Education and Counseling for Individuals Affected by Autism Spectrum Disorders


Aspergers and Interpersonal Relationships

Aspergers (AS) may lead to problems in social interaction with peers. These problems can be severe or mild depending on the individual.

Kids with AS (also called high functioning autism) are often the target of bullying at school due to their idiosyncratic behavior, precise language, unusual interests, and impaired ability to perceive and respond in socially expected ways to nonverbal cues, particularly in interpersonal conflict. Kids with AS may be overly literal, and may have difficulty interpreting and responding to sarcasm, banter, or metaphorical speech. Difficulties with social interaction may also be manifest in a lack of play with other kids.

The above problems can even arise in the family; given an unfavorable family environment, the youngster may be subject to emotional abuse. A youngster or adolescent with AS is often puzzled by this mistreatment, unaware of what has been done incorrectly. Unlike other pervasive development disorders, most kids with AS want to be social, but fail to socialize successfully, which can lead to later withdrawal and asocial behavior, especially in adolescence. At this stage of life especially, they risk being drawn into unsuitable and inappropriate friendships and social groups. Individuals with AS often interact better with those considerably older or younger than themselves, rather than those within their own age group.

Kids with AS often display advanced abilities for their age in language, reading, mathematics, spatial skills, and/or music—sometimes into the "gifted" range—but this may be counterbalanced by considerable delays in other developmental areas. This combination of traits can lead to problems with teachers and other authority figures. A youngster with AS might be regarded by teachers as a "problem child" or a "poor performer." The youngster’s extremely low tolerance for what they perceive to be ordinary and mediocre tasks, such as typical homework assignments, can easily become frustrating; a teacher may well consider the youngster arrogant, spiteful, and insubordinate. Lack of support and understanding, in combination with the youngster's anxieties, can result in problematic behavior (such as severe tantrums, violent and angry outbursts, and withdrawal).

AS causes problems with language, communication and social interaction. An individual with AS may not be able to make friends easily and may also find two-way conversation difficult. She may appear to talk at people, rather than with them and fixate on favorite topics even if the other party shows distinct signs of disinterest or distress. She continues to talk about the topic and is oblivious to the other party's reaction. She also may misunderstand language at time and taking many things literally, missing subtlety.

In a relationship, the communication problems can easily lead to misunderstandings. In relationships, the neurotypical (i.e., non-Aspergers) individual often takes on the role of helping the individual with Aspergers and others understand each other better in social situations. Some romantic relationships also become strained because the neurotypical person gets frustrated with being the couple's main social connection to the rest of the world.

Two traits sometimes found in AS people are mind-blindness (the inability to predict the beliefs and intentions of others) and alexithymia (the inability to identify and interpret emotional signals in oneself or others), which reduce the ability to be empathetically attuned to others. Alexithymia in AS functions as an independent variable relying on different neural networks than those implicated in theory of mind. In fact, lack of Theory of Mind in AS may be a result of a lack of information available to the mind due to the operation of the alexithymic deficit.

A second issue related to alexithymia involves the inability to identify and modulate strong emotions such as sadness or anger, which leaves the individual prone to sudden affective outbursts such as crying or rage. The inability to express feelings using words may also predispose the individual to use physical acts to articulate the mood and release the emotional energy.

Individuals with AS report a feeling of being unwillingly detached from the world around them. They may have difficulty finding a life partner or getting married due to poor social skills. The complexity and inconsistency of the social world can pose an extreme challenge for people with AS. In the UK, AS is covered by the Disability Discrimination Act; those with AS who get treated badly because of it may have some redress. The first case was Hewett v Motorola 2004 (sometimes referred to as Hewitt) and the second was Isles v Ealing Council. The same applies in the United States with the Americans with Disabilities Act, amended in 2008 to include autism spectrum disorders.

The intense focus and tendency to work things out logically often grants individuals with AS a high level of ability in their field of interest. The person with AS can lead a profitable career and a fulfilled life when these special interests coincide with a materially or socially useful task. The youngster obsessed with a specific area may succeed in employment related to that area.

Many kids with AS reach adulthood without being diagnosed with this neurological disorder. Adults with AS are often just regarded as “weird”, unable to maintain more than a superficial level of relating to others. Because they lack empathy it can be particularly difficult for them to relate to kids. As with autism, males are diagnosed much more frequently than females with AS, but that might be an artifact of male personality versus female as regards a generally more sociable temperament in girls and women.

The descriptions here are in no way critical. They are simply descriptive of the typical adult behavior and temperament of this condition.

Being partnered to an AS spouse comes with its own set of marital difficulties. Of primary concern is the lack of intimacy and reciprocation of emotion. This is the most common reason for marriage breakdown associated with this disorder.

Communication is difficult because individuals with AS are not facile with give-and-take and are unlikely to offer apologies or acknowledge responsibility for failed relationships. They may become overly sensitive to criticism or suspicious of others and, because they harbor lingering resentment over perceived slights, they are seen by others as being paranoid.

Family and peers may become exasperated by the AS person’s self-centered insensitivity, obsessive, and rigid inflexibility. In situations requiring ultimate agreement (such as custody situations) conversation is often one-sided, long-winded, circumstantial, and lecture-like. Conclusions are difficult to reach because individuals with AS need to always have “one last word.”

While comprehension of the nonverbal communication of others is poor, some individuals with AS appear to have special talents or skills, and some have highly successful careers, particularly in certain professions requiring rote memory.

For grown-ups with AS, social skills training will help in dealing with spouses and children. Training involves teaching the individual to recognize facial expressions, learn body language skills, and learn to verbally interact with others at a more functioning level. This type of training does not come naturally to the person with AS, particularly as it requires willingness to accept constructive criticism.

Counseling for all parties can also be helpful in understanding this condition and in improving relationships.

The Aspergers Comprehensive Handbook

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