Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Conversations with People with Asperger's Syndrome can leave you with a Wrong Impression

People with Asperger's Syndrome often come across in conversations as very self-obsessed and this is reflected in “Aspie-type” personalities in the media, such as “Doc Martin” in the British TV show of the same name and “Sheldon Cooper” from the “Big Bang Theory”**.

The question is whether this is a reputation that we deserve. It's certainly true that conversations with people with Asperger's can be an “experience” but is this a self-centred superiority complex or simply the way that a bunch of traits appear to others… and if so, what can be done about it?

One Sided Conversations
People with Asperger's often seem to dominate conversations, turning the topic to things that interest us (special interests) and then talking until the listeners make their escape.

To an outsider, this appears to be “conversation dominance”. It suggests that the “aspie” is not interested in the opinions and subjects of other people.

People with Asperger's are constantly thinking about their interests and apparently this isn't the case with “normal” people. When you're talking, you tend to say what you're thinking- and for us, it's pretty obvious what that is. In fact, it's hard for us to concentrate on other topics especially if, like “today's weather” or “last night’s sports game”, they seem to lack conversational depth.

This is an area where we can improve simply by trying to rein in our exposure of the special interest and trying to listen to others. It takes practice but it's an important skill to learn.

Being Direct
People with Asperger's often ask very direct questions, for example asking an elderly person exactly how old they are or aggressively asking multiple questions about a given purchase which interests them.

Other people can interpret this as being “nosey”, pushy or simply rude.

People with Asperger's see this quite differently. It shows interest, engagement and sometimes honesty, all traits that we admire in conversation.

Personally I've always been proud of my honesty but over the years I've learned that there are some things that you just can't say. I now refrain from personal comments of any kind to such an extent that I've been accused many times of “not giving compliments”. In fact it's arguably the most difficult part of my marriage.

Too often my most well-meant comments are taken completely the wrong way. It's easier to completely avoid all personal comments than it is to say things that are intended as compliments but could all too easily have unintended consequences.

This is an area where others need to change their unrealistic expectations of us. Of course over the years, I've learned through trial and observation to avoid specific types of comments and questions - and my reading of body language has improved significantly. It’s probably safe to say that these problems should decrease over time with familiarity.

Blurting and Interrupting
People with Asperger's syndrome are often seen to interrupt the conversations of others, simply blurting out what seems to be random facts. This leads others to presume that they consider their conversations to be more important or at best, that they are simply rude.

Blurting can be a symptom of “over-excitement” in a topic or the urgent need to convey some information before it is forgotten. People with Asperger's usually have great long term memory but short term tends to be poor.

More often, blurting is the result of difficulty locating simple entry points into a conversation. It's not uncommon for a person with Asperger's to walk up to a conversation and watch it like a tennis match for a few minutes before silently walking away. This isn't rudeness, simply the person being unable to find the right “gaps” in which to enter a conversation. After a few such attempts, blurting is only to be expected.

In General
There are many other nuances in “Asperger's conversation” but the answers usually boil down to the same things. Some things, the person with Asperger's needs to work on, some things develop naturally over time and sometimes others need to be more understanding and more accommodating.

The more time you spend listening to a person with Asperger's syndrome, the more you'll find yourself "acclimatizing" to their "peculiar" speech and world-view. If you're a regular watcher of either of the shows I mentioned earlier, think about how you feel about Doc Martin or Sheldon Cooper now versus how you felt about them in their earliest episodes.

The rudeness and the superiority complex that people with Asperger's syndrome often project is rarely intended as such.

** Neither Doc Martin, nor Sheldon Cooper are specifically identified as "having Asperger's syndrome". though it has certainly come up on one, maybe both, shows. They're both characters based on real like people who are known by the actors and/or writers. Nevertheless, the characters they portray are very "aspie-like".

6 comments:

Child behavior problems and support said...

"People with Asperger's syndrome are often seen to interrupt the conversations of others, simply blurting out what seems to be random facts. " This is very understandable.

Jay said...

I've always been pretty bad at conversation and since I have come to realise I probably have Aspergers I notice it all the more.

I am bad at chit-chat and recognise the "self-obsessed" aspect that you mention. Typically, I will answer the other persons questions and then the conversation fizzles out. Later I will realise that this is because the chat was all one-sided and I should have asked a few questions of my own until the conversation took on a life of it's own. Then I get down because I feel sure the other person must have thought me to be uninterested or uncommunicative.

I think a conversation with me can be quite disjointed as I will be late spotting my opening and "blurt" the contribution I intended to make when the opportunity presented. Often, the conversation will have moved on and I end up dragging it back several stages.

Anonymous said...

"People with Asperger's often seem to dominate conversations, turning the topic to things that interest us (special interests) and then talking until the listeners make their escape.

"To an outsider, this appears to be “conversation dominance”. It suggests that the “aspie” is not interested in the opinions and subjects of other people."

That behavior does in fact have the effect of dominating the conversation, no matter what the person doing the behavior intends by it.

Also, when a person is in a conversation and *is* interested in the opinions and subjects of the other person, then *how* is he or she supposed to learn what those opinions and subjects are?

He or she learns what those are by *paying attention to* to the other person and *giving that person chances to say something*!

This can be done by listening in a spoken conversation, watching in a conversation in sign language, or reading in a conversation in an online chat.

This *cannot* be done by ignoring the other person and/or not giving the other person a chance to say something in the first place.

Therefore, if a person is *not* listening to the other person, then obviously that person is *not* interested in the other person's opinions and subjects.

Anonymous said...

"People with Asperger's often ask very direct questions, for example asking an elderly person exactly how old they are or aggressively asking multiple questions about a given purchase which interests them.
Other people can interpret this as being “nosey”, pushy or simply rude.
People with Asperger's see this quite differently. It shows interest, engagement and sometimes honesty, all traits that we admire in conversation."

Bluntly asking people their ages, ethnicities, etc. can show interest in *stereotyping* them.

Suppose a Canadian both looks Latino and looks Arab, and has this exchange with someone else:

"...Where are you from?"
"I'm from Toronto"
"But where are you really from? What are you?"

Maybe the second person is asking because he thinks all Latinos are gangsters, all Arabs are terrorists, and wants to know which stereotype to use against the first person. Maybe the second person is just so interested in the first person that he honestly wants to know everything about him ASAP.

*How* is the first person supposed to know which intention the second person has, when either way the second person is doing and saying the same things to the first person in this conversation?

Don't forget, this applies no matter if the first person is NT or Aspie or something else, and no matter if the second person is NT or Aspie or something else!

" People with Asperger's often seem to dominate conversations, turning the topic to things that interest us (special interests) and then talking until the listeners make their escape."

Even if the listeners making their escape are *other Aspies*. A topic that interests one Aspie can bore some other Aspies as much as it bores some NTs.

Suppose two Aspies who both have a special interest in Doctor Who are having a conversation about Doctor Who and a third person interrupts them then drones on and and on and on and on and on about model trains until the first two Aspies make their escape.

Does it matter if the third person is an Aspie or an NT? No, it doesn't matter, it's an unpleasant experience for the first two Aspies either way.

Anonymous said...

My son has been diagnosed with AS but lacks conversation and gets irritated if we talk to him. Is this not common?

Gavin Bollard said...

Asperger's syndrome is characterised by having fairly good verbal skills. I know people who have been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome who have minimal verbal abilities but this is less common.

Having good verbal abilities but not having the social skills (or inclination to use them) is fairly common though, not just with kids with Asperger's but also with kids who are introverted and within specific age ranges (Ages about 8-16).