Social outcasts aren't who you think
April 29, 2004 12:12 AM   Subscribe

Coping with Asperger's Syndrome. The New York Times sheds light on this disorder that potentially affects millions of Americans. Many of them are bullied in school. Others simply have strange obsessions. Some find their niches in college, while others have to wait until mid-life to understand what is happening. However, it was only added to the DSM ten years ago. Since then, support groups and online resources have popped up.
posted by calwatch (89 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
It's an interesting article because I think many people have problems with social situations that can't be explained otherwise.

I don't think I have the Asperger's syndrome as described in the article. For one thing, I hate routine, and I am gainfully employed. I'm also not obsessed with self-help books and in fact sometimes even shun looking at those things. On the other hand, I'm blunt, can become obsessed over relatively mundane things (and know that I'm in over my head yet continue doing it anyway), and often wish there were a manual on how to handle awkward social situations. I also hate it when people are hiding things from me, which was the theme of a successful campus blog I did for several months (another one of my temporary obsessions). Over the years, I've learned to shut up, but then I get tagged as being shy. So it appears that you don't win.
posted by calwatch at 12:21 AM on April 29, 2004

Lately I've wondered if the uncanny valley effect (something that is nearly human, but just enough off-kilter to seem eerie or disquieting) could apply to people.
posted by bobo123 at 12:44 AM on April 29, 2004

Well, isn't this timely -- I just attended the several-hour-long IEP meeting for my son at his school today, where the consensus was, based on the scads of observation and assessments they've done, that he has Asperger's Syndrome. Good news/bad news, I guess: the good news is he could grow up to be the next Bill Gates; the bad news is the next ten years are going to be quite a "challenge."
posted by wdpeck at 12:57 AM on April 29, 2004

bobo123, I get what you mean, but I think they're two very different things. People with Asperger's/high-functioning autism aren't often perceived as inhuman or eerie; unfortunately, they're often seen as simply being rude, arrogant assholes. Disquieting, yes, but not for the same reason.
posted by wdpeck at 1:13 AM on April 29, 2004

How strange to lack so basic a tool. When I'm "out there", my social skills are so high-bandwidth that I'm surprised I don't emit an audible hum. It's really hard to imagine successfully navigating any social situation without them, much less maintaining job status or a relationship.

Ironically, those of us with hyperactive social skills are probably the ones most apt to be irritated or confused by an Aspie's unpredictable behaviour - we would naturally assume that an inappropriate response to our mad skillz would have to be sheer knuckleheadedness.
posted by Opus Dark at 2:06 AM on April 29, 2004

The Curious Tale of the Dog in the Night Time is currently top of the UK fiction charts and is told from the perspective of a boy with Aspergers.
posted by johnny novak at 2:45 AM on April 29, 2004

Great post. I went into the headline article with an "oh boy, another excuse for bad behavior" attitude, but came out more sympathetic.

It's a tough one, for sure. Is that woman just a self-centered prick, unwilling to think about others' feelings, not caring about whether she's boring me with minute details of her breakfast wrap, endlessly obsessing over her haircut, or is she really, truly incapable of adapting herself to social mores? Fascinating--thanks!
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:35 AM on April 29, 2004

I used to work with a boy with Asperger's Syndrome, about seven years ago. It was a very challenging, frustrating, and ultimately rewarding experience.

He was one of the most mischievous kids I ever met, and I took a certain delight in that - it was a strategy he'd developed in order to draw out verbal responses from people he could understand. Over eight months we became quite close, and in spite of his misbehavior I found him to be remarkably insightful and at times unnaturally mature for an eight-year-old.
posted by rocketman at 7:35 AM on April 29, 2004

Take off the Asperger's label and most of the symptoms describe engineers I know (myself included). But what's appropriate in an engineering context is not necessarily appropriate in a social one and that's what makes these people stand out. I'm not sure what being diagnosed with Asperger's will do for anyone but my feeling is that anything that helps understanding and makes people feel less alone is a good thing.
posted by tommasz at 7:54 AM on April 29, 2004

we would naturally assume that an inappropriate response to our mad skillz would have to be sheer knuckleheadedness.

Your Jedi Mind Tricks won't work here!
posted by deanc at 8:20 AM on April 29, 2004

Is that woman just a self-centered prick, unwilling to think about others' feelings, not caring about whether she's boring me with minute details of her breakfast wrap, endlessly obsessing over her haircut, or is she really, truly incapable of adapting herself to social mores?

Hm. That's a good point, in that autism is considered the inability to see anything outside oneself. In that sense, autistic behavior could appear to be narcissistic.

Is Asperger's really overrepresented among men, or do we just think it is because we consider obsessing over minutiae about library books to be "Austistic" while obsessing over hair salons to be "narcissistic female behavior"?
posted by deanc at 8:26 AM on April 29, 2004

My girlfriend develops curricula for early childhood development in the Metro West of the Boston area. It's interesting to note that the area, populated with brilliant people working at high-tech companies and prominent universities, has a shocking number of children with Asperberger's Syndrome.

It's partially a function of better healthcare and a resulting higher chance of diagnosis, but the fact remians that a lot of very successful geeks are very high-functioning autistics who are marrying other very high-functioning autistics and producing children with more pronounced symptoms.

Despite the social probelms that kids with Asperger's have, they're apparently very often deeply interesting and quite endearing.
posted by Mayor Curley at 8:26 AM on April 29, 2004

Great post. Thanks, calwatch. I learn something new every day here.
posted by vignettist at 8:50 AM on April 29, 2004

Then came the review: had it been a dialogue, or had someone gone on too long about the early history of Russia? Did they lean in? Eye contact, Dr. Cohen cautioned, should be regular but not "like you're boring a hole through them." Moving the eyebrows can help.

When Eric Jorgensen, a programmer at Microsoft, confronted his boss's boss in a group meeting, his colleagues told him later that they were cringing, and he received a reprimand from his supervisor.
In the argument with their boss, Mr. Keith said, Mr. Jorgensen was clearly undiplomatic. "But he was right."

Oh my god. I would say that I definitely have this...condition. And I am SO not sorry about it. Small talk makes me sick; people who pride themselves on their ability to make small talk make me really, really sick.

There is no doubt; the guy described in the article who confronted his boss' boss at a meeting is definitely the kind of guy I would like to hang out with. His coworkers, who have agreed to throw pens at him when they feel he is not living up to their standards of social propriety, are definitely people I want to stay away from. I don't think that their throwing pens at me would have the desired effect.

Why don't we attribute the deficiency to the people who find it awkward to speak frankly and to tell the truth as a matter of course?
posted by bingo at 9:05 AM on April 29, 2004

It's the new ADD/ADHD. There will be a drug for it within five years. (Whether it does something other than be a parental placebo... that's another story.)
posted by darukaru at 9:06 AM on April 29, 2004

The Curious Tale of the Dog in the Night Time (mentioned above by johnny novak) is a decent, quick read.

As a computer guy with less-than-average in the social skills department, it's easy to see analogies between "geekiness" and asperger's. I think the jury is still out though on whether they're connected by a spectrum or if they are completely separate phenomena.

One of the great lines I've heard somewhere about people with Asperger's is that they "run social skills [or was it emotion?] in emulation." I find that fascinating both as a computer guy interested in AI and as a person who seems to lose a lot of brainpower (as in, diverting mental resources) when trying to be sociable. Also, like many introverts, I need downtime -- often absolutely alone -- between social events or I get really frazzled.

I think of that aspect of Asperger's rather like those who are face-blind. They are simply missing a brain module or something which preprocesses a certain amount of the input so the "main brain" doesn't have to worry about it. Face-blind people can memorize characteristics of faces, but they don't have that effortless instant recognition that most people do.

Anybody who hasn't read Oliver Sacks and is intersested in this stuff should go get some of his books immediately.
posted by callmejay at 9:09 AM on April 29, 2004 [1 favorite]

Truth can come with tact, can it not?
posted by agregoli at 9:10 AM on April 29, 2004

I suspect a lot of Asperger's/Autism-categorized people actually fall well within the normal range of human behaviours/personalities.

It's the labeling that creates many of the problems.

posted by five fresh fish at 9:15 AM on April 29, 2004

Or maybe it's the rigidity of most people's thinking that makes it a problem. As our society becomes more "politically correct" it becomes more difficult to be direct and honest. We have to have these damn tedious dances around pink elephants -- kind of like the Japanese -- instead of just getting to the damn point already.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:16 AM on April 29, 2004

"I suspect a lot of Asperger's/Autism-categorized people actually fall well within the normal range of human behaviours/personalities."

