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What is Asperger’s Syndrome?

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

Fictionalized Case Studies:

A. “Even though she was a married adult, the entire family came for family therapy in order to understand the family dysfunctions that might be contributing to her full recovery. An otherwise intelligent woman, she was non functional. She was unable to sustain a job, had no sexual relationship with her husband and, except for her husband and parents, had no outside relationships, not even with her younger sister.”

What became quite apparent during the first two or three family sessions was that her father, a brilliant man and medical doctor who restricted his work to research in the laboratory, was someone with Asperger’s syndrome. During the sessions he was verbal, but was unable to make eye contact with anyone. He talked about his studies as a student, his work as a researcher and his uncanny ability to block out the entire world so that he could fully focus on his work.

While he was retired, he continued to work as a consultant around the nation and world. He did this despite the fact that his daughter repeated how much she needed him. In fact, that was something she complained about in recounting her childhood. ‘Dad was always at the lab or with his nose in a textbook, completely oblivious to his family.'” In other words, her father was a good example of someone with Asperger’s Syndrome.

B. This case was of “A man who, when his wife was away from home for weeks at a time because of travelling for work, did not lift his head up from the computer to greet and embrace her on her return. He was a brilliant computer expert who was responsible for some major advances in that industry. However, he never seemed to understand why his wife was complaining about his apparent indifference and even hostility toward her. If anything, he demonstrated complete confusion because he had no clue that his wife needed a warm welcome with hugs and kisses.” Their marriage ended in divorce. He, too, was a someone with Asperger’s disorder.

What is Asperger’s Syndrome?

According to the Mayo Clinic Staff, Asperger’s Syndrome is a developmental disorder that affects a person’s ability to socialize and communicate effectively with others. Children with Asperger’s Syndrome typically exhibit social awkwardness and an all-absorbing interest in specific topics. Adults with the syndrome do not vary much from this description as exemplified in the above cases. Asperger’s is placed on the autism spectrum where it is seen as a mild version of that developmental disorder.

The causes of Asperger’s are unknown and there is currently no cure. However, with behavioral therapy, most people who are “Aspergian” are able to learn the basic social skills necessary to function in society.

Clearly, as exemplified in the above cases, these are extremely bright and even brilliant people. Despite being intelligent, they are extremely rigid, even compulsive in their approach to life. It is not a coincidence that the father in Case A was a person who was a medical researcher who restricted himself to laboratory work and that Case B was a computer expert lost in a non human world.

I have worked with a number of patients with this syndrome, mostly in the context of family therapy.  All of them had careers in math, physics, engineering or medicine. It was easier for them to work with numbers or technology, than to have to cope with human beings. This is not meant to imply that they do not marry, have children and interact with people. It does mean that, within their families, it was difficult for them to fully interact. The careers that many of them chose required long periods of travel. For them, travel eased the tension that came with interacting within the family structure.

Why is it difficult for Aspergians to interact with people? This is mainly because Aspergians are not empathic to other people. They miss the social cues that inform the rest of us about someone’s mood and the reason for it. They misunderstand the flow of conversation and respond inappropriately with an unrelated response that has to do with what they are thinking and not what the other person is talking about. As a result, they find themselves criticized, rejected and avoided by others. The fact that eye contact is difficult, if not impossible, makes them seem even more odd to others.

As stated above, there is no cure for Asperger’s Syndrome. However, behavioral training helps these individuals learn how to interact more appropriately with people. They may not understand the reasons for this but they do accept the fact that they need to learn new behaviors.

When a child is diagnosed early on, it gives them more time to learn these social skills and that eases their way through life.

If you want to learn more about Asperger’s Syndrome, I recommend a wonderful personal account of what it is like to be an Aspergian. The name of the book is:

Look me in the Eye, my life with asperger’s

by John Elder Robison.

It is a wonderful, informative and enjoyable read about this man’s life long struggle. It will give you a true understanding of this disorder.

If you have a child diagnosed with Asperger’s, don’t hesitate to provide the right kind of behavior modification and training that will help them adjust.

Your comments and questions are encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, Ph.D.

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