Saturday, April 6, 2013

Replying to a Parent's concern about the Traits of Asperger's Syndrome

Normally, I don't post correspondence here as I like to keep those things private and individual but I recently got an email from a parent who was concerned about a number of traits her son was showing.  I've replied to her questions in prose and as I was reading it back I thought it might be a useful thing to post, so... all identifying information removed and lots of extra links added, here it is.

Eye Contact

Inconsistent eye contact is generally a sign of "gaze avoidance" - ie: lack of eye contact. Darting ones eyes around the room during a conversation is a great avoidance tactic as it gives a person a break from being totally focused on the speaker - something which is quite painful at times. Some children with Asperger's syndrome give good eye contact but most do not.  You might want to encourage your son to look at mouths instead as this keeps his head pointing in the right direction and reduces eye-darting without making uncomfortable eye contact.

If he does have problems with eye contact, you shouldn't attempt to push him towards it.  It's a very uncomfortable thing.


Contrary to popular opinion people with Asperger's syndrome do actually have empathy and in many cases have far more empathy than neurotypical people. The problems lie in communication.

1. Understanding that someone is feeling different
2. Communicating empathy.

You described an incident where your son showed empathy by hugging.  This is not unusual.  If your other son showed an obvious sign of pain (crying for example) and there was an obvious reason, such as a fall or wound, then giving him a hug is a clear and obvious response.  My children do this all the time. The most obvious "lack of empathy" comes when children don't show empathy if, for example, someone is feeling "down" for an "invisible" reason.


These are common with all kids but much more so with people with Asperger's syndrome.  I've spoken to psychologists about Minecraft specifically and everyone I've spoken to has noted a massive increase in obsession.  Something about the minecraft game appeals directly to many people with Asperger's syndrome.  Obviously being on the computer all the time is unhealthy and you'll need to find ways to moderate it.  In our case, we send our boys to scouts as this gives them some necessary life skills while also putting them into social contact with a group of kids who aren't from the same school.


Monologues are a part of obsession and again Minecraft is a very common topic. We've had many. Too many.  Not wanting to be interrupted is common too and it's hard for children with Asperger's syndrome to understand that not everyone shares the same level of interest and enthusiasm.  Of course, nobody speaks in monologues all the time and children with Asperger's engage in "normal" back and forth conversation too.

Monotone voices are common too and I can't really explain what the reason is for them. I suspect it has something to do with the fatigue generated by incessant talking.  Your son should be capable of talking with various inflections but probably not during monologues about minecraft.


Friendships and Solitude
People with Asperger's syndrome often have difficulty paying attention to multiple sources.  This means that when they're in a group, there are "too many voices". They have difficulty relating to large groups of people and will often shun social occasions such as parties.  Small-talk is also difficult, so having a single friend with which you have both a good rapport and shared interests is much better.  I have three friends who I went to school with. They are my best friends and really my only true friends. We've known each other for nearly 30 years.  Throughout my working life, I've made acquaintances but I'm always confused when they want to be friends.

Alone-time is a well documented Aspie need and often the best friend a person with Asperger's has is himself. It's quite common to talk to yourself, particularly about your interests. The idea of the conversation is not to impart information but to enjoy the sensation of talking about an interest and to explore new ideas and concepts.  In time, your son will learn to keep much of than conversation internal to avoid public scrutiny but it won't stop - it will just become less visible.


Sensory Issues
These are extremely common in everyone with Asperger's syndrome.  Some will reduce over time but others will last forever.  There are two types of sensory issues, and you've noticed both but probably don't realize that they are two sides of the same coin.  Some sensory experiences detract while other attract. This means that some things, such as labels, noises, smells and lights will cause your son discomfort while others will actually be enjoyed - and sought out. This "enjoyment" of sensations is called stimming and it's where rocking comes into autism. You might not realize it but echolia (repeating phrases from TV and movies - or prior conversations) is actually an enjoyed sensation, a form of stimming.


There are many co-conditions with Asperger's syndrome and OCD is one of the most common. Change resistance and the need for a rigid schedule are different facets of OCD and it's very normal for them to occur together.


Social Issues
People with Asperger's syndrome have lots of social issues. These are mainly due to miscommunication such as misunderstanding of "common" trite phrases, misreading of facial expressions and tones and missing other social cues such as dress codes.

At the same time, there are problems caused by a misunderstanding of social behavior  For example; it's a nice day, the sun is shining and the birds are singing - and yet most conversations start with a pathetic statement of the obvious; "It's a beautiful day isn't it?" or "lovely weather we're having". Your son will eventually learn that most conversations start this way but he won't understand why.  He will most likely consider this to be "silly behavior  and even though he understands the reason, will not engage people that way.  After all, it makes sense to him to get to the interesting part of the conversation, minecraft for instance.

Finally there are those little white social lies that we tell each other every day.  "How are you?" we are asked, to which the general answer is "fine." - even if you're not fine.  Then there's the question, "What are you thinking about?".  There are many answers to this but "nothing" is usually a preferable answer to "minecraft" particularly if you're in a social, emotional or religious situation.  People with Asperger's syndrome often find lying very uncomfortable because it goes against a major rule "no lying".  This often means them to act like they have "no filter" and tell everyone, everything.


Depression and Anxiety.
Depression is a common trait in people with Asperger's syndrome. How could they not be depressed when the world doesn't understand them, doesn't connect emotionally to them and doesn't understand the things which drive them. Your son will be finding that for some reason he registers as "different" to his classmates and that he's often excluded or considered "annoying" for reasons he doesn't understand.  He may like the academic side of school but hate the social interaction of his peers.

Depression often goes hand-in-hand with anxiety, for the same reasons.  If you're dreading an interaction with your peers or a particular class or lunchtime social, then you become anxious even thinking about it.  Fleeing from the school may even become an attractive option.


Don't be too concerned about Asperger's Syndrome as it's not necessarily bad news. Most of the greatest thinkers and innovators in history have had Aspergers Syndrome - and plenty more people whom you haven't heard of have made spectacular contributions to society or to their workplace.


The important thing to remember is that your son is unchanged by any label you apply to him. He's still the boy you've raised. A label will simply help him to get more funding and support - and eventually, to better understand himself.



Mama Bear said...

Great Post, thanks for sharing, I look forward to all your links too!

Dixie Redmond said...

Thank you for taking the time to write this. I shared it on Facebook for others to read.