In 2007, I stumbled upon something that would change my life. I would discover by typing into a Google search, “Why do I take everything so literally” that I have Asperger’s syndrome. I’m a self-diagnosed Aspie who has been slowly unraveling the mystery that has been my life for the past 6 years. It’s been an amazing journey.
What is Asperger’s Syndrome?
Asperger’s syndrome is a developmental disorder on the autistic spectrum. The name of the syndrome came from its founder, Austrian Pediatrician, Hans Asperger. A developmental disorder is a disorder that occurs during a child’s development, either in utero or during the first critical years of life.
Causes of Asperger’s Syndrome
The causes of Asperger’s syndrome are largely unknown although many theorists believe this neurological disorder can be caused by a combination of vaccinations, nutritional deficiencies, environmental toxins, gluten intolerance, and emotional trauma. Genetics also play a large role in the development of Asperger’s syndrome as this developmental disorder commonly runs in families.
Symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome
- Unusual Eye Contact
One of the most common symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome is unusual eye contact. A person with Asperger’s will either avoid eye contact or stare at others to the point of making them uncomfortable. Avoidance of eye contact is common for those on the spectrum because looking into another’s eyes can feel too personal and invasive. Staring often occurs because people on the spectrum periodically ‘zone out’ as a way of dealing with sensory overload. Either way, people on the spectrum never quite “get it right” when it comes to eye contact.
- Blank Facial Expressions
Another common Asperger’s symptom is a blank facial expression. This doesn’t mean the face remains blank all the time but there is a certain lack of change in facial expressions that occurs in someone with this developmental disorder. It’s as though the person is one step behind everyone else in response to social stimuli.
- Literal Interpretation of Words
People with Asperger’s syndrome mean what they say and say what they mean. When you give them a task to complete or tell them a story, they take what you say literally. Oftentimes, jokes are lost on the person, especially if those telling the joke do so with a straight face.
Gesturing is also confusing for people on the spectrum. For example, if you say, “We should hang out sometime”, the Asperger’s person will probably be very disappointed, hurt, and confused when this activity that they’ve looked forward to for days never takes place.
- Special Interests and Obsessions
People with Asperger’s syndrome are famous for their special interests and obsessions. They will spend hours discussing their favorite television shows, video games, or ant collection for hours upon hours, completely oblivious of the boredom and disinterest of those around them. Those on the spectrum are also in danger of becoming obsessed with people, which can sometimes be the result of having misinterpreted some vital social cue during previous social encounters.
- Learning Difficulties
Though children with Asperger’s syndrome often do quite well in school, they often lag behind when it comes to learning anything that requires coordination. People on the spectrum are actually quite bright so it can be difficult for those around them to understand why seemingly “simple” tasks can be so difficult to comprehend and carry out. Each part of the brain is responsible for a different function and those on the spectrum struggle due to a different type of wiring.
- Sensory Overload
Sensory overload is a universal characteristic of those on the autistic spectrum. Certain tastes, sights, smells, and textures can cause an Aspie extreme discomfort due to the way their brain processes sensory input. People with Asperger’s syndrome often cut the tags out of their clothes, tie their shoes extremely tightly, prefer weighted blankets, and get disgusted to the point of nausea when they smell a certain food or body odor.
Meltdowns may seem like tantrums on steroids but they’re actually quite different. Children who are having a tantrum will cry and scream to get what they want and will often look around them to see if adults are watching. The purpose of a tantrum is to obtain something.
An Asperger’s child having a meltdown is completely out of control due to sensory overload and social confusion. Meltdowns are serious business because they are born out of animal need for self-preservation. Your child’s world is already alien to him or her. A meltdown is the result of hours, days or weeks of living in an alien world and simply not being able to take it anymore.
He or she will scream, wail, rock, pull hair, bite, kick, hyperventilate, sob, hiccup, sweat, throw things, and just completely lose it. They are completely unaware of their surroundings and are in danger of getting hurt by wandering into traffic, cutting themselves or hitting their heads.
Adults with Asperger’s syndrome often have meltdowns as well though they are often fewer in between than that of a child’s because of improved coping skills and better understanding of what is socially acceptable.
