Wednesday, January 20, 2010

What is Aspergers: My Perspective - Part 3 (Labels and Tables)

Like it or not, Aspergers is a label.

Everything has labels, it's how we communicate in our world.

Of course, the problem is that people find it difficult to reconcile the label with the individual. At first, it seems that they should mutually exclusive. After all, how can you be part of a group with similar characteristics (label) but still be an individual.

In this post, I want to talk about how the label and the individual can live in harmony.

Tables and Chairs
Since Aspergers and Autism are difficult and intangible concepts let's look at a real world example;

Assume that the label of autism is the same as "furniture".

If that's the case, then Aspergers could be a table, while Kanners could be a chair.

Perhaps something more similar to aspergers, such as High Functioning Autism could be a bench. It's not quite a table but it's certainly closer to a table than to a chair.

Defining the Label
It's very hard to make a list of what exactly defines a table. It's not the number of legs because although most tables have four, some have three, and some have six.

This is true of Aspergers. If for example, the number of legs is Gaze Avoidance, then it's true to say that most people with aspergers seem to have issues with "looking people in the eye". It doesn't mean that if you don't have that problem, you don't have aspergers - it simply means that if you don't then you're a little different from the majority. Not all people with aspergers have gaze avoidance issues.

If we stretch the table analogy further, you can see that some tables are made out of wood, some are metal, some are coffee tables and some are dinner tables.

There are things that are pretty much common to all tables. They all have flat surfaces on them and they all have chairs around them - even coffee tables. The list of characteristics for tables is similar to the list for inclusion of aspergers syndrome. You need to meet a certain amount of the criteria to be considered an aspie.

Blurring the Lines
Then there's the fact that some things which are common to tables are also common to chairs. After all, chairs have flat surfaces too and you can often put things on them (not just sit on them). Chairs are also often in close proximity to other chairs. Chairs share a lot of characteristics with tables because they're part of the same group - furniture. Sometimes other factors make it difficult to distinguish a chair from a table - stools in particular are a good example.

This is also true of Aspergers compared to the more classic forms of autism. Sometimes aspergers looks like classic autism and sometime vice versa. Even more common is the confusion between aspergers and co-conditions such as ADHD.

Imposing Limitations
It makes sense to say that furniture has a much greater chance of looking similar than non-furniture items, such as transport. It might even make sense to suggest that the label can place limitations on the range of uses to which an item could be put.

For example; it may seem quite easy to say that a table can never be used for transport. Of course, this simply isn't true. There are lots of trolleys which can be considered both tables and transport. Sure, maybe it will never compare to a truck, but it doesn't make sense to impose limits without trying.

One question which pops up frequently in forums (and which frustrates me considerably) is;

"What jobs won't my child be able to do if he is diagnosed with aspergers?"

The range of answers varies from place to place but there's always someone who suggests that "all public relations and customer facing jobs are out". This is a perfect

This is a perfect example of using a label to set limits on an individual - and it's not recommended. Setting limits on a child simply harms their self esteem. Many aspies work quite well in customer facing jobs because they're working in their special interest areas and because they work hard to overcome their limitations.

Another problem with labels is that they can sometimes lead to a loss of individuality. In our table example, we've ignored the fact that some tables have fish tanks in them, some have checkerboards on them and some have folding/extension capabilities. Handmade tables are 100% unique. This is true of people too but unfortunately we have a tendency to stereotype people into roles.

Everyone is an individual - particularly people with aspergers as a lack of social interaction can often cause them to develop on their own.

You can have the label and still be an individual.


Adelaide Dupont said...

I like to use doors and windows as the concept (Asperger as label and way of seeing the world), taken from Wendy Lawson.

Gavin Bollard said...

Believe it or not, I haven't read Wendy Lawson's take on the subject but it sounds interesting - particularly since we both seem to be saying similar things.

e said...

Gavin, I just checked out Wendy Lawson's site. She is wonderful. She does use a lot of poetry, which I don't like, but that is just my aversion to poetry in general.

Adelaide Dupont said...

I love poetry.

Wendy Lawson wrote a great first, self-published collection known as Life as an Alien back in 1998.

I was encouraged to read it.

RRE said...


I have just come across your blog today and read your three parts on "What is Aspergers--My Perspective." I love all the posts and want to dig into them.

