Have you ever made a mistake while knitting, and then you just go on knitting happily away until you finally “wake up” and go to put the knitting down, or worse yet when you’ve already taken a break and just come back to knitting, and suddenly you see this obvious mistake, and you even feel a little bit foolish about how content you were knitting those rows that now have to be ripped out? I had that happen today, and then when back in “the zone” knitting again, I started to think about what had happened. Part of the enjoyment of knitting is when one part of me, a subconscious part, takes over the knitting, and my conscious mind then starts to range all over the place, thinking about future projects or about completely unrelated things. But the part of me that takes over, and loves the repetitive comfort of the act of knitting, doesn’t follow patterns well, and that’s very often when the mistakes occur (well, for me).
Then I started to think about why I enjoy knitting at all, and a number of things came together for me… I think my enjoyment of knitting, and of crochet before that, is a reflection of what I believe to be my now mild but once severe Asperger’s syndrome. Like other people with Asperger’s, social interaction has always been a bit of a challenge for me… I am very easily over-stimulated, and as that escalates conversations for me seem to break down into individual impressions and details. It’s like taking the old-fashioned animation toys, where the cartoons are drawn on a deck of cards that animate when you flip them, and then slowing it down until the illusion is broken and you just see the individual still frames in succession. That’s how a conversation, particularly in a group, can be for me. By the time I’ve integrated what’s happening into a coherent narrative and can come up with how I might contribute to it, it’s all moved on.
I can remember when I was a teenager (yes, a very long time ago), nerdy and loving science fiction, going to movies with my friends, and having to really concentrate to put together the plot lines. Especially with visually impressive movies like Start Wars, even though the plot was incredibly simple, there was just so much going on that I was left with this series of impressions, brightly and distinctly captured snapshots throughout the movie, that I had trouble piecing back together into a continuous plot.
As a result, I have always been attracted to things that are concrete, that I can understand in a very decomposed way. I think that’s why I majored in computer science and ended up as a programmer. With computer programming, at least as programming was when I was learning it, you could learn a very finite and exactly reproducible set of elements (the basic language and syntax), and from that you could build anything. For a person with Asperger’s this is heaven. There’s no sub-context to try to relate the discrete understanding of programming to it’s holistic results … if you understand the basic building blocks completely, that’s all you need. There’s no magic involved. No mysterious social context to figure out. It is what it is.
Well, much the same can be said about knitting and crochet. There’s a few basic stitches that you need to learn, and then (at least on some level), you can combine those in concrete, reproducible, and discrete ways to make almost anything. I have always been comfortable working on building things … especially working on something with discrete, standardized, and easily recognizable parts like yarn and needles. Something where the goal to be reached is well defined, and there’s little question about if it has been accomplished or not.
Knitting also provides an alternative to social situations that Asperger’s people can find excruciating. For example, a social gathering or (cringe), a party. Even today, when I go to a family gathering, I’m most content if I can be where everyone else is, but with my knitting. I can still be a part of everything, and I can participate while doing something I enjoy too, but it takes the heat off of trying to come up with something free-form to do or talk about with everyone. It’s a little bit of structure in what can otherwise for me be a chaotic and confusing environment.
I have less difficulty with conversation now, but when I was a teenager it was horrible. When I listen to other people talk, even if I like the people a lot and find them very interesting, I still have a very difficult time keeping interest in the narrative of the conversation. I can easily get overwhelmed by the words and just the whole set of things that, as I see it, come naturally to other people in a conversation - like body language, facial expressions, background noise. I have trouble integrating all of that in a way that portrays my interest in the person. I always want to just sit down and quietly do something together with them, but at the same time I feel compelled to talk because that seems to be the key to getting to know a person.
But, this makes me a horrid conversationalist. First, there the whole issue of determining when it’s your turn to speak. I wish we would just pass tokens or something. Alternately, I employ a too-conservative strategy, and end up seeming like a door mouse, or I employ a too aggressive one, and end up monopolizing the conversation. And it seems like this just occurs naturally for other people, while I’m mentally running through an algorithm, trying variations. But, at least that’s something. It was a god-send for me when I ran across a book on Transactional Analysis in high school … this way my key to understanding conversations and people. Before that, I was entirely clueless, and routinely went to lengths to avoid conversations. But, with TA, I had a way of giving some structure to this type of interaction and a way to understand it in more mechanical terms.
A lot of times in conversation, when I’m asked to talk about something I’m passionate about - like knitting, wine making, cooking, computer programming, or spinning - suddenly I find that although I have passion about doing these things, I just have no passion talking about them. Writing about them is totally different, but carrying on a conversation about them just suddenly seems disheartening. I end up talking quickly in a monotone, and giving the impression that I’m not really very enthusiastic about the things that I love. Or I end up describing something in too much detail, like I’m giving a lecture or something.
I think this is one of the reasons I enjoyed the knitting retreat so much. Even though it was a social situation that otherwise might have had me stressing and breaking out the TA again to try to make conversation work, at the end of the day it was always totally ok to just sit down next to someone and knit or spin, and to slow the conversation down that way too. Conversation while knitting or spinning or doing something else with my hands is the best. It slows everything down, and gives me the time to process what’s going on around me. It gives a topic of conversation about something you’re holding in your hands - something that’s concrete, visual, and follows a structure that you can know there’s a common understanding about.
As I’ve gotten older, really my (self-diagnosed) Asperger’s has gotten a lot better. In many ways, I’ve exaggerated the effect it has on me here just to make it more clear, and to highlight how I think knitting has really be a coping mechanism for me.