I had a girlfriend for five years who seemed pretty normal, but she never laughed, never even got the joke, never even got that a joke had occured, until everyone around her started laughing. She could not begin to read social or facial cues, but was brilliant, in a super-logical sense. She once woke up, started to tell me a dream, and then said, "That couldn't have happened - that's not logical."

She was eventually diagnosed with Ausbergers, and maybe it IS the hot new disease of the moment, but she said the diagnosis is the best thing that's ever happened to her. She knows now that her behavioral and psychological differences have a reason, and it's not just that everyone else in the world is completely irrational and strange. Now she's an attorney, writing opinions for judges. She's so happy - she just sits in a room and types logical analysis all day.

I think Ausberger's is one one end of a scale, and the people who display the syndrome are enormously valuable to society and to their families, but I'm glad there's a name for it and that people can treat themselves if they like.
posted by pomegranate at 9:44 AM on April 29, 2004

Excellent post - really interesting and informative.

Maybe this sounds unnecessarily snarky, but my first thought was that many MeFites would recognize themselves in this artile.

bingo et al, there is absolutely nothing wrong with honesty. However, having some knowledge of when and how to say things makes social interaction much, much easier. Many people are sensitive to what they perceive as criticism. That doesn't mean that you have to pander to their insecurities - you're of course entitled to say whatever you want - but making an effort to speak the truth kindly will certainly ease the sting and make interaction easier. Of course, if speaking your truth loudly and immediately is more important to you than ease of social interaction, that is certainly your choice. But be prepared for the isolation that follows as only a few people agree with and like to be around people who make that choice.
posted by widdershins at 9:52 AM on April 29, 2004

All of which is why it's great that Asperger's is now being recognized - for those who are unable to make such a choice or even recognize that the choice exists.
posted by widdershins at 9:55 AM on April 29, 2004

great post and links cal.
posted by dejah420 at 9:58 AM on April 29, 2004

"Wouldn't it make a quantum difference if instead of it all being on our kids to flex to meet the rest of the world, the rest of the world would meet them halfway?"

Isn't this what we all want?
posted by Ogre Lawless at 10:02 AM on April 29, 2004

This is an especially relevant topic for me as well--as the father of a four-year old who's also been diagnosed with borderline Asperger's, this whole set of issues represents no end of challenges for my wife and me.

To begin with, we live in Westchester, where there's a clear trend towards overindulging this whole idea [New York mag]. It was eerie reading that article and realizing that I had literally said just the same thing at a dinner party two nights earlier ("The best part is, the help is free!"). The article really makes you question where that's such a good thing. Like Manhattan (no surprise), the resources available here are almost unlimited, and there’s a lot of encouragement (or pressure) to take advantage of them. It’s hard to feel that you’re not just falling into the new ADD.

On the other hand, we have some close family friends who were my role models for the longest time--they totally stood up to their kid's teachers and evaluators when they were told she was "behind the curve" and "not engaging". They said, “She’s fine. Leave her alone.” Two years later, it's become clear the girl has a pretty serious case of autism, and requires a _lot_ of extra help just to get through the day, and it’s a tough question whether they delayed getting help at a critical time.

For my wife and me, the most important thing has been that the steps we've taken, including a full-time aide in the classroom, have really made a demonstrable difference. (For anyone who saw that episode of "Primetime" last week, the aide's been trained in "ABA" ("Applied Behavior Analysis"), and it's been tremendously effective.)

He's also getting cranio-sacral therapy, we've changed his diet to limit sugars and refined foods, and he's taking mineral supplements--it's hard to tell what's having a real effect and what's not--but there have been dramatic changes. A year ago, we had a brilliant little boy who resisted any transitions, licked his hands constantly, and would touch his food to his eyes (?!) before he ate it. He was at real risk of being an outsider by the time he hit the social shoals of grade school, and that’s a stigma that lasts years. Now, he's a well-adjusted, socially interactive little kid, who engages in group games and play on a level he never did before.

He’ll always have some measure of challenge—even today, he had an evaluation that included a story about fish, and while he immediately counted that there were thirteen fish in the drawing, he didn’t really respond to the question “How do they feel?” until someone else pointed out that they were smiling. He’s got an encyclopedic knowledge of owls, and can identify different species by their calls, but rarely makes up stories about imaginary friends (unlike his little brother, who’s been regaling us with stories before he could even really talk).

Maybe the hardest thing is trying to balance helping him now, against just demonstrating faith in his ability to outgrow this stuff. When I was a kid, I was very much a social outsider/computer geek all the way through eighth grade. (Basically, while I was in public school.) I had the great fortune to go to a private school on scholarship starting in 9th grade, where I started playing sports, became much more social, and eventually established a successful career as a consultant where my computer skills are really secondary to my social skills as a client adviser and team manager. I easily might have been diagnosed with a similar condition today. Would I be better off now with some kind of intervention? I don’t know. Would I have had a better time in grade school? Almost certainly, and that alone seems like it’s worth a lot of effort on our end. I don’t want our kids to have to wait till they’re young adults to feel accepted as who they are, for who they are. It’s not about having them conform, but about being clued in enough on a social spectrum to pick and choose their friends with confidence.

The best we can do is remain skeptical about every idea that's thrown our way, but try to really evaluate things frankly and objectively. One of the most difficult things at the beginning was actually acknowledging that our precious little man really had challenges, even when his hands were shiny with drool and he had cookie crumbs in his eyebrows. At some point, he definitely needs to start standing on his own and just cope, because that's what life eventually requires, but in the meantime, providing him with support, protection and guidance is one of the basic requirements of our job. Who's to say it's wrong just because it's becoming widely acknowledged?
posted by LairBob at 10:22 AM on April 29, 2004

"Wouldn't it make a quantum difference if instead of it all being on our kids to flex to meet the rest of the world, the rest of the world would meet them halfway?"

The next person who uses "quantum" to mean "large" in my presence gets slapped across the face with a good-sized trout. Or maybe a flounder, I haven't decided yet.
posted by Johnny Assay at 10:49 AM on April 29, 2004

The Autism-Spectrum Quotient has been linked in Comments before, but I think it's worth a 2nd look in this thread.
posted by theora55 at 11:14 AM on April 29, 2004

I was diagnosed with Asperger's several years ago. (Typically pronounced "Aus-per-ger", not "Ass-burg-er") The thing to keep in mind with this syndrome is precisely what Callmejay said -- I run social skills "in emulation". For me, social skills and behaviour are learned in the same way that someone else learns to play a musical instrument. And more than occasionally, I'll hit the wrong note at the wrong time or I'll be completely out of synch with everyone else. There's good days and bad days.

The thing to keep in mind when you have children with Asperger's is that they can learn social skills. BUT! They need to be taught to consider people's feelings, and especially to consider or anticipate the consequences of their actions and words. When I was growing up, there were four catch phrases that my parents used all the time: "Consequences!" "You CAN do this!" "Slow down and think." "Anticipate. What happens next?" ... I heard each of those phrases every day from both of my parents. Over and over they were drilled into me, and they never stopped. My parents efforts are what made me into the person I am today, and are what enable me to function in society. I was never medicated; even though I do have ADD, I control it with self-discipline and caffeine. The two together are a much more effective long-term solution than any drug can be. Maturity is really the only palliative for Asperger's, so forcing a child to become more mature earlier (while hard on both the parent and the child), will help the child to cope and grow into an intelligent and successful adult. Don't accept the wrong behaviour, just as a piano teacher does not accept wrong notes -- teach the right behaviour.

The other thing you need to remember is that the Autistic Spectrum is exactly that -- a spectrum. I've got a minor case, but it still affects me every day. Some people have more serious cases. One very successful businessman that I rock climb with has a rather extreme case of Asperger's. He's a neat guy if you can get him to talk, but in a social environment he has to concentrate so hard that after a few hours he gets exhausted and quite literally crawls into a corner to sleep.

I think the best way to describe how it feels to have Asperger's is that everything rushes at you at once. Your brain has extra bandwidth in certain areas; and less in other areas. You have to learn to selectively filter and sample the information coming at you, or you'll get overwhelmed and shut down. The boy in the "Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime" has a rather extreme case; but it's obvious that he was also sheltered by the 'special school' and his parents inability to care for him. By that age, my parents had forced me into the world and had 'normed' me enough that I had somewhat successful teenage years and a very successful and social college career.

