Basic Characteristics

           The official definition in the prior section will give you the most accurate understanding of the Characteristics of AS.  But for those of you who would like an easier-to-understand version, this section is for you.  Symptoms of AS include: impaired ability to utilize social cues such as body language, irony, or other “subtext” of communication; restricted eye contact and socialization; limited range of encyclopedic interests; perseverative, odd behaviors; didactic, verbose, monotone, droning voice; “concrete” thinking; over-sensitivity to certain stimuli; and unusual movements.

            Uta Frith has suggested that there are five main characteristics that identify AS:  (1) impaired social relationships, (2) impaired communication, (3) impaired make-believe play, (4) a peculiar pattern of intellectual abilities, and (5) the repetitive phenomena of rituals.  By analyzing each of these characteristics we can get a better understanding of how AS can be identified.  It is necessary to realize that we are discussing a variety of symptoms with AS, and that not every characteristic will manifest itself in each individual.  Some traits may not apply in your particular case. 

 Impaired Social Relationships

 Understanding the concept of friendship and forming close and intimate relationships is difficult for most individuals with AS.  As a child with AS approaches school and has an opportunity to be with his/her age peers, it becomes very noticeable that he/she is generally alone. Teachers and other adults consider the AS child a “loner”, and may even tell others that the child is“ in a world of his/her own”.  But in truth, this child may want desperately to have friends, but is unaware of how to attain friendship—they are lacking the skills and therefore are not successful in their attempts to make friends.  While many AS adolescents may have a number of friends, it turns out that very few of them are of the intimate, "bosom-buddy" kind.  In actuality, other people would consider those that the AS individual considers “friends” as “mere acquaintances”.  Without deliberate, patient instruction by professionals and others about the meaning of relationships, friendship, and sexual bonding, many children and adults remain adrift with unanswered questions about "why" they continue to have difficulty forming such relationships.  Even as an adult, without proper training the AS individual may easily make acquaintances, but is still lacking the expertise to change that relationship into friendship, dates, or eventually a spouse. 

Most aspies (a term developed by Liane Willey to identify any individual with AS) report being victims of bullying, victimization, abuse, and teasing, much of which may continue into adulthood.  An AS individual appears naive and gullible to others.  They become targets for such behavior because they stand out from their contemporaries as odd, not being able to understand simple social cues and unwritten rules of social communication and the hidden or "other" meaning of words, phrases, or the facial and body gestures of others.  Many aspies do not understand the significance of variations in vocal pitch, pauses, and expectations by others that they "keep up their end of the conversation". In addition they suffer the consequences of remaining on the outside or at the edge of social conversation and the social behavior of their peers. 

 Since there is a basic non-understanding of social etiquette, the AS individual may become overbearing, domineering, bullying, and controlling as a means to be “in charge” of their environment.   The domineering AS adult will have no sympathy for others, and no remorse for any pain or suffering they inflict.   This person does not understand that others have different goals or “rules” than he/she does.   The anger, frustration, and rage that an aspie experiences may lead him/her to overstep the lines of decency, and touch into abuse, violence, and even illegal activities. It is therefore important to work with a child and help thwart this side of AS before it becomes ingrained into his/her personality. 

 Other AS adults become very submissive in their actions.   They have considerable empathy for others, and are repeatedly apologizing for their actions.   They are also unsure how to respond to others in order to actually develop friendships and normal social relationships.  But even these quiet AS adults have described being overcome with rage—they feel as if something is taking over their body—they cannot control it.  Instead of stifling their emotions, these adults would be happier if they learned how to safely express their feelings in a socially acceptable manner. 

An aspie cannot quickly review a social situation and decide on a course of action, but instead must totally review all the “input” and decide how to respond.   Others do not realize that the “processing” time is necessary for an AS person, and tend to become aggravated at the slowness in their reactions.  It must be remembered that the social awareness that comes naturally for most people must be a learned and well thought out response for the person with AS.

Role playing, guided instruction by other socially savvy children and adults, Social Stories, and the sensitive use of modified cognitive behavioral techniques can make an enormous difference in an AS person’s understanding of how to form and sustain lasting relationships.  For all such formal instruction, it is critical that the aspie have safe opportunities to practice newly-learned skills with other individuals in a supportive and respectful one-to-one setting, moving gradually into supportive small group settings, testing and generalizing lessons learned into structured educational, social, community and work environments, and finally generalizing those skills with strangers in the world at large. 

