Raman* age 26, reached my clinic after a series of unfortunate life events. He had been forced to quit his job after his employers discovered that he had helped an ex-colleague leak company secrets, one of his female friends had humiliated him on a social media site and his colleagues deserted him. Deeply disturbed he had an overdose of sleeping pills.
Sitting before me I saw a full grown man who showed no expression on his face despite the trauma he had been through. His only concession to emotion was angry words but his facial expressions didn’t match them. Depression seemed to be his primary diagnosis but his lack of emotional range alerted me that there was more to the story. After administering a series of evaluations and consulting with a psychiatrist we diagnosed him with Asperger’s Disorder.
What is Asperger’s?
Asperger’s Disorder was a stand-alone diagnosis until 2013 when the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), changed its classification. Now Asperger's syndrome is part of a broader category called Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Even so, lots of people still use the term Asperger's. This group of related mental health issues includes:
- Reduced sharing of interests, emotions, and a failure to initiate or respond to social interactions.
- Difficulties in nonverbal communication. Trouble making eye contact or using gestures effectively. Sometimes there is a total lack of facial expressions.
- Challenges in developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships, often a complete absence of interest in peer relationships.
- People diagnosed with Asperger’s also have restricted repetitive & stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests and activities.
As Frederick Douglass said "It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men." Sadly, Asperger’s remains under-diagnosed in childhood which lands people like Raman in unfortunate crisis. Early childhood intervention makes behavior modification easier and can prevent many adult calamities.
How do you identify someone with Asperger’s ?
“Aspies”- as people with Asperger’s are often referred to- may have learned to cover up their problems,so signs of the condition will often be quite subtle. An Aspie could be that colleague who loves cars and describes in minute detail the latest car model completely ignoring your hints about getting back to work. Or your brilliant school teacher who never made eye contact with a single student or your socially awkward cousin who embarrasses you at every social event.
People with Asperger’s are often physically awkward and socially tactless. They may have vast knowledge about a highly technical subject and can speak endlessly about it. Yet they may seem to lack empathy and can be painfully honest, often putting people off and ending relationships.
How can you relate to someone you know or love who has Asperger’s?
The following strategies are adapted from the book “Loving Someone with Asperger’s Syndrome” by psychologist Cindy Ariel.
- Learn as much as you can about Asperger’s. Aspies are not mentally challenged or speech deficient but according to Dr.Ariel, their brains process information differently. They cannot easily read between the lines or pick up on other people’s intentions, so make it as easy for them by offering clear instructions of what you want.
- Don’t provide tips on shyness or expect them to mingle. Knowing that they lack skills, people with Asperger’s often avoid socializing for fear of being rejected or humiliated.
- For people with Asperger’s syndrome, the most effective emotional repair mechanism is often solitude and they assume this works for others too. Don’t take their thoughtlessness personally, learn to manage your emotions with external support.
- Accept the condition. You will feel physically and emotionally exhausted if you try to change an Aspie. Avoid telling them "many people suffer much worse than Aspergers".
Learn to be okay with their social awkwardness and look for their strengths and try to work as a team. Soon you will see they relate well with you.
*Names changed to protect identity. Material shared with Client’s permission.