About Asperger's Syndrome: When Diagnosis Can Actually Help
Asperger's Syndrome or AS shows up differently in individuals and is often missed or over-diagnosed in the mental health field. Previously, AS was the label for a Pervasive Developmental Disorder or PDD at the highest end of the autism spectrum, and now recently, AS has been dropped and is recognized as part of the autistic spectrum or Autism Spectrum Disorder ASD. Many clinicians stick with the old because it seems more useful. Some of the characteristics expressed by Aspies are as follows:
- poor social skills
- difficulty reading/understanding social cues and may present to others as if they are searching through index cards about how best to respond to a question or situation
- lacking non-verbal communication skills
- trouble using facial gestures or may appear to have a restricted range of emotions or affect
- tendency to make literal interpretations
- failure to develop or maintain friendships even though the desire for friends may be present
- a desire to be alone and not particularly interested in relationships
- social awkwardness
- selective mutism as children
- inability to empathize
- ability to empathize
- difficulties with emotion regulation e.g. tantrums and meltdowns
- difficulties with change of routine or need for structure and predictability
- preoccupation with routines and habits such as grooming and getting dressed in a particular order
- eccentric tendencies
- difficulty maintaining eye contact or forced eye contact
- clumsiness or poor fine or gross motor skills
- sensory issues such as being bothered by loud noises, clothing or lights
- a narrow range of interests such as video games, drawing, collecting history facts
- difficulties with imaginative play
- trouble with small talk or social situations
- excellent skills in pattern recognition which may make math, art and music an area of strength or other talents and special skills
Many people are adverse to diagnosis of any kind for plenty of good reasons. That said, when and why might a diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome be helpful to the individual or for their loved-ones? As a psychotherapist who has worked with males and females of all ages, young and old, who have these characteristics, it can be a great relief to name it. That aha moment when the individual says "looking back, so much makes sense now." Feeling different, being in trouble, getting screamed at by others as a youngster can have negative consequences in terms of how one develops, views the world and feels in relation to other people. Some can even turn the diagnosis into an opportunity to revel in their unique and quirky nature. They no longer have to feel criticized or blamed and become defensive or feel bewildered by things that seem easy for others. When the people around them at home, work or school feel disrespected or offended within the context of the relationship, things can be named, explained and worked on. The shift can change everything for someone with AS.
So now what? After a diagnosis, a person with Asperger's may decide to keep it personal or share it. That is a very personal matter. Working with an astute mental health professional can help you differentiate between Autism Spectrum Disorder and other issues which have some of the same or similar symptoms such as social phobias, anxiety, obsessive personalities, etc. You may decide to just be and not mess with diagnosis, or you may decide to seek the help of a counselor or therapist who can help you understand and manage some aspects of your life. Knowing that you have AS can help you plan for difficult settings or situations by developing effective coping skills, in addition to behavioral therapy that can help you build positive social and communication skills that may enhance the quality of your life. Some people have other co-existing difficulties such as depression, anxiety or obsessive compulsive disorder, and medication may be a helpful option. Social rejection, loneliness, isolation and poor self-esteem can lead to substance abuse or process addictions as a coping solution which is another reason why a proper diagnosis and learning healthier coping skills can improve one's life. In the world of mental health diagnosis, you should also know that it is more art than science and getting clear is useful mainly because it can help provide a template for figuring out how best to help someone.
Mostly, it's important to accept, embrace and learn to love yourself. The world will try to make you "fit in" -- but you don't, that's okay and you'll always be different. So, leave the things alone that don't cause you distress, it's just who you are. If there are things that you'd like to master, then go for it! Have a look at Wrong Planet or Neurodiversity which are resources dedicated to supporting teens and adults with AS. There are many. Support groups can be a helpful way to gain a sense of community, acceptance and empowerment.
The perspective of both of these young adults on YouTube might be helpful.