 Impaired Communication

AS is characterized by rigidity of thought, black and white thinking, and impulsive behavior (or its appositive - indecision). These individuals tend to take everything very literally, understanding everything just the way it is spoken, no hidden ideas, no idioms, and no double meanings. In addition, a person with AS will listen to the words only, and not recognize the non-verbal methods of communication (gestures, nod, winks, or even facial expressions).  From research in the early 1970's has come the term "mind blindness" describing autistic individuals' difficulty in perceiving and understanding the intentions of others.   

Many children and adults with AS develop a style of expression characterized by long, fact-filled monologues.   In addition they show an apparent disinterest about active reciprocal engagement with other children or adults, leaving their listeners exhausted and exasperated, or very bored.  The listener wonders why the AS individual has returned the discussion to their favorite interest no matter how far the conversation has progressed into new topics.  As an example, a child that knows the manufacturing process of every toilet in Central Oregon may at first be interesting, but will bore others after an hour or two if they are even still listening and have not walked away.  A child or adult with a more common special interest like music, sports or animals seems to fare a little bit better because many other children and adults have an interest in these hobbies.  Finding their own age-mates bored with their special interests, AS children often seek out adults to impress with their knowledge and gain the acceptance denied them by their peers. Aspies are more interested in finding a discussion about their favorite topics than they are in social interaction with their age-mates.

 An aspie is unaware how they sound to others, and many tend to speak with loud, authoritative, monotone voices.   Or, the other alternative is that the person with AS will become exceedingly quiet, not wishing to have a conversation with anyone at anytime.  Others incorrectly perceive that the person is bored, mad, or very knowledgeable based on the tone and volume in their voice.   The AS person is totally unaware of the unintentional messages he/she is sending to others. They are also unable to “fix” any problems in communication that might arise in any social situation.  This lack of social ability often will cause employment problems as an adult.

 Many aspies have a tremendous vocabulary and tend to use very long, specific words in rather unusual  (but grammatically correct) ways.   They tend to write very long sentences, and very comprehensive essays on whatever topic is of interest to them.   If the topic is not interesting to the AS individual, you might find an exceedingly short one-sentence response on an essay test paper, or as adults they will simply walk out of the conversation.  He/she will find it very difficult to make a response longer or shorter based on another person’s request (e. g.  a teacher or professor), but will rather say what they think is important, regardless of length. 

 AS individuals do have a sense of humor, but it often differs substantially from that of persons who are not autistic. They will understand the humor if the story includes a familiar topic or punch line, one that he/she has already learned.  If it is something unfamiliar he/she is totally lost and often the response will simply be blank stare (very reminiscent of Data in Star Trek). It may take a while to process everything, and then the laughter and reaction may be delayed and subdued.  But other times, only after explicit information and discussion can he/she join in the laughter.

             AS individuals have problems identifying their emotions and the emotions of others, problems that can lead to outbursts of frustration, anger and rage.  On the other hand, passive AS individuals withdraw from the same stressful conditions that cause others with AS to be argumentative, "righteous" and persistent in trying to convince others of the correctness of his/her thinking. Since the AS individual is unable to learn social manners by watching others, it is necessary to actually teach them each step of the way.   Only with individualized instruction will you avoid the 12-year-old answering the family phone with a gruff “Who’s talking?” instead of a more acceptable “Hello”. 

  Impaired Make-believe Play

            A child with AS will not enjoy imaginary play with other youngsters.  This child is unable to understand the emotions of others, and will instead revert to the safety of  “scripts” of movies, videos, or books that he/she has recently seen.   An AS individual will have a wonderful memory for facts and want things just the way they were in the original.  He/she is a great historian, especially about events that he/she participated in (if you want to review what happened last Tuesday at noon, and who specifically said what, ask your AS child).   This child at other times will wish to discuss his/her favorite subject, and therefore will find that older or younger people will be more receptive to his/her feeble social advances than his/her age-peers.  This child will continue to use “parallel play” until considerably older than most of his/her peers.    Then he/she will grow into the next phase where he/she is desirous of being “in control” of every play situation so that everything will go exactly as he/she prearranged it.  He/she is unable to accept anything that is not predicted, and therefore imaginary play is avoided.  It is too spontaneous.

