Asperger's Syndrome - A Definition and A Solution
By Dr. Noel Swanson
Asperger's Syndrome refers to people who show difficulties in social communication. They have difficulty in recognising and using social cues, and so are often clumsy or inappropriate in social interactions. As a result, they often come across as rude or insensitive.
Actually, before we can even discuss that, we have to look
at the whole notion of what a "disorder" is.
You see, it is not like the rest of medicine. Most things
are black and white, yes or no. You either have broken your
arm, or you haven't. You have an infection or you don't.
But when it comes to human behavior there really isn't such
a thing as "normal".
What do I mean by that? Well, almost all human behaviors
can occur with almost anyone, given the right circumstances.
So, rather than behaviors being normal or abnormal in a
medical sense (like a broken arm is not normal), they can
only be defined as normal or abnormal in either a
statistical or social sense.
A statistical definition or normality means that the vast
majority of people (usually 95%) would show that particular
behavior. So anyone who is outside of that 95% is not
normal. By this definition, anyone who is particularly dim
(ie less clever than 97.5% of the population) would be
"abnormal" (we call then "learning disabled") and anyone who
is more clever than 97.5% of the population would also be
abnormal (we call them "gifted" or "geniuses").
But in a medical sense, (unless they have clear brain
damage, such as from an injury or palsy) they are just part
of the wide range of "medical normality".
A similar state of affairs occurs with tall and short
people. Too tall and we call you a giant. Too short and we
call you a midget. But either way there might be nothing
actually "wrong" with you - you are just at the extremes.
A social definition of normal refers to what we, as a
society, consider to be appropriate and acceptable behavior.
Thus stealing and lying are normal considered to be "wrong"
and therefore not "normal". Similarly, people who are rude
or socially clumsy are often innapropriate (and may oaffend
people) and so, again, are considered not normal.
And this is where Asperger's comes in.
In the past, people who are now labelled as "having
Asperger's" would have been labelled either as "eccentric"
(if they where just strange, but harmless), or else as
"maladjusted" or deviant in some other way if they were
eccentric and unpleasant with it.
So what is "Asperger's"?
Asperger's Syndrome refers to people who show difficulties
in social communication. They have difficulty in
recognising and using social cues, and so are often clumsy
or inappropriate in social interactions. As a result, they
often come across as rude or insensitive.
They also tend to have unusual interests and behaviors.
Typically they may have strong intersts about specific
topics that border on being obsessional. One picture of
Aperger type behavior is the peculiarly British hobby of
trainspotting. This involves standing for hours on end in
train stations, taking notes of the serial numbers of
passing trains, with the goal of "spotting" every train in
existance. There are even books published listing rows and
rows of train numbers!
Asperger children also have very firm ideas of right and
wrong, and won't hesitate in arguing the toss with a
teacher. They are typically unable to consider shades of
grey and will see all issues in black or white terms.
Now, none of these behaviors, in themselves, are so strange
The problem is that society doesn't quite know what to do
with people like this. Just as society is very inconvenient
for short people (can't reach the desk) and tall people
(have to duck through doors), so society is not designed for
eccentric people who have a very different view of the
Especially schools, who like all children to conform to
their view of what children should behave like.
And so these children often rub people up the wrong way, and
end up getting frustrated, angry, and in trouble.
In the past, these children were either tolerated as being
odd or "loners", or else they ended up in serious conflict
These days they are more likely to be "diagnosed" with
So what does a diagnosis mean?
Again, unlike in medicine where there is something clearly
something wrong (like a germ causing an infection), there is
nothing "wrong" in Asperger's. At least, nothing that can
be identified with any blood tests, x-rays, etc.
A diagnosis of Asperger's is made purely on the basis of the
descriptions of behaviors as provided by family, carers,
It is usually considered to be part of the Autistic
Spectrum, which means as you go along the scale to more and
more social difficulties, it gradually blends in with
Autism. If you like, Asperger's is like a mild version of
So does it help, having a diagnosis of Asperger's?
That is the key question!
