ASD Findings: Aspergers
Samantha Craft, M.Ed.
My findings are based on my interactions with thousands of individuals with ASD (Aspergers Spectrum Disorder), my many years of studying about ASD, and analysis of my own inner workings. This is not meant to be an all-inclusive collection of AS (Asperger’s Syndrome) traits. I took a selection of commonly mentioned AS traits, and some lesser commonly known AS traits, and added my own personal insights into these autistic characteristics.
• Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) manifests differently in each individual. Not every individual will experience or exhibit the same symptoms and traits. Nor will individuals experience or exhibit the same degree of functionality or challenges.
• Sometimes the person with AS needs more time than the typical person to process an emotional event. Initially, he might exhibit an opposite emotional response to stress, in example he may laugh when it would be more appropriate to cry. He could indeed have much empathy for a situation but be overwhelmed by the initial emotional trigger. A type of self-protection response occurs in which the individual goes emotionally numb or becomes emotionally distant in order to take in what is perceived to be too much too fast. Often a person with AS may have a delayed response, and find him or herself crying or distraught, days after the initial emotional event. In dealing with an Aspie’s emotional response: first response does not typically indicate end response.
• The person with AS may lack the natural ability to pinpoint the exact emotion he is experiencing in a given moment and become confused with his own reaction to his feelings. He may be extremely sad, be able to say he is sad, but not understand why he is sad. In some cases, he is unaware that his current emotional state is a result of a trigger—an unpleasant stimulus that has caused an upset at a subconscious-level, such as a: new situation, person, thought, word, image, flashback, sensory overload, etc. In many cases, he does not recognize he was triggered until after the fact.
• An Aspie may not recognize the power emotion has over her and commonly will forget the power of emotion when a new emotional event transpires; repeatedly, with each new emotional-triggering event, she will not fully understand her own emotional response to a situation; as much as she attempts to logically figure her emotions out, she is incapable of transferring the emotional experience gained from a prior event to a new event.
• Anxiety and nervousness might come across as hyperactivity. The Aspie may seem impulsive when considering a new thought, idea, interest, or project. He may present himself as over-confident when in actuality he is agitated or anxious. Others might label the person with AS as ‘hyperactive,’ ‘a show off,’ ‘grandstander,’ or a ‘big talker.’
• Sometimes, because an Aspie reacts to stimulus without being able to immediately process and specifically identify his or her emotional reaction, the individual with Aspergers may exhibit behavioral responses to an event that appear to be out of harmony with a given circumstance. If highly agitated, he will tend to act without considering the outcome or other alternatives.
• The individual with AS often lacks the ability to self-motivate in order to complete a task, when the job at hand is not of great interest or urgency. High levels of self-motivation often coincide with a strong interest, sense of gain (knowledge, proving an altruistic cause, financial), recent emotional upheaval, desire to be understood, a need to self-preserve through distraction, and the want to please and do a good job. An interest might be piqued by the unconscious tendency to mirror and take on another person’s (friend, colleague, family member) interests.
• With only so much energy reserves to pull from in a day, it is cumbersome for the Aspie to push herself to produce without an intrinsic reward. It seems feasible that intrinsic rewards out weigh external rewards. That is to say, a sense of accomplishment (and the outstanding desire-to-create stifled and satisfied) proves worthy enough in comparison to some promised outcome or gift.
• It is often said an Aspie wants another to agree with his or her opinions, and if not he will react in some undesirable way, such as with defiance or opposition. This is perhaps true, but in some cases not true at all. The Aspie is often seeking to be understood; this is an ongoing mission, sought after throughout one’s day, perhaps to ease the sense of isolation, or to finally arrive at an endpoint of gaining connection. A person with AS longs to be heard and for her opinions to be given consideration. It’s not necessarily that she need be validated or in agreement, but moreover allowed opportunity for expression without continual barriers and countering.
