Saturday, June 23, 2007

What is Aspergers Syndrome ?Based on one Aspie's own point of view

Note: This article was written when this web site was entitled "Aspie Advocacy." When I realized that I am more properly HFA (high-functioning autistic) than aspie, despite my many similarities to aspies, I decided that a bifurcated view of AS and autism did not make sense. Thus, I changed the name of the site, as well as the editorial "slant," to reflect the unified nature of the spectrum as a whole. That is why I recently changed the title in the link to this article. However, for the moment, I am leaving the article as it was written originally. Keep in mind that when I say "aspie" in this article, I refer to all people on the higher-functioning end of the spectrum, regardless of which diagnosis they may have.

Asperger's syndrome is a form of autism. Autism, in all of its forms, is what is called a pervasive developmental disorder. In essence, it is a slight difference in the construction of the brain, probably present since birth, that affects the way the child develops. It's not a mental condition... it is a neurological difference. Although the terms that describe it (syndrome, disorder, et cetera) have onerous connotations, it's more accurate to simply say that so affected individuals are different.

Most of the differences relate to the way that aspies (a term that people with Asperger's Syndrome use to describe themselves) communicate with others. They tend to have a rather straightforward style, and that has several implications. First, the roundabout way in which normal (neurologically typical, or NT) people communicate is replaced with a rather blunt, sometimes apparently tactless approach. Aspies say what they are thinking, and there is no such thing as beating around the bush. They don't "say things without saying them," or lace their words with innuendo or hidden meaning. There's no subtext... what is said is what is meant, and it is that simple. NTs often have a hard time figuring out what an aspie means, simply because he (the NT) is not accustomed to interpreting the words completely at face value. They often refuse to believe that there is no hidden meaning, or that the comments they interpret as rude or harsh are actually meant to be helpful. This can cause hard feelings and misunderstandings, and unfortunately the aspie is usually on the losing end of the exchange.

Aspies communicate and interpret language literally. That's not to say that they do not make use of metaphor or simile; in fact, many of them show rather advanced use of such concepts. However, the basic mode is to use words in a very unambiguous and precise way. Precision and clarity (and often verbosity) are the hallmarks of typical aspie speech and prose. Aspies typically use a formal manner in everyday communications, written or spoken. While odd to NTs, this is an outgrowth of the aspie preoccupation with precision and accuracy in the use of language.

As children, aspies lack the inborn "detective skills" to automatically determine and integrate the "unwritten rules" of personal conduct and body language (often including facial expressions). Parents do not have to actively teach their children to recognize these nonverbal cues, because the children have a built-in ability to learn them, and to incorporate them appropriately into their own code of conduct. Aspies never pick up on these things, so as adults, they still do not have the ability to recognize these nonverbal signals. Of course, this can cause confusion when NTs and aspies communicate. The NT may send signals that he is not interested in a particular topic, or that he has tired of talking to the other person completely. The aspie will miss these signals, and the NT typically grows more and more angry as his signals, from his perspective (and at an unconscious level), are ignored.

The aspie, whether a child or an adult, is not usually interested in the social hierarchy of the group. Popularity, "coolness," jealousy, image, office politics... all of these are things that do not concern aspies. Unfortunately, this often means that they end up at the bottom of the hierarchy. In school, aspie kids are often picked on by all of the other kids, who seek to improve their own prestige by abusing others. That need to improve one's image, even if by making others look bad, is not something that aspies can really comprehend. They just do what they want to do, without any worry about whether something is "cool" or not.

Many of the medical texts suggest that people with AS prefer to be alone. That's not really accurate, though. While most aspies will need to have some "alone" time each day, they don't usually want to remain solitary all of the time. Most aspies do want to be social and to interact with others, but they often have long histories of disastrous results with regard to interpersonal communications, for the reasons described above. It is not so hard to see why many aspies shy away from others.

Aspies tend to be well above average in intelligence, and language skills far in excess of the norm for the age group are common. Aspie children often read and write several grade levels higher than their like-aged peers. Aspies of all ages often have unusually expansive working vocabularies, and it is often said that aspie kids talk like adults.

One of the most interesting aspects of the aspie personality is the "perseveration," or the special interest. Aspies tend to be rather deeply engrossed in one specific topic, and that one area of interest dominates the mind and free time. This is not to say that they cannot think of anything else, but they show a sense of zeal and enthusiasm for the special interest that most NTs will never experience. The topics of interest can be quite common, like computers or car repair, or they can be rather bizarre. Anything from dinosaurs to fleas to mimeograph machines can be the focus. The person will typically seek to gather and absorb as much information on the special interest as he can find... from libraries, the internet, experts in the field, and through direct experience where possible. Sometimes the special interest persists for years; in other cases, it may only last for a few weeks, at which time a new interest will take over.

Aspies tend to be very responsive to stimulus. Loud noises, bright lights, powerful odors, or unexpected touch can overload an aspie's mind. Loud noises of short duration produce an effect in the mind that resembles that of scratching a chalkboard. Certain persistent noises, especially loud or "busy" ones (like multiple voices), can be very tiring and stressful. Visually busy or bright environments can have a similar effect. Aspies tend to prefer quiet environments with subdued lighting. Many of them carry earplugs and sunglasses to help them deal with unexpected sensory overloads.

The aspie mind by nature abhors inaccuracy and imprecision, and dishonesty and deception do not come naturally. Aspies are by nature loyal, accepting of difference, and have a talent for being able to accurately assess themselves and others. Their unique position outside of the norm allows them to see things as few can.

By nature, people with AS are innovators; their inability to recognize the unwritten rules means that they live in a world largely without preset limits... so ideas and concepts that may never have existed without such a perspective are born. People like Ludwig von Beethoven, Thomas Jefferson, Albert Einstein, and Bill Gates were (or are) probably aspies. Arrogant, eccentric, strange, intelligent, perceptive, genius. They're all words that have been used to describe the people above, as well as many or most known aspies.

Medical texts tend to describe AS in terms of impairment, disability, and the problems it causes. They're all written from the perspective that normal is good and unusual is bad; that all deviations from the usual are signs of dysfunction and must eventually be cured. They fail to see the beauty of AS, and of being different. Many aspies, including the author of this article, like their AS... it is more than just a condition in a medical book. It's a part of who they are, and what thy are. As this article's author says, "I would not be 'me' if the AS were not there. I really do see it as a thing of beauty."

1 comment:

Dave K. said...

Very nice read; thank you very much!