I'll always be a bit of a hermit, though. The fact that when I look at something I see *everything* is both a blessing and a curse. I'll make a great consultant someday. However, being out and being social is very, very tiring. I have to force tunnel-vision on myself to keep from going into overload. The only time I can really open things up to a wider field is on my motorcycle, which is why I love riding so much -- the adrenaline I get from riding is enough to focus me on the task at hand and lets me take off all of the guards and filters I have to put on to survive in society.

I almost think that Asperger's is evolution in action. People with Asperger's are generally able to consider so much more information when making a decision; that's the reason we make such great geeks. The degree of social norming and teaching that children with Ausperger's needs is a concern to me, though -- they simply can't be slotted in with other children with learning disabilities or they'll never learn to norm to society, and our dilapidated american education system isn't otherwise equipped to handle these kids. I really dislike the "Acceptance" note of the Times article; yes, a bit of knowledge is a good thing, but social norms tend to exist for a reason. Forcing an intelligent child with Ausperger's to learn to read social skills and expressions will pay off in the long run -- now I pick up on things (like people in my circle of friends who are about to start dating each other) faster than anyone else does.
posted by SpecialK at 11:35 AM on April 29, 2004 [1 favorite]

I've oftened wondered that the higher percentage of males diagnosed with Asperger's is a result of different socialization -- girls are taught to observe, learn, and emulate social norms much more emphatically than boys are taught that. Result lots of girls acting normal by force of will, lots of boys unconcernedly jotting down in their journals the tail numbers of the 42 757-200s they observed on their last trip to the airport...
posted by MattD at 11:51 AM on April 29, 2004

SpecialK, I read your entry and it's like seeing one of my boy's diary entries from 20 years in the future. It absolutely seems to be a matter of constantly reminding him of thoughts that most other folks take for granted....I can't count how many times a day we say "Emmet! Think about it. Do you really want to do/say what you're about to do/say?"

One of the reasons that the full-time aide seems to work so well is that she's really almost modeling a social super-ego for him...acting as the little voice that should be going on in his head, but rarely does. Before we had Emmet, I would've automatically discounted that kind of an approach as intrusive mollycoddling, but it's clear that he desperately needs, and appreciates, it. (At first, he hated having "Miss Cathy" around, but the other day he came home and said, "I love Miss Cathy. When I'm about to be bad, she helps me get back on track.")

We never really realized how relevant it was, but he's always been very aware of his difficulty. From the time he was a little kid, he would always say "Sometimes, it's hard for me to be good." It's like he knew that there was a better way to behave, but he just couldn't figure it out.

"Mainstreaming" is definitely a critical part of the equation. Thankfully, everyone who's involved officially is aware of this, to the point that they sent us to a neurologist who (a) said "He's just fine", but (b) wrote a prescription that he be kept in a mainstream class environment, even if that means extra supervision.

I'm writing so much because I know that I'm not alone, and given the distribution of MeFites, there's almost certainly a predisposition to this among the people here and their kids. It's a challenge, but folks with this sort of condition have just as much of a chance as anyone else of ending up happy and successful. It doesn't hurt to be thoughtful of it, though.
posted by LairBob at 11:56 AM on April 29, 2004

SpecialK and LairBob, keep writing. Your posts on this topic aren't just personal, they're informative and insightful.
posted by clever sheep at 12:36 PM on April 29, 2004

This has been a really great post for anyone looking to grasp a little bit more about this subject, especially with the first hand accounts offered.

Besides The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night Time,Thinking In Pictures, and Oliver Sacks, there's also a new book out called Not Even Wrong, and I think it does an excellent job of offering several ways of looking at autism, as the author goes through the experience of having his son diagnosed and then learns more about Asbergers throughout history and where it is today. I thought it was a pretty easy and informative read, and it was definitely fascinating.
posted by redsparkler at 12:50 PM on April 29, 2004

Thus spake MattD:
I've oftened wondered that the higher percentage of males diagnosed with Asperger's is a result of different socialization -- girls are taught to observe, learn, and emulate social norms much more emphatically than boys are taught that.

Not only that, but infant and young girls' socialization includes much, much more emphasis on spoken communication, empathy to others' feelings, and small group dynamics (for lack of a better term) than boys' socialization. Thus, while a boy with Asperger's or another form of ASD might be completely unable to cope with interpersonal communication, a girl would have received so much "training" that she could subconsciously fall into a "female role" to cover for it.
posted by wdpeck at 1:15 PM on April 29, 2004

thanks for the post and thread, everybody
posted by matteo at 1:34 PM on April 29, 2004

Holy crap. I don't read MetaFilter for weeks at a time. Today, on a whim, I checked in. And for the first time in a long time, I'm not just highly impressed with a post, I'm actually moved by the comments.

As a childless woman I'm awed to see how incredibly committed and careful peopl can be with their children. It's refreshing. Thanks for an inspiring post.
posted by brittney at 2:15 PM on April 29, 2004

widdershins: Of course, if speaking your truth loudly and immediately is more important to you than ease of social interaction, that is certainly your choice. But be prepared for the isolation that follows as only a few people agree with and like to be around people who make that choice.

I read the entire article, and the impression I got, exemplified in the specific quotes that I posted, is that the main "problem" with these people is not that they tell the truth "immediately and loudly," but that they tell the truth at times when telling the truth isn't deemed socially acceptable, and they tell it in a way that is considered too blunt.

"Immediate and loud" makes it sound as if these truths are being expressed indiscriminately and constantly, without any sort of consideration whatsoever. That's not Asperger's, that's Tourette's. What we're talking about is people who speak the truth without consideration for what might not be considered socially acceptable.

Certainly, this is often done at a cost, but my point is that there may, in fact, be a very specific reason in the mind of the speaker for expressing that particular thought at that particular time. It just may not have anything to do with what's socially appropriate. There are, in fact, other considerations in deciding what to say and when to say it.

I was particularly moved by the description of the Asperger's guy who dared to challenge his boss's boss at a Mircrosoft group meeting. As it happens, I have been in that exact same situation (I'm not the guy in the article). I have been to many such meetings. The manager's manager (I think they call them "project managers" as opposed to "program managers," but it's been a while since my MS days, so the terminology escapes me) comes in and brags to the group under the person under him about his latest conversation with Bill Gates. The program manager smiles and nods, and the workers, taking the cue from their manager, smile and nod, wishing they were back at their desks so that they could get back to work on the fuckmess that the pecking order prevents them from discussing in this meeting, the whole point of which is supposed to be productivity and finding means of improvement.

Every once in a while--and of course, this also applies to places of business other than MS--someone who is actually doing the work has the courage to stand up in a productivity meeting and tell the project manager what is actually going on. Of course his co-workers thought he was acting "inappropriately." Of course they were cringing. And yes, the project manager was probably so aghast at the break in protocol that he didn't bother to consider whether the information he was hearing had any validity. And yes, there is no doubt that the poor guy who spoke up probably, in some sense, "suffered" as a result of this incident.

But he was (as his coworkers even admit in the article), in the right in what he was saying, and it's highly unlikely that he had some other, more "appropriate" medium in which to express it. There are some people who can live with that, and are just willing to let the ridiculousness of it go. And there are those of us who can't. If that guy had managed to hold back in that meeting, he probably would have obsessed about it for weeks, kicking himself over and over ( I would have). The internal repurcussions for not behaving in a way that seems right and true to you can, for some people, be consistently worse than consequences imposed on you externally.

There are some of us in this world who, when we feel strongly that we ought to express something that others might not like, we don't have to summon up the courage to break decorum from some deep well. We just do it. That is not a bad thing.
posted by bingo at 2:59 PM on April 29, 2004

There's a difference between standing up for what one believes in and walking up to random strangers and telling them they have fat asses, even if they do, in fact, have fat asses. Both are examples of honesty.
posted by MrMoonPie at 3:12 PM on April 29, 2004

There's also a huge difference between choosing whether or not to defy social conventions, and not having any idea what those conventions actually are. I mean, I completely understand what you're saying, bingo, but I just think you're looking at it on a completely different level than folks with Asperger's live with.

