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The Superpowers of Asperger’s Syndrome

The Superpowers of Asperger’s Syndrome

Asperger’s Syndrome is a neurological syndrome that affects the way information is processed by the brain. In 2013, the American Psychological Association eliminated Asperger’s as a separate syndrome and instead categorized it as part of an “autism spectrum”. This change produced significant pushback, because individuals with Asperger’s share common characteristics. And, importantly, these fundamental characteristics are their greatest strengths.

Common Strengths:

  • Average to high intelligence
  • A unique sense of humor
  • Honesty
  • Strong sense of fairness and justice
  • Specialized interests
  • Feel things deeply
  • Detail-oriented
  • Good memory, especially for facts in their area of interest
  • Build friendships through shared interests

The problem is that these strengths often are the very factors that land Asperger’s individuals in hot water in school and on the job. For example, consider this sound bite from an informal study on Asperger’s individuals in the workplace reported by Institutional Investor, a leading international business-to-business publisher,

“Through weeks of intensive research, a singular truth emerged. People with Asperger’s syndrome, the term still commonly used for one of the most well-known forms of autism spectrum disorder, bring serious advantages to the financial markets: extreme focus, a facility with numbers, a willingness to consider unpopular opinions, a strong sense of logic, and an intense belief in fairness and justice. But, like other autistic employees, they often feel alienated from their managers, colleagues, and clients. Sometimes they simply get fired…And they have no idea why.”

Why do they get fired? Because their collection of traits and skills are often at odds with what is required to succeed in the workplace, namely, working within the constraints of the workplace hierarchy, knowing when to go along to get along, and making sure you don’t outshine your coworkers so much that you become a target of jealousy. Or as one large study of Asperger’s individuals concluded: Whether an Asperger trait is considered a strength or a deficit depends on the social context.

Dr. Kenneth Roberson, a psychologist and expert in Asperger’s Syndrome in children and adults, lists several strengths that characterize his clients. Here are ways that these “superpowers” can end up creating conflict for Asperger’s children:

Asperger’s individuals are often direct, speak their mind, and are honest.

Annie (a neurotypical 6-year-old) has a new haircut which she loves. She asks her friends, “How do you like my new haircut?”
Both Shonda (a neurotypical 6-year-old) and Frank (an Asperger 6-year-old) think, “It’s awful. I don’t like it.”
Shonda says, “I like it! It’s cute!”
Frank says, “It’s awful. I don’t like it.”

Both Annie and Shonda are now mad at Frank.

Dr. Roberson points out that competing to get ahead is less important to Asperger’s individuals than solving problems and meeting challenges.

Kareem’s dad wants him to try out for Little League, but Kareem hates the idea of competing, particularly in sports. This causes conflict with his dad.

Kareem’s very real strength is going to spell disaster in Little League but would probably make him a star in the science club.

Many researchers have noted that Asperger’s individuals have a strong sense of fairness and justice.

Brenda is the teacher’s pet, and always gets a little more attention, praise, and snacks than everyone else. The other kids have come to accept this, but four-year-old Lily (an Asperger’s child) has a complete meltdown and cannot be consoled.

Here are some tips for parenting a gifted Aspergers child (based on those suggested by Angel Sense):

  1. Teach practical social skills.

    Teach your child a few conversation starters, such as “What’s your name?” or “Can I sit with you?”. Emphasize the need to ask questions rather than focusing only on what interests your child. For example, if a schoolmate is wearing a t-shirt with a marvel action hero on it, ask “Is he your favorite action hero?”

  2. Work on your child’s problem-solving skills.

    Read your child a story in which the main character faces a tricky problem. Ask your child to identify the problem and suggest ways of solving it.

  3. Establish a routine.

    Asperger’s individuals thrive in orderly environments in which routines are maintained, such as time to do homework, eat dinner, storytime, and so on. Keep in mind that a departure from the routine may cause them distress. Anticipate this and think of ways to head off any potential meltdowns, such as distractions (“No story time tonight, but you can have an extra half hour of TV!”)

  4. Teach your child to recognize and label their feelings.

    Asperger’s children feel things intensely, often much more than neurotypical children do. Teach them to understand what they’re feeling, label their feelings, and develop strategies for diffusing intense emotions. For example, teach Asperger’s children how to soothe themselves when frustrated by thinking about a happy time, engaging in a fun activity, or other behaviors that help them calm down.

  5. Point out and reward socially appropriate behavior.

    When your child does something socially appropriate, praise them! Examples include sharing, listening to another child or adult without becoming distracted, or engaging in self-soothing behavior when distressed.

Author

  • Dr. Denise D. Cummins

    Dr. Denise D. Cummins is cognitive scientist, author, and elected Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science. She has held faculty and research positions at Yale University, the University of California, the University of Illinois, and the Center for Adaptive Behavior at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin. In her Psychology Today blog, Scientific American, NPR, and PBS NewHour articles, she writes about what she and other cognitive scientists are discovering about the way children and adults think, solve problems, and make decisions. Dr. Cummins also blogs about equestrian sports as The Thinking Equestrian.

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Dr. Denise D. Cummins
Author and Cognitive Scientist

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