A Psychologist’s Perspective on Taylor Swift: Part 2
So, last week I put it out there that Taylor Swift has some of what I affectionately and respectfully referred to as Aspie traits.
The thing about understanding and identifying Asperger’s is this: if you’ve met one person with Asperger’s, you’ve met one person with Asperger’s. That’s to say that people with Asperger’s have some general and over-arching differences in thoughts and behavior but are as diverse a group of individuals as any other “clinical population.” As Swift fans, Dr. Bolton and I have noticed some potentially subclinical traits that fall very much in alignment with Asperger’s through reviewing Swift’s interviews, music videos, song-writing, and general mannerisms/behavior.
Women with Asperger’s tend to be an under-identified and less understood population, at least in comparison to their male counterparts. As psychologists who work with Aspies, we have to catch ourselves about not over-identifying or -pathologizing (as in, if the only tool in your tool belt is a hammer then everything looks like a nail) the non-pathological. In writing this, I hope to empower not only the female Aspie, but the quirky, driven, and creative females who follow the beat of their own drum!
Taylor Swift’s Fixation/Drive
People with Asperger’s tend to have what I sometimes refer to as a “freight train brain,” in that they have distinct, intense, and obsessive fixations with things, ideas, topics, and/or people. For females with Asperger’s, their interests may be “socially appropriate,” but the intensity and pursuit of them tend to be what sets them apart from their peers.
They might obsessively collect and organize objects, have to continually bring the topic of conversation back to their interest, or occupy themselves almost exclusively with the subject matter. Others may see them as loners, reclusive, or odd. They tend to prefer time with their interest over social interaction. For many females with Asperger’s, their subject of interest might be socialization itself.
[mks_pullquote align=”left” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]They are keen observers of social interaction (especially of their female peers) and often try to understand it in terms of hierarchies or structure—rules to follow.[/mks_pullquote]
Female Aspies may tend to continually question the actions and behaviors of themselves and others to make sense of the nuances of interpersonal relationships. They can be great imitators but their interactions may feel stilted, forced, or mimicked rather than fluid and spontaneous.
The intense interest and focus of people with Asperger’s can lead to savant-like aptitudes, abilities, and talents. Males with Asperger’s may excel in fields like engineering or computer programming.
Females with Asperger’s tend to be drawn to creative pursuits such as writing and theatre or performance. If we were to consider Swift through the lens of Asperger’s her unapologetic pursuit of writing lyrics and country music would be her “circumscribed interest.” Her father transferred jobs from Pennsylvania to Nashville when she was 14 after Swift fell in love with the city as a country music mecca at the age of 11. Of course, many young talents trace their beginnings to parents taking leaps of faith (or the opportunity to live vicariously) by moving closer to the likes of Los Angeles and Manhattan—so I don’t expect anyone to be entirely convinced at this point, but I am just laying the groundwork.
[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]However, what potentially sets Taylor apart from her contemporaries, is her motivation for pursuing music. It seems like her drive was purely the pursuit to generate, produce, and immerse herself completely; not to gain accolades, royalties, and be on the cover of US Weekly.[/mks_pullquote]
Songwriting & Language
Females with Asperger’s tend to be very matter of fact, literal, and analytical.
They are less likely to take shortcuts: nothing is easy and no stone goes unturned. They are “escape artists” in that the social world can be overwhelming and exhausting, and they “escape” through their fixations or over interest in subjects and through imagination and fantasy. Female Aspies often exhibit hyperlexia, or a precocious reading ability, and love to know the origins of words and develop advanced and sometimes eccentric vocabularies.
Due to their tendency to take things literally and straightforwardly, they may communicate in a way that can seem immature or unsophisticated but the void of sarcasm can also be refreshing, direct, and wise. They may be confused by idioms or words and language that carries multiple meanings or connotations. Females with Asperger’s may even have feelings about certain words and find comfort and something like friendship in writing and language. They write to relieve anxiety, explore patterns and document their imaginations and observations.