Your argument is focused on the "social contract"--the unspoken limits we all impose on ourselves, and expect others to obey, in the name of a "civil" society. And in your implicit point that many, or most, work environments impose an unhealthy and self-serving contract--one that limits honesty and rewards dissimulation, for all the wrong reasons--I think you're totally right.

It's also almost irrelevant to someone with Asperger's (as much as I understand it myself), because the whole issue is they can't read the contract. I think you're being distracted by the specific anecdote--the real point is that it could be the healthiest, best-intentioned workplace in the whole world, and someone with serious Asperger's, who hadn't learned coping techniques, would still stick out like a sore thumb. In a workplace where people are rewarded for being outspoken, someone with Asperger's is equally likely to be the wallflower, who never knows when it's right to speak up.

It's not about being factually correct, or whether your basic temperament, or your willingness to fight for what's right. It's like being color-blind, in a world where success depends on reading color-coded signs.
posted by LairBob at 4:01 PM on April 29, 2004

LairBob, you could very well be right, but for better or worse, I was able to prety easily find fault with all the examples in the article. And, Mr. MoonPie, in the same vein, you're right, but there wasn't anything in the article about people who go up to strangers on the street and tell them that they have fat asses for no reason. And I'm not quite willing to concede, given what I've read, that such people are mentioned in the article even implicitly.

In a room full of people who know me pretty well, they're all going to point at me as the person who is the most likely to say something "inappropriate" in the next minute. I had trouble adjusting socially as a kid (who didn't, of course, but I think I can claim a lot more than average trouble). I did study the social rules and learn and became reasonably "well-adjusted." I also often feel overwhelmed by cognitive input (or maybe just cognitive spinning),and...well, while I don't know if I have Asperger's, there was no part of the description in the article that I could not identify with to some extent.

That said, in my experience, there is a fine line between being percieved as "unable to read the contract" and simply lapsing into forgetfulness or disdain in regard to a contract that has always seemed to be more trouble to study than it's worth.
posted by bingo at 5:05 PM on April 29, 2004

bingo, I'm totally willing to grant that it's not just a "fine line", but that there's a broad, grey swath. No one's born with an intuitive understanding of every social situation, and everyone has to wrestle with the gap between what they want to do, and what's socially acceptable at the given moment.

As I said before, though, there's an inability to "grok" socially that I really wasn't aware of before we started going through this. In many ways, it's as simple, and as challenging, as a physical limitation, like bad eyesight. If you're myopic, whether you prefer cantankerous, independent characters or smoothly successful conformists is just on a whole different axis from your ability to read. Until you get glasses, you're not going to really be a star in English class.

And in many ways, it really is as much a factor of physical issues, as much or more than one of "personality". I'll give you two examples, again from personal experience:

1) My son had enormous tonsils (they actually touched), and a relatively narrow throat. That meant that from birth until he had a tonsillectomy, he slept like he was being strangled. He constantly stopped breathing, tossed, turned, etc. all night long.

When he did finally have a tonsillectomy, it happened to be the exact same time he got a full-time aide in pre-school, so it's impossible to separate the effects, but his sleep difference has been dramatic. He sleeps soundly on a level he's probably never been used to, and more than one professional has said they've seen sleep apnea--and its relief--have a profound effect on behavior.

(On a personal aside, I happen to suffer from sleep apnea myself, and never had it dealt with until I was an adult. I can say, from direct personal experience, that it makes an enormous difference. I used to think I was practically a narcoleptic--constantly tired, falling asleep at my desk, never risking to drive long distances. Getting it addressed has made a huge difference for me as an adult, and I can't imagine the impact it would have on a child to be that way.)

2) More than one specialist has noted that Emmet has poor "proprioception", or a physical sense of where his body is. It's hard to believe, sometimes, because he can walk a fence or a balance beam like a gymnast when he wants, but that's apparently another instance of what's called "recruitment", where he marshals his conscious attention to override an intuitive lack. (Much like in social skills.) The professionals are right, though, in that when he's not paying attention, he is kind of loosey-goosey and all over the place with his motions, and tends to bump into things, etc.

The social element of proprioception, though, comes in when someone explained, "Imagine if you're not really sure how close you are to someone. How loud should you speak to be heard? How hard should you poke them to get their attention?" In that context, it makes total sense--he's constantly yelling in your ear as if you're across the room, or whomping you when all he needs to do is tap you, or tug your sleeve.

Compound those physical challenges--which many kids in this category have--on top of the more intangible psychological issues we've been discussing, and it's really a whole different class of difficulty that some folks have to wrestle with. It's easy to think of "sensory integration" as the new fad, but if you're really trying to figure out the world for the first time, you can imagine how hard it must be. Imagine going to your first day of freshman orientation in college, wearing lead shoes and a bad pair of eyeglasses.

On a totally separate note about your final point, you're right, in that all we need to be mindful, and it's the rare person who's just totally at ease in every context. It's also usually very obvious, and off-putting, when someone's clearly "putting it on", like a used-car salesman.

I would fundamentally disagree, though, that the social contract is generally "more trouble to study than it's worth", any more than physics or math are. The social fabric is an elemental fact of our existence, like gravity, and to disdain it makes no more sense than getting in a lather over the speed of light.

As long as you're choosing to bend or break the contract, though, rather than trampling over it unconsciously, you're well outside the realm of any Asperger's-like limitations. Like any moral choice, your awareness of the choice, and its consequences, fundamentally alters your accountability/responsibility, and just puts you on a whole different moral plane.
posted by LairBob at 6:13 PM on April 29, 2004

So it's the difference between choosing not to play the game, and not even knowing there's a game going on and what the rules are?

listening in, and finding it really interesting. I'm a little worried about what it does to a kid's development tho, to be diagnosed as officially clueless, and having to consciously "act" for the rest of his life to fit in or function.
posted by amberglow at 6:27 PM on April 29, 2004 [1 favorite]

Bingo, there was a person discussed in the article who offered an unsolicited opinion on why she didn't like her health care professional's clothing. That's not very far from going up to a stranger on the street and telling them they have a fat ass.

I can understand why someone might choose to be blunt or to dispense with social conventions they find meaningless.

However, the problem arises when it isn't a choice at all--when you're so tone-deaf to what other people are saying that you can't participate in a real conversation.

If you don't see why that's a problem, you either don't get Asperger's or you are so profoundly immured in your own Asperger's that you may want to seek professional help.

And the correct pronounciation is "Ahs-per-ger", where the "A" is like the English "Ah!", the first "e" is midway between "early" and "bear", and the second "e" is closer to "early" but still a little more like "bear" than it is in English.

To pronounce it "Ows-per-ger" (with the "ow" as in "owl") or "Os-per-ger" (with the "o" as in "ostrich") would only be appropriate if it was spelled "Ausperger". Which it isn't.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:46 PM on April 29, 2004

I guess with that post I revealed that I was somewhere on the autistic spectrum myself.

I think there's a parallel neurological condition in which the right brain is as predominant as the left brain is in Asperger's, which includes horrendous spatial relations skills, difficulties with math, overempathizing with others' emotions, being completely freaked out by visual and auditory overstimulation, being obsessed with the music of words, being able to talk glibly and convincingly about stuff you don't understand, and various other things.

However, because most of those imbalances read as "skills" in an industrialized society, this hasn't been as pathologized as Asperger's Syndrome. And, yes, I think the majority of these right-brain folks are women.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:51 PM on April 29, 2004

You can't take credit for breaking rules if you haven't the ability to follow them; of course, you can always dress up like an iconoclast, and pretend you had a choice.
posted by Opus Dark at 7:05 PM on April 29, 2004

Sidhedevil: Bingo, there was a person discussed in the article who offered an unsolicited opinion on why she didn't like her health care professional's clothing. That's not very far from going up to a stranger on the street and telling them they have a fat ass.

I disagree. She told her health care worker, who she was spending time with in a professional context, that the worker's shirt was so tight as to be unprofessional. In other words, the context gave her a reason to say what she said. It also suggests an awareness, or at least an attempt at an awareness, of what "professionalism" entails to begin with. And doesn't that have to do with the same sort of mostly unspoken rules we're talking about?

LairBob, I am sorry to hear about your child's tonsil problems, although I'm having trouble understanding the connection. As far as the difficulty with spacial relations goes, this is something that I can, to an extent, identify with as well. I have always been clumsy, had a bad sense of direction, and was diagnosed as a child with "inner ear imbalance." Around first or second grade, there was a period where once a week, amongst other "therapies," I was told to climb inside of a big plastic ball, and then spun around until beyond the point where I felt nauseous. Thanks, doc.

