How Asperger's makes you different and how it got categorized as autism

If someone had been asked to describe me when I was young, they probably would have said something along the lines of: “She’s pretty, but weird.” Or, “She’s nice, but a little strange.”

After I found out I had Asperger’s syndrome and the puzzle of my life started getting pieced together, I thought of people I’d known over the years—friends, coworkers, whatever—who had seemed “odd” in some way, and wondered if they had it too. Does everybody who’s weird have Asperger’s? I’m still learning all this stuff. I’ll get back to you.

One of the primary characteristics of Asperger’s is being clueless how you look, sound, and come across to others. Not only that, you don’t particularly care. This may be hard to fathom. How can you not care, you may ask. Some people are not only conscious, but hyper-conscious, of how others perceive them. After all, succeeding in life personally and professionally literally depends on it.

This is because people with Asperger’s live almost entirely inside their own heads. Being high-functioning intellectually, we can “fake” interpersonal interactions enough to get by day to day, so at first we may appear like everyone else. But spend considerable time in our presence and we might come off as aloof and socially hopeless without realizing it. We might talk too much or too little. This stems from an innate inability to see ourselves as others do.

An abbreviated list of traits

Common characteristics of Asperger’s include but are in no way limited to:

  • Poor motor skills and coordination–fumbling with things, inability to walk in a straight line
  • Tendency to talk too much and/or too loudly, or on the opposite extreme, too little than is appropriate for the situation
  • Excessive fixation on specific, often esoteric topics–This can lead to either a career as a nuclear physicist or chronic unemployment, depending
  • Unwillingness to take direction or work with others, resulting in problems in the employment context
  • Difficulty “getting along” with people because of personality conflicts. See directly above.
  • Inability to make small talk or maintain eye contact without appearing stiff, awkward and insincere
  • Inability to “read” other people’s intentions, making one vulnerable to getting taken advantage of. Another way of saying this is taking people at face value.
  • Tendency to unconsciously wear the same blank facial expression regardless of circumstance. More social misery.
  • Unusual sensitivity to light, sound, touch, or all three, which can lead to crippling phobias
  • Adherence to familiar routines, sometimes bordering on OCD

Not everyone with Asperger’s will have each of these traits. And a person might have one or more of them and not have Asperger’s. I’ll get around to discussing all these things and how they can affect a person separately.

Is it Asperger’s or autism?

Asperger’s syndrome got its name from Hans Asperger, the European child psychologist who identified the disorder in the 1940s. For years, it was treated as a distinct developmental disorder apart from autism. This is largely because children with Asperger’s don’t typically experience learning disabilities or language delays. Then with the publication of the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) in 2013, the American Psychiatric Association placed Asperger’s under the umbrella of autism and redefined it as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). It is alternatively labeled high-functioning autism (HFA).

This change has not been uncontroversial among people with Asperger’s and the clinicians who treat and write about them. There are many in the “community” who strongly believe Aspergers should still be regarded as separate from autism and continue to discuss it as such. For many who were diagnosed with Asperger’s before the DSM-V re-definition, suddenly being lumped together with autistics must have been jarring.

I have mixed feelings. I have a distaste for the term “autism spectrum” and I resent attempts to place me somewhere on a spectrum. I feel it almost trivializes what I have struggled with my entire life. But when trying to explain yourself to someone, “autistic” is more likely to get immediate recognition than “Asperger’s”. People know what autistic means. An autism diagnosis may also be more likely to be recognized by the government as an official disability, but that’s another topic for another time.

Some other terms I hate are neurotypical (commonly used to describe the non-autistic), neurodiversity, and the autism or Aspergers “community.”

Oh and “Aspie.” I hate that too.

I basically hate everything.

Disclaimer: Because we live in an age of acute hypersensitivity to nomenclature and terminology, including those surrounding mental health issues, I feel it necessary to stress that this blog is written by an ordinary person living with Aspergers/ASD, not a professional authority on Aspergers/ASD, and as such, I don’t hold myself out as an expert on the condition or presume to tell others what they should think or do about it. All I know is what I have personally experienced and read. I am still learning, hence why I call this blog a work in progress, just like I am a work in progress. No two people with Aspergers are alike or perceive the condition alike. I don’t presume to speak for everyone with it. I’m already making an effort not to be un-PC in some way. If I appear to say something “wrong” or offensive, it’s entirely unintentional. Thank you for understanding.

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