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oops! wrong planet: facing asperger's syndrome

They have been likened to aliens, unable to understand the world around them. Marziya Mohammedali takes a look at the world of Asperger’s Syndrome.

November, 2005

At first glance, fourteen-year-old Will Harris appears to be your average teenager. He enjoys playing computer games, watching movies, and makes crude jokes when he’s with his friends and thinks no one’s listening. Like any other teenager, he embraces rebellion with relish, often taking off for hours on his beloved bicycle without telling anyone where he is going.

However, Will is far from normal. Just a few months ago he was diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder known as Asperger’s Syndrome (AS).

The disorder primarily affects his ability to perceive the world as others around him do. It manifests itself in awkward social relationships and behaviours that sometimes border on bizarre.

For instance, his love of toy soldiers.

Playing with toy soldiers is, in itself, nothing remarkable. For Will, though, his play is not just for the sake of enjoyment. It is nothing less than a daily ritual. He never tires of enacting battle scenes complete with his own sound effects, day after day.

Accordingly, he has a keen interest in warfare and his sharp mind shines through when he speaks about his favourite topics. He can talk for hours on something he’s interested in.

Unlike most people, however, it is not just enough to know about the topic; Will sometimes becomes obsessed with it.

His most longstanding obsession is a fascination with natural disasters that he has held since the age of three. The recent spate of hurricanes and earthquakes had him keenly glued to the news and when asked to comment, he reels off information with the accuracy of a textbook. He often poses questions that hint at an understanding of ethics beyond his years, but is never satisfied with the answers given.

“He’s very chatty and witty. He gets obsessed about things pretty easily and he likes to talk to everyone about whatever he’s currently obsessed with. He can be quite hyperactive, and he's really persistent, never gives in till he gets what he wants,” says his sister, Kirsty.

This kind of behaviour has given him an image of being “a bit of an oddball”, but it has never been of much concern to anyone close to him. It’s been accepted that perhaps this is just his way of looking at life, even if it is unusual.

What really makes him stand out, though, are his odd eating habits.

Until recently, mealtimes were nothing short of disaster for Will.

His normally pleasant manner would disappear completely, replaced by a sheer level of confusion and a staunch refusal to eat almost anything put before him.

It would have been easy to dismiss him as being a fussy eater but the problem was more than just mere dislike.

He displayed a phobia of most meats and vegetables and would not even touch a plate if a single pea had been placed there. He had developed an extreme reaction when faced with eating something new and would withdraw into himself, not eating or talking until everyone else had finished and left the table.

“We thought he had some bizarre eating disorder not commonly heard about... obviously he wasn't starving himself, because he'd eat what he liked to eat... but there was something wrong with his eating and his refusal to eat stuff,” Kirsty remembers.

Will’s seemingly irrational fear when dealing with food caused his family no end of frustration. It led to the teenager refusing to take part in normal social activity in case it included eating.

It finally reached a point where Will, tired and confused, asked to be taken to see a doctor in order to understand what was going on. A subsequent psychiatric evaluation pointed at AS.

AS has only recently come to people’s notice after it was highlighted in Mark Haddon’s award-winning novel, ‘the curious incident of the dog in the night-time’. In Haddon’s book, the main character is a boy who has a severe case of the disorder.

Despite the attention drawn to AS by the acclaim for the book, people still don’t know much about it. Aspies, as people with the disorder have been dubbed, are misdiagnosed, misunderstood or simply unaware of what exactly makes them act so differently from others.

While AS is related to Autism, and is paralleled with High-Functioning Autism, people who have AS are more difficult to diagnose due to the nature of the disorder. It is a spectral disorder, meaning that cases range from extreme and bordering on autism to mild and almost undetectable.

According to Dr. Tony Attwood, a Brisbane-based specialist and author of ‘Asperger’s Syndrome: A Guide for Parents and Professionals’, the disorder affects about 1 in every 250 people.

He attributes the presence of AS to a problem in brain development as opposed to psychological deprivation. It is said to run in families, with boys being more likely to be affected by AS, but the level of diagnosis in girls is rising

Dr. Attwood explains on his website that people with AS “have a different, not defective way of thinking”. This different view on the world has led to the disorder being dubbed “Wrong Planet” Syndrome, with the person being likened to an alien: unfamiliar and unsure of how to react to the world around them.