I can tell when I'm standing too close to someone, or talking too loud (usually), but these were, I remember, issues that I felt I had to experiment with a lot, often pushing social, did I know where the boundary was, and I was pushing it anyway? Or did I have no idea where it was, and I was looking for it? I remember an awful lot of vagueness in this area, in my own mind. Even your anecdote about your son touching his food to his eyes strikes a chord with me. I used to feel a great sense of physical unevenness, personally and in my relationship to the space around me, always imagining (?) that some little "adjustments" had to be made, compensations against the lack of control that I sometimes felt in terms of my relationship to wherever I was. I had a little "reset" ritual, wherein I would do a miniature jumping jack, blink, and swallow all at the same time. I had to start swallowing half a second ahead of time to make it work. And if I did that regularly, or every time I had brushed my right hand against the wall but not my left, or whatever, I felt like I was more "in balance."

Now, did I have to do that? Well, I certainly felt that I should. I felt compelled. But to what degree I understood that I wasn't "supposed" to be doing it...I mean, that sort of thing wasn't a total non-issue to me, it was just that other issues...issues that I felt other people wouldn't understand, and that I would have had trouble expressing....seemed much more important.

I would fundamentally disagree, though, that the social contract is generally "more trouble to study than it's worth", any more than physics or math are.

With respect; I was never interested in learning physics or math either (though I did study both, long ago, because I felt that I "should"...but I wish I had spent much less time on them than I did).
posted by bingo at 7:58 PM on April 29, 2004

She was eventually diagnosed with Ausbergers, and maybe it IS the hot new disease of the moment, but she said the diagnosis is the best thing that's ever happened to her. She knows now that her behavioral and psychological differences have a reason, and it's not just that everyone else in the world is completely irrational and strange.

she doesn't know there's a reason; she knows that her behavior matches a certain percentage of criteria shared by some number of other people. This syndrome isn't something that can be physically determined. It's a name for a certain way of behaving. Names definitely make people more comfortable, I guess because they assure you that this scenario has been seen enough times that we decided to give it a name... but in a way it's kinda funny that it makes such a difference.
posted by mdn at 8:57 PM on April 29, 2004

Well, the issue with the tonsils was just basically that he never really got a good night's sleep for the first three or four years of his life. When you look at the fact that his brain is basically wiring itself for good at that point, it's certainly conceivable that a chronic lack of oxygen and real restfulness could have a pronounced effect. He now sleeps completely differently, and the timing of his tonsillectomy very clearly coincides with a major turnaround in his behavior.

In terms of studying or analysing anything formally, I guess we just have a basic difference in approach, or philosophy. As a former teacher, I'm obviously biased, but I've always operated under the assumption that the effort to understand something more closely is intrinsically worthwhile. That's not a universally held opinion, and I do know many folks who prefer to operate on a more intuitive, less "studied" (in a different sense) level--including some good friends. (I also know a lot of pedants who pride themselves on useless knowledge.) Personally, though, I've always found it to my advantage, as well as my interest, to be aggressively interested in the details of things.

Finally, to amberglow's point on being "diagnosed as clueless"--if the doctor's the first one to point out the problem (like a lot of examples in the "New York" article I linked to earlier), then I think your concern is very well-founded. Believe me, though--when it's really an issue, you and the child are aware of it well before anyone with a white coat gets involved. The risk at that point isn't being stigmatized as "on the spectrum"'s being "odd kid out" on the playground for the next 10 years of your life.

Like I said before--if either of my boys ever decides to be an iconoclast, and defy social convention, I'll probably be proud. I just want to make sure they can understand the rules of the game before they decide to play or not. (Or cheat...who knows?)
posted by LairBob at 9:14 PM on April 29, 2004

well said, LairBob. How do the other kids treat yours? Is he socializing ok?
posted by amberglow at 9:27 PM on April 29, 2004

Hey, LairBob (or anyone else to whom it might apply) -- though my son's "official" AS diagnosis is rather new, I've known something was different about him for quite some time. One of the resources that helped identify what was different, and also helped provide some strategies for dealing with it and getting him help at school, was a book by Perri Klass and Eileen Costello (both pediatricians; Klass I've read extensively) called "Quirky Kids: Understanding and Helping Your Child Who Doesn't Fit In - When to Worry and When Not to Worry." It's available at, among other places.
posted by wdpeck at 10:20 PM on April 29, 2004

[Though, LB, it sounds like you already have a pretty good handle on the whys and wherefores of AS. ;-) Good luck!]
posted by wdpeck at 10:25 PM on April 29, 2004

Lairbob: you're doing absolutely the right thing in limiting sugar intake. It's very hard to deal with the physical and psychological turbulence that extra blood sugar energy provides.

I personally have to run my communications through a lot of filters. If you can picture a kind of division from the psychological immediacy that other people report you've got a pretty good idea of what is involved in having to introduce a coping strategy. If you stay as understanding as you sound from your comment I don't think your boy will have many problems. He will learn other things more rapidly and your teaching burden as a parent should be roughly the same.
posted by snarfodox at 11:15 PM on April 29, 2004

I've oftened wondered that the higher percentage of males diagnosed with Asperger's is a result of different socialization -- girls are taught to observe, learn, and emulate social norms much more emphatically than boys are taught that.

It is thought that estrogen is somehow protective. From personal experience, females on the spectrum tend to have mothers who don't have an overly feminine physique.

As to diet, removing grains, dairy, and soy has improved the severity of spectrum traits for children and adults. The adults already exhibiting similar Aspie traits, are probably more likely to pass on these qualities to their children, and with each generation the difference is more pronounced. Again, diet is most likely the culprit. I wonder why the tonsils are more enlarged, the cause of the inner ear imbalance (often a dairy intolerance) etc.

On one hand I don't see the need to fix a person with ADD or Aspergers, but if they are on the spectrum which includes Autism or hyper-activity, then it's important to look a the cause. If our generation has its fair share of oddities which are more pronounced in our offspring, we should either adapt to accept these changes or look for some of the causes. Unfortunately, I see more "Oh well, it's not easy, but this is how we live with it" attitude.

It's not whether we use ABA or drugs, it's not whether we choose Kerry or Bush; step back, the play ground is fundamentally flawed. Treating the symptoms gets us through today and the next week, but it doesn't address the larger issue. Let's see hard looks at the typical American diet, environmental toxins, vaccine damage. I want to see studies which aren't being funded by large corporations with vested interests in these potential causes.
posted by Feisty at 12:25 AM on April 30, 2004

Feisty, as far as I know, and I'm not a doctor but I do instruct persons with developmental disabilities, autism and Aspberger's Syndrome are developmental disabilities, while attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a psychiatric diagnosis. Persons with developmental disorders sometimes do and sometimes do not have psychiatric diagnoses, just as persons who are developmentally typical sometimes do and sometimes do not. The spectrum you mention runs from Aspberger's to Autism, and ADHD sort of lives in the next forest over.

If our generation has its fair share of oddities which are more pronounced in our offspring, we should either adapt to accept these changes or look for some of the causes.

I don't see it as an either/or situation. And really, even if we allocate our entire defense budget to find every last cause of developmental disability, please don't think that adaptation to or acceptance of a person with a developmental disability is ever optional. Feisty, I'm sure you didn't mean to say that it is. But the way you put it seemed flippant. For the sake of my own peace of mind and for my students who are such wonderful people, let us be clear that it is absolutely not optional. We would never think of refusing to adapt to or accept someone who was born deaf, blind, or missing a limb. Please let's include Aspberger's, autism, Down's Syndrome, and mental retardation on the list, too.
posted by halonine at 3:31 AM on April 30, 2004

amber, our son is doing much better on the playground. There are kind of three levels of integration there: being rejected, just remaining aside, and participating. To date, he hadn't really been actively rejected, as far as I know--it was more that he would just go off on his own and play by himself. Now, he's much better at spotting a game of chase or tag going on, and joining in.

WDP, we haven't read the Klass book you mentioned, although her name definitely rings a bell. There's a ton of literature on this stuff now, as well as sensory integration, etc., and it's hard to wade through it all sometimes. Thanks for the reference.