• The Aspie feels frustrated because she cannot logically understand how an NT (a neurotypical person without ASD) cannot comprehend what the Aspie is explaining with the same level of detail, clarity, and interest she has. The frustration is rooted in the way the NT seems to not ‘get it,’ even with repeated examples. An Aspie understands the fact that an NT thinks differently than a person with AS, but will forget this fact in the heat of conversation. Just as the NT may understand the person with AS thinks differently, but not thoroughly understand what it is like to have AS, likewise the individual with AS can understand to a degree the way an NT person thinks, but never quite grasp how his/her thinking occurs. This is a type of ‘mind blindness,’ but on both participants’ part. Often experts point out the mind blindness of the Aspie and forget about the mind blindness of those without Aspergers. It works both ways. Communication is a two-way street. To claim only the Aspie has mind blindness is to segregate and assume the AS way of thinking is flawed.
• In addition to the frustration of not feeling understood and mind blindness, there is a tendency for an Aspie to become significantly passionate, emotionally involved or sensitive about high-interest subjects. In such case, the natural instinct to protect and/or share said interest might trump any internal desire to come across as diplomatic, open-minded, accommodating, or at the very least, non-confrontational.
• It is thought by some experts that the heightened anxiety, and at times inability to cope, is often a result of the act of living in a society with countless unspoken hidden rules and unspoken expectations. This added to others’ judgments and the numerous threads of obvious rules and expectations overwhelms the Aspie. This is why some proclaim that society is the problem, not the Aspergers.
• The Aspie may think there is a specific issue at school, at home, or work when there is none that exists. She may envision the worse case scenario based on a misinterpretation or wrong conclusion on her part.
• Tendencies towards perfectionism may result in an Aspie over-worrying about not doing her best work. The anguish, caused by repeated thoughts of making a mistake, may lead to a person’s inability to make further progress towards a task or may cause generalized anxiety. Decision-making is toilsome, as there are often numerous feasible choices. Couple this with the want to perfect the job, and the Aspie becomes unable to cope with even minor assignments.
• When something challenging occurs the Aspie sometimes retreats into a state of panic, overly focusing on how he should react in such a circumstance and analyzing the fact that he doesn’t know how to react in said circumstance. This leads to a type of verbal self-punishing over his perceived lack of how to handle the current situation. Instead of focusing on the event at hand, such as bad news or a crisis, and responding to what is happening in an appropriate and typical manner, at times he will slip into a state of mind paralysis unable to think of much more than the concluded ‘truth’ that he is self-focused, and incapable of coping.
• A common characteristic of AS is the challenge with pragmatic language skills such as looking away instead of looking in the eyes, taking things literally, and the awareness and comprehension of another’s and self’s modulation of voice, e.g, rise and fall of voice in speaking (intonation), change in pitch, rate of voice.
• Frequently direct, blunt, candid, formal and matter-of-fact mannerisms are also common AS attributes that can sometimes offend others who are unaware of the person’s communication style. Sometimes pedantic in manner, particularly at a younger age, some Aspies are labeled various names, such as ‘little professor.’
• The communication style, including intonation and body language, can be perceived by others as angry, rude, distant, obstinate, ‘stuck up,’ or defiant, even as he is not experiencing that emotion or intention. Sometimes the way he comes across is a result of being on sensory overload, frustrated with the inability to get a point across that seems clear and simple to him, or exhausted by the act of trying to present a happy self to others. Other times, he is entirely unaware that his tone or actions are anything but average, with no clue he sounds defiant in any way. Obliviously innocent to the reality that he may have offended anyone.
• An individual with AS might laugh often or have a nervous giggle during conversations. There is often a childlike sense of humor that can simultaneously turn into extreme wit and/or charm. Due to an innate nature to ‘see things outside of the box,’ some Aspies are natural-born comedians.
• There is a pronounced tendency to over-explain things. I believe this if for at least four primary reasons, because the Aspie 1) has difficulty differentiating between what is the least and greatest of importance to a given topic, e.g., thinking if he omits a piece of information that the omission might have been an essential part of the puzzle and/or that the omission would reflect a lack of honesty 2) thinks in complexities and at high-speed, and perceives she is only ejecting a small percentage of her thoughts into the conversation, yet this so-perceived ‘small percentage’ is viewed as a large percentage by the observer 3) possesses a strong desire to be understood and heard 4) is partaking in a type of stimming (repeated self-soothing behavior) in which the talking alleviates anxiety, perhaps through the act of speaking the mind is stopped long enough for reprieve and/or from a type of euphoria that comes from the process of speaking.
