How to Talk to an “Aspi” – Asperger’s, Autism, Labels, Stereotypes and Strategies

Update: After writing this, I read this great article by someone name Astrid who has Aspergers and think it’s a great counterpoint to what I said here.   I now can’t imagine this post being ‘out there’ without a link to that post.   I have no real response to Astrid except to acknowledge the tension between the perception of Aspies as ‘elite’ (in a way) and the often unfair expectations that those perceptions have on people with Asperger’s.

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My son is a genius in so many ways you cannot imagine.   He is now six years old.    He has been talking since he was barely 12 months old.    His vocabulary could make Rex Murphy feel like he needs to go back to grade school.

He can tell you the some interesting properties of many chemical elements you’ve never heard of.   He once wrote Martyn Poliakoff of the Periodic Table of Videos to ask him:

  • What do people use Beryllium for (just watch this video)?
  • What is the most dangerous element?  (there are various reasons for danger.   Plutonium is very toxic.   Fluorine and Cesium are the most reactive.)   What is the least dangerous element?  (probably Helium)
  • How do you suppose ununoctium is very small when it has the most protons?   (It’s not small, but only a very small amount has ever been made – and the experiment that claimed to have made ununoctium has its critics for sure).
  • If bananas contain potassium why do they not explode when you put them in water?   (it’s not elemental potassium that bananas contain, but potassium ions, which do not explode in water).

There’s more.   He’s gotten as far as level 8 in Globetrotter XL (a game where you are asked to pinpoint the geographic location of world cities).    He can probably describe most of the world flags and definitely all of the U.S. state flags.    He can name all the state capitals and nicknames.   (Also, he is Canadian, so he has no real education on this topic.)    When he was 3, I could rely on him to give me accurate instructions on how to drive to someone’s house after only a single visit.

When he got to school, however, we learned that he was having difficulty socially.    We are also realizing that there are some issues with some areas of his academic life too.   That’s when we discovered that he’s an ‘aspi’ – a child with Aspergers.    Whether that’s a diagnosis, a personality type or just a way for so-called ‘normal’ people to marginalize him, I’m not quite sure.   I do know that paying attention to the nuances of his learning style has been really helpful to let him deal with everyday life things.

So he must be socially awkward right?    Must be like Rainman, right?    Spock?    Temperance Brennan from Bones?    Keeps to himself, right?   He must shy away from social situations and show little emotion to others, right?    Total lack of empathy in favor of logic and detail.   It’s all obvious!

Well, no.   My child is  extremely engaging, interesting and (in a way) interested in people.    The differences are more subtle and hard to pin-point.   You’d know there’s a problem somewhere with the way he interacts with others, but you would find it hard to pinpoint what.    But, if you meet a kid that:

  • Is very welcoming and friendly.   Almost assuming right off that you are a friend.
  • Is very polite on the phone.
  • Assumes that you are interested in what he is talking about.
  • Assumes you want to participate in the things he wants to do, and maybe gets angry if you don’t.
  • Interrupts your conversations with others.
  • Gets upset over basic requests or instructions.
  • Asks surprising questions and offers amazing insight on a wide range of topics.
  • Will do a speech as if he were defending a thesis, but then fail at answering basic open-ended questions about the same topic.
  • Is surprisingly slow at getting ready for going outside etc.
  • Will repeat certain behaviors and actions over and over again.

That might be my kid.

If you happen upon a kid you might think is an aspi, here are some things you could consider:

No Surprises

Little surprises will make Mr. 6 anxious.    Simple requests like ‘go brush your teeth’ can turn into total battles if they appear (to him) to come from left field.    A better approach is to give him a list of the things that need to happen, preferably with time-limits to go with them.

Be Patient

Mr. 6 will ramble.    It’ll take him a few shots of ‘umm…  uh…  I have a question for you…’ etc. before he comes out with what he needs to say.

Turn Open-ended Questions into Multiple Choice

No matter how many times I ask Mr. 6 ‘what does he want for dinner’ he will always reply ‘i don’t know, what is there?’    And he’s a picky eater – he only has a few things that he enjoys eating!    On the other hand, if I hand Mr. 6 a menu, he will be able to give me ideas even if nothing on the menu is appealing to him.    So if you want to ask Mr. 6 why he is angry, you should say ‘I think you might be angry because:

a) you are disappointed about not getting candy

b) you are a mean grouch

c) someone called you a mean name

d) someone ate your lunch’

Even if all of these ideas are absolutely wrong, Mr. 6 will be able to take one of options and give you some insight into how he is feeling.

Act Like a Librarian

There may be no actual evidence to support this assertion, but sometimes it’s like Mr. 6 has a Library of Congress in his head with no retrieval system to find the right information at the right time.    If you are able to help him out with a little subject classification, he may be able to find the right book in his head and recite its contents in detail with amazing analytical capability.

Get Ready to Have your Mind Explode

When I explained my little ‘act like a librarian’ technique to a doctor, Mr. 6 corrected me and said ‘it’s like I have to build a tall building and I don’t know what materials to start with.’    That doctor is probably still cleaning up the grey matter from her office after that insight.

