Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Neurotypical but nice

The other day I was chatting with a friend whose partner has Asperger's Syndrome. While I knew it was a mild form of autism, it was only when she began describing the symptoms that I realised how many people I know might be living with this condition. Misunderstandings and hurt feelings started to make more sense. According to her experiences, and some reading and talking to friends afterwards, I've learnt that people with Asperger's Syndrome (AS), tend to have difficulty in recognising social and emotional cues, and are known to frustrate coworkers and family members with their inflexibility, preference for routine, and sometimes pedantic adherence to rules or logic. But there are plus sides, as people with AS tend to have excellent auditory and visual perception, and are very compassionate and empathic, particularly when injustice has occurred. Sometimes they lack the skills to deal with strong positive and negative emotions and so avoid situations that might bring on these emotions, thus causing others to mistakenly claim they lack emotion and empathy. Some develop a fixation on a special interest, such as train timetables, the natural history of bats, or super heroes. The condition can often go undiagnosed into adulthood, with the person just having a vague sense that they're different.

Naturally, I went home and did the online test to see if I featured anywhere on the autism spectrum, but no, it seems I get the diagnosis of neuro-typical (NT) or "normal", whatever that means. Some female friends who have been diagnosed with Aspergers are not so sure I don't fit somewhere on the spectrum, as females with AS have slightly different symptoms to males, and are diagnosed less frequently. But either way, the discussion caused me to pause and think about how we as humans interact socially, how complex the mind is, how nice it is that people are different, and whether diagnosis is helpful or limiting.

It is incredulous really that our brains can compute the subtle messages given in body language and facial expressions that convey emotions the person is feeling as well as cues for how to react. As somebody who doesn't struggle too much with reading other people's emotions, I still don't think I could articulate in any scientific way what it is that tells me somebody is annoyed, or sad or offended or bored, or how I detect the nuanced ways that it varies from person to person. And there are times when I get it wrong and misinterpret or make assumptions. One of us gets offended or sad or annoyed and the cycle of guessing emotions begins again. Given how much we rely upon these non-verbal cues, it's quite incredible that any of us manage to get along with one another at all.

When I was an undergrad, I took a unit in "Abnormal Psychology", a term I am pretty sure would be considered politically incorrect today. While I was fascinated to think about all the different syndromes and spectrums and conditions lurking in the psychological etha, I found myself wondering where is the line between normal and "abnormal" as I quietly conducted self-diagnosis for each and every disorder. So, naturally, recently armed with information about this new condition, I began to see myself on the autism spectrum along with just about everything else. Let's see. I am sometimes socially awkward, I experience strong emotions when injustice occurs, I can retreat into my dream world, and obsess about strange things at times, though haven't developed a focussed interest in superheroes just yet. But at what point would I have enough of the "symptoms" to warrant a diagnosis? Luckily the online test put a stop to those musings, but it caused me to ponder how useful a diagnosis is anyway.

One friend adamantly insisted that we are in an age where we over-diagnose. The number of children diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome or ADHD (attention deficient and hyperactivity disorder) is apparently on the rise, he argues, and in most cases only serves to provide parents with an excuse for bad parenting and people with an excuse for bad behaviour. I agree that society seems to be over-diagnosing us with a range of psychological conditions and then racing to find medications that will treat the condition rather than looking to behavoural and cognitive tools. It all seems very passive and slightly dangerous to me. Another friend who works in early childhood believes that it is a welcome relief for many parents to realise that their child is different and their parenting is not at fault. There is a place for diagnosis, she argues, given that awareness and a willingness to change are important steps in the success of behavioural treatments. I agree that, as with many other conditions, the person has to acknowledge that they are struggling, want to make changes in their life, and be given the appropriate tools and support to be able to make those changes. A quick perusal of AS blogs suggests that many people diagnosed are in happy relationships, and living full and fulfilling lives. So, perhaps awareness and developing coping strategies are important. But how does all this affect me?

As one Quaker who isn't fond of labels put it, "perhaps sometimes it's useful to know what works well, or doesn’t work well for people who are a particular way”. I think in my future interactions with the variety of people in my life, (both AS and NT) I will endeavour to be more compassionate and clear speaking. If I want people to know how I am feeling, I can simply tell them rather than expecting others to guess. And I will try to remind myself that, on the whole, people aren't trying to be difficult or rude, and probably don't realise when they have upset me. All of us are really just responding to the confusing, wondrous complexities of life as best we can. After all, who of us is "normal" anyway?