• I conclude, it is feasible that passionate speaking and intense fantasy and vivid imagination increases the Aspie’s naturally low dopamine levels, and as such the Aspie, without conscious effort, practices over-speaking in an attempt to decrease anxiety and produce a feel-good response, without actually knowing why he is doing this.
• It is widely know that the individual with AS typically does not censor her thoughts. This is primarily because a person with AS has an alternative thought filtering system than an NT. In example, she sometimes does not have thoughts of the other person’s reaction at heart as much as the desire to be open, honest, forthright and transparent. In many cases, the individual with AS has an aversion to manipulation, lying, underlying motives, purposeful withholding, misdirection, persuasion, coercion, ‘mind games,’ trickery, self-gain at the expense of others, and so forth. In fact, such social extremes are not entirely understood by an Aspie. As is such, she might appear to be lacking a thought filtering mechanism commonly used by an NT, when in actuality the act of not censoring thoughts may be a mere result of her inability to employ people-pleasing techniques or other commonly used communication tactics. As is such, the individual with Aspergers, when speaking, may be truly speaking without a filter, in other words: simply speaking without any other purpose than to speak. This is a hard concept for NTs to grasp. Often Aspies are questioned about their motive, endpoint, angle, etc. when there simply isn’t one.
• An individual with Aspergers oftentimes has a weaker muscle/ligament structure when compared to mainstream society; they might have an underlying condition such as EDS, POTS, or hyper-joint mobility syndrome. There appears to be elasticity in wrists and ankles, in many cases, giving the person a loose hand stance. Overall body posture is affected. In addition, an Aspie might exhibit an unusual body posture due to an adapted coping mechanisms or self-esteem challenges. She may appear as hunched over or withdrawn inward. Body language in general may seem less controlled, overly exaggerated, clumsy, or ‘odd.’
• The Aspie might mistake another’s body language to mean something it does not or not be aware of a specific body language that doesn’t mirror his own. In many cases, the Aspie understands what he has experienced and has a hard time understanding what he has not experienced. He naturally draws conclusions from past experience. What has happened makes more sense than something that has not. For instance, if hunching over is a natural state for an individual with AS, he may not recognize that the same stance is not a natural state for another; therefore he will miss another’s body language clues and not conclude anything is askew. In addition, he will not understand if a person is upset why he just doesn’t say he is upset, without another having to interpret the body language and guess the state of mind. He is used to being transparent and continually not used to others not being the same.
• There exists a challenge in attempting to express self through body language whilst communicating with another face-to-face, as what the Aspie is sensing as proper or normal body movement, may not appear as typical movement to the observer.
• Others claim that the Aspie is unaware of his body movements when conversing. It’s not that he is unaware of his body language entirely but that body language takes a back seat to speech. He doesn’t have enough energy reserves to consciously control his body. Body language comes naturally and automatically to the NT, like riding a bike. Body language does not come easy for the Aspie. When conversing the Aspie is actively engaged in recalling and rehearsing all the rules of communication that have to do with verbal expression, including pace, pausing, taking turns, vocabulary, length, and much more. It is exhausting and never stops. He is juggling two conversations at once—what is being said in the two-way conversation with another and what is being said in the two-way conversation in his mind. Adding the body language rules to the already-taxed Aspie mind is virtual exhaustion.
• The process of communicating for someone with AS is sometimes compared to the process of riding a bike. An NT can naturally learn to carry on a conversation without much thought to all the parts of the conversation. An Aspie continually has to reteach himself the rules of conversation and then remind himself during the conversation how to act. If the conversation is compared to a bike ride, then this would equate to every time a person with AS went out on his bike he would have to review the rules of riding in his head, concentrate intensely on: where the pedals are, the action of pumping, the steering, the maneuvering, balancing, and so forth. Wherein, in great contrast, the NT would get on the bike and enjoy the ride.