Peculiar Patterns of Intellectual Abilities

 AS individuals have strong but relatively narrow "obsessive" interests.  They may develop them as children and persevere in their pursuit of knowledge in such areas throughout their lives.  Other individuals develop strong but successive interests, moving from one intensive preservation to the next.  Others don't as much abandon earlier interests as place them in a lower order of importance, but still maintain a substantial "collection" of areas of expertise which they are often able to temporarily pull up from their past and pursue anew.  As the aspie becomes more mature, he/she will often refer to these special interests with the socially acceptable label of “hobbies”.  Aspies are distinguished from those who are not on the autistic spectrum by the intensity of their efforts to gain knowledge about their special interests (even if they are calling them “hobbies”), as well as their unusual fascination with out-of-the-ordinary topics not ordinarily considered age or context-appropriate by their non-spectrum peers.  Many children and adults, regardless of whether they are introverts or extroverts, become known by others as "little professors". Many AS adults actually do become teachers or professors due to their considerable knowledge on one subject.

 Those with ASD will often have tremendous memories for facts or events.   They will enjoy DVD players or Videos because these allow them to see their favorite movies over and over, until they actually can predict the next scene or the next line from a favorite character.  But this memory will also cause them to recite things to others that may have been told to them in confidence.   They are unaware of the intention of the person when they are told the information, and just share it when they are under stress in a social situation—breaking confidences and hurting feelings.   The individuals who have been betrayed may choose to avoid additional contact with the AS individual not realizing that it actually may be a “teachable moment” and that the breach of confidence was not meant to be hurtful, but rather to fill in a perceived uncomfortable pause in the conversation.

Repetitive Phenomena of Rituals

 All individuals diagnosed with AS demonstrate unusual responses to change.  Regardless of their IQ, without being prepared for or being able to anticipate changes in their environment, all individuals with AS have substantial difficulty responding to new problems.  This reaction is related to their fondness for routines and predictability, as well as dependence upon rules that they do not expect will be changed. 

 An adult with AS prefers to work with objects or alone, not with people and in addition he/she may have difficulty with social interaction on his/her job.  Many AS individuals engage in repetitive activities or prefer "mindless" tasks at work primarily because they can master such activities and perform them with increasing ease. Fondness for doing these things has a calming effect in them, and allows them to sort out confusion in what they experience as a challenging environment.  The intensity of their adverse response to change is directly related to their desire for routine and sameness in what they perceive as chaotic or disordered, unpredictable situations.

If the aspie has a set routine that must be followed before something can occur, this routine is not negotiable—it must be followed—and if interrupted, it has often been noted that an aspie must start the full routine over, from the very beginning.  They are not able to restart in the middle of the routine, and they are not able to accomplish the task without that routine.

            In stressful situations it is possible for an AS individual to “flap” or vocalize in unusual manners in order to try to calm themselves similarly to those who are further along the autism spectrum. It is important to remember that the overwhelming desire for routine and control of the situation is still there in an adult with AS; you just need a little more looking to find it.  

 Conclusion

           Persons with autism have materially different brain wiring and sensory issues not found with the same frequency or intensity in the non-autistic population. Testing with MRI and CAT-scans are still in progress, even though the preliminary research shows marked differences. This is when the parent saying that the AS child “doesn’t think like I do” is totally correct.

 Those with ASD often have other conditions such as gut or immune system problems, unusual reactions to medications, sleep problems, very strong food preferences, and a high expectation of "sameness" and "no surprises". There often are problems with sensory issues like smell, touch and taste.   Something as insignificant to most people as the flicker of fluorescent lights might be enough to keep the AS child from concentrating and learning in the regular classroom situation.

 Because ASD's reflect neurobiological differences, while it may be possible to modify body, intellectual responses and behavioral outcomes there are many things that cannot be changed, or if they can, they exact tremendous, permanent damage on the individual. One aspie compared trying to modify her behavior to stopping vomiting when you have the flu—it just isn’t possible. Many differences are now being seen as just that -- differences, rather than something to be fixed. Rather than trying to wipe out differences, enlightened persons now see strengths in what are commonly perceived as a weakness or deficits.

 It turns out that the significance of any difference is what one makes of it.  As long as changing the person may have devastating consequences now and in the future, parents, educators, professionals and enlightened family members now recognize that many of these strengths can become the basis for life-long satisfaction and a high quality of adult life. In order for these differences to be perceived as strengths, they must first of all be seen as differences rather than deficits.  Secondly, differences that can be supported, nurtured, strengthened and increasingly accepted by society then become "normalized" rather than the basis for continued marginalization. 

What is AS
Official Criteria for Asperger Syndrome
Basic Characteristics
Traits by Age
Truth and AS  
Family and AS
Should You Seek a Diagnosis?

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  "I know of nobody who is purely Autistic or purely neurotypical.  Even God had some Autistic moments, which is why the planets all spin."  ~ Jerry Newport

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