Do you or a loved one have Asperger’s syndrome?

The condition and autism spectrum disorder manifests as unusual behavior in social settings

Special to The TribuneFebruary 18, 2010 

Do you sometimes hold one-sided, long-winded conversations without noticing that your listener has tuned you out?

Are you fascinated, even obsessed, with topics that hold little interest for other people? Do loved ones complain that you’re insensitive to their feelings? Have you always felt different than other people? Then you may have Asperger’s syndrome, and it’s probably impacting your relationships.

Asperger’s syndrome (AS) is a neurological impairment manifested by odd or inappropriate behavior in a variety of social settings. Austrian psychiatrist Hans Asperger first identified it in 1944; however, his work remained largely unknown until the mid-1970s when it was translated into English. The American Psychiatric Association first included the syndrome in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual in 1994.

AS is classified as an autism spectrum disorder and is similar to autism in several ways. Both disorders are characterized by normal to above-normal levels of intelligence, and they involve deficits in social interactions and nonverbal communications. But unlike autism, which is characterized by a delay or even a complete lack of the spoken language, Asperger’s syndrome is noted for very high— even superior— language skills.

Asperger’s syndrome afflicts one person in 300 and affects males four times more often than females. There is no known cause, although it tends to run in families.

AS is considered a disorder of childhood, but only a small percentage of its sufferers are ever diagnosed. Most lead productive, high-functioning lives, even if they seem or feel a bit odd.

To determine if you have Asperger’s syndrome, read the following statements adapted from the Cambridge Lifespan Asperger Syndrome Service:

• I find social situations confusing.

• I am never good at small talk.

• I didn’t enjoy imaginative story-writing at school.

• I pick up details and facts better than most people.

• I have trouble deciphering what others are thinking and feeling.

• I can focus on certain things for very long periods.

• People often report that I was rude even when I didn’t intend to be.

• I have unusually strong, narrow interests.

• I do certain things in an inflexible, repetitive way.

• I have always had difficulty making friends.

• I am perplexed by the subtleties of dating and romance.

• I was awkward and clumsy as a child.

If you answered yes to some or most of these questions, then the diagnosis may apply to you. You may even be relieved to name the uneasy sensation of “geekness” you’ve secretly harbored since you were young.

You’re also in good company. Bill Gates, Garrison Keillor, chess champ Bobby Fischer, comedian Robin Williams and actor Woody Allen also reportedly have AS.

There is no known treatment for Asperger’s syndrome. But it’s often accompanied by other mental disorders, such as depression, anxiety or ADHD that may require a combination of medication or psychotherapy. AS sufferers may also benefit from behavioral therapy that focuses on appropriate social skills.

We all have our strengths and weaknesses, including those of us with Asperger’s syndrome. When we recognize our innate abilities and successfully manage the areas in which we fall short, we allow ourselves to be the unique individuals that each of us was meant to be.

Tips for coping with Asperger’s

If you’re living with a person with AS, consider these strategies to enhance your relationship and decrease stress in your household:

• Accept your loved one. He’s not trying to irritate you. He’s honestly doing the best he can. Quit wishing he were different and instead look for ways to make life easier for both of you.

• Focus on your loved one’s strengths. There are many great qualities about this person. Do your best to avoid dwelling on the negative, and enjoy what he does really well.

• Be specific about your expectations. Decide what you need, then convey your needs in a kind and loving way. For instance, tell your husband that you want him to join the family for 45 minutes at the dinner table, even though he would spend all evening on his computer.

• Give subtle cues when your loved one is behaving inappropriately. Redirect a conversation away from overly technical subjects, or gently remind him that he’s dominating a conversation.

• Get the emotional support you need. Your loved one is apt to be psychologically absent. He’ll seldom know the right thing to say or do. Turn to friends and family to fill the personal void.

• Seek counseling. A therapist skilled in the challenges of Asperger’s syndrome may improve your communication and manage unrealistic expectations. Counseling won’t change your loved one — but it can improve the way you interact.

Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her visit lindalewisgriffith.com

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