• Interrupting is common when considering the person with AS. Societal norms dictate that interrupting is a sign of bad manners. Yet the Aspie sometimes cannot stop herself from interrupting. In truth, she may indeed have memory impairments and cut someone short during a conversation in order to express her ideas before she fails to remember. Or during a discussion, she might internalize her thoughts as urgent and necessary to get out. Almost like a repeated ah-ha! sensation, sparking a need to utter. Also, because individuals with AS are typically visual thinkers, she may have difficulty retaining what is being spoken in a conversation, as speech is auditory, not visual. Therefore she may interject during a conversation to enable herself to picture what is being said, for instance pulling up a past memory that she can visualize the experience and relate it back to the current topic, enabling her to visualize the conversation and be an active participant. Without self-created pictures in her mind, she will not be able to follow the conversation, and lose track of what is being said.
• It is difficult for an Aspie to determine the end of a person’s turn in conversation. When another takes a breath or pauses to think, the Aspie might conclude it is time for her to interject. Conversation is oftentimes perceived as a back-and-forth match, akin to table tennis, in which one person hits off a topic, and the other person responds by returning the topic. She has a hard time differentiating between what is supposed to be sent back; is it validation, a similar experience, a nod, a question, a concerned look. This lack of knowing how to participate in a conversation leads to awkward pauses and awkward responses. Sometimes the Aspie can appear more liken to an interviewer, asking personal and seemingly off-the-cuff questions, instead of an active participant in conversation..
• Watching a movie, and observing two actors converse, with one person talking for a long time, while the other person just listens intensely and nods comfortably, seems like pure fiction to the person with ASD.
• Another’s voice pitch and fluctuations can cause further misinterpretation. Sometimes the Aspie is hyperaware of variations in vocal tone, second-guessing and trying to interpret slight intonations, thinking the worst-case scenario or reaching false conclusions. Other times, the individual with ASD will not comprehend or process the changes in another’s vocal tone at all and he will not register the importance or significance of what was spoken.
• The Aspie may be distracted by his own thoughts and memories in conversation, not only thoughts about what has recently been spoken by both parties, but with thoughts about what is inappropriate or appropriate to speak, and further more: what is appropriate or inappropriate to think. He may question his own thoughts (their origin, the validity, the truthfulness, the fairness) applying some imaginary badge of integrity, and during the process get lost while evaluating his own inner dialogue. This might result in forgetting his role in the two-way conversation. Memories may flash into multiple visuals with the mention of one word. The thinking-in-pictures tendency can lead to offshoots of further scaffolding of thought, as the Aspie goes down a labyrinth of past and future ideas and feasible connections.
• In effort to connect, the individual with AS will lean into his prior experience, as empathy is easier, and arguably only accessible, through connection of similar experience. As his natural thought processes and desire to connect take over, he reaches back into the past to pull out relevant situations. During this time he is preoccupied and absent from the conversation. His own well-intentioned efforts backfire increasing the risk for miscommunication. At other times there is a constant voice chiming in: ‘listen, listen, listen.’
• Many people with Asperger’s Syndrome have notable challenges with organizing, recording data, following directions, concentrating (when something is not a special interest or passion), and processing auditory information (thinks in pictures).
• Constructing a plan or breaking down a task into steps that are required to reach an outcome can be toilsome and seemingly impossible. This is believed to be a result of executive functioning. Some can get caught up in the myriad of details and not know where to begin to connect the dots and bring order to the overload of thoughts. Others might experience very intense organizing spells in which multiple lists and graphs are created in effort to self-soothe and alleviate anxiety of the unknown. This might happen more often during times of uncertainty, newness, or heightened anxiety. Some with ASD seem to have advanced mapping and planning skills, wherein others have a hard time knowing where to begin.
• Intellectual abilities may be average or well above the norm. Some with Asperger’s Syndrome have advanced working memory and high-IQs. Others are very gifted in one area, such as math, science, teaching, writing, poetry, philosophy, art, analysis, pattern seeking, researching, scaffolding of facts, fluidity of language, and/or coding. The Aspie will often become an expert in a subject or hobby of high-interest. He might also develop new ways to approach or present a subject matter or project.
• Concepts, beliefs and meanings are sometimes processed in a black or white approach. Individuals with AS tend to appreciate and be taken in by people, things and events that are solid, stable and not surprising.
