Asperger’s syndrome is a form of autism. It is most often defined with reference to the “Triad of Impairments”, which detail three areas where aspies (people with Asperger’s syndrome) have particular difficulty. They are: communication, (social) interaction, and (social) imagination. Many aspies find it hard to relate to the Triad’s medical language, so here we present the formal definitions on the left, with what this means to us on a day-to-day level.
|Formal Definition||What This Means in Real Life|
|1. Communication – Those with Asperger’s syndrome…|
|…have difficulty understanding gestures, facial expressions or tone of voice||
Leigh (42, female, web-developer) writes:
Jo (36, female, teacher) writes:
Pete (49, male, semi-retired) writes:
|…have difficulty knowing when to start or end a conversation and choosing topics to talk about||
Leigh writes: I often find myself interrupting others, because I a) misjudge the ‘right’ time to speak – perhaps because I am missing some of the visual clues, see above, and/or b) because I find it hard to listen to what’s being said at the same time as making sense of it (regardless of how interested I might be), all at the same time as thinking up suitable responses. Conversation is complicated!
Jo writes: I frequently interrupt others’ in conversation, or cannot seem to find a ‘way in’ to say what I want to say. More often than not I choose to talk about an ‘inappropriate’ topic – too ‘heavy’, ‘real’, ‘intense’.
Pete writes: Yes, I don’t pick up the cues that a verbal conversation or email exchange is winding down, or if it would be appropriate to initiate an exchange. I don’t see the value in small talk as people generally aren’t truthful as such: “how are you?” “fine thanks” (no not really). But saying otherwise just tends to accelerate a conversation that is difficult to control, when all I really need is to be left alone, but saying so is considered rude.
|…can be very literal in what they say and can have difficulty understanding jokes, metaphor and sarcasm. For example, a person with Asperger’s syndrome might be confused by the phrase “that’s cool” when people use it to mean something is “good”.||
Leigh writes: I take things very literally – often misunderstanding when someone uses idioms or other figures of speech. This might well be linked to missing out on the facial expressions, etc.: I can’t always tell, for example, when someone is being sarcastic, because I will hear the words, but not the tone of voice.
Jo writes: I have learned (the hard way) to recognise and remember jokes, metaphor and idiom in other people’s language. On the rare occasion that I may use this type of language myself, it always feels like an immense achievement. I can misunderstand entire conversations and feel intense panic if I realise this type of language is being used in a social circle.
Pete writes: I tend to be exact in speech, and find it hard to be a bit vague, I also do take things very literally often. When my Solicitor sent me a draft copy of my will and invited me to make any changes I wanted before signing I did make changes, but to the spelling and grammar in the document, not the content of the will itself. I only realised this after I had posted it… I could write a book on misunderstandings like this.
|…use complex words and phrases, but might not fully understand what they mean.||
Leigh writes: I have always been interested in language. With English having such an enormous lexicon, there is usually an exact word to precisely explain my meaning – but find I often confuse (and/or repel) those who are not familiar with a wider vocabulary.
Jo writes: I can find myself writing eloquently, using complex language without knowing or understanding how I am able to.
|…struggle to make and maintain friendships||
Leigh writes: I don’t get a long well with the majority of people – it seems they find me too odd for their liking; but I have close friendships amongst folk who love me precisely because I am unusual, not despite it.
Jo writes: I have many acquaintances but few friends and only a couple who know the ‘real’ me. I used to covet others friendships and as a result believed that I was lonely, I am beginning to realise that this is the way I like it. I am a very intense person and crave intellectual conversation, analysis and discussion. Operating on a ‘superficial’ level is draining; I have little interest in popular culture, small talk and ‘socialising’.
Pete writes: I have a small circle of good friends. I don’t get along with the majority of NT (neuro-typical, i.e. non-autistic) people, I much prefer social interactions to be one-to-one or at most small groups, even then I frequently need to spend a few minutes on my own. I don’t enjoy a lot of the events that most people enjoy; crowded pubs and parties are too sensorily overwhelming.
|2. Interaction – Those with Asperger’s syndrome…|
|…do not understand the unwritten ‘social rules’ that most of us pick up without thinking. For example, they may stand too close to other people, or start an inappropriate topic of conversation, or behave in what might seem an inappropriate manner.||
Leigh writes: I do not instinctively observe and interpret normal social cues; I have to work them out for every individual situation (which I am not always able to do if I am tired and/or stressed). I am often thought to behave in ways considered socially unacceptable. An example is: I always take off my shoes if I don’t need them on, but it doesn’t occur to me that someone else might find that objectionable. I have to remember to think about the situation.
Jo writes: I am aware of social expectations and ‘norms’ however I can find it difficult to apply these instinctively. The hierarchy of businesses and consequential behavioural expectations are confusing to me. In social gatherings I become physically uncomfortable and very aware of my own body; I do not know how to stand or where to put my arms.
Pete writes: I don’t like standing in close proximity to other people; but yes, I don’t seem to have any natural intuition about how to behave “properly”. I also need to consciously apply “quality control” to topics of conversation that I wish to raise. A lot of this is due to taking things literally, e.g. to me, the concept of something called a “Disability Discrimination Act” means making it legal, and therefore effectively compulsory, to discriminate against people with disabilities!
|…find other people unpredictable and confusing||
Leigh writes: “Normal” behaviour often doesn’t make sense to me: it seems pointless to ask “how are you?” if all that’s meant is “Hi!”; I don’t understand teasing – it seems cruel to me; and the concept of a “rule made to be broken” is illogical!
