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The Question Box

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Insider: An Aspie’s Tips for Teens

By Jennifer Cook O’Toole 

Autism Asperger’s Digest March/April 2014


Mr. Sporano was my sixth grade health teacher, a tricky subject he managed quite well from that third-floor classroom at Grover Cleveland Middle School. It was always artificially warm in there, I remember. Furnaces churning out dry, overly heated air into an oaken room, already full of afternoon sunlight.

And the subject matter, I’ll admit, could make my cheeks grow hot, too. Let’s be honest. The word “puberty” is almost as uncomfortable as the subject itself. I am not a squeamish, bashful girl, but that is just a seriously awkward word. There’s nothing mature or cool-sounding about it. Personally, I hear “puberty” and pretty much think acne, goofy body noise humor, and kids bragging about everything they “knew.” (Which, I can tell you now, was almost absolutely nothing.

However silly, however shy, however all-knowing anyone seemed, Mr. Sporano kept his cool. He was determined to get accurate information through our embarrassed giggles. And we were all secretly glad of it. You see, the playground was fast becoming bra-snapping, dirty-joke central where the worst thing you could be was “babyish.” Not mature enough to fill out a bra? You’d be called a “Pirate’s Dream” (sunken chest). Throw a temper tantrum or cry “like a baby”? Expect to be beat up for being “a wuss.” That weird territory between kid-dom and adulthood was—and is—well, weird, besides which, it’s full of innuendos and lies. Guys swearing to have more “experience” than they do. Girls wondering whether “nice outfit” was meant as a compliment or a subtle dig.

So, yes, every one of us was uncomfortable in Mr. Sporano’s classroom. But every one of us also really, really, really wanted to be there. Because Mr. Sporano offered us protection. Health class was defense against social humiliation—you know, the horror of being the only one who doesn’t get the lyrics to some new song or makes some accidental locker room gaffe. He was even our respite from the most awful, most embarrassing situation known to tweens or teens anywhere—The Talk. That hideous moment when an adult, who seems even more embarrassed than you are, tries to stumble awkwardly through some garbled advice that would’ve sounded pitifully lame 50 years ago.

The solution to all of our adolescent anxiety was a simple shoebox, covered in construction paper and clearly labeled in Mr. Sporano’s distinctively perfect print: THE QUESTION BOX. Students could anonymously slip in their secret queries without fear of ridicule. In fact, it was pretty much expected that when Mr. Sporano got around to reading and answering the question aloud in his bold, unwavering voice, whoever actually wrote it would laugh along with everyone else. “Can you even believe somebody asked that?!” we’d all whisper, while secretly, every one of us waited for the answer, an answer we could trust, the truth, thoroughly explained, free of goofiness and without the super-formal textbook terms.

That’s what I’m offering you now. The Asperkids Question Box: a place to anonymously ask whatever you, as a tween/teen on the spectrum, need to know and I, an (Aspie) adult, will faithfully answer. For example? Glad you asked.

“April” wants to know, “How can you tell if someone likes-you-likes-you?” In other words, how do you know if someone is just being friendly or is interested in a little-bit-more?

A successful romantic relationship must, at its core, be a successful friendship. So, that means:

It’s a two-way street: friendships are based on respect for each other and an equal give-and-take of attention from both people.

Kindness: friends like one another and try to make each other feel happy.

Perspective: friends ask questions about each other’s lives, feelings, and ideas in order to understand each other’s perspectives.

No one loses: true friends can disagree, argue, get mad, and solve problems together; staying friends is more important than proving who is right or wrong.

Things in common: friends are never exactly alike, but they usually have a lot in common (interests, activities).

Slow sharing: over time, friends gradually share ideas, wishes, and feelings that they don’t share with others.

Research tells us that a huge amount of communication is nonverbal, untaught, and lightning fast—universal, subtle messages that we Aspies easily miss or misinterpret. Our spectrum brains focus on things neurotypicals don’t heed, and we often gloss over what others think is totally obvious. So the key to what the boy you like is really thinking or whether that girl wants you to stick around is probably right in front of you, tucked into gentle hand movements and quick facial expressions.

Want to crack the body language code? Great. Remember, though, that no one sign is a reliable indicator. You’re looking for several, consistent signals. Watch people’s actions and you will never be fooled by their words.

Boys often:

  • stand up straighter around you (wide stance)
  • make a point to sit near you
  • smile more than usual, and make more eye contact
  • lean toward you

Girls often:

  • play with their hair
  • touch their face (usually lips or cheek)
  • lightly touch your shoulder or arm while talking with you
  • “catch and away,” making eye contact, then looking away or down and back again

Last, before asking someone out, know that you’ve got to establish some rapport, some conversation beyond just an introduction. And even then, taking a chance is scary. But you know what’s even scarier? Regret.

Now it’s your turn to ask. Send your Honest-to-Aspie perplexor to QuestionBox@asperkids.com. And in return, I promise you honesty, Aspie-insider insights, and privacy. Oh, one more thing. I promise you kindness…after all, the expert in anything was once a beginner. And I’m no better than you at this Aspie adventure; I’ve just got a head start.


Jennifer O’Toole, winner of the 2012 Temple Grandin Award, is an Aspie (married to an Aspie) with three Asperkids of her own! Her conversationalist presentation of useful insights has touched hearts, lightened spirits, and even led to the founding of Asperkids, LLC, a multimedia social education company. Jennifer is the author of five books, including the newly released The Asperkid’s Game Plan.

Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2014. All Rights Reserved. Any distribution, print or electronic, prohibited without permission of author.

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