• Frameworks, precise formats and a sense of predictability often help to alleviate stress levels; as a result, AS individuals are often dependent on structured routines, habits, ‘rituals,’ and/or a set steps of procedures for daily living. Simple requests for change or unexpected happenings that pull an individual out of the self-created structural comfort zone can trigger anxiety attacks, panic attacks, outrage, nervousness, crying spells, or a variety of other emotional responses. Fight-or-flight mentality may manifest, negotiation tactics, or complete shutdown.
• Some with ASD might appear to others to encounter barriers with the application of common sense. In some ways Aspies can only infer and see what they are. If they are honest, kind, genuine people they might assume others are the same. They will forget that people have hidden agendas and that some are predators and swindlers. As a result, they may be a victim of abuse and/or scams more times than once, appearing to not live and learn, when in actuality they are viewing life from an innocent lens, not capable of remembering and holding onto the fact that others are not like them.
• When there is a challenge, finding strategies to approach said challenge might prove difficult for the Aspie. Even recognizing there is a challenge can feel daunting, as a type of ‘numbing’ denial occurs in which the person would rather not face a problem and have to deal with the cognitive and/or physical exhaustion involved in evaluating a situation. In this case, inertia may set in, which can be perceived as a type of hiding to offset the anguish or act of confronting what seems to be an unapproachable challenge.
• No matter what phase in life, a person with Aspergers is always on significant overload from sensory stimuli and the succeeding anxiety caused by the hypersensitivity.
• It is common for individuals with Aspergers Syndrome to have a form of prosopagnosia, which means: ‘face blindness.’ It is often difficult for an Aspie to distinguish between one facial feature and the next. This is not always the case, but for those with ‘face blindness’ the condition makes communication and understanding others that much more difficult. As it is common for someone with prosopagnosia to not recall the attributes of a person’s face, instead she relies on other clues such as style and color of hair and clothes, outstanding physical attributes (height, skin markings) and vocal features. Face blindness can occur with close relatives, even one’s own children or spouse, with nearby neighbors, and with an Aspie’s own face. For some, there is a haunting realization that every time they look in the mirror they find a person they do not recognize. This can make it difficult to leave the house, when one doesn’t have a sense of what she looks like or what others look like.
• It is also common for an Aspie to have strong responses to touch. Even a small tap on the shoulder can hurt or feel threatening. Smells overwhelm at times, particularly chemicals and unfamiliar or unnatural scents. In addition, the palate is sensitive, preferring certain foods to others leading to an often times limited taste preference. Visual stimulus such as fluorescent bulbs, bright or blinking lights, offset patterns, busy designs, and the like can pull an Aspie out of the present moment and into a state of discomfort and needed reprieve. Noise, as well, that others might not hear, Aspies can find distracting or painful, including the buzzing of electrical outlets, the distant sound of a lawn mover, the buzz of a nearby conversation, a radio commercial, and/or the humming of the fridge.
• Aspies often have visual perception delays where he has difficulty locating relevant items when mixed in with multiple other items. The individual may lose their place in text of a book or the words on a screen. If he looks away for even a second, he will often have to exert much energy to find where he was before. This also carries over to conversations. When a person with Aspergers is speaking, if he is interrupted or made to stop, he might experience stress in the amount of energy it takes to go back in his mind and find where he left off. It’s an exhausting phenomenon others frequently do not understand, unless they are on the autism spectrum.
• A person with AS frequently experience heightened levels of frustration and exhaustion when trying to retrieve a common item. This is believed to have its basis in ‘object permanence.’ Object permanence is the ability to understand things still exist even when they cannot be observed through the senses (seen, heard, touched, etc.) A person with executive functioning ‘impairments’ often will have difficulty with object permanence. For the Aspie, he knows the item is likely there, and logically can comprehend the probability of its existence, as he has repeatedly placed the item there, and perhaps even reopened a drawer several times to reassure self of its existence, but no matter the intellectual efforts and physical attempts, there remains an underlying deficit of trust that the object remains. As is such, the individual with AS will experience extreme anxiousness over the probability that an item is not going to be where it is supposed to be. To make matters worse, if the individual has poor organizational skills, items will often be out-of-place or in an unexpected place. The immediate reaction to a found item can resemble a type of shock or awe, once again weakening an Aspie’s emotional reserves. This is a daily, if not hourly, minute-by-minute occurrence. Much like face-blindness there is an everlasting knowing that what is there might not be there with a second glance. As is the case, opening drawers, doors, cupboards, closets, cabinets, files, and anything that closes and hides what is inside, might be avoided to decrease anxiety.
