Today’s article is from guest blogger Andrew Smith. He discusses the problems adults with Asperger’s Syndrome might encounter during everyday social interaction, and the steps neurotypicals can take to help us overcome these problems. Andrew has written another article for Seeing Double called “Asperger’s Syndrome and Employment”, which you can read on this blog. His poems will be featured in volume two of The Poetry of Autism.
ASPERGER’S SYNDROME AND COMMUNICATION
The ability to socialise and communicate effectively is something most people take for granted. Some people are born blind and/or deaf and have an obvious problem communicating with others, which can often be overcome with the support of carers or technology. However, the problem for the majority of people with Asperger’s Syndrome is they can see and hear the same as other individuals. A lot of them can hold a conversation and could be classed as intellectual or academic by their friends and peers. However, they could be experiencing many issues with communication that their neurotypical peers are unaware of. Neurotypicals are not at fault for this. In my experience their unawareness is a natural reaction to communicating with an individual who at first glance has no visible disability or impairment.
For example: if a neurotypical person was to engage in a talk with an individual who was blind or deaf the potential barriers to talking to them are obvious. The neurotypical has to make extra and necessary provisions in order to converse with that individual. But it’s a very different story when it comes to communicating with an individual who has Asperger’s Syndrome. At first glance this individual looks no different to any neurotypical individual. Although the neurotypical individual may be aware that the other individual has a diagnosis of Asperger’s, this can quickly be forgotten as the two individuals begin to converse because there are no obvious physical signs of an impaired ability to communicate. However, whilst there are no obvious visible impairments there are many invisible impairments that affect a person with Asperger’s ability to communicate. Before I go through these impairments in more detail, I feel it necessary to reiterate that they are drawn from my own personal experiences, and Asperger’s Syndrome affects everyone differently.
The first impairment is the speed of cognitive processing. As a species the human race has evolved to be able to deal with large amounts of information, whether they be verbal or oral. Information is produced by another individual, analysed, processed and a reply formulated in a split second. However, for the individual with Asperger’s Syndrome this is often not the case. Information processing can be a long and arduous process in comparison to the neurotypical individual.
When first received, information is just a load of separate and disparate noises that overload the mind to breaking point. All of this information then needs to be categorised and reassembled into something not only meaningful but also logical and structured. In effect what the person with Asperger’s Syndrome is doing is putting this information into filing cabinets in their mind and then linking up the filing cabinets to establish what information goes where and why. Once this process is done an answer can be formulated from the information gathered and given back to the neurotypical recipient.
For people with Asperger’s Syndrome this is not a quick and easy process. It can take seconds or minutes for the information to be processed and manipulated in a way they feel comfortable with. During this time the individual with Asperger’s Syndrome feels increasing stress and pressure due to the need to give a quick reply and avoid the embarrassment of being perceived as thick, stupid or dumb. These thoughts and many more are going through their mind all at once, which can result in overload and meltdown for someone with Asperger’s Syndrome.
This can also lead to inappropriate behaviour. Because they cannot cope with the pressure, stress and expectation of the situation they may inadvertently say or do something inappropriate in an attempt to move on from a difficult conversation. This becomes more problematic when a person with Asperger’s is in a new situation or environment.
Just hearing the words correctly can be a problem for an individual with Asperger’s Syndrome. So many words coming from seemingly everywhere and none of them making any sense can make them feel an intense pressure to “perform” (masking their Asperger’s with what they perceive as neurotypical behaviour). This often results in the mishearing of words and sentences with the response being an unexpected or inappropriate one to the neurotypical recipient. Sometimes this can be laughed off as a bit of a joke. But for someone with Asperger’s Syndrome it can be a deeply embarrassing situation and again result in the perception that others think them stupid, thick or dumb. In these situations an individual with Asperger’s Syndrome may remain silent from embarrassment or join in the joke and dumb down their intellectual behaviour to avoid embarrassment.
The third, and sometimes most damaging issue individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome face is assumed neurotypicaility. When an individual looks neurotypical and copes reasonably well with everyday social situations, it is assumed that they can effectively communicate in the same way neurotypicals can. Whilst there are many instances when this does occur, this is because the individual with Asperger’s Syndrome has either prepared for this situation well in advance or has been through this situation many times before, giving them knowledge and expectation of what will happen. It’s when things change unexpectedly or a situation is new in content and environment that problems can arise.
What’s important here is to remember that Asperger’s Syndrome is an invisible disability. Just because the issues a person faces are hidden does not make them any less debilitating to that individual than someone with a visible disability. Remember people with Asperger’s Syndrome are doing their best to fit in to society and conform to the expectations people have of them. In doing so they’re attempting to analyse and process information in a way that overloads their brains very quickly and results in them feeling embarrassed and stupid. It is vital that people with Asperger’s Syndrome are given the necessary time to analyse and process information and are reassured this extra time will not impact negatively on other people’s opinions of them.
Often this results in instructions being repeated more times than would be necessary for a neurotypical individual. Neurotypicals may interpret this as a sign of not understanding when it is far from the case. It is in fact a case of ensuring instructions are understood beyond any doubt so that a person with Asperger’s Syndrome can perform them to the utmost of their abilities.
In order to overcome their difficulties many people with Asperger’s Syndrome require extra time to process and analyse information. They also require support and reassurance that this extra time will not impact on any outcomes from social encounters. Refusal to provide this extra time, or allowing this extra time to impact negatively on your opinion of a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, is an act of discrimination.