Understanding Asperger’s Syndrome
Many people have heard about Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) but few really know what it means or how to interact with a person who displays symptoms. In general, AS is characterized by difficulty understanding and responding to the emotional state of others. While most people with AS possess average or higher intelligence, they struggle with aspects of social relationships that seem easy to almost everybody else. Once you get to know them, they are often kind and generous people who just don’t seem to fit in.
While they are young, most people with AS are content playing by themselves or just interacting with adults. As they grow older, and particularly as teenagers, they usually would like to make friends but they find it difficult. School, the natural choice for developing friendships, is a place of confusion and anxiety for them. Social conventions, such as greeting others in the morning or paying compliments, don’t come naturally. When they make an effort to use socially appropriate sentences or phrases, they often sound stilted, or their tempo or tone are off. It is hard for them to recognize friendly teasing and they feel hurt easily. They consistently seem to overreact when faced with stressful situations.
Kids with AS usually have strong moral values and follow rules almost without exception. They also don’t hesitate to point these rules out to others, which can make them unpopular with their peers. They often don’t like maintaining eye contact and find verbal instructions difficult, which might give a teacher the impression they are not paying attention. People with AS often display a certain clumsiness and hardly any interest in physical activities. Considering how important sports are for adolescents, this puts them at another disadvantage. On top of all this, kids with AS generally have a low tolerance for frustration and tend to become angry very quickly.
It is not surprising that they often end up isolated and lonely. This is particularly sad because children with AS are generally very friendly and interesting people. Their unique brain structure enables them to remember many details about something that interests them, for example a movie genre, dinosaurs, or computer games. They can talk passionately about their special interest for extended periods of time. Unfortunately, they often fail to notice when others are bored or annoyed by the one sided, protracted conversation. They usually don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings or get on other people’s nerves but they just don’t understand how to avoid it.
As adults, people with AS often seem aloof, bored, disinterested, or even unfriendly. Because the diagnosis of AS is relatively new, adults who are older than 40 might have had symptoms all their lives without ever being diagnosed. They just always felt different and struggled with relationships without knowing why. Many of them found occupations in which they don’t have to interact much with others. They are most happy if they work in their area of interest, such as computer game designers, scientific researchers, or engineers.
Despite the difficulties that people with AS encounter, with the right training they can lead a successful, happy life. They can have fulfilling relationships and rewarding careers. They have truly exceptional analytical abilities, and can perceive and remember the tiniest detail. With skilled instruction, they can learn to utilize this ability in order to acquire social skills.
Young children learn social skills best in small group situations with adult guidance. They need specific instructions, for example on how to greet people or take turns, with lots of adult modeling and positive reinforcement. Teenagers are often highly motivated to learn social skills because they want to fit in with their peers. Groups facilitated by a counselor or teacher with four or five other teenagers work very well for them. It is also helpful to educate teachers and even peers on how to interact with a child with AS. Adults with AS can benefit from either groups or one-on-one therapy.
It is unfortunate that AS is often not correctly diagnosed and addressed because there is so much that can be done. In my experience, it is very rewarding to work with clients of all ages with AS. They can implement new skills quickly and make amazing progress in a short time.
- Antje Rath
- July 2013