They tend to be “hard workers” in that they produce a large quantity of high quality in a short period of time. Consequently, female Aspies may demonstrate unique savant-like talents and abilities in subjects ranging from singing (perfect pitch), art, learning other languages, acting, drama and performing, dancing, and writing.
Rolling Stone has described Swift as “a songwriting savant with an intuitive gift for verse-chorus-bridge architecture.” Her music is almost entirely autobiographical. She has alluded to how she writes to try to understand people and capture their experiences. Her songs’ hooks are almost always sincere, literal, and to the point.
She writes in a poetic and relatable way, but there’s never really a need to make an inference or decode her emotion or meaning. Her writing is lovely in the same way that I enjoy how the female Aspies I work with are able to capture the essence of their observations with such clarity. The embellishment of simplicity and directness can be quite profound and beautiful after all.
Ed Sheeran has commented on Swift’s songwriting approach, which includes constant documentation of ideas, observations, and thoughts throughout the day and on whatever surfaces are readily available when genius strikes; “She does that all the time. It’s a good way to do it. She’s one of the very few people left in the industry that actually worries about the songs that she sings like she actually wants to write them herself.”
Numbers Bring Ease
Numbers are calming for Aspies. Numbers don’t ever look at you funny or laugh at you. They’re consistent and follow patterns and logic. Proof: Album 1989 and the ever famous 13.
Social Perception: Romantic Relationships
Traits of Asperger’s which might impact romantic relationships include a tendency to take things very literally, as well as reliance on predictability and patterns (which romantic relationships rarely conform to), and Aspies tend to be very sensitive to their own emotions and yet can be confused by or fail to pick up on the emotions of others. Therefore they may struggle when it comes to some of the “games” that are played in relationships and feel particularly shaken or euphoric about the unexpected intensity of the emotions associated with intimacy.
They may use relationships to escape and find it hard to understand things like manipulation, disloyalty, vindictive behavior, and retaliation. This can make them come off as naïve or immature, and they may be more likely to be taken advantage or for granted since they struggle (or forget) to communicate their emotions to the other person and only experience them and react based on them. Again, here is where writing and creating/producing can be a very structured and relatively safe way for an Aspie to explore their feelings and communicate them.
Taylor writes very blatantly and unapologetically about her past relationships.
Most of her fans and the media have an easy time discerning and then disseminating who the song is based on by non-subtle hints. She called out John Mayer by his given name in “Dear John”: “Don’t you think I was too young to be messed with? The girl in the dress cried the whole way home. I should’ve known.”
Swift explained that “The Last Time” is about an “experience I had with someone who was kind of this unreliable guy. You never know when he’s going to leave, you never know when he’s going to come back, but he always does come back.” At the end of her rocky relationship with Harry Styles she merely tweeted a lyric from her song “I Knew You Were Trouble”: “…til you put me down,” to let her fans know the relationship had finally run its course.
But her songs never seem like she is outing someone or bashing them. They have an innocence and purity that makes it not feel like she’s out to scorn the boys and men who she has had relationships with. Her songs seem honest and carry both a vulnerability and strength; I imagine she probably struggles with insincerity or lying (a common Aspie trait as well).
Females with Asperger’s may struggle early in life to connect and establish friendships with their peers. They may not particularly care about or understand the purpose of personal hygiene and appearance before they become teenagers or young adults. In an NPR interview, Swift commented that, “I’m 24. I still don’t feel like it’s a priority for me to be cool, edgy, or sexy. When girls feel like they don’t fit into those three themes, which are so obnoxiously thrust upon them through the media, I think the best thing I can do for those girls is let them know that this is what my life looks like … I’ve never ever felt edgy, cool, or sexy. Not one time.”
Female Aspies may also tend to be observers or escape in solitary, elaborative, imaginative play.
As they matriculate through the school age years, they may gravitate towards either younger children, who they can “direct” and avoid judgment from, or adults who enjoy their broad vocabulary and are also more direct and tend to be less judgmental. Especially in middle and high school, when there is a lot of pressure to conform, females with Asperger’s may be loners, try to blend in to a clique with minimal success, or (best case scenario) find a group of quirky and accepting peers.
