Aspergers, it seems, is permanently in the news these days. Unfortunately, it's usually for the wrong reasons.
It seems that many people consider aspergers to be a great excuse for poor behavior.
For every great "suspected aspie" like Bill Gates or Albert Einstein, it seems that there are several "Gary McKinnon's", "Martyn Bryant's" or John Ogren's and for every positive generalization (like Savant), there's several bad ones (like Sociopath and emotionless).
I'm not here to debate whether the schools, parents or special education did enough to help these people. Nor am I here to say whether or not they should have been allowed to read Stephen King books, watch X rated films or even be allowed near computers.
The fact is that in all three "bad" examples mentioned above, Aspergers has been used as an "excuse for bad behavior" when it is clear that there are other forces at work. The perpetrators had other conditions such as bipolar and sociopathic disorders but these get ignored and aspergers takes the rap.
There are two things that I want to cover in this post;
- Maintaining a Positive view of Aspergers
- Not Accepting Aspergers as an Excuse for Bad Behavior
Maintaining a Positive view of Aspergers
Regardless of what happens around the world, our children are stuck with the aspergers label (or, with DSM V, autism). The label loosely "describes them" but it does not dictate their actions. They are all individuals with freedom of choice. They can choose to be good and they can choose to be bad - and they do know the difference between right and wrong.
Articles and false claims (because many of them are false - Martyn Bryant's diagnosis was eventually revoked) don't help anyone. All they do is make people wary of the label. Wary of our children and wary of us. They take away from individuals with aspergers the concept of being innocent until proven guilty.
As such, I feel that it is the duty of every parent of an aspergers child and every advocate of aspergers to correct these negative viewpoints as and when they arise. I'm not talking about walking around with placards or defending serial killers - though if you can respond in comments to news articles and highlight other issues, other conditions, environmental factors and wrong choices, I think it helps to take the focus of aspergers.
This time however, I'm talking at a personal level. I'm talking about other parents, work colleagues, doctors and teachers who repeat the myths of aspergers. These myths need correcting.
Not Accepting Aspergers as an Excuse for Bad Behaviour
The other half of the problem is that we often accept aspergers as an excuse for bad behaviour. Sometimes we even do this automatically. It's something that we need to stop doing.
A Visitor Example
It's a well known fact that a lot of social contact is uncomfortable for people with aspergers. This becomes even worse when the aspie is put into a noisy crowded room. At home, in a controlled environment, things are quite different. If things get too uncomfortable, your child can always retreat to the comfort and safety of their room.
Imagine that you have an early-teen child and that an important family visitor is coming. You may find that your child wants to stay in their room. Maybe they'd rather be reading or playing computer games than talking with this visitor. Sometimes they'll use your sensitivity to their aspergers difficulties as an excuse to get out of social contact.
Don't let them do this. Social contact is important and the more practice they can get, the easier they'll find it to adjust to. Allowing them to run from the problem all the time might actually increase their social anxiety.
Now, don't get me wrong. Sometimes your child really will be overwhelmed. You need to learn to recognize the truth in your own children. You can't force what doesn't come naturally and if they show serious discomfort, you need to allow them to retreat. Whenever possible though, you should try to get them to spend a just a few uncomfortable minutes practicing social skills before letting them off the hook.
Not being welcoming to a visitor is bad social behavior. We spend so much time teaching our kids good table manners, to say please and thank you and to wait their turn for things. Why should social lessons be any different.
Then there are the adult examples. It feels like hardly a week goes by without me reading some kind of sob story about someone who is in an unhappy relationship with an aspie. They often talk about the lives that they've had to give up and the emotional abuse that they're subjected to.
This is not simply an aspergers problem.
The fact is that aspies who are capable of getting into a relationship are usually quite capable of communicating at least rudimentary emotions. Sure, it's hard work and sometimes we just want to be lazy but it was our choice to be in a relationship - so it's our responsibility to do our share to keep it working. It's also the responsibility of our partners to not accept anything less and to make sure that time is set aside for work on our relationship.
My relationship with my wife would be much worse if she didn't pull me up every now and then and remind me that I need to be paying more attention to her, spending less time on the computer and spending less time at work. If she took the pressure off, our relationship could easily degenerate into a hotel-style relationship where we all become so self-obsessed that we seem not to care about each other.
She understands that aspergers can sometimes make these things difficult but she doesn't accept that it will make them impossible - and consequently, neither do I. She won't push me too far and we both know that I have social boundaries. Sometimes places are too overwhelming for me and I can't stay long.
For example; when we go shopping, we usually "split up for an hour" and shop separately because it gives us the freedom to shop without stress. We will still get back together for the important bits, like lunch and furniture shopping but it means that I don't need to hang around sensory nightmares (like the perfume counters) and it means that I don't bore her to death going into bookshops.
I know some people on the spectrum who can't (or won't) go shopping at all. Sure, there is sensory overload but there are ways to reduce it. Headphones are one of the best ways to overcome noise overload and dark sunglasses can often reduce the social problems. We have to be on the lookout for our issues (and those of our partners). Sometimes they'll need to do things alone but to do everything alone because of aspergers is to allow the condition to excuse bad behavior - and that is not acceptable.