Jiu Jitsu and Aspergers pt 1 – My Aspergers

This is a post I’ve had in my brain for quite a while, debating on if I should share, and decided to just go for it. Hopefully it ends up making sense! In this first post, I’m just gonna go over what my Aspergers is like. In my next post, I will be explaining how this affects my Jiu Jitsu, and how BJJ has helped me.

Five years ago, I was diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome. Aspergers is an Autism Spectrum Disorder – I’ve heard some people describe it as “high functioning Autism”

So what does that mean for me? Well, each person is a unique case, so I’ll run the risk of megalomania, and just tell you about me.

Sensory Processing

First off, I’m hypersensitive to sensory input. I adore music, but can’t handle most concerts because of the combination of light, sound, movement, etc just puts me into overdrive and I end up going “space cadet” – I don’t really know how to describe it other than that, I just shut down to barely functional levels. It was really bad once and I had to be led out of a building in a semi-catatonic state – Scared a friend of mine pretty badly!

Stimming

Now I do have a way around this. It’s called Sterotypy, or “stimming”. When I was a kid, I would get stressed and start very slightly rocking my upper body in a circular motion. My Mom thought it was because I was dizzy (and even took me to a doctor for vertigo) – sorry Mom, I just didn’t know how to explain it at the time. I wasn’t dizzy; it just made me feel better to do it. The repetitive motion seemed to numb me enough that I could keep myself together – I felt like I would fly apart at the seams otherwise.

As I have gotten older, I have learned how to stim without it being so noticable. I can put my hand in a pocket and flip a coin, touch my thumb and fingers together, etc. Usually I’ll get a far away look on my face, and people assume I’m thinking deep thoughts. I’m not – my mind is actually blank at that point.

Patterns

I absolutely ADORE patterns. Once I find the pattern in something, I quickly excel at it. I love playing classical piano, and can sit there for hours just lost in Mozart and Beethoven. I also love drawing (see some of my artwork here), and organizing things.

Yes, I do have that compusion to organize things. My closet is a perfect rainbow of color, and my books are divided by category and then alphabetized by author last name. Oddly enough, there are some things I obsess over organizing, and other things that I couldn’t care less about – not sure what that’s all about…

Obsessions

I always have one thing – maybe two – that I am interested in. Always. And I learn everything about it. I’ve been obsessed with bugs, with mud, with animals… I raised chinchillas for several years. As a 12 year old child, I could sit down and show you detailed genetic information about each chinchilla and their possible offspring.

Whatever I’m focused on, it gets 150% of my attention – neglecting everything else. It’s all I can think about and talk about. I have gotten much better about trying to spread out my conversation topics – since not everyone wants a 45 minute monologue about anything, much less the newest particle physics discovery. Also, I make sure I pause every 10-15 seconds while talking to allow the other person to respond. Practice has made this work a lot more smoothly for me – but sometimes when I get excited I just keep talking. I don’t take offense to someone telling me to shut up for a min – so if I ever do this, just stick a hand up and call for a break.

Social Cues

Here’s where I stumble the most. I am absolutely hopeless when it comes to social cues. Reading facial expressions, vocal tone, body language… it’s a nightmare of misunderstandings for me. I’m sure I’ll get it some day, but I have to rely on what people say, since if I try to read non-verbal language cues, I usually make gross errors.

On the other side of that coin, I don’t know how to use proper facial expressions/etc. I have gotten a bit better, but as a child I was typically stone-faced and “unreadable” to most everyone. Even now, I watch my videos and I feel something is “off” but i don’t know what it is. I still have problems with eye contact as well – I fake it most of the time.

Social Flow Charts

Believe it or not, my brain operates a lot like this. I have very complex social flow charts in my head that script most of my social interactions. This doesn’t mean that what I say isn’t sincere! I just can’t figure out on the fly out to correctly say what I intend.

And yes, when I lose my filter, Sheldon = Me.

MORE Social Stuff

Right now what I’m focusing on is trying to have actual conversations with people. The normal conversation goes back and forth, as the topics change and meander around. This problem, for me, goes back to my script. If someone brings up something that I don’t know an appropriate response to, I panic. This usually then results in either me blurting out something completely ridiculous (mental short circuit), or trying to re-direct the topic back to familiar territory.

I’m starting to get the hang of asking questions instead of just diving off the conversation ship. The problem with questions, is that it takes me off script and that is where I tend to make more social mistakes (and trust me, some of them have been horrendous!) Thankfully, I am currently surrounded by people who, for the most part, shrug off my mistakes and just move on. So in that safety, I am slowly growing and learning!