Regarding his diet, that's another causal thread that's difficult to untangle from everything else, but the sugar's a no-brainer. Any kid is susceptible to sugar, especially the refined stuff--back when I was a teacher and a coach, you could always tell when they served cake for dessert. The whole school went nuts.

There are potentially issues of body chemistry, though. Beyond possible issues of oxygen deprivation to his brain, one nutritionist used a urinalysis to suggest that he has a form of "adrenal fatigue". The idea is that your body tries to maintain your adrenaline level within a normal zone, but that if your adrenaline level is low, you actually constantly create little emergencies to force your adrenaline level to spike, so you're kind of self-medicating. (That's the reason for the mineral supplements Emmet is on--the premise that when you create an adrenaline spike and don't actually follow through on it by fighting or fleeing, your body flushes the system through your urine, and dumps out a lot of minerals along the way, leaving you depleted.)

I'm naturally skeptical of ideas like that, and I'd love a more informed opinion on the idea, but I offer that just as something to consider for other parents. Nevertheless, natural skepticism aside, it does have a ring of sense to it when you've got a little boy who's constantly generating little social crises all day long--doing things that get a rise out of you for no apparent reason. I mean, he's four, for God's sake, so you've got to expect a measure of craziness "just because", but when a kid who should know better yells right in your ear five or six times in a row, it's different.

Finally, Feisty and h9, I find the larger environmental issues very difficult to pull apart. For one thing, I'm deeply skeptical of the vaccine connection--I don't really distrust the larger studies as some people do. While I wouldn't ever tell someone who feels that their child's condition flared up right after a vaccine that they're wrong, there are just a whole lot of other environmental factors that could lead to an increase in these conditions, if there even is an increase.

Although I do believe the statistics that say that full-blown autism is on the rise, I do also think that a big portion of the larger population "on the spectrum" is simply being diagnosed with a condition that simply wasn't recognized until recently. Look at how many adults, even here, say "I wouldn't be surprised if I actually had a touch of that." That's actually a very common response. My wife and I both look at our own childhoods, our own personalities, and our own families, and there are some real trends across the board with what our son is going through. It's perfectly possible that these issues have always been part of the larger human condition, and we're either just simply acknowledging that now, or at worst that there's some environmental factor that's compounding an long-existing condition. (I don't know either way--I'm just saying.)

On a much more personal note, though, it's very difficult to focus on "causes" once it's a part of your child's life, for two reasons. One is that dealing with this sort of thing easily overwhelms your time and attention, and it's tough to pick up your head and put your child's welfare aside for the larger good. (There's a strong argument that it's your responsibility as a parent not to do that, while your child really needs you.)

More importantly, though, when you're in these circumstances, it's very hard to avoid a sense of personal blame once you start digging for "why". Was it something the mother ate when she was pregnant? Was it something in the water at the house you bought? Was it the decision to get a vaccine? Once the condition's there, it's there, and it really doesn't do anyone any good to get sucked down a black hole of second-guessing. What your child needs is for you to roll up your sleeves and help them.

That's not to say that other folks shouldn't focus on causes, or that even, once your kid's well on their way, that you don't have a larger responsibility to society to do so. The appeal's likely to fall on deaf ears, though, when you're talking to a normal, mortal parent who's wrestling with this.
posted by LairBob at 5:46 AM on April 30, 2004

that's good to hear, LairBob...also just be careful maybe that you don't train away his individual quirks and the personality things that make him the unique him he actually is. Boring and always conforming people suck (i guess it's a fine line you have to walk).
posted by amberglow at 5:52 AM on April 30, 2004 risk there, amberglow. He's already very much his own person, and we adore the things that make him unique.

Having written so much, let me just clarify something important--almost all the challenges I'm writing about are moving into the past tense for us. If I put my Emmet in a room with 20 other kids, you'd be hard pressed to pick him out as the one I've been talking about--on a good day, now, he's maybe the last one you'd pick. He's engaging, funny, and affectionate, and even though he still drives us crazy sometimes, it's as a "normal" little boy (for what that term's worth).

As a broader note for parents, especially of little boys, I'll pass along something a good friend of mine once said. Emmet was only about a year old, and his oldest boy was a few years further along--when I mentioned that the "terrible twos" were coming up, he said, "The 'terrible twos' are nothing compared to the 'f@*%ing fours'", and he's right. (He's a bio PhD with a focus on endicrinology, and his theory is that there's a testosterone rush boys go through at that age that just makes them crazy. As I understand it, boys go through testosterone floods at two, four and thirteen, which would explain a lot.)

At the moment, though, as my son turns five soon and moves through all the different things that might have contributed to his challenges, one of our main issues right now is making sure that he still qualifies for services, like a full-time aide next year in kindergarten. It's one of the difficult ironies of the situation--where sometimes you have to exaggerate your child's challenges, and risk getting them even more stigmatized--for the sake of making sure they get help. Nevertheless, he's in a great place right now, and we're confident he can grow from there.

I say this for a couple of different reasons:
1) I want to be fair to Emmet, and the progress he's made. Every improvement he's made, he's made on his own, and his current success is really to his credit, not ours.
2) I want to let other folks know that there are genuinely successful ways to deal with this sort of thing.
3) I also want to make it clear that the level of our challenge is nothing compared to the ordeal some other parents go through on this front.

That last point is especially important. As difficult as things got, we never got to a point where we lost having a loving, responsive son, and that's critical. I don't think I could ever have the emotional remove to talk about things openly like this if we had ever had to deal with that, and there are many parents who do. For someone who's dealt with this condition in a child, I'm an example of a very lucky parent, and I would never want to compare what I've gone through with what other folks endure.
posted by LairBob at 6:19 AM on April 30, 2004

Interesting. There is, of course, a certain risk of "medical student's syndrome" here...any intelligent, troubled person who reads about a condition can quickly convince themselves that they have it. In this case, though, every time I leave the discussion and start to convince myself that I was guilty of this rationalization, I come back to find more that I can relate to.

I have a serious allergy to dairy products, but I eat them all the time anyway. No doubt, though, that they make it harder for me to think clearly (and also make me sneeze a lot). Refined sugar is even worse in this regard.

I find the adrenal fatigue idea intriguing, especially since I was not long ago I was taking a whopping 40mg per day of adderal, a stimulant that definitely raises adrenaline levels.

halonine, I'm pretty sure that psychiatrists are empowered to diagnose developmental disorders. I'm checking with a psychiatrist friend of mine about this.

LairBob: Are you sure that he didn't just prefer to play by himself? Was he really having trouble recognizing that a game of tag was going on?
posted by bingo at 6:49 AM on April 30, 2004

This has been a truly excellent thread. Thanks all. I'm sorry if I was snarky yesterday -- it was the end of a long, hard day. Guess I need to think about when it's appropriate to speak up....
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:14 AM on April 30, 2004

This is just an absolutely *excellent* thread and if I had a top-10 MeFi list, it would certainly be high on the list.

To LairBob and everyone else who has contributed, especially with personal anecdotes, thank you so very much. Your descriptions have made this very vivid and extremely interesting. LairBob, it sounds like your son is in great hands and I wish you and your wife continued success in raising an amazing child.
posted by widdershins at 9:14 AM on April 30, 2004

For the sake of my own peace of mind and for my students who are such wonderful people, let us be clear that it is absolutely not optional. We would never think of refusing to adapt to or accept someone who was born deaf, blind, or missing a limb.

Having experienced this and seeing my loved ones go through it as well, acceptance and understanding are a given. And if it were just my family we'd keep on with our interventions and be satisfied that we've found something that allows us to blend into the mainstream. I am not flippant; I am adamant. And I will gladly spin out of fitting in with the mainstream, something I once strived so hard to get into, to scream that I will not quietly accept that its prevalence is normal. The children and adults on the spectrum are behaving normally to an unhealthy situation. To insinuate that someone who questions the cause is somehow placing blame on an individual or family is a huge derail.

I become overwhelmed when I see the increase of spectrum disorders. And I see daily the children, who are not neurologically typical, who I don't think coincidentally, come from parents, who have with effort, learned to overcome some of the milder issues and squeak through. Why is it generally worse in the offspring?