Jo writes: when working alongside someone I often find that there is a lot ‘unsaid’ in conversation, leaving me unsure whether I have understood the intended communication. This is especially apparent when being asked to do things for/with someone else, when small steps of a task are often assumed by the other person and not properly communicated.
Pete writes: Yes, I find it frustrating that most people don’t usually say what they mean, and change their minds or don’t act in a way that they say. I need to have a greater degree of predictability and order, and when plans change I really appreciate being told rather than going with the flow. I always book restaurants and cinema tickets in advance.
|…become withdrawn and seem uninterested in other people, appearing almost aloof.||
Leigh writes: Sometimes people think I’m being standoffish. In fact, I’m just tired; it costs me a lot of mental (and, ultimately, physical) energy to keep up with all those looks, nuances, intonations, etc., in addition to the actual conversation. Once I’ve had some time on my own (from a few minutes to a few weeks, depending on how tired I am), I can re-engage.
Jo writes: I need frequent breaks from social interaction during the day. During extended periods of social interaction (a party, meeting, meal out) I become physically agitated, mentally tired and cannot concentrate on conversation. My first reaction to this exhaustion is to become mute, as a result I can appear disinterested.
Pete writes: We do need to withdraw often to gather thoughts, and to work things out. A lot of social situations are just too sensorily overwhelming to cope with for long periods of time. If I need to concentrate on something complex, I need to go into “autistic mode” and talking about a problem with others really doesn’t help. I need to perceive of a sequence of events that led to the situation that needs resolving. So our behaviour seems aloof sometimes, and when I am in “autistic mode” I definitely not interested in other people. During these times it’s best to just leave me alone. I used to tell people, “sorry I need to go into autistic mode for that one, just leave it with me”. I don’t bother now as this starts another distracting social exchange!
|3. Imagination – Those with Asperger’s syndrome…|
|…have trouble understanding or interpreting other people’s thoughts, feelings or actions. The subtle messages that are put across by facial expression and body language are often missed.||
Leigh writes: I do not lack empathy (in the usual sense of the word), but I don’t instinctively see someone else’s point of view without thinking about it first. For example, I might not see that what I’m doing (e.g. taking off my shoes) would embarrass the person I’m with. As soon as it’s pointed out, I can see why.
Jo writes: I have always been interested in other people’s motivations and can often see many viewpoints; however I am unable to appreciate how people commit to one feeling or action, when there are so many other valid ways of looking at something. In relation to my own feelings, I can find these difficult to see and if I am stuck identifying my own emotion I have trouble interpreting someone else’s.
Pete writes: Yes. I rely on a catalogue in my head of facial expressions and body language and thoughts/feelings associated with them. I’m also alexythemic (a problem with understanding, processing, or describing emotions), so have enough trouble identifying feelings and thoughts in myself. I don’t naturally understand subtle messages expressed with non-verbal language.
|…have a limited range of imaginative activities, which might be pursued rigidly and repetitively, e.g. lining up toys or collecting and organising things related to his or her interest.||
Leigh writes: It’s true I like to stick to doing things the same way (be it loading the dishwasher, or following a route up and down the supermarket aisles). It doesn’t mean I can’t do it a different way, but I find life very, very much easier if I don’t have to constantly adapt to new methods or situations. It’s as though I have a map in my head, and I get lost if something changes.
Jo writes: My ‘imagination’ needs to be triggered by another person’s ideas. I find it very uncomfortable to ‘pretend’ play with my toddler and almost experience a feeling of panic when being asked to do this. I find it hard to imagine how to tackle a new problem and I will use existing taught methods rather than develop new ideas. I would describe myself as creative, but not imaginative.
Pete writes As a child playing with Lego, I used to make geometric shapes rather than buildings/vehicles, etc. I like to have my stuff in order, and always do the washing up in the same order, I used to spend countless hours memorising statistics about motorcycles.
|…have difficulty imagining alternative outcomes to situations, and find it hard to predict what will happen next.||
Leigh writes: As a child (before the term “Asperger’s syndrome” existed), my parents despaired at my ‘lack of common sense’. This was merely my inability to anticipate the future, or work out the myriad of possible outcomes stemming from any given situation. It got me into a lot of trouble. As an adult, I hated being caught out by not seeing things coming, and I have swung to the opposite extreme. I now have to work through every permutation, and be prepared for all possible eventualities, before I can embark on anything. This is tiring and restricting, but not as bad as having to deal with the unexpected.
Jo writes: I would have to agree. This manifests itself as a strong need for structure and routine in my day to day life. However as I am aware that this structure and routine is not always possible or realistic, I find it very difficult to organise for myself and get distressed over the fact that there can be so many different possibilities and outcomes. To me the expanse of possibility is uncontrollable and frightening.
Pete writes: Yes, but I’m okay with having alternative outcomes as long as they are predictable, even a list of options. I have problems though with outcomes that are completely unexpected, my thought processes here are very systematic and I need to perceive of all possible outcomes.
For more experiences of what life’s really like with Asperger’s syndrome, see the blog!