And the answer can be yes or no:
YES if, as a result, parents and teachers make the effort to
learn about what it means and how best to adapt their
behavior, and expectations, so as to best help the child to
No if, as a result, they are simply discriminated against as
having "something wrong with them" or if people the think
there will be some kind of treatment or cure for it.
Because, the reality is that the diagnosis really shouldn't
make any difference at all to what people do - IF THEY ARE
PROPERLY CLUED IN TO CHILDREN'S BEHAVIORS. (But they rarely
Why do I say that? Because helping an Asperger's child
requires exactly the same principles as managing ANY child -
you get to know your child's individual personality and
learning style, you get to know what motivates or doesn't
motivate him, and you adapt your strategies and expectations
to that. If you do that properly, you will come up with the
right strategies for a child whether or not they have the
But the reality is that few parents or teachers are like
For them it may be helpful to have a diagnosis so they can
then think in a different way about how to help the child.
They can, for instance, find some books about it, and read
about strategies that do and don't work with such children.
Because "treatment" of Asperger's consists 100% of adjusting
YOUR behavior and expectations so as to create an
environment in which the child can flourish.
There is no medication that will "treat" Asperger's
(although some medications can sometimes be of some help
with aspects of their behavior - see a psychiatrist about
So, given what most teachers are like, the reality is that
these children will most likely do best in an environment in
which the teachers have had previous experience of Asperger
children. These are the teachers that can best adapt
themselves to help the kids to succeed.
Also, the reality in this day and age, is that you may be
able to get more resources and more funding if your child
has a diagnosis than if they don't.
So, how do we put this all together? These, I believe, are
the main points:
If someone suggests that your child might "have" Asperger's,
don't treat it as some kind of insult or that your child is
abnormal in some way.
Instead, go and get some books and read up about it. If, as
you do so, the books seem to be describing your child, then
you might learn some useful ideas on how better to help him.
Share these ideas with the teachers.
If, despite doing all that, your child still has
difficulties in fitting in with "normal" expectations, then
DO something about it. Don't just wait for the problems to
go away, as they probably won't.
Doing something may involve one or both of the following:
1) Changing schools to one that has more experience of
children like yours. That might mean special school. Don't
put up with a school that is constantly labelling your child
as a troublemaker. The school is the single biggest
determinant of how well these children do as they grow up.
Put them in a critical, punitive environment, and they will
have major problems later on. Put them in a caring,
understanding, flexible environment and the can do very,
very well indeed.
2) Getting an official assessment to get the "label".
Having the label might open doors to more funding etc. But
don't fall into the trap of thinking that "having" the
diagnosis means anything different than not having it.
Either way, you child is still your child, and will respond
to the right management. Just use the label as a tool to
get the right school and the right support.
Finally, whether or not you have the official diagnosis, if
you think your child might have Asperger type difficulties,
read the books! Learn as much as you can about how they
think and what they respond to.
And then work hard to give them the best possible
environment that you can. It can be hard work, but it WILL
pay off in the long run.
Incidentally, the principles of behavior management as
described in my book apply to kids with Asperger's just as
they do to any child. By understanding first the principles,
and secondly the way Asperger children think, you will be
able to come up with some effective ways of handling their
behaviors that will make a real difference to how they turn
out in the long run.
And how do they turn out? Well, they will always be a bit
"odd" or "different", just as tall children will be tall
adults. But with the right support and encouragement they
CAN find their own niche and live successful lives, even in
As ever, you can pick up The GOOD CHILD Guide as an instant
download from here:
Dr. Noel Swanson, Consultant Child Psychiatrist and author of The GOOD CHILD Guide, specializes in children's behavioural difficulties and writes a free newsletter for parents.
As both a professional who has worked in both North America and Britain, and as a parent of a teenage son with Asperger's and Tourette's syndromes, Dr. Swanson is uniquely qualified to help parents whose children are struggling with special needs of one sort or another. Having experienced the frustrations of raising such a child, and of battling with the education system to provide him with the support that he needs, Dr. Swanson has made it his mission to help other families who also want to do the very best that they can for their children.
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