by John Elder Robison
Autism Asperger’s Digest | May/June 2012
People with Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) will always have different brains, but I firmly believe that different does not have to mean disabled. Many adult Aspergians—including me—were disabled as children, but through hard work, determination, and acquisition of hard-won wisdom, we emerged as successful, capable adults.
Unfortunately success does not come easily, nor is it assured. Consequently when you live or work with kids with AS, it’s easy to become discouraged. You watch repeated social failure while recalling how easily you succeeded in similar situations, and the social failures you observe seem simple and self-evident.
Always remember that social subtlety and nuance may be obvious to you, but it’s most assuredly not obvious to people with AS or any autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Nypical people (my abbreviation for neurotypical—those without autism) are born with the instinctive ability to read others and evaluate tone of voice, expression, and body language. Kids with AS or ASD lack that ability either in whole or in part. Therefore, they have to learn what comes naturally to their peers through years of hard work. That process of learning is the path to fitting in, and emerging from disability.
Social skills are the most important thing you can teach a young person with AS. And teach it you must, because few kids with AS will be able to learn such skills on their own. It’s both your greatest challenge and opportunity as parents, educators, therapists, and counselors.
Learning to Fit In
When I was young I could not make friends. I couldn’t play in groups. At school I didn’t do assignments the way I was told, and I flunked out and became a juvenile delinquent. Those are all signs of failure. That’s what psychologists look for when deciding if you have a disability. If you’re eccentric or even weird, but you’re not failing at work or in your personal life, you are not disabled. You’re just different. It’s only when you fail at some key thing—as I did—that you become “officially” disabled. My different brain just would not conform to the mold my teachers and other kids tried to stuff me into.
It was AS that set me up for much of my failures in my early years. Luckily the state of failure wasn’t permanent. I wanted to fit in and succeed, and I worked hard to learn to get along. I taught myself the basics of reading other people. I learned how to divine what people expected of me, and I learned how to deliver on that while still staying true to my own beliefs.
This strategy worked. Today I’m quite successful, and the same AS traits that made me a failure as a kid have played a large part in shaping my success as an adult. The brain differences that made it difficult for me to interact with people actually helped me concentrate on other things, like machines. That concentration led me to develop abilities that others don’t have, and I’ve been successful in using those skills to advance my career. That’s really a good example of how something that seems like a pure disability can actually be a gift. That was true for me, and it can be true for the Aspergians in your life, too.
My Secrets of Social Success
There were really just two components to my success. First, I figured out what I could do well. You might say I found my competitive advantage.
Learning how to fit in does not change any of the Aspergian components of our brains. A kid who has the unique ability to tell someone what day of the week he was born on at age 10 will probably still have that ability at 30.
The difference is, if he’s learned to fit in, he’ll have become an eccentric fellow with friends and a community, and the world will see him in a different light. That, at least, is the goal.
Then, I learned how to get along with people so they’d accept me into their society where I could practice my gifts and prosper. I believe anyone can follow a similar path
to success in life.
Getting Along with Others
The way I see it, getting along with people has two parts. First, we learn the things we should not do to avoid making enemies. For example, you don’t walk over and take someone else’s dessert in the cafeteria. You don’t cut in front of people in line. When you do things like that, it makes people feel you’re not nice, and if you do it enough, they will dislike you. None of us want that.
Later, we figure out how to do things to build goodwill. For example, I learned to turn to the other person when I’m in a restaurant and let him or her order first. You teach yourself to step up and hold the door when you enter a building with other people. Those small things build goodwill; they show people you are a nice guy.
Notice I said show, not tell. Anyone can say, “I’m a nice guy.” The people who really get ahead are those who actually act like a nice guy, day in and day out. Help the young people in your life become nice, and they will succeed. Then, when they do something strange or unexpected, others just laugh it off instead of getting upset. That’s the power of community—when we learn to act as others expect, they welcome us into the tribe, which nurtures and protects us.
Social “Catching Up”
Some of the changes that help us fit in better occur naturally as we get older. That’s
the nature of AS—it produces what psychologists call developmental delays. We’re slow to pick up some social skills, and we’ll never be perfect at using them, but most of us can learn enough to get by. While all of us grow and develop our entire lives, the pace of development slows down for most people in the late teen years. That’s when those of us with AS get our chance to catch up. “Catching up” may be a lot of work, but with sufficient focus and resolve, it can be done. A kid whose social skills were way behind his peers in seventh grade may end up being just a little eccentric by the time he gets
Always keep this point in mind: The word delay means what it says—late. Delayed isn’t never, no matter how much it may feel like that at age 15 or even 25. If you ever doubt that, just look at videos of me from a few years ago and compare them to how I look now. I’m so much more expressive and animated, and all that growth happened when I was 50! We never stop growing and developing. It’s a lifelong process.
When we do start catching up, it makes us feel good. We feel successful. At the same time we may be at an age where we are beginning to discover some of our Aspergian gifts. And let’s be clear about something—we all have these gifts. I don’t mean we’re all geniuses; I simply believe each of us has something we’re particularly good at. Depression and attitude can rob us of the ability to see our gifts, but these talents absolutely reside in all of us. Since we Aspergians think differently, we’re more likely to have special or unusual skills, and it’s important to find them.
When we discover and build upon our gifts, it spurs positive feelings in us and those around us, which go a long way toward dissipating the burden of failure that many young Aspergians carry. That alone will make us more successful—because positive attitudes translate to positive results. Success breeds success, just as failure breeds failure. When we feel successful we’re less likely to melt down or lash out at other people, and we get along better socially. As we make friends we become happier, and it starts a cycle of positive reinforcement.
When we get older we acquire more knowledge and our ability to understand abstract concepts improves. Few six-year-olds understand the concept of a neurological difference, but at sixteen most can get it. If my own life is any guide, an understanding of how and why we are different is essential in knowing how we need to change for a better life. That understanding comes with increased maturity and is the path from disabled to gifted. You learn social skills. You discover your strengths and play to them. You find life and work settings that minimize your weaknesses. It sounds easy set out like this, but it’s a huge amount of work. It’s been a lifetime job for me, but the results are worth it all.
Article adapted from the book Be Different (Broadway, 2012) by John Elder Robison.
John Elder Robison is a free-range Aspergian who grew up in the 1960s before Asperger’s was widely recognized. He founded Robison Service, an automobile restoration company, in Springfield, Massachusetts. Visit his website at www.johnrobison.com.
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