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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