- Inability to Read Social Cues
This is a big one. Social cues are something that neurotypical people “pick up” throughout childhood from observation and successful social interaction. Because the person on the autistic spectrum is wired differently, they are unable to successfully read these cues and have to learn them the way a neurotypical person would learn math or science.
People with Asperger’s often don’t seem to know when a conversation is beginning or ending, will often interrupt, and derail conversations into awkward silence because they cannot read the subtle facial expressions and body language of others.
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
The primary emotion of a person with Asperger’s syndrome is anxiety, plain and simple. Oftentimes, this anxiety spills over into repetitive tasks, arranging, organizing, etc. This can often be corrected through cognitive behavioral therapy.
- Self-Soothing Behaviors
Often called ‘stims’ in clinical books about Asperger’s syndrome, these self-soothing behaviors help calm the chronic anxiety felt by people on the spectrum. They may be hair twirling, nail-biting, clicking, hand flapping, squeaking, tapping, rocking, finger-drumming, etc.
These behaviors are absolutely essential for the person on the spectrum and should not be discouraged. When self-soothing behaviors are shamed or stopped, the spectrum person may replace this innocent behavior with an eating disorder, cutting or substance addiction as the need to get rid of this anxiety regularly is critical and must have an outlet.
- Need for Routine
Aspies need routine. They often dress in the same clothes, eat the same foods, and do the same things day in and day out. This is soothing and comforting to the person with Asperger’s syndrome. Surprise is not their friend and they do not enjoy unexpected phone calls or visits. Social interaction is best when planned and on their terms.
- Being Solitary
Asperger’s people tend to stand alone or have one or two very close friends. Limited social interaction is the preferred way of life for the Aspie and they often cannot juggle more than one or two friends. For every hour of social interaction, a person’s with Asperger’s needs another hour of downtime to recover. Aspies are notorious homebodies. They enjoy being in a place where they can control their environment and safely drown out the confusing and overwhelming outside world.
- Clumsiness and Poor Coordination
Asperger’s syndrome isn’t just a social problem; it’s a whole-body condition. Because of neurological deficits, people with Asperger’s syndrome often have great difficulty with balance and coordination. They may often knock things over, run into things, and lose their balance. Oftentimes, people on the spectrum aren’t quite clear on where their bodies end and other objects begin.
- Social Mimicry
Social mimicry, called echolalia, is common in people with Asperger’s syndrome, especially girls. Young girls on the spectrum often mask their social confusion by mimicking the behavior of their friends. If a child talks with a lisp or a Southern accent, for example, the Asperger’s child may ‘take on’ these speech patterns because they have no definable social personality of their own.
- No “Common Sense”
People on the autistic spectrum often have no common sense. Due to poor understanding of social cues as well as the tendency to take everything literally, it is difficult for the Aspie to make ‘logical’ connections. Common sense, like proper social skills, is something that people on the spectrum must learn through trial and error.
- Poor Sense of Direction
Many people with Asperger’s syndrome do not seem to have an internal compass. They often struggle with the operation of a motor vehicle as well as the ability to get themselves and said motor vehicle to the correct destination, even if they’ve been there many times before.
- Digestive Health Problems
Many people on the autistic spectrum struggle with gluten intolerance, leaky gut syndrome, and indigestion. There is a strong connection between the gut health and brain health. Oftentimes, if there is a digestive problem, there is a neurological problem and vice versa. A balanced gluten free diet as well as digestive aids and probiotics can help calm these issues significantly.
If, after reading this, you believe you, your friend, your relative or your child has Asperger’s syndrome, congratulations. Awareness is the first step. This is just the first part of the journey for you. There’s so much amazing information out there for you that you can read. If you’re able, I’d suggest doing what you can to get a diagnosis, especially if most or all of these traits seem familiar to you. I hope to get one myself some day when I’m in a position to do so.
Meanwhile, here are some resources to get you started:
The Aspie Quiz – Comprehensive Questionnaire (I’m a 133 out of 200. What’s your score?)
“Pretending to Be Normal: Living with Asperger’s Syndrome” by Liane Holliday Willey
“Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s” by John Elder Robison
“The Asperger’s Syndrome Survival Guide” by Craig Kendall
Top image courtesy of [luigi diamanti]/FreeDigitalPhotos.net