I have recently come to the conclusion that I probably have ASP. Can't say for sure as I am have many classic signs but don't have others. What I hope to find out and explore is not just how to live with it, but wondering if the most debilitating effects can be overcome? The impact on my marriage (number 2) and the seemingly sure demise it is going through now, the relationship (or lack thereof) with my children, my family, my ability to not function at peak performance at work, my need for lots of privacy and isolation, my lack of friends (and sometimes desire to just not have any), sometimes axiety in social situations, and so forth, have all left me with a less than fulfilling life. At the same time, I am not that ripped up about not having these things--yet I wonder what I am missing.

What I do resonate with is the fact that I have some signs at not others. Nothing really fits into a neat package. A little of this and a little of that is what I see in myself. A few shades off, but maybe the same color.

I took 3 psychiatry courses in college in the late 70's and early 80's and realized that this is a very inexact science. Unlike other modern medicines that treat physical illnesses, mental illnesses don't fit into the "have a headache--take a Motrin" cure.

Anyway, thanks for the post and I would welcome anyone else's thoughts on what it means to live with this when those around them are so impacted, needing something else from me, and I have little or no empathy to offer anything at all.

Emily said...

Mr Bollard

I am doing a research project on AS for my biology class. I just wanted to let you know that your blog was very helpful to me in finding less factual and more personal aspects of AS. Thanks


Amy Murphy said...

Hi All,
Thanks so much for your blog!! I am a true-blue Aspie as well and have a blog that i would like to share. I would love comments and feedback! Let me know what you think and if you have any questions I can answer. Thank You Gavin!! Way Cool! my blog:
I also plan on checking out that book "Life As An Alien" by Wendy Lawson....
Amy Murphy

desifeminists said...

hi there,

i'll start off by saying that i loved your analogies on asperger's, and that it is a good analogy for all kinds of misfits in the world. if only people would understand! isn't such a good analogy itself a sign of asperger's!!

when i first found out about what asperger's syndrome was a year ago, i knew it sounded a bit like me but i didn't give it much thought because "lacking empathy" didn't sound like me. i'm very empathetic, and a strong defender of human rights. because i've always been hurt when people misunderstood me and tried to correct me, i've always been empathetic to others who are hurt.

just yesterday when i was going through another one of my extremely lonely episodes where i couldn't figure out what's wrong with me, it suddenly clicked with me that perhaps asperger's is not about lacking empathy, but not knowing when or how to express it. and that's why despite me being extremely passionate about human rights and healing people, i'm not able to make friends or connect with people, and people find me "cold."

as i re-read the signs of symptoms of asperger's, i was intrigued by how many i fulfilled, even if others don't realize it at first because i'm an adult who has learned a lot of social cues through painful life lessons. signs include - not being able to "connect" or have attachments to people, not making many friends, a usually quiet person who sometimes talks incessantly to the point of annoying people, very verbose intellectual writing and speaking (when given time to think), but poor writing and speaking when i'm just being me, non-sentimental, clumsy as a kid, sucked at all sports but learned dance well since dance allows methodical practice, and being very fidgety. what's more, just about a year ago i was diagnosed with ADD, when i just couldn't focus on first year of med school. although ADD is part of my symptoms, i feel now that asperger's might be the umbrella term for all my issues.

could you share with me some thoughts about how i should go about getting (or not getting) a diagnosis as an adult? there's a very good reason why i wasn't diagnosed earlier, and that's because i grew up outside the US where awareness of psychology is low. i'll keep reading your blog to find out more.

Anonymous said...

Hey Gavin,
I'm wondering if you were initially as taken aback as I was when reading Emily's post. I was at first offended, but on thinking a bit I realized what she meant. Not factual as in true, but as in facts and figures.

Gavin Bollard said...


Emily's post just said to me "I took what I wanted and was happy". That's how I read it anyway.

I'm not sure if it's possible to offend me.

Miguel Palacio said...

Thank you for the recommendation. Wenn told me it was self-published back in '94. And now it's out of publication. So I got there too late. Instead I was suggested the following by Wenn: "the closest to it is either: ASPoetry or Life behind glass; both published by Jessica Kingsley." Hope that helps.

Miguel Palacio said...

Oh yeah?? You stupid idiot!
//just kidding. xD