And it is getting worse. Yes there is more diagnosis, yes parenting styles have changed, but it can't account for the massive increase in children who have in some way been biologically assaulted. Can the mercury in an injection in a healthy child cause autism? The odds are very much against it. But what about the child who was carried in the womb of a mother who has multiple dental amalgams, multiple vaccinations, was raised on conventional American foods, etc.? During pregnancy the body dumps these toxins stored in the fat of the mother to the uterus. Little by little many of us are crossing over that fine line and we're seeing the results of it in our children. It is not right, it's not fair, and it should not be tolerated.

We love, support and attempt to heal those who have been harmed. AND we figure out why it happened. Unlike Downs, blindness, deafness etc. (which okay, *sometimes* have an environmental cause), what we're seeing is not an anomaly.
posted by Feisty at 10:10 AM on April 30, 2004

All--thanks for the notes. It certainly does always help to process things through with a smart group of folks. (I shared this thread with my wife last night, since she's not really familiar with MetaFilter, and she was very impressed with the thoughtfulness and intelligence of the responses.) So thanks, everyone.

On a quick aside, bingo, he really is a very social kid, but has really had to develop--or even just grow--the habit of cuing into other kids. It wasn't even just that he was "on the side". When he did try to play with other kids, he would insist that they only do what he wanted, and would throw a tantrum or just leave when they (of course) didn't. He couldn't easily pick up on the unstated, or even stated, rules of the current game. Between the aide, sleeping better, eating better, having a little brother/new best friend who's now 2-1/2, and just growing up, he's now much better at just grasping what's going on, and joining in (when he feels like it).
posted by LairBob at 10:28 AM on April 30, 2004

Feisty, I wanted to answer your post's not that I don't believe that there's an increasing toxic load on all of us, and especially on our children. My biologist buddy I mentioned earlier has actually written (what I think is) an excellent book on just that topic, and I don't think he's being an alarmist. (Forgive the plug, but I'd feel remiss to mention that fact, and not link to a reference.)

When I've seen him give talks on the topic, he makes the well-worn point that the animal that's really highest on the global food chain (and which is therefore likely to receive the most concentrated dose of environmental toxins) isn't really just "humans", but human infants, who from gestation through weaning receive the bulk of their nutrition from their mothers. It's not hard to imagine how there's a generational jump in various conditions when you look at it that way.

I'm all for activism on the topic. I'm certainly all for open discussion and investigation of the issue. The main point I was trying to make is that when you're faced with this on a personal level, it's very hard to maintain a useful distinction between "cause" and "blame". I think most people find--and I certainly did--that focusing on helping your child is by far the healthiest response, within the family.

On a larger scale, by all means, agitate for our society to better understand what the heck is going on, across the board. Godspeed. It's just not going to be my personal priority till I'm confident my son can spare the attention--I feel that that's a legitimate, and responsible, choice for a parent to make.
posted by LairBob at 10:43 AM on April 30, 2004

just btw...i meTa'd this thread (for good reasons) : >
posted by amberglow at 10:59 AM on April 30, 2004

calwatch well constructed thread & fine commenting All.

Can't say w/o being diagnosed this fits me. To this day socially I'm odd man out; even though I look like I fit in well and constantly find myself having others wanting my participation. Yet I screw up and find myself then being ostracized from people whom like “small talk” only.

It took many years and tries overcoming the changes described with Asperger's Syndrome. Listening only has tremendously helped. It's not that I'm tuning the ones around me out, I hear every word and can find other discussions that relate to the subject being discussed. I just can't respond properly at the right moment unless it is more than obvious. Which in my head seems easily expected for others.

The biggest thing that has also helped in a social circle is: I smile. It's hard being befriended easily then not having the ability maintaining a social conversation friendship by having the correct talk. One thing I'm repeatable told by strangers which they find as a good quality; having the ability discussing one subject conversation at great lengths. Then my close friends will shun me for the same reasons. [sigh]
posted by thomcatspike at 11:04 AM on April 30, 2004

challenges described with Asperger's Syndrome.
using wrong words does not help it too;P
posted by thomcatspike at 11:07 AM on April 30, 2004

Maybe you have a touch of it, thom? or maybe you're just like the rest of us--inept in some situations, and ok in others? --says Dr. Amberglow ; >
posted by amberglow at 12:32 PM on April 30, 2004

And it is getting worse. Yes there is more diagnosis, yes parenting styles have changed, but it can't account for the massive increase in children who have in some way been biologically assaulted. Can the mercury in an injection in a healthy child cause autism? The odds are very much against it. But what about the child who was carried in the womb of a mother who has multiple dental amalgams, multiple vaccinations, was raised on conventional American foods, etc.?

It would be interesting to see the rates of Asperger's in other socieities and other cultures. Also in terms of the education levels of the parents, but also what these people are reading.

I know that I was a weird kid growing up but my mom never read any of those self help books or those books that purport to talk about parenting. Not that they weren't available, it just happens that she wasn't good at reading English, and those books aren't as prevalent in other languages. Overall I really hate small talk and have a high tendency to drop the ball on conversations by not responding fast enough. But generally I am pretty topical in conversations.
posted by calwatch at 3:12 PM on April 30, 2004

I have more than a touch of Aussberger's. It runs in my family. My father describes being invited to play baseball for the first time and told to "go out there to left field and catch flies".

Which he then proceeded to do - wrong kind of flies though.

"Social skills run in emulation" ( ! )

Aussberger's may be a "fad" or a cultural fetish of sorts, but it might just be really increasing by way of the influence persistent organic pollutants exert on the human endocrine system.... even in utero.

Oh.....I see lairbob just covered that one here (I've been banging away at it for a while now on other threads)

Anyway, there are lots of theories.

Some are illogical.
posted by troutfishing at 9:24 AM on May 1, 2004

This really has been an incredible thread. Thanks to everyone.

I think there's a parallel neurological condition in which the right brain is as predominant as the left brain is in Asperger's, which includes horrendous spatial relations skills, difficulties with math, overempathizing with others' emotions, being completely freaked out by visual and auditory overstimulation, being obsessed with the music of words, being able to talk glibly and convincingly about stuff you don't understand, and various other things.---Sidhedevil

I know *so* many people that could fall into that spectrum, including myself, more than likely.
posted by dejah420 at 8:14 PM on May 1, 2004

As a followup to earlier in the thread; my PsyD friend verified that a diagnosis of Asperger's might indeed come from a psychiatrist.
posted by bingo at 9:03 PM on May 1, 2004

I seriously think I may have asperger's and if so, it would explain a lot of the weird things I feel and do and cause me anxiety. I am completely feeling everyone who has been expressing issues with "small talk." whenever someone asks me something like, "how are you?" or "hows it going?" I freeze up for a second while my brain searches for a script. whenever I'm going out with friends, I always try to make sure I travel in a group of at least 3 so that if I can zone out if I need to and not have to worry about weird silences.

anyways, I can churn out anecdotes all day but what I wonder is if I should try to get a diagnosis? my worry is that it would become an excuse for me to not get better. like, I would just chalk up my issues to my neurosis. what do y'all reckon?
posted by mcsweetie at 1:32 PM on May 2, 2004

as long as you didn't stop at any diagnosis, mcsweet--that's supposed to be the first step, not the last. You'd probably have to do therapy or support group stuff, no?
posted by amberglow at 1:54 PM on May 2, 2004

hmm...that's a (hopefully understandably) terrifying possibility. I believe I would prefer painful oral surgery to one-on-one'ing with a specialist or pouring my heart out for strangers!
posted by mcsweetie at 2:01 PM on May 2, 2004

It seems I only post in the blue to recommend books by Paul Collins, but here I go again - I'll put in a second vote for his latest 'Not Even Wrong: Adventures in Autism.' Collins devotes a significant percentage of its pages to Asperger's and the historical evolutions of such disorders and their treatment, mixed with a bit of first person narrative. Fascinating stuff.
posted by adamkempa at 2:47 PM on May 2, 2004

mcsweetie: Asperger's aside, small talk really is stupid. I don't think that what you describe necessarily means you have Asperger's by any stretch. I mean, maybe you do, or maybe you're just not shallow.
posted by bingo at 7:58 PM on May 2, 2004

1) Assume that small talk, transcripted, is completely banal. That does not mean that engaging in small talk is banal, nor that no useful information is made available via the practice of engaging in small talk.

