Aspergers Teens and Social Difficulties

The primary aspect of Aspergers (high functioning autism) that characterizes it as autistic is the problem of human connectedness. The term most commonly used to describe this core weakness of human connection is “reciprocity.” This refers to the teen’s ability to engage other people in a way that makes others feel connected or not. In social conversation with a teen with Aspergers, eye contact is often poor, fleeting, or absent. Aspergers teens may not be able to read subtle gestures and facial changes or to interpret subtleties in language such as irony or sarcasm. They do not read or respond as most people do to small changes in body posture or to gestures. They seem either distant, stiff, or in other ways unconnected.

Aspergers teens not only seem disconnected, but in some cases uninterested in being in relationships with others. They may generally have very little interest in the feelings, experiences, other human qualities, or possibilities of others and, hence, lack empathy. They do not seem to derive pleasure from engaging others, learning about them, talking with them, or sharing experiences. In the many cases where the symptoms are milder, the teenager may wish to connect with others, but simply does not know how. He may have feelings for others, but can’t seem to mobilize the demonstration of those feelings.

At first, “neurotypical” (normal) teenagers in common social contexts (such as a school football game) may see peers with Aspergers as shy and retiring, quiet, stiff, or withdrawn. As the uninitiated begin to talk with Aspergers teens, it may appear that they seem to respond robotically. They have a monotonic voice that often comes across as reminiscent of the aforementioned geeks or nerds. The initial impression is that one is dealing with an eccentric.

Aspergers teens seem to lack warmth to their more socially apt peers. There is a sense that the teen just isn’t there when he is interacting with you. He may not know what to do when someone has finished making a point. He may not know when to stop talking and may seem overly interested in his topic of conversation and not yours, unless you are equally fascinated with his areas of interest.

All too frequently, however, teens with Aspergers seem not just alien and unconnected, but preoccupied with one or two subjects, which they will talk about endlessly. They may take offense easily over unrelated trifles or become upset when others do not share their enthusiasm for a given area of interest. There is a kind of immaturity or somewhat fixed developmental delay, in which the needs, interests, feelings, perspectives, and thoughts of others just aren’t real or important to them. Intervention in teaching about the lives of others is important here.

In conversation with an Aspergers teen, you may find yourself doing most of the work in the exchange, asking most of the questions, and waiting for obvious follow-ups that don’t occur. His frequently robotic language and responses seem to suggest that others might as well be inanimate. It is not just a question of only lacking the ability to read social cues. There is an output problem, not knowing how to engage and maintain relationships with others, and most certainly an internal problem, in which social/emotional information is absent, confusing, undeveloped, and/or not valued. He may not have labels for feelings.

The teen with Aspergers may seem odd, making you uncomfortable. The simplest conversation among “neurotypical” people is kind of a naturalistic dance, a flowing interchange of cues and fitting responses. Because there really is quite a lack of tolerance in school for not being able to engage in this kind of behavior (especially with the school being the “gossip mill” that it normally is), a teenager with Aspergers soon becomes grist for that gossip mill and finds himself ostracized for vague reasons. It is difficult not to overemphasize the power of having the appearance of being a “regular person” in high school.

Many Aspergers teens have created their own support groups and chat sites where they feel valued and where their strengths are valued. Writers like Mark Hutten have spent many years explaining to the rest of us these experiences in learning, adjusting, and living shared by teens with Aspergers.

There is an excellent portrayal of a young adult with Aspergers by Josh Hartnett in the film Mozart and the Whale. In his portrayal, Hartnett appears to convincingly embody all of the characteristics and many of the challenges of an individual with Aspergers. The lead character demonstrates considerable awareness of the challenges associated with this condition and shows adaptation to the world of people with neurodevelopmental differences and the world at large.

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