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Asperger Syndrome – Why They Say Those Mean Things
from Guinn B.

Hi, Ed, and all my Wonderful Fellow-Flakers!

Just for the heck of it, I've been going through the Archives to relive some of the insights and debates over the years at Flake HQ, and an issue sort of struck me with new meaning:  I'm referring to the phenomenon of people who make remarks about our P, and don't seem to care when we make it clear to them (at least it ought to be clear) that their comments are hurtful, or anyway, annoying.  Neither sarcasm nor outright confrontation seems to be effective; either it completely blows past them and leaves them oblivious, or it shocks them into dismayed silence to discover that they've said something out of order, but they never seem to learn any better.  They just keep on making insensitive remarks.

Well, I've got one possible explanation:  Asperger Syndrome!  My own son either has it or something very similar.  (We're currently exploring how best to get a diagnosis for him that might help him get aid and services for his disability.) 

It's one of the Autistic Spectrum conditions, and the affected individual is usually very intelligent but socially inept.  The unspoken signals that most people easily pick up on, which silently say "Do Not Go There!" might as well be written in Ancient Sumerian for the person with A.S.  People with Asperger's get a reputation for being rude, selfish geeks because the give-and-take of normal conversation is foreign to them.  They may blurt out very blunt comments, may dominate or totally monopolize the conversation.  They often obsess about their own fields of interest and have almost no tolerance for other people's ideas.  They can have alarming, screaming tantrums when something unexpectedly goes wrong (like their web-browser unexpectedly disconnecting or a radio station that suddenly breaks up into static while they're listening to a program).  And they often realize after the fact that they've said something wrong, but are clueless about what it was or why it upset people.

Yet they may be truly kind individuals at heart, if you can just see past the annoying behavior and tactless remarks.  My son is very accepting and understanding of other people's disabilities, even though he can be a "Tactless Wonder" sometimes.  He helps out at his church and does favors for elderly friends of his, and while he's not very demonstrative, he does occasionally take the time to let me know that he loves and appreciates his father and me, and I'm very happy with him as a person.  He's honest (maybe a little TOO honest, sometimes!), hard-working and conscientious.  I only wish the world at large understood what he goes through to try to fit into society.  It can be heartbreaking to watch him struggle.

Anyway, I apologize for the length of this email — I only wanted to suggest that the people who never seem to "get it" regarding our feelings about P may not be intentionally cruel.  They may be coping with something of their own that is an even more isolating and less obvious disability.  (That probably even goes for the obnoxious derm I never go to anymore because he always manages to say something incredibly jerky!)

It's Something To Think About.  -Guinn B.


Followup from Guinn:  

The syndrome is named for a twentieth-century German doctor, Hans Asperger.  He and a doctor in another country (whose name and nation escape me at the moment — brain drain!) separately and simultaneously identified a condition in which children were unable to communicate, and seemed to turn inward, shutting out external stimuli.  Both men even gave it the same name: autism!

I read about Asperger Syndrome while researching on the internet, trying to classify my son's difficulty with social interaction.  He speaks fluently and intelligently, but in a stilted sort of way, with odd emphases, as if he were repeating lines he had rehearsed.  Also, although he wants to be friendly and does make eye contact, he tends to talk at people rather than to them, and he doesn't use much facial expression or pick up on other people's body language. Those and other clues made me wonder if he were high functioning autistic, which is what Asperger's seems to be. 

Unfortunately, it can give a very negative impression to anyone who doesn't recognize the symptoms.  (And it pushes ALL of a deeply insecure person's buttons!  My kid has the scars to prove it.) 

Thanks for your decision to present the topic via FlakeHQ.  It might help other flakers not to feel quite so bad when they get thoughtless remarks from people.  We all probably know at least one person who says what everyone else is thinking, but who does so innocently and without malice. –Guinn B.


Ed’s Respone:  This is a fine insight, Guinn, and the more I think about it, the more I’m sure it’s played a role in some of the “Don’t Say This” encounters I and others have experienced over the years. 

I have a grandson who requires speech and occupational therapy.  I take him to these therapies every Monday afternoon.  While he’s “doing his thing” with the therapists, I spend two hours in a large waiting room, through which other children come and go, some with types of autism, some no doubt with symptoms similar to (if not exactly) Asperger.   Countless times these innocents have blundered up to me (I think blunder is an appropriate word), studied my hands and made unsolicited comments.  In this context it’s all acceptable, but were I sitting quietly on a bus or in some other public place, the comments would be shocking.  They would be “off putting.”  And from an adult who might have Asperger Syndrome?  Those comments would be interpreted as rude, indicative of meanness, even.

I’m very glad to know about Asperger Syndrome.  It will make me hesitate and be a moment’s more thoughtful next time someone makes a comment about my P that I don’t think is appropriate.  Thanks again, Guinn!  -Ed

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