Some of the ways in which female Aspies struggle with friendships: they are often confused by the social mores and rules concerning eye contact, voice modulation and tone, personal space, and non-verbal communication. They can be obsessive about their relationships in a way that can be off-putting to their peers but really stems from their attempt to “correctly” be a friend and communicate. They may overshare or spill intimate details to strangers. They may also struggle with maintaining relationships by not understanding the reciprocity required and then not understand when a friendship seems to suddenly end.
Swift has noted that she struggled with relationships when she was younger, but has more than made up for it now. She seems to effortlessly float between social circles, a quality some Aspies may acquire once they are generally accepted because they are both perceptive to the characteristics of different social cliques and have mastered imitation.
Aspies can be excellent social chameleons; and while they may rely on the social facts (i.e., one person is “goth” versus “emo”) they don’t necessarily make judgments about these qualities (i.e., people who dress goth are “less than” those who dress emo). Aspies may understand the classification system and be very attune to the hierarchies because they find the rules for socializing comforting, but because they have also most likely experienced ostracization, they can be extremely empathic and strive for equality amongst their friendships.
Female Aspies may exhibit little impulse control when it comes to bringing the conversation back to their interests or monopolizing conversations; they may also learn to moderate this through trial and error. It’s not that they’re narcissistic or controlling, but more likely earnest, over-eager, and just trying to connect and bond. For Taylor, such traits may contribute to her fans finding her approachable, relatable, and charismatic.
Female Aspies tend to be labeled with seemingly polar emotional extremes: depressed/over-joyed, lazy/over-active, inconsiderate/over-sensitive, lacking awareness/laser focus and attention to detail, over-zealous/apathetic. Part of this is the result of Aspies having a hard time identifying feelings unless they are extremes, and part is only picking up on the extreme demonstration of emotions by others and thus communicating that way in kind.
Personal feelings of anger, outrage, deep love, fear, giddiness, and anticipation seem to be easier to identify than emotions of contentment, satisfaction, calmness, and serenity. Sometimes situations, conversations, or events are perceived as black or white, one way or another, and the middle spectrum is overlooked or misunderstood.
Because Aspie females tend to long to connect and understand others, they may be highly sensitive to anything perceived as criticism and exhibit melt-downs or freak-outs and not be able to put language to them at a later time. They can appear hypersensitive or over-react to seemingly innocuous social encounters, while simultaneously overlooking or minimizing something that seems it should prompt more of a reaction. This can make predicting reactions of Aspies more challenging and predictable at the same time (predictable in that they can predictably react in extremes and predictably be non-predictable).
I can’t speak directly to Swift’s emotional ability but I would predict that she would meet some of the criteria above…
Social Justice Orientation
Many Aspies exhibit a “hyper empathy,” in part due to their own “persecution” for being different or odd, coupled with their deep desire to connect and keen observation of life in general. They don’t take things for granted and their empathy tends to extend to, and sometimes be even stronger towards animals. Temple Grandin, Ph.D., is one of the most well-known and accomplished adults with Asperger’s and is known for her advocacy for animal welfare. She explained that, as a female Aspie, she is able to connect with animals because “Verbal language is not required for communication with animals…Animal cognition has similarities to autism cognition…Animals are very aware of small, sensory details in the environment.” Many Aspies have a strong love of nature and for animals and may even prefer to be in the presence of nature and animals over people. Swift’s friend, Tavi Gevisnson, has described her as “BFF to planet earth.” Taylor has two Scottish Fold cats; one, Olivia Benson (named after Mariska Hargitay’s character on Law & Order: SVU), and the other, Meredith Grey (the character on Grey’s Anatomy played by Ellen Pompeo) are both frequenters of Taylor’s blog posts.