• An individual with AS may struggle with time perception. The recent past might seem very distant. He may mis-evaluate the amount of time he has to complete a task, thinking he has more time than is actually available. He may procrastinate and be oblivious to the fact that his timeline is not in accordance with another’s. Promises to appear in ten-minutes might equate to an hour wait time for a companion.
• The act of simply being around other people leads to exhaustion, even associating with one’s own immediately family or friends. One social event inside or outside the home, can result in days of recuperation and ‘hiding.’ The combination of experiencing increased socialization, sensory overload, new surroundings, and/or abrupt changes can lead to an extended state of inertia and withdrawal period.
• Aspies face a constant contention with other people who don’t comprehend their social and cognitive disabilities, and instead draw numerous negative conclusions about them. Rejection, separation, exclusion and ostracism, that are often a part of the Aspie’s lifelong struggles in relationships and work, cause feelings of intense insecurity, unknowing, confusion and anxiety. It is not uncommon to be labeled ‘intense’ or ‘crazy,’ or to be perceived as a foolhardy chatterer. Judgments like selfish, socially inept, performing below potential, deficient in emotional insight, and narcissistic abound. They are accused of having an attitude and not being a team player. They are shamed into the position of the black sheep or scapegoat. They are saturated in misinterpretation that serves to push a person with AS further into isolation.
• Some Aspies are concerned that others expect them to change who they are in order to maintain an acceptable role at work, at school, or even in a family. They don’t appreciate that they are expected to pretend in order to fit in.
• Individuals with AS experience challenges in traditional school and work settings that may scar the individual for life and set in place a stress-reaction related to any largely populated peer setting. Most Aspies do not have the predisposition to maneuver or tolerate educational and workplace politics without some sort of support. Commonalities, such as gossip, backstabbing, cliques of people, unspoken rules, preferential treatment and animosity that are prevalent in many places of study and work, offset an individual with AS affecting productivity levels, a sense of belonging, emotional investment and a desire to remain a part of the establishment.
• Asperger’s Syndrome is an invisible disability. An Aspie will often appear quite capable and clever. Thusly, when she has difficulty with something, that is commonly classified as simple and easy (spelling, budgeting, self-grooming, dressing) others find it difficult to believe that there is actually a true challenge.
Motor Skills/Physical Health
• 50% or more of people with AS have poor motor coordination.
• An individual with AS may be able to do a certain task about as well or better than most people. It is assumed, by some, that if you are capable of performing one task without consequence, then you should be able to do another lesser task with equal ease. The problem resides in the interpretation of what is an easy task and what is a difficult task. For many with AS, they might be able to perform brilliantly in their chosen interest or vocation, but when given a different set of circumstances, a seemingly simple task might prove daunting and impossible. Take for instance putting together an outfit or even opening a food package the correct way. Such supposedly common tasks can be insurmountable for those on the autism spectrum.
• Aspies typically display awkward movements, a clumsy gait, and lose their balance. They have trouble navigating tight spaces such as hallways or rounding corners. Walking, running, riding (bike) and driving can also be affected.
• Sometimes the individual with AS is easily tired from what is seen as ‘slight’ physical exertion, such as bending over to pick up a piece of paper from the floor. This exhaustion can be physical, cognitive, and/or emotional in nature. The over-exertion may be 1) a result of an executive functioning deficit (navigating the steps involved in retrieving the paper when many other thoughts on basic survival/social skills are already on the mind), an underlying medical condition that is a comorbid condition of a spectrum disorder (POTS, EDS, Hyper-joint mobility syndrome, PMDD, chronic depression, gluten intolerance, malnourishment, allergic response), 3) sensory overload from immediate environment, 4) a recent challenge which resulted in an emotional breakdown or outburst 5) over thinking, analyzing, reviewing in a cyclic manner and 6) sleep deprivation.