Will aspie be a positive identifier, an ennobling and uplifting expression, in our vocabulary, or will it end up in the wastebasket of other derogatory terms as nerds, egg heads, geeks, and other words that are demeaning?
From High Functioning Autism Spectrum to Aspie Traits
In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association published the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth Edition, known as the DSM-5, and intended this as a manual for the diagnosis of mental disorders. Before DSM-5, Asperger's Syndrome was the diagnostic label. It referred to individuals with a qualitative impairment in social interaction and communication with repetitive and restricted behavior. Now in a positive way, this is sometimes referred to as "aspie traits'. The new DSM-5 changed the diagnostic name to Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD or referred to as high-functioning autism spectrum). The essential features in DSM-5 for ASD were: persistent defects in reciprocal social communication and social interaction, and restricted repetitive patterns of behavior, interests or activities. The DSM-5 is a Diagnostic text and sourcebook for the clinician. It is an aid with the categorization of different mental health disorders. The level of the impairment and severity of illness are also represented. Observed weaknesses, symptoms, and behaviors are categorized by diagnosis per the manual’s criteria. It helps qualify people for insurance coverage. It can be important in qualifying for services or programs as vocational rehabilitation. The DSM-5 can be a guide for research and population studies. It defines clusters of symptoms, traits, attributes, and clinical presentations. A condition once classified or named, in the DSM-5, is an aid to the clinician. A diagnosis can help in the selection of a matched research-validated treatment protocol.
Shifting to a Positive Focus on Strengths, Skills, Acceptance, and Accommodations
Once diagnosed, the individual becomes a person with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) - before DSM-5 this was known as Asperger’s Syndrome. The labels of illness - thought of value in medical research and treatment - can also be the basis of stigmatizing a group of people - as sick defective or impaired. The label can misplace the focus of the potential or strengths of an individual. Acceptance of their differences and advantages needs to be the emphasis. The diagnostic criteria for ASD are also the defining characteristics of many people that have comparable traits, which do not want to be stigmatized or treated with arrogance by others. They reject the negative