Asperger’s Disorder (AS) is difficult to explain. It is typically describe as a mild
autism-spectrum disorder, but most psychologists don’t think of people with Asperger’s
as being truly autistic. Asperger’s Disorder can have a wide variety of symptoms, and
doesn’t necessarily have one primary characteristic. People with AS tend to be
introverted, and can have some difficulty recognizing sarcasm and understanding how
actions may affect people. People who don’t have AS (sometimes called neurotypicals or
NTs) see them as machine-like, insensitive and calculating. Many wonder how people
with AS manage to get by in life, and that they will never be particularly successful. What is true is that they usually have an affinity for math and science, and can be very good at jobs which require a logical thought process. While not entirely understood, it’s clear that they think differently than NTs – Their brains operate differently in some respects. While they may seem impaired to some, I argue that they aren’t impaired – just different.
The condition now known as Asperger’s Syndrome has a relatively short history, dating back to 1944 when a German pediatrician and medical theorist name Hans Asperger noted that multiple of his clinical cases were showing very similar, distinct symptoms. They were nearly identical to the symptoms of Autism described by Leo Kanner just a year earlier, but Asperger distinguished between Kanner’s observations and his own, explaining that his patients were not typically showing as much difficulty with speech, showed poorer motor skills, and that their symptoms were revealed somewhat later in childhood. It has been said that Hans called these children “little professors” due to their ability to explain subjects that interested them. Hans’s work was hardly recognized until 1981 when an English doctor named Lorna Wing translated his writings into English and conducted case studies of her own. Wing named the condition Asperger’s Disorder. Interest in the concept steadily grew, and in 1994 The American Psychiatric Association, which creates a list of “official” psychiatric diagnoses called the DSM, released the DSM-IV, which officially listed Asperger’s Syndrome as a mental disorder.
Interestingly, from an official standpoint, Asperger’s Disorder no longer exists. The American Psychiatric Association, which creates a list of “official” psychiatric diagnoses, recently released the DSM-5, which umbrellas AS and a few other disorders into Autism Spectrum Disorder. The basis for the change is reasonable enough. Brian King of the Seattle Children’s Autism Center explained, stating, “There was no evidence after 17 years that [the DSM-IV diagnoses] reflected reality… There was no consistency in the way Asperger’s or PDD-NOS were applied.” PDD-NOS stands for “Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified”. It is even vaguer than Asperger’s, and covers an unreasonably large number of issues. The problem is that Asperger’s Disorder is such a specific diagnosis (there were only a couple of symptoms pertaining to Asperger’s specifically) that a child who would be diagnosed with AS by one institution would be diagnosed with PDD-NOS by another. Now, people with Autism Spectrum Disorder are rated on multiple symptoms to create a more accurate picture of the individual.
I suppose it’s important that I explain that I have Asperger’s Syndrome. I will never truly understand how you see the world, nor will you truly understand the same about me. If you were to meet me, it likely wouldn’t be immediately obvious that I have a mental disorder. When I explain my condition to others, their reaction is usually “Oh, really?” or “That’s interesting, I wouldn’t have thought that.” When I was a child, it was usually far clearer that there was something different about me, at the least. I learned to read at a very young age, and was somehow fascinated reading things like the nutrition facts on the side of a box of food. When I went to Kindergarten, my mother brought me to my two teachers before classes started to explain that I might be an issue at times. She had me read an entry from an encyclopedia. The teacher’s wouldn’t believe it. “Yes, he’s reading the words, but does he understand what he’s reading?” They said. At some point that year, I ripped up a piece of paper from a coloring book in anger. I hated coloring, and knew that it wouldn’t help me learn anything. The picture was just the letter A. I realized that I already knew how to read, and that I would be stuck in a class that wouldn’t teach me anything. My Kindergarten teachers realized the same thing, and understandably couldn’t stand me.
Situations like that didn’t end there. Other children would sometimes take advantage of our difficulty with understanding social interaction. Somewhere around First grade, a kid who I somehow thought was a good friend told me during recess that If I didn’t pull my pants down in front of everybody, he wouldn’t be my “friend” anymore. So I did. What I didn’t realize was that I wasn’t supposed to include my underpants. You can imagine how that ended. A similar, though far worse issue arose recently where a 16 year old boy with AS in Maryland was harassed by two girls, one of them his “girlfriend”. They convinced him to retrieve a basketball from the surface of a frozen lake. He fell in, and the girls didn’t bother to help. He fell back in, and they still didn’t help. They then made him ride in the trunk of their car, saying that they didn’t want the interior wet. On another day, one of the girls held a knife to this throat while his “girlfriend” recorded it on video. There are two other videos, one of the girls dragging him by the hair, and another of the girls trying to make him have sex with his family’s dog. The (second) most bizarre aspect of the story is that the boy doesn’t want the two girls prosecuted. He still wants to be friends with them. There is now a great deal of controversy over whether the boy’s autism should affect the girls’ sentence, as no one is really sure how much of an effect it had on his decision making.