Frustration

All of this put together made for a very frustrated individual. I thought I was an idiot for not being able to fit in and be part of the group like everyone else. I may not have known how to express emotions properly, but I still felt them. I felt trapped inside my body and just didn’t know how to get out, or ask for help.

I’ve adapted quite a bit  in the last several years. People who know me as an adult are usually quite surprised when they learn I have Aspergers. Those who knew me as a child tend to nod and say “well that makes a lot of sense…”

If there were a cure, I wouldn’t want it. I love how my brain works. Sure, I can be a bull in a china shop at times where social graces are concerned – but I have learned to cover fairly well in the last several years. Jiu Jitsu is one of the things that has really helped me a lot in that regards, and I will expound on that in part two of this post.

Click Here for Part 2!

24 thoughts on “Jiu Jitsu and Aspergers pt 1 – My Aspergers

  1. etali

    I’m really looking forward to reading part 2 of this! I started BJJ recently. I have Aspergers (I was diagnosed with Autism because apparently Aspergers is being removed from the DSM soon), and slight dyspraxia. I’ve tried other martial arts and didn’t click with them. BJJ has really saved my sanity. I’m still struggling with the social side of things though. Well done for finding ways to cope and “fit in”!

    • Nicholle

      Yea I heard that they were going to do away with the diagnosis in favor of just using the Autism Spectrum diagnosis – I’m curious to see if this means I will be re-defined or if they will leave it as is.

      Nice to know there is someone else like me who has found BJJ as well!!!

  2. Alaina Bjj

    Thanks so much for sharing!

    One of the things I love about BJJ is that no matter who you are, you start with some “freebie” benefit. The example I always use is that long-legged people get triangles and short-legged people get easy re-guarding, but it applies in many other ways, too.

    I’m really looking forward to your next article.

    • Nicholle

      Yup! Everyone has their set of built in advantages and disadvantages when starting BJJ. It’s fascinating really when people focus on the negatives instead of the advantages.

  3. Jennifer

    Thank you so much for sharing this. In addition to being a fellow BJJ practitioner (I am a blue belt), I run a karate school. A few of my students over the years have been on the Autism Spectrum and this really gives me some insight into their minds. I can’t wait to read part 2!

  4. Kristen

    Thank you for this! I am a BJJ brown belt and teach martial arts (Kung Fu and BJJ) to kids with special needs. Most of my students are autistic, many of them severely. I feel like I understand them most of the time, but I really look forward to part two and getting a better understanding of how they relate to what I am teaching.

  5. Paul

    Beautifully written article! For what it’s worth I commend you on your honesty and selflessness in writing it. I’m a school psychologist and routinely work with students on “The Spectrum”. The amount of misconceptions regarding being on the spectrum are astounding. Articles like this really help people understand. I’m really looking forward to part II. If you’d like to be on my podcast to discuss your journey through jiu jitsu I would be delighted to have you on. Check it out and if you’d like to be on shoot me a message. (www.OpenMatRadio.com)

    Thanks again,
    Paul

  6. Doc Fl

    I work with kids with autism spectrum disorders and I often get questions about appropriate extra curricular athletic activities – what’s best? what should they do? I find myself recommending martial arts most. A lot of the more popular athletics are really difficult for Asperger’s kids – softball and baseball are particularly hard because they demand very high social skills in a non structured environment (that cage), and then a very high social demand activity with lots of public scrutiny (batting or fielding). Things like soccer, football and basketball are also fairly unstructured, but include demand for unscripted social interaction. Martial arts, especially things like karate, are much easier – the interactions are scripted, the expectations are very clear and there is LOTS of structure. I’m looking forward to reading your experiences with jujitsu. Thanks.

  7. Jiu Jiu

    Excellent! I came here via Meerkatsu, and added you on my Feedly so I can keep following you. I always appreciate vulnerability in our sport – I think it’s a disservice when folks try too hard to present a veneered outer shell. I have some friends on the autism spectrum and find that when I know that fact, it helps me be more patient when I engage with them socially.

    I’m very curious as to whether you shared this with your BJJ coaches or your teammates. Really looking forward to part 2!

    • Nicholle

      Thank you! I’ve been following your blog for a while myself!

      This is my first time actually sharing this much about my Aspergers with anyone – Even my parents were surprised with some of the information! I really didn’t think anyone would read it so I’m a bit overwhelmed.

      I plan to release part 2 tomorrow.

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