Friday, July 31, 2009

A Question About Asperger's Syndrome

Alyson, a woman with a grown son wrote in this question:

I'm interested in learning more about
Asperger's - including how to spell it. My son has exhibited certain traits - more so when he was younger. I asked his former psychologist who assured me that he does not have it. I also mentioned it to his current psychologist. I get the impression that it is not black and white. Is there a particular web site or book that you recommend?

Here's the link to the Jessica Kingsley Publishing. You'll find a wealth of information there on the topic of autism and Asperger's Syndrome from books written by research scientists to family members:

Here's the link to the Mayo Clinic:

Here's my response to Alyson:
Asperger's is spelled A S P E R G E R ' S. Most people leave off "syndrome." This particular description of children who relate differently through a similar set of distinct characteristics was first noted in 1947 by Hans Asperger, an Austrian Physician.

Asperger's is not a psychological problem, although it may be treated as such. Asperger's Syndrome is a neurological, developmental difference which results in a person "reading" or focusing on different information or patterns in their immediate environment while often completely ignoring (not interested in) social patterns, including facial expressions, and other social cues.

It is suggested that people with Asperger's lack imagination or can't accurately read social cues. I can't read people when they are close to me, but I can read people who are distanced with excruciating accuracy. I maintain an emotionally and psychologically neutral space so as not to be bombarded with information upon which I can't act. I even keep a certain emotional distance from family members -- the better to see them in their totality, rather than just through their familial roles, function, or gender, and the better not to be blind-sided by illogical decisions or actions which may affect my life.

Does your son come across as isolated, remote, indifferent, bored? Is he able to sustain eye contact, or is he a scanner -- he'll look you in the eyes for a second or two, and look away for much longer?

Aspies are not blinded by love, we prefer logic to chaos, especially emotional chaos, and we tend to live almost entirely in the present moment -- which doesn't help a great deal in anticipating other people's behavior, responses (different from ours) and any resulting consequences. Because we live in "now," who you were yesterday doesn't necessarily carry over today, and waking up in the morning to the same faces doesn't change the feeling that you are meeting the people who live in your house for the first time -- again. This means all the wonderful loving things our care providers and parents and friends "do" for us doesn't ever stay added up, remembered as a balanced sum total of experiences over time. Time doesn't work this way for us. Yet this crucial difference is something not well understood by professionals, researchers, or psychologists.

Does your son have difficulty associating certain choices with what you would consider obvious social consequences? Is he able to appreciate and connect what has gone before and should be cumulative in a relationship, or does he lose sight of the past in relationships, either good or bad?

When you live in "now" as your time zone, a routine makes no sense. Your parents may know that school starts at 8:00 and you have a zillion things to do to get ready for just another day in the life, but this doesn't hold a lot of meaning for an Aspie, unless there is intense, physical, intellectual/emotional pleasure associated with going to school, or to work. Which is why many Aspies are passionate loners in their chosen, happily discovered, fields of endeavor. These fields of endeavor are not likely to be those associated with schedules, rigid use of time, or where working closely with another person on a regular basis is a necessity.

Does your son habitually lose track of time, seem frequently lost deep in thoughts he does not readily share? Does he initiate conversational topics or try to follow along? How does he feel about "chit-chat"? Is he good at it?

Professionals say Aspies lack what is referred to as Theory of Mind, and in addition, Aspies seem to lack empathy. I heartily disagree. From my perspective, my natural neurology chooses to by-pass TOM when TOM responses would be illogical, emotionally immature, or otherwise lacking in emotional intelligence. In short, I give people the benefit of doubt they may not deserve since Theory of Mind includes all the most base impulses, dirty, self-serving tricks and manipulations human beings are capable of -- games.

" I didn't see that coming" is a common complaint, especially at work where social interactions are less authentic, transparent or truthful.

Here's an example. I was about nine or ten, playing a game of wiffle ball in my backyard. A neighbor, Barry, a cruel little chap who found sport impaling squirrels, was covering first base for the opposing team, and idly fiddling with an extra bat. I hit a ground ball and started running bases. Approaching first base, I saw Barry holding the bat out and up. I didn't think, despite knowing Barry as I did, that he might deliberately intend me harm (Theory of Mind). But Barry didn't move the bat -- which was the only logical choice in my universe -- and I didn't duck or go around the bat thinking Barry would, of course, move the bat out of the way. I ended up taking a solid whack in the mouth, bloodied lip, and all.