2) SpecialK, can we hold off labeling the withering of human empathy as a triumph of evolution for right now? I think the world is already suffering a deficit these days. (my own harsh comment included, frankly)

Plus, the most effective engineers I know (and "engineers I know" is a pretty damn large set) are masters of communication and social interaction. In fact, their jobs depend on it, since they have to build things to the satisfaction of non-engineers.
posted by NortonDC at 8:33 PM on May 2, 2004

well, I wish I could engage in small talk.
posted by mcsweetie at 8:50 PM on May 2, 2004

you probably can, i bet.
posted by amberglow at 8:58 PM on May 2, 2004

Mcsweetie, you seem to have identified your own problem, mild as it is, and you seem to be capably working around it - what good would a diagnoses do? It's not like you'd qualify for federal assistance - about all you'd gain is an eyebrow-raising red flag, lurking in a database somewhwere, which honesty would urge you to note on accusing insurance applications.

Personally, I think I suffer from Sregrepsa Syndrome - the opposite of Aspergers - which causes me great anxiety whenever the number of people within eyeshot strains my ability to reflect back to each one a uniquely stimulating version of myself. I feel like I should be dancing with everyone in the room simultaneusly, glowing with exactly the portion of grace and charm each would most appreciate. It's not sycophantism, it's not narcissism - it's simply an irrational urge to practice an irrational magic, to no purpose and without agenda.

Precisely the type of behaviour which seems to irritate bingo, whose persistent and gratuitous indictments of same will soon, if they have not already, become the small talk s/he finds so enervating.
posted by Opus Dark at 9:40 PM on May 2, 2004

bingo was fine with small talk last night at the meetup, as far as i could tell.
posted by amberglow at 10:17 PM on May 2, 2004

But was he merely participating or did he start it? I can participate for a while, but usually I need help from someone else or else I stop talking, which in a one on one situation isn't good.

Knowing how to start appropriate small talk is a good skill to have.
posted by calwatch at 10:27 PM on May 2, 2004

I guess I am just shy. I can't afford to see a doctor anyhow! maybe I will revisit the idea if kerry wins and everyone gets health care, or if bush wins and I have to flee to canada to avoid the draft.
posted by mcsweetie at 10:31 PM on May 2, 2004

Good thread, I wish I had read it earlier.

The theory about a testosterone link to autism comes in part, I believe, from a disorder where a fetus's brain is flooded with testosterone and it causes some provocative defects. This theory was posted to MeFi recently, here's a link to a summary of the research.

I scored a 27 on that Wired test, by the way. I may be AS, but for reasons relating to my childhood, I run my emulated social interaction skills in "real mode".

Small talk is the H. sapiens sapiens version of primate grooming. We're social creatures, it's an important social ritual. That said, it was only when I realized this was the case that I was willing to believe that there really was a point to it. I'm bored out of my mind by small talk. But I really like substantive discussions.

It doesn't seem clear to me from this thread that people are aware that Asperger's is essentially a mild form of autism; thus Asperger's folks are relatively highly socially functional.

Oliver Sacks's "An Anthropologist on Mars" has a chapter on Temple Grandin, a relatively famous woman who suffers from autism who has recently written her own book. (The book's title is her own description of her life among other people.)

A few months ago I spent many hours reading, where I found this heartbreaking passage:
"The really eerie thing at my grandfather's funeral was that since he had the same name as me, the pastor was constantly saying things about [John Doe] and it made me squirmy. I'm sad that he's gone and I grieved, but the formality seems very silly to me. I could have cried it's almost a habit to hold back the tears; I could have cried about a million things. I wasn't pretending to be sad. I'm always sad."—name withheld for privacy considerations
...and this rather inadvertenly darkly humorous but nevertheless heartbreaking one:
"A lot of people (jerks, mostly) base their moral judgments on whether their victim has 'human' traits, such as the ability to think rationally, rather than its ability to feel pleasure or pain (as Data and animals certainly can). But what really drives me insane is the ignorant scientists who (like Joel said) point to a trait that autistic people don't have, such as the instinct or need to socialize, and try to say 'that's what makes us human.' There are days when I'd love to grab one of those idiot scientists by the collar, bust lead through both his eye sockets with a .44 magnum, and watch laughing as the blood oozes from his face while he screams in agony."—name also withheld
If you want to understand what it means to be austistic spectrum, there is a wealth of understanding to be found here. These are human beings like ourselves, with feelings like ourselves...they just don't process those feelings with regard to social interaction the way most of the rest of us do.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 6:21 AM on May 3, 2004

My score on that Wired test (just took it) was only 17. I'm thinking now that I probably don't have this...or have a very light "case" of it. Most of the questions that probably moved by score back towards 'normal' were about creativity: "Do you have a hard time imagining what's going on in someone else's mind...Do you find it easy to make up stories..." In all those cases, my answer is, No problem at all. In that sense I'm kind of like the Jack Nicholson character in As Good As It Gets. I can make up stories about other people fine. It doesn't mean that I'm a people person by any stretch.

Hanging out with you folks at the meetup did not in general consist of what I consider "small talk." Sure, we weren't debating the merits of Aristotle's three-act structure (a favorite subject of mine), but neither were we random people with no connection, trying to make ourselves and each other feel more comfortable by saying things with no relevant substance. If I turned to Vidiot and asked where he was from, it's because I really wanted to know. And if I saw him on the street and said "Hey, how's it going?" it would be because I consider him, at the very least, a friendly acquaintance, and I do care how he's doing (sorry, Vidiot, just picking you out arbitrarily since you sat next to me).

However, when I'm working an office job, it pains me to make small talk with co-workers to whom I have no real connection. Or anyone to whom I have no real connection, for that matter, but it's a situation that manifests most often in job situations. Recently I did some work in an office where I sat near the salesmen, and, being salesmen, they were really into social networking. So they often came by my desk just to shoot the shit, not because I was really in a position to do much for them, but just because I was new around the office, and they obviously figured that they should make that connection. Now, small talk with those guys was definitely something I did "in emulation." They would ask me a harmless but meaningless quesiton about the weather, for example, and I would push myself to give the generic answer that was expected, suppressing my overwhelming desire to say "Why don't you shut the fuck up, you idiot?"

But then, I have to suppress my desire to say that to lots of people, all the time.

Anyway, sure, I can start small talk, although when I do, my first question usually sounds forced, or "like a line." But a lot of that also depends on my mood, and again, my relationship to the people.

The thing is, though, that with most people I consider my good friends, we don't really make what most people would consider to be small talk. We have actual in-depth conversations about subjects that interest us, and the deeper the friendship, the more immediately we get into that kind of solid conversation. I don't particularly have anything against people with whom I don't have that kind of connection, and I'm not opposed to exploring new relationships to see whether or not that kind of connection exists. But, if it definitely doesn't, I get bored rather quickly, and largely lack the motivation to pretend that I'm not.

In the case of the meetup, though, the whole point (to me) was to establish a different kind of relationship to people I only knew online, so making what would otherwise be considered "small talk" seems more or less natural in that context.
posted by bingo at 10:20 AM on May 3, 2004

I scored a 31.

I do not use the phone to keep in touch with friends or family except when there is a functional need to contact them. I have been cell phone free for 3 years now - there has not been a compelling need for me to continue having one and I do not have to worry about 'shooting the shit' on demand.

I can write a book on the many things I have said during company meetings. (These/those meetings are about my only social interactions) "I am sorry but I really have to raise the bullshit flag now" to my boss's boss's boss (the guy thats a step below the VP in a Fortune 500 has a surprisingly lot of power) and proceded to correct him over a matter involving numbers and ratios which he was using incorrectly. He was using the ratios to highlight another issue, but after the third time I just *had* to unclench my fists and resolve.
It did occur to me after the fact that this was not a socially prudent action to take.

I assumed I was just an antisocial ass-hole with OCD. Now it appears that I am an antisocial "ass-burger" with OCD. I hope the new drugs that will hit the market come in a cherry-flavored chewable.
posted by blogRot at 3:20 PM on May 3, 2004

I hate that damn phone, too. S'why I refuse to answer it. And people at the door. Leave me the hell alone, dammit.

I've been thinking about digging a hole in my backyard.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 3:45 PM on May 3, 2004

For the dead bodies, or to hide in?
posted by five fresh fish at 3:58 PM on May 3, 2004

Good point. I need two of 'em.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 4:42 PM on May 3, 2004

Anybody else seen that Jerry Lewis movie, "Hardly Working"? I was just thinking that maybe this is what that character has. He eventually learns to run social and work skills in emulation.
posted by bingo at 8:55 AM on May 4, 2004

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