The first thing you have to remember about Asperger’s Syndrome is that it exists along a continuum…more like categorizing an earthquake or a hurricane, with many gradations and shades of grey than say…pregnancy in which, you either are, or you aren’t.
The second thing you should know is that like a number of psychological and psychiatric terms, the concept seems to morph. Technically speaking, Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) didn’t exist until the 1940s at which point Hans Asperger, a Viennese pediatrician, cleverly coined and defined the term. Then less than a decade ago, the AMA dropped it from its list of disorders, only to have it creep back in. Clearly, it is a topic that is continually evolving and de-evolving through time.
The only thing most folks can agree upon is that… much like pornography, which is hard to define in the abstract…with Asperger’s, you know it when you see it. When you know someone with Asperger’s Syndrome, you know it. There. I finally got that out.
Though it’s technically in the category of high-functioning autism, many people with AS are successful, intelligent and capable of carrying on more-or-less normal lives. Having said that, it’s important for you to know ahead of time exactly what you’re getting into with someone who has it.
Telephone Conversations: Otherwise highly intelligent and high-functioning AS people often find that talking on the telephone is difficult, annoying and often counterproductive. They much prefer e-mails, texting or snail mail over which they can exert complete control. A telephone conversation with an AS afflicted person is usually brief, awkward, and often jarring. The reason? The AS afflicted who have learned to glean visual cues as to what is the proper way to act and react, are denied these cues during a telephone call. If you really hate talking on the phone because you don’t know how you’re supposed to react, consider why this might be the case…
For the classic cases there are clear markers: Even at an early age, AS afflicted children have difficulty expressing emotions of happiness and sadness. To fit in, they may adopt an artificial smile or rictus grin that isn’t quite appropriate to the situation. Or they may have a laugh that can best be described as synthetic or robotic. They perceive that others around them find something humorous and attempt to mimic the emotion.
On the flip side of the coin, AS afflicted people rarely cry or express genuine sadness. In place of this, they may become quiet and somber (to fit in) or, they may manifest the emotion through degrees of anger. If you have a friend or loved one who never cries or gets sad, but only gets angry, that’s an indicator.
Double-edged Sword: It’s a bit of a Zen irony that some of the symptoms of AS serve to promote success in the person afflicted. A person with AS can often focus on a single success goal to the exclusion of all else. This, of course, has its pluses and minuses. If you have a high-functioning AS person working for you who has locked-on to solving some technical problem, their ability to focus may serve them well. It may be the case, however, that it doesn’t serve the friends and loved ones who are around that person.
Another Marker: Collecting: Many people have small collections of things, but the obsessive compulsion of the AS person, sends them into another category. They may collect model trains, or stamps, coins or baseball cards, music selections on the internet, or arrow heads. The compulsion or obsession is to have ALL the items. A related marker as well as a dead give-away: If you have a friend or relative who likes to play one song over and over and over…and over, without getting bored or tired, there’s a good chance the individual exists on at least some level on the continuum that is Asperger’s Syndrome.
Repetitive Behavior and Rituals: In the world of an AS person, continuity and sameness are good things. Rituals for such basic things as getting dressed in the morning, bathing, preparing for a meal, preparing for bed time are all places where repetition and ritual are desired…and sometimes necessary for mental well being. Having every tool in its proper place in the work shop, warming up the car the same way every morning, cleaning one’s glasses a certain way, polishing shoes, anything at all can be the focus of repetition.
Physical and/or Social Clumsiness: There is a physical and a social fluidity that most people acquire over time. Call it grace if you will. An AS afflicted person may be physically clumsy, move in a physically brusque or bullish way, like the proverbial bull in the china shop. Likewise, this same person may move socially in an equally brusque or bullish way with little attempt at nuance or graciousness. Or, if it is synthesized, it quickly disappears at the first moment when the AS person is ill at ease…or just bored with the the surroundings. News of an abstract tragedy such as a plane crashing and killing all aboard, or a building collapsing, bridge falling, killing hundreds may make no emotional impression to the AS person who is not personally affected.
Friendships with the AS afflicted. Friendships are difficult for those afflicted with AS. Close friendships may be impossible, the problem being the AS afflicted is living in a small personal world of his own. The degree that he or she interacts reflects the degree that they have learned to synthesize empathy and caring. The cold fact remains, that for the AS afflicted, they want what they want to flesh-out their inner world. Real empathy, real sorrow for the misfortunes of others, if it exists at all, exists on a very low level. More often, you will see degrees of anger or frustration, where sadness or empathy would be appropriate.
Men vs. Women: Though getting hard statistics on AS is difficult…mostly by virtue of the fact that it does occur on a continuum or spectrum, it is generally accepted that men are four times as likely to develop the syndrome as women. By population the number of those with Asperger’s nation-wide and in Canada averages out to one in 250+.
The Cure: There isn’t at this time any magic bullet, shot, or pill that is a cure for Asperger’s Syndrome. One that is possible, however, is for those who suspect they have it is to not be ashamed or try to hide it. Rather, the very admission of the syndrome is the first step to achieving a more balanced and happy life. Those afflicted with AS have no more reason to feel shame than someone who discovers they have become near-sighted, or color-blind or perhaps are losing their hearing. It’s better to accept reality than to try to synthesize a false normality that doesn’t exist. Given half a chance most people are good and will bend over backwards to help out.
Like much in the field of psychology and psychiatry, concepts and definitions are unfolding and evolving even as we speak. Though Asperger’s Syndrome is considered an affliction, many, many famous individuals have had it and managed to harness the ability to focus or obsess on a single topic or ability. Again, it’s not something to be ashamed of, but it most definitely is something to be aware of so that you may integrate better with the rest of the world.
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