Troubled Relationships? Could It Be Asperger’s?
By Tracy Morris
You and your friend have just experienced the same traumatic blow — laid off from your job, told of another friend’s death, or something equally like a swift blow to your heart. Your reactions vary because humans are unique that way. But are you also left wondering why you don’t feel the impact and empathic connection to your friend that she seems to be feeling?
A growing number of people are starting to find relief in a controversial and relatively recent diagnosis: Asperger’s Syndrome.
The relief they find from the label isn’t because a cure exists; rather, they feel finally understood, their feelings and thoughts and behaviors finally put in a light that reveals explanation instead of criticism.
Michael John Carley is the best known advocate for people with Asperger’s Syndrome, or AS. He runs GRASP, the Global and Regional Asperger Syndrome Partnership, the largest national non-profit run by and for people “on the autism spectrum,” and he’s known as a brilliant and vocal champion. His book, Asperger’s From the Inside Out: A Supportive and Practical Guide for Anyone with Asperger’s Syndrome, tells of both his own struggle for understanding and what he has learned from the many others with AS he’s encountered in his work.
Like so many adults, Carley put the puzzle pieces together after his preschool aged son was diagnosed with AS.
The symptoms of autism that Carley and his wife observed in their son were classic and disconcerting. At the age of two, he was significantly delayed in speech. Instead of playing with toys, he separated and sorted them, as he did with other household items. After speech and play therapy, someone mentioned AS.
Carley received the same diagnosis as his young son only a week later.
“In my particular case, and it varies certainly, what came naturally to others, I had to work harder for, especially with reading emotions of my own and other people. I was a ‘tell it like it is’ kind of guy, but I didn’t really feel like I was that guy. People who weren’t crazy about my differences thought of me as a ‘rude so-and-so’. You struggle with all the perceptions of yourself.”
He emphasizes that while plenty of his own experiences are in the book, it is not a memoir. Carley has written it primarily for adults who are wondering (and may have been for many years) about themselves. “More and more people are learning about AS and finding that it explains many of the social conundrums through which they’ve lived, often quite painfully.”
Wondering If You Have AS?
As with any medical syndrome, AS is not as clearly defined as a disease or illness. There’s no virus or infection to test for; a syndrome is a collection of symptoms. In the case of AS, it is a neurological condition that lies on what is referred to as the “autism spectrum,” an imaginary line of severity, if you will. At one point, you would find people with life-debilitating levels of autism; individuals with pervasive developmental disorder (PDD) are also within the spectrum.
People with AS, to put it plainly, tend toward difficulty in their relationships, whether it’s with loved ones, friends, or more casual relationships. However, as Carley explains, “These are individuals who, for the most part, are good at what they do. A lot of time, you’re not seeing a person who has job performance issues, unless it’s specific to social interactions.”
He says it’s common for people with AS to become good at ‘faking it’. “There may be this thing inside you that says ‘I really don’t want to acknowledge that I feel like I process thought and experience differently than people I love.’ That’s very hard — you love them, you don’t want to feel different than them. So we tend to just avoid this thought, but it’s still there…”
So it’s not uncommon for the “neuro-atypical” as Carley and others refer to themselves to spend a lifetime wondering why they feel so odd.
“Women are falling through the cracks,” in terms of accurate diagnosis, Carley says.
Diagnosis regardless of gender is tough. Asperger’s from the Inside Out offers a comprehensive list of traits that individuals with AS may demonstrate, but Carley’s disclaimer is that not a single trait in the list can be used to either diagnosis an individual or rule out AS.
For those of us straining to grasp and apply these behavioral clues, Carley points to “passionate interests, at least one sensory integration challenge, and difficulty engaging in reciprocal conversation” as potential key markers.
Autism in general has for many decades been thought of as a predominantly male condition. Carley and other advocates believe that much of that gender assignment may be based on less than complete understanding by professionals.
“If you take a couple of the more obvious bullet points — say, like inability to maintain eye contact. In the society we live in, if a boy shakes your hand and doesn’t make eye contact, something’s wrong. If a girl doesn’t look you in the eye, she’s shy. Boys who aren’t interested in team sports — let’s take a look at this kid. If a girl’s not interested, she’s just feminine.”
As adults, people with AS may be perceived as very submissive. Submissive men often don’t wind up with partners in our culture, so they get wondered about in regards to AS. Submissive women may find themselves in imbalanced, abusive relationships and thought of in terms of being depressed or un-empowered, but AS may not arise as a possibility to those around her.
Finding a good diagnostician is important. Be wary of Yellow Pages advertisements that tout “We really know AS” — practitioners in need of a growth in their patient-load could be lurking behind perfectly good credentials but lacking in expertise.
Do your research. Contact a local autism society and even parents‘ groups. The GRASP website can also help you find professionals in your area.
The process will also involve whomever you live with and other family members who can comment on your behavior today and in your childhood.
Do You Really Want to Find Out?
One of the unique facets of the journey toward diagnosis for adults with AS is the amount of buried anger that might exist from a life of feeling misunderstood and, in many cases, poorly treated by others. In fact, Carley says that while his own behavior was put in a positive context (for example, when he was screenwriting, he was thought of as “artistically eccentric.”