While I was intelligent in some respects, I was incredibly naïve in others. If I was carrying something in each hand and needed to open a door, it would take me a second to think to put something down. Putting a shirt on required a strict routine – I would take the shirt, check what side the tag was on, lie the shirt face-down on my bed, stick my arms through the bottom, and wriggle around until I got it on. My mom tried to explain that I really didn’t need to put the shirt down on the bed, but I either didn’t understand or didn’t care. I had my routine, and I was going to stick to it. Routines were, and are, a sort of security blanket for me. Brushing my teeth? Get the toothbrush wet first. Taking a shower? Take it before bed, never in the mornings. My mother always said that God ran out of common sense, so he gave me two brains instead.
As far as people with Asperger’s are concerned, rules are not meant to be broken, under any circumstances. Board games were always difficult for me, because no one ever seemed to play correctly. More recently, I’ve had issues with speed limits. I seem to be the only person who is willing to follow them, and as a result, huge lines of cars sometimes pile up behind me. I think to myself, “If they can’t bring themselves to follow the rules of the road, they just have to deal with it.” Yet I simultaneously feel like a jerk for plugging up a road full of people. Religion becomes a minefield of seemingly contradictory rules, leaving me thinking in useless circles that often make me want to give it up altogether. But, once again because of my obsession with rules, the very thought horrifies me. Life can be complicated when it’s difficult to think outside of black and white. Math has always been difficult due to rules that often have no obvious purpose, are not explained, or turn out to be altogether not true later on.
A major component of autism is sensory discomfort. I took baths, not showers, for quite a long time because I hated when water would run down my face. I try to bring mechanical pencils or pens wherever I go, because the sound of a #2 pencil is like nails on a chalkboard to me. Crowds are a nightmare, not only because of the closeness but also because of the noise. It’s nearly impossible for me to “filter out” the conversations going on around me, which can become incredibly overwhelming. Just the sheer volume of a noise can put me off. I have to bring earplugs to most concerts. Even at home, I can never really tune out everyday ambiance. When I was younger, and I was particularly stressed at home, my mother would sometimes just wrap me up in a blanket like a cocoon. Summertime was the worst time of the year for me. All of my family and friends would be outside, and I wanted nothing less. I was horribly afraid of most flying insects. Flies scared me because of the noise they make (I have always had sensitive hearing), and bees and wasps scared me more than could ever be reasonable. If something starts crawling on me, forget it, I’ll panic. Having something buzzing around my head still makes me very uneasy.
Today, I have overcome many of my more immediate and noticeable issues, but Autism fundamentally affects the way the brain functions. I can still seem somewhat cold and emotionless to others, and can sometimes come across as an insensitive prick – and sometimes, I really am. This will likely always be a point of confusion, frustration and sadness for me. One of the most claimed symptoms of Asperger’s Disorder is a lack of empathy. As someone who actually has the disorder, I have always been extremely hurt by this. I can understand why people believe this to be the case, but I am not un-empathetic. Far from it. In fact, a study from the science journal Molecular Autism recently found that people with Asperger’s Syndrome are likely to carry a specific variation of a gene related to empathy. The DSM-V did not even include a lack of empathy as a symptom for autism spectrum disorder. Yes, I have trouble showing people that I care about their problems. And yet I seem to recognize how people are feeling before most. If they are someone I know well, it will likely affect my own mood. Once I know someone well, I can understand what frustrates them, what scares them, what they enjoy. At that point, I do care about them. I just can’t do anything about it. I’m not sure how to react. If someone’s sad about something, do I try explaining my point of view on the situation? Should I try comforting them somehow? If I attempt to help, I’ll usually say something wrong and make the situation worse, so I try to just be there. I may not seem like I care, but if they’re willing to talk to me, I’ll listen forever, and maybe I’ll say something If I understand well enough. I’d rather someone tell me what the issue is then have to worry about them, because people on the spectrum tend to internalize the negative moods of others. If two people in a room are arguing, there’s a good chance I’ll just get as far away as I can.
Recently, people have become wearier of aspies, for good reason. Adam Lanza, the teen who committed the Newtown massacre, had AS. Looking for something to blame, the media was quick to note that Lanza had the disorder. Some worry that aspies will now be seen as cold, murderous individuals. The fault in that logic is that nowhere is violence mentioned as a direct symptom of Asperger’s. Most young children with AS will throw more tantrums than most, but it’s not their disorder that causes the issue, it’s the frustration that everyday life causes. We learn to deal with frustration just as others do, and as we overcome our symptoms, it becomes less frequent. That’s not to say that it’s impossible for someone with Asperger’s to become violent, as Lanza’s case shows. If an aspie does become violent, it’s because they feel as though they have been seriously offended in some way, and that everyone should know it. There were times in years past when I would have to remove myself from games of monopoly because I knew the rules weren’t being followed to the letter.
