that she had been made a fool of in front of the very people she wanted to impress most. There were also other stories from her experiences as a child that were analogous to the experiences of children with ASD and that were consistent with the third element of the autistic triad, the preference for repetitive, stereotyped activities with a high sensory or physical component. Sharon’s earliest and most vivid memories are of objects, fascinating in their exquisite visual detail: the patterns in a rug and in her mother’s paisley skirt, the sunlight falling on the linoleum floor of her

72 A MIND APART grandmother’s house. She has a vivid memory of making candles in the kitchen with her mother but can remember only the different colors of wax dripping down the candle. Sharon always had a penchant for drawing and had an exceptional ability to draw imaginative scenes in perspective at a very early age. She also developed a fascination with several different objects or activities throughout her childhood. The first that she can recollect is a fascination with stones. On her way to school each morning she became intrigued with a patch of gravel. She spent long periods of time staring at the stones, marveling at their brilliance. Sharon might be late for school and knew she would get into trouble, but still the stones held her attention. It was the way they looked, lying there in a dizzying array of patterns. She started to take them home and place them on her shelf, but in that setting they demanded more and more attention. Soon the stones became an irresistible attraction: She felt drawn to them on the way to school, and they appeared to take control of her attention. Eventually she had to take a different route to avoid that patch of gravel altogether. After the stones, she developed an intense interest in reading novels—or, more precisely, science fiction. These stories held her interest, not the usual stories of romance, action, and adventure that other children might prefer. On the way to school and alone in her room, she dreamt up science fiction plots, endlessly elaborating one or two story lines over and over again, embroidering them but never changing the essential outline. This fantasy soon took over her mind, much like the gravel patch, till she felt a compulsion to fantasize about aliens landing on earth and taking revenge against the children who had been mean to her. She also went through a period of being fascinated with stuffed animals, long after it would have been appropriate. She never played with them; she just placed them on her bed till there was no room left for her. She also experienced compulsive physical urges that were difficult to control. For example, she would rock repetitively, particularly when no one else was there to reprimand her. Even now she feels that she is preoccupied with design—with lines, rectangles, and squares. She cannot avoid thinking about them; such patterns are intrusive and loud, especially when she is trying to talk to someone at the same time. She finds it hard to have a conversation and to see the patterns simultaneously. These particular experiences of Sharon’s cannot be explained by deficits in TOM alone, but they are very reminiscent of the difficulties that children with autism have in executive function and in disengaging

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