My uncle Gerry held some ice to my lip, asking: Why didn't you duck? At that moment, he surely thought I was pretty dumb. He didn't ask Barry why Barry hadn't moved the bat to let me pass. Even though I was one of the smartest children he knew, my uncle simply couldn't put that one and one together. He was completely confused by my behavior. I gave Barry the benefit of the doubt; all the cruelty I'd previously witnessed from Barry didn't "add up" and I believed Barry would make a different, kinder choice. After all, he had been given the opportunity. I was wrong. This doesn't mean I lack imagination. It means I lack the ability to imagine anyone deliberately hurting another person.

No games. We Aspies ain't got game. As adults, we may come off as ridiculously naive, child-like or stupid/clueless when we are unable to adapt our behavior to TOM generating from base, cruel, self-serving instincts. We make terrible underlings who are expected to do whatever it takes to make the boss look good, unless the boss is actually a terrific boss who doesn't need anyone else to make him look good.

Since we have no "game," we don't know how to honestly relate or connect with a person who is coming from a "gamey" place -- which a person may not be fully aware of -- they're just being normal. Consequently, we when come to an intersection with TOM that is inauthentic, untruthful, manipulative, emotionally dishonest, our response is to look away. I find I have no trouble at all looking into the eyes of
anyone who is aware of "game" and can set "game" aside when they are in my "space."

Does your son have difficulty speaking or making eye contact when he is emotionally agitated? Does he have a history of being blunt or oddly direct in his communication style?

I'm unable to put aside "I ain't got game" to meet someone else in their
normal TOM where mind games are just what people do. I'm simply not interested in relating in that "game' field. This is not judgment. It's a body response, like pulling your hand away from fire because you know fire will burn you. For Aspies, non-Aspies are like fire -- which can cook your hamburger or burn your house down. Who knows? If we're not sure that people fire is only going to be used to grill some burgers, we'd rather go hungry than risk having our house burn down.

Does your son have "game" or is he confused by the emotional and manipulative games people play? Can he recognize a manipulator or does he find himself frequently being used? Is he able to appropriately reciprocate favors or kindness?

Add to this, for instance, in my personal experience, having the physical sensitivity that results in emotions having a distinct smell. Joy is lovely, it smells like roses. Fear, hate, envy, jealousy, greed....don't smell so good and while we can wash away the body odor there is no washing away your base smell. If you stink emotionally, you stink, and I literally can't be in the same room with you.

Social rules dictate I can't tell you that you stink. What other choice to do I have? I can choose not to speak. When an Aspie gets really quiet, you can count on there being a problem that the Aspie knows can't be "discussed" according to social norms or perhaps well established family patterns or emotional taboos an Aspie may think are ridiculous.

Can your son handle garden variety confrontation? Or does he withdraw from agitation and low level conflict?

As an adult, I can find a graceful excuse and the nearest exit. I can avoid large crowds where this extra sensory information may become debilitating. As an Aspie child, I was fortunate enough to have the neurological control not to just start screaming. Many people with Autism do not have the neurological pathways in place which allow them to filter out or set aside the fact that a person stinks with fear, or any combination of base, negative emotions. This is so hard on a parent, especially when and if they become afraid of their autistic child, or their frustrations leak out as "stink." Your child may not want you to come anywhere near them, and all your past okay-ness won't count in that moment. Your child may just freak out.

Does your son prefer spending time on his own?

Asperger's is tricky, and some of us just have a "titch" but I hope this insight into my experience of living with Asperger's and the Wendy Ann stories demonstrate that even just a titch can make life complicated and uncomfortable. The signs can be quite subtle and are easily overlooked -- for decades -- while intellectual capacity may continue to grow and a person functions well except for a noticeable lack of intimacy or long term relationships in his or her life.

Alyson, thank you for your question and do have a look at Kingsley Publishing.

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