More and more people are writing me with questions about Asperger’s Syndrome.
What is Asperger’s Syndrome? Is it a legitimate classification, or a faux disease? Regardless, what can one do about it?
Asperger’s Syndrome is the latest, newest and coolest thing happening. It may become the ADHD of the 2010s.
Here’s a question from a reader: What are your views on Asperger’s Syndrome? There are times that I get preoccupied with certain things. Also, my socials skills are not that good. I often do not consider the other person’s reactions or feelings about things. I do not make friends easily. I have a family member who excelled at math and science to be an engineer for the energy company. But he is cruel to his family and lacks empathy for people who are not in his league. Please advise.
Technically speaking, it’s important to know that the diagnosis of Asperger’s was eliminated in the 2013 fifth edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) and replaced by a diagnosis of “autism spectrum disorder” on a severity scale. However, the label sticks and the popularity of Asperger’s Syndrome has probably not yet peaked.
Psychiatry and psychology view Asperger’s Syndrome [AS for short] as essentially a mild form of autism. People with Asperger’s may not be as withdrawn around others compared to those with other, more debilitating, forms of autism; they approach others, even if awkwardly. For example, a person with AS may engage in a one-sided, long-winded speech about a favorite topic, while misunderstanding or not recognizing the listener’s feelings or reactions, such as a wish to change the topic of talk or end the interaction.
Most people look at AS as a medical illness with biological or genetic origins. No proof for this exists, although the presence of the problem, in some cases from childhood, can certainly lead one to speculate. There’s no known medication for “treating” AS, and what medical and mental health professionals recommend are a combination of “social skills training” (i.e., learning how to better get along with others) and cognitive-behavioral therapy (i.e., identifying and correcting mistaken ideas and behaviors.) In short: Learn to modify your behaviors and your attitudes.
Rather than focus on the label, I encourage people to identify behavior or other things about themselves that they wish to change. If naming something Asperger’s Syndrome gives one a context or foundation for doing so, then all the better.
The reader writes: I often do not consider the other person’s reactions or feelings about things.
OK, you recognize it. This is something you’d like to change. What’s the error in thinking causing this behavior? Maybe it’s a combination of true and untrue beliefs.
Example of an untrue belief: “Others’ feelings, perspectives and opinions never matter.” But what if you care about the person? What if it’s someone you love? Shouldn’t their point-of-view matter to you since they matter to you?
To treat someone’s feelings as if they matter is not to necessarily endorse, understand or agree with all of those feelings. It simply means giving those feelings visibility. With a spouse or a close friend, this is important. If you really love and value this person, then it’s consistent with your own choice to value that person to consider his or her point-of-view in a reasonable, consistent way.
Sometimes a mixture of both valid and invalid beliefs get mixed up with the Asperger’s person. On the one hand, he sees (correctly) that feelings are not tools of cognition, and that just because someone feels something doesn’t automatically make it valid or mandatory for you to follow. On the other hand, he tends to throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water, disregarding all things emotional.
AS individuals are emotionally repressed. They deny the existence or importance of their emotions even though emotions are part of who we all are. Emotions are the means through which we experience the fruits of our intellectual and physical labor. They’re the output of all that we think, believe and do. AS individuals deny emotions in the name of rationality; but rationality does not consist of denying facts. It’s a fact that you have feelings; that fact should be recognized and considered. Because AS people tend to deny or minimize their own feelings, they do the same with others. They mean no harm; it’s just what they do.
It’s important to understand that there’s not something external “making” the AS person be this way. We are all the product of our most basic ideas, assumptions and beliefs about things. Although we’re not always aware of the implications of our errors in thinking, we’re still responsible for monitoring our mind’s conclusions (true or false ones). That’s what cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy is supposed to help people do, and it’s the only thing recommended or available for anyone who fits the AS label.
For a well-written and descriptive rendition of Asperger’s Syndrome from the point-of-view of the person who has it, I suggest “Look Me In the Eye: My Life With Asperger’s,” by John Elder Robison.
For an ironic and yet oddly accurate and wise characterization of an AS person in fiction, check out the very entertaining sitcom The Big Bang Theory. Those who watch it already know that I’m talking about the character of Sheldon, who displays the infuriating naiveté of a highly intelligent person with no “people skills” whatsoever.
I’m always saying that ethics/philosophy inevitably creeps its way into psychological syndromes and problems. Asperger’s is definitely an example of this. Dealing with an AS person forces us all to think about questions such as: When is empathy necessary, and when is it phony or even harmful? What obligations do we have and not have to other people? What are the role of feelings, and how much do they matter? Sheldon asks these questions of his friends on the show, and while sometimes his views are plainly wrong or absurd, at other times he has a fair and compelling point about the logical implausibility, superficiality and inauthenticity that passes for many human relationships.
Although it’s legitimate to call the behaviors and attitudes of an AS person dysfunctional or mistaken, such a person is not always and automatically wrong. You tend to find AS personalities in very important though difficult fields such as engineering, computer science and the other “hard sciences” upon which all of us directly depend for most of life’s comforts as we know them. People with an ability — you might even call it a gift — to sift out the nonessential feelings from the hard-core facts of reality are not all wrong, and should not be considered diseased. In a way, I find it refreshing to encounter people who don’t succumb to the present-day fawning, usually insincere cult of self-conscious sensitivity for its own sake.
The better way to define an AS person is as highly intelligent and highly rational, in many respects; but lacking in skills or awareness of the rational self-interest involved in recognizing the needs, wants and perspectives of other people in one’s life. You might call it the need for more psychological or emotional intelligence, not instead of but in addition to the mathematical and other kinds of intelligence already present.
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