The most difficult aspect of Asperger’s Disorder is that as far as anyone can tell, it never truly goes away. The symptoms can be masked and worked around, but aspies are always working harder than average just to seem, well, average. Asperger’s can be exhausting and incredibly disheartening when the symptoms and consequences still show through after so much work. Very few aspies manage to reach their full potential, because navigating through everyday life can sometimes be difficult. When they do reach their full potential, they sometimes go on to reach incredible goals. Asperger’s Syndrome is a fairly new concept, so it’s impossible to know for sure, but people from Albert Einstein to Abraham Lincoln have been suggested to have Asperger’s. So many of the people who have affected history were known to be eccentric, socially awkward, and single – minded that it’s nearly impossible not to imagine that Asperger’s can be a blessing as well as a curse.
Teenagers often use the phrase “you just don’t get it” when arguing with their parents. They forget that their parents were once teenagers, too, and that teenagers will always be teenagers, no matter what generation they’re a part of. I, too, have said “you just don’t get it”. In fact, I’ve probably said it more than most. When I was younger, I actually convinced myself that my parents were spies, or aliens. Maybe I’m the alien, I thought – maybe my real family is waiting for me in some other world, a different planet or even a different dimension. I cannot count how many times I dreamed of some other world where no one was selfish, where everyone could speak their mind without fear of being ridiculed or ignored entirely, only to wake up and realize that I’m still stuck here on Earth. I wouldn’t say “you just don’t get it” blindly, I would say so after realizing that quite literally no one understood a word I was saying. I often get the feeling that many people are incapable of truly caring about someone else; that they operate entirely on their own selfish desires. There are times when I would actually rather be alone than with a group of people, because feeling as though no one really understands you just makes the loneliness worse. Most people with AS, including me, live with the profound feeling that something is wrong with the world, and sometimes we hope to somehow fix it.
So what do individuals with Asperger’s Disorder do with their lives? In a 1999 article for the Indiana Institute on Disability and Community, Temple Grandin wrote a list of good and bad jobs for people on the Autism spectrum. She explained that people with autism usually have wonderful long-term memory, but sub-par short term memory. The list of bad jobs for people with Autism essentially includes all jobs which require keeping track of a great deal of information all at once, including food service or service dispatch. The list of good jobs is split into jobs for visual thinkers and non-visual thinkers. Visual thinkers on the autism spectrum are good candidates for jobs like drafting, computer animation, and commercial artwork. For people who are better with math, music and literature, jobs such as computer programming and library science. In the end, as with anyone, one person with an autism spectrum disorder may not be as sufficient at a particular job that another individual might be. For instance, if someone’s social impairment was especially pronounced, being a librarian might not be the best idea. Someone who doesn’t have good fine motor skills might not be able to handle programming because of all the typing that would be involved. The skills of the individual matter more than a mild psychiatric disorder.
All that being said, it is still difficult for aspies to get and hold jobs. There are very few jobs where social interaction is not necessary, and job interviews will always be a part of the employment process. People on the spectrum may take employer’s questions too literally, and have trouble keeping eye contact with the interviewer, making them seem uninterested. Some bosses are simply jerks, and yelling at employees with Autism (as well as other employees around them) will only make the situation worse. Sometimes, just mentioning Asperger’s disorder ruins people’s chances of acquiring work. Yes, there are laws against that sort of behavior, but how do you prove discrimination? If the employer never specifically said “you have Asperger’s disorder, so we aren’t hiring you”, there’s no way of proving anything. Even jobs which could be considered “aspie friendly” can become overwhelming under the wrong circumstances, and sometimes co-workers just can’t seem to deal with people they don’t consider “normal”. That’s not to say that employers are obligated to tailor jobs to the individual, but it is to say that people need to stop being completely apathetic about the nature of the difficulties of someone with Autism. Challenge us, but at leas acknowledge that we may need longer to adjust to a situation. People with autism can be very efficient under the right conditions.
Autism has been recognized for one-hundred and eighty years, but there have been people with abnormal minds for as long as humans have existed. Some of them may have been locked in mental institutions, some just seen as eccentric. They have all had to deal with a world built for “neurotypicals”. Surely they can be treated the same as any other human being. Everyone has issues; it’s only the degree to which the issue affects their lives that determines whether their issues can be given a name. Everyone’s issues are asking to be fixed, just some more than others. Individuals should be looked at individually, not as part of a category. We aren’t impaired. We are all just different.