Asperger's Syndrome

Originally Published: May 26, 2006
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Hey Alice,

Currently I'm an undergraduate, and because of persistent and long-standing social difficulties, I've began to suspect that I may have a syndrome called Asperger's Syndrome. Two of my brothers are Kanner-type autistics, making me believe I might have a heriditary inclination to have autistic traits, albeit in a much milder form.

This has only been a minor irritant in the past, and I've brushed it aside as absurd since I didn't know much about the disorder. I'm nothing like my brothers, so how could I be autistic? I have - may I flatter myself? - an average IQ, and display what I believe is empathy; but then I realize that I have no sense of how others act or why. I always think they say what they mean and mean what they say. I'm completely oblivious to the way others view me, and have been totally ignoranat of many of the incomprehensible social taboos. (Could this be b/c I'm the daughter of immigrants and have had a very isolated life?)

People have said that I'm honest to a fault,and I've made myself the town fool more than once by being used by people, misunderstanding the social norms, allowing myself to get into situations where erroneous and outrageous assumptions could be made, and just generally being completely socially inept.

I also do things like pace incessantly and take drives, at least once a day, along the same routes. I'm a visual thinker and an artist, albeit a rather amateurish one. These traits seem to be common to AS.

These difficulties have led to emotional and psychological trauma, interruptions to school and work-life, and serious depression. I would like to know the cause. How can I get an *unofficial* (i.e, undocumented) diagnosis? Do my suspicions have any foundation?

Dear Reader,

It can be tricky to diagnose Asperger's Syndrome (AS) because symptoms vary from person to person and are often related to social skills, which are hard to quantify. You describe a wide range of experiences that could be related to AS, but could have other origins as well. Social difficulties can be very painful, but whatever the cause, they are definitely possible to overcome.

Asperger's Syndrome is known as an "autism spectrum disorder." It's called a spectrum disorder because symptoms can appear in diverse combinations and with varying degrees of severity. It's possible that you do have a form of autism, albeit a different type than your brothers. AS is a condition that impacts how the brain processes information. It shapes social, emotional, communication, and motor skills, and is usually noticeable beginning in early childhood. Characteristics of people with AS may include:

  • Difficulty forming friendships.
  • Difficulty maintaining normal conversations, especially because of poor listening skills.
  • Difficulty reading body language, for example recognizing that a frown indicates displeasure.
  • Creating strict rules and rituals.
  • Sensitivity to criticism.
  • Poor physical coordination or clumsiness.
  • Fixation with certain topics, extensive knowledge about a certain field.
  • Average or above average intelligence.
  • Excellent rote memory.
  • Large vocabulary at an early age but difficulty with practical use of language in communication.

The cause of AS is unknown. Sometimes multiple family members are affected or may suffer some other form of autism, as in your family, suggesting a genetic link. Another theory is that AS develops due to problems during pregnancy or birth, or following a viral infection before or soon after birth. Some also suspect environmental factors may play a role. AS is the most common of the autism spectum disorders, affecting approximately 35 of every 10,000 people. It is speculated that several famous people incuding Albert Einstein, Vladimir Nabokov, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bela Bartok and Andy Warhol may have had Asperger's.

 

Before 1940 when an Austrian doctor named Hans Asperger created the AS diagnosis, people with AS were simply thought to be strange or anti-social. It was not until much later, in 1981, that Asperger's work became widely known in the English-speaking world. Today, AS has come to be recognized as a biologically-based disorder. Although there is no cure for Asperger's Syndrome, treatment can help people develop skills to better cope with symptoms, and lead full and healthy lives.

 

You mention your brothers being Kanner-type autistics. Kanner's Syndrome is also known as "classic autism." Symptoms include lack of affect or emotional contact with others, strong desire for sameness in routines, muteness or abnormality of speech, and strong visuo-spatial skills, but major learning difficulties in other areas. This form of autism can be severely disabling, and like AS, the causes are not well understood.

 

Some of the situations you describe in your life do seem similar to the symptoms related to AS, but could be related to other causes you suggest as well. Growing up immersed in two cultures may make it difficult to recognize disparate social norms in each culture. But it could also make you more adaptable to different social situations. Having an isolated life may have limited your opportunities to develop confidence in your social skills. Whether your problems are related to AS or not, you deserve some help and support in figuring out social situations and coping with depression. A counselor can provide a confidential assessment by talking with you about your personal history and characteristics, and can also help you find resources to help with the difficulties you describe. If you are a Columbia student, you can make an appointment with Counseling and Psychological Services by calling x4-2878. Getting a diagnosis does involve documentation, but professional counselors observe strict confidentiality. Information about you will not be shared with anyone else, including family members or teachers, without your explicit consent, unless your life or someone else's is in danger.

 

It can be scary to talk with someone about personal problems, especially if there is stigma associated with the topic. But talking to someone may be a way to confirm or negate your suspicions and also a way to begin working out your social difficulties, whatever their source.

Alice