This view is shared by Dr. David Young, a psychotherapist based in Colorado Springs who is keenly involved in the diagnosis and treatment of AS. He explains that most Aspies have trouble relating to what they see because they lack the natural ability to understand social conventions.

This leads to a form of “mind-blindness” that can result in abnormal reactions to even the simplest situation.

Natural responses to social events can be learnt, but even those who successfully emulate normal behaviour only succeed in developing a conditional response.

“There's a sense, even in the ones that have learned to fade their AS behaviours into the background, of "oddness" in relating,” Dr. Young says.

His experiences with AS have led to him developing a growing catalogue of typical behaviours.

However, dealing with the disorder is more than just a matter of recognising certain traits.

While each case of AS is different, there are three basic patterns that Dr. Young outlines as being present in any affected person: walls, gaps, and special interests.

Walls are said to occur when the person with AS is confronted by something they cannot understand. It causes them to quite literally shut down.

Gaps, on the other hand, are things that Neurotypicals – people with normal brain development – understand, but the Aspie doesn't. It is Dr. Young’s view that the problems with social interactions occur because there is a gap in the person’s ability to recognise conventions.

What may make it worse is that most affected people are unaware that the gap exists at all.

Special interests often form the crux of an AS diagnosis. These interests are developed intensely, almost to the exclusion of other things. When speaking about their interests, Aspies have a depth of knowledge that often rivals that of specialists in their chosen field.

The unusual level of interest is probably the most well-known sign of AS. Teachers unwittingly describe children with AS as “little professors”, a name used by the first person to study and document the disorder, Hans Asperger himself.

Unfortunately, the views of others are less complimentary. It is more common to find Aspies being snidely referred to as “geeks” and “freaks”.

This kind of response brings the need for understanding into sharp focus.

Since the biggest area affected is that of social interaction, it is most important that all those around an affected person develop an understanding of the issues that are at the heart of AS.

An Aspie reacts differently because they see things in a completely different light. The affected person already suffers from alienation due to problems in expressing and understanding emotions; ignoring the presence of AS could make the situation worse.

Dr. Young warns that AS, if left undiagnosed, could result in emotional and psychological damage.

There is a danger of developing mood disorders or a complete withdrawal from society.

The treatment options offered for AS are generally in line with those of disorders such as ADHD. Psychostimulants have been found to work, stimulating the areas of the brain that control perception and reaction.

However, it has been said by various experts that the best treatment is through professional counselling and therapy. Support for the individual also plays a great part in helping them accept who they are.

For Will’s family, the diagnosis and subsequent counselling sessions have opened up a whole new world of understanding.

Suddenly, things make sense.

Will has progressed to a point where he no longer fears trying out new foods, or has to make excuses for his behaviour. It helps that he is strongly motivated to better himself.

“I think what's important is that Will really wants to conquer this particular thing,” Kirsty says, “because he wants to be able to participate in school trips and stuff.”

And that really is the most important thing. In striving for a normal life, Will is breaking down the walls between himself and an ordinary world.

Walking on the wrong planet: A catalogue of defining behaviours.

The problem with diagnosing Asperger’s Syndrome is that it manifests itself in so many different ways. Some of the more common behaviours are:

  • Odd and fairly literal use of language
  • Extreme interest in one specific area
  • Does not understand social cues
  • Being very picky and overwhelmed when eating certain foods
  • Deficient motor-skills and clumsiness
  • Lack of interest in other people as a whole
  • Lack of “theory of mind”
  • Impaired use of non-verbal communication
  • A preference for set routines
  • A tendency to be overwhelmed by sensory stimulus i.e. “sensory overload”
  • The presence of a co-morbid (secondary) disorder such as dyslexia or OCD that could either overshadow or magnify AS traits.

t should be noted that each case is unique and the appearance of these behaviours does not necessarily indicate the presence of Asperger’s Syndrome. Similarly, it is possible for someone to display only limited behaviours and still be diagnosed with the disorder. This is not a checklist; it should not be used to make a diagnosis.



© Marziya Mohammedali, 2001-2013