Model Behaviors

Mr. 6 will always be better at imitating the positive behaviors he sees in other than understanding how he is annoying you.    If he can come up with a rule about what to do at the right time, he will do it.    He understands that people get annoyed at him, but he doesn’t always understand why.   Show him an example of how he could behave when certain things happen and he’ll be happy to oblige.

Is Something Else Bothering Him?

Mr. 6 hates loud sounds.    It might not be you, but where you are standing that is bothering him.    If an environment is complicated or noisy, it might be causing problems for Mr. 6.

It’s About Learning Difficulty, Not Emotional Problems or Intelligence

If you are the sort of person who just likes to label and ignore people with learning trouble, just listen to Temple Grandin for a few minutes.    People on the Autism spectrum have the potential not only to be productive members of society, but to transform society for the better.   Like the way a wide range of overachievers just so happen to be dyslexic, there’s a comparable list for people with Aspergers (grain of salt needed for both lists, however).

So there’s my contribution on the challenges that go along with the gift of having an ‘Aspi’ in your life.     Mr. 6 makes me smarter.    He also breaks a wide range of assumptions I have about people learn, teach, ought to behave, and so on.

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16 thoughts on “How to Talk to an “Aspi” – Asperger’s, Autism, Labels, Stereotypes and Strategies

  1. A lovely tribute to your son. Mr. 6 is one of the coolest kids I’ve ever met, and did indeed treat me like a long lost friend when we first met. I think he is quite amazing, and this post has reminded me I promised a video update for your kids. Will get on that this weekend!

    Cheers,
    Connie

  2. Ryan

    Thanks for this post. I have read it a few times now (and recommended it to others) and feel that I have a much better handle on beginning to understand Asperger’s syndrome.

    I can’t imagine a six year old coming up with the “building a tall building” analogy. Wow.

    I also benefitted from the link to Astrid’s blog.

    thanks
    David

  3. Excellent post, thank you for also linking to Astrid’s post as well. I loved the “building a tall building” analogy. I’m hesitant to say more for fear of appearing to generalize, which is not my intent at all. My daughter, while she does not have Asperger’s, does have ADHD as well as anxiety. Learning not only how to interact with her but how she best interacts with the world has been thought-provoking, mind-blowing, frustrating, and profoundly moving – often all at the same time. I think that while parenting in general is a life-altering experience, parenting a child such as mine or yours is life-altering on exponential terms.

  4. Mr. 6 sounds exactly like my son. When he was 4, I finally realized if I gave him notice that I was coming to pick him up, I could avoid the tantrums at the door. Primary school was a nightmare, as he wasn’t able to deal with his fellow students during unstructured play time. Yet he was fantastic with adults. It took until high school for him to finally start to be happy, when he entered the IB program and found other kids more like him.

    He’s 21 now, and I still spend a lot of time “teaching” him social skills. We practise behaviour so he has something to draw from when he’s dealing with a new situation. I’m fortunate that we have always had a close relationship. Part of it was fostered by all the closed questions I had to ask him in order to drag conversation out of him! Now he knows to offer me more information with the first question, or even to volunteer some news. I think you’re going to find your life with Mr. 6 incredibly enriching.

  5. Hi Ryan,

    I also enjoyed your post on Mr. 6, my son is Mr. 16 and boy can I relate! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard him say “I don’t know, what is there?” to my “what do you want for dinner” question. He’s also always hated loud noises…I’m also a librarian :)

    Anyway, thanks for the post, it was very enjoyable!

  6. i have aspergers syndrome and i am 14 years old, and i dont know how to make friends,i only have one friend, i am very good at maths and science but other subjects i dont understand, i like to play on the computer alot rather than playwith other people, i know there is medication for aspergers syndrome but its only in America, but my mum says i need it because i get very angry and kick, punch and verbally attack things and people, some people dont understand what aspergers syndrome is but i try to tell them and they say your weird leave me alone, its very hard being differnt but i dont mind, becasue i am a brain box and i am an indervidual, i can sometimes cope with aspergers syndrome but, and my mum can to. By Deanna Boxall.

    • Thanks so much for your comment, Deanna. You are definitely more than a ‘brain box’ and you are not weird. It might be good to remember that kids at school are also young so it can be hard for them to understand things like what Asperger’s is. Be nice to them when they start looking up to you, ok? :)

  7. How do I talk to annoying new age “aspies?” I dont.. I ignore the behavior which is only a cry for attention.

    I make it a point to ignore and disassociate myself with anyone who plays this aspie game with me.

  8. Hi Ryan – great post!

    I live with Mr. 7, Mr. 9, Mr. 12 and Mr. 41. I find myself in a constant state of cleaning up my grey matter – mostly in good ways. I also found myself nodding and “yupping” to your menu strategy, no surprises policy (I have a white board on the fridge with daily plans with times), and *patience* advice. Has Mr. 6 discovered http://www.khanacademy.org/? Good stuff and can be interest-driven.

    Personally, I think we’re super lucky to live with our Aspies – and they are lucky to be living in a time when they are (mostly) appreciated.

  9. I have mild Asperger’s and I don’t think this topic particularly applies to people with high functioning Asperger’s.

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