Aspies have a tendency to find literal meaning and ‘black or white’ interpretation of the world can also lead to some rather heavy-handed stances on issues of right-and-wrong, and they tend to lean extremely to one side of the social justice gauntlet or the other. Taylor has recently been questioned on whether she views herself as being a feminist or not after striking up a friendship with Lena Dunham; perhaps the media’s attempt to put Swift in a “box” and struggling to given the various and diverse alliances she strikes. Aspies may not fit so neatly into a clique or be pegged to a specific style/scene/genre and are able to drift more seamlessly through them or feel simultaneously disconnected from the groups people form based. She handled inquiries gracefully by responding to an interview in The Daily Beast on whether she considers herself a feminist by stating, “I don’t really think about things as guys versus girls. I never have. I was raised by parents who brought me up to think if you work as hard as guys, you can go far in life.” More recently in an NPR interview, Taylor expounded that, “I have brought feminism up in every single interview I’ve done because I think it’s important that a girl who’s 12 years old understands what that means and knows what it is to label yourself a feminist, knows what it is to be a woman in today’s society, in the workplace or in the media or perception.”
Lots of attention has been paid to Taylor’s romantic relationships and their demise, and as candidly as she addresses them in her songs, she also takes a strong stance on how her songs can help teach girls to think about “What you should accept from men, what you shouldn’t, and how to form your own opinion on that.” Similarly, attempts have been made to sexualize her and she has spoken about being objectified and the “self-esteem crisis” young girls are faced with in a photo-shopped and airbrushed world. She has also alluded to her distaste with the entitlement of some of her peers and expressed, “I think never assuming that you are entitled to anything is very important…Also treating people well, not just people who you think can help you but generally treating everybody well.”
These sentiments may cross the lips of many a pop-star trying to exert a “good influence” or image, but Taylor seems genuine and to speak from the heart, as though she knows no other way. That sincerity is also a hallmark of females with Asperger’s, who tend to have a huge compassion for suffering and want to help others and better themselves. Aspie or not, these qualities draw upon the loyalty and respect of Taylor’s fans.
As youth, females with Asperger’s tend to speak literally and jokes may seem to go over their heads. I’ve already alluded to how the literal interpretation can be both a blessing and a curse, but wanted to offer a couple of you tube clips [youtuber youtube=’http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8WBCsiCqIAs ‘][youtuber youtube=’http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QeTlLiM08hM’] from an interview with John Cleese that I felt really captured both extremes of this in Taylor. In discussing her cats, Cleese asks her, “How did it have the accident?” referring to the folded ears of the cats. Taylor totally does not get it and responds “What? What accident?” He sees a soft spot and opportunity for fun at Taylor’s expense and responds “Is that a proper cat? …that’s the weirdest cat I have ever seen in my life!” But Taylor gets her revenge. Check out the clips and you won’t be disappointed.
Individuality – Taylor Swift’s Quirks
Following up on the tendency to take and express things literally, Aspies may have a sense of humor that may seem quirky or odd. They may be funny without even realizing it (something granted to them by their literal approach and frankness). One of my favorite Swift-friendship pairings, Lorde, who seems like someone who would appreciate some quirky friendship love, relayed that Taylor sent her flowers after a performance one night and then met her at Shake Shack. Lorde explained what really “sealed the deal” on their friendship was when a stranger asked Swift if Lorde was her manager and Swift promptly answered, “Yes.”
Many entertainers go through phases but Taylor shifts pretty seamlessly and reinvents herself constantly with her costume, posturing, and music while the core of who she is seems to remain steadfast and true. She is endearingly consistent despite the different roles she embodies.
So that’s my case for Taylor rocking some Aspie traits! There are probably things I’ve left out, overlooked, or over-interpreted (some intentionally!). I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions. We are definitely making this case from afar and based on anecdotal and several-times-removed “evidence.” Again, the point of this is not to diagnose Taylor, but to educate readers on how awesome female Aspies can be and how understanding how females with Asperger’s relate to the world provides a unique and refreshing landscape. Another purpose is to provide some insight into how the behavior and perceptions of someone with Asperger’s might be misperceived by others. Through gaining awareness, the hope is that females on the spectrum will better understand themselves and the population at large can appreciate Asperger’s as enriching to diversity rather than stigmatize those with Asperger’s as being less intelligent, savvy, or relevant. I hope Taylor takes it as the compliment it is meant to be!
Also, check out Samantha Craft’s blog on being a female with Asperger’s—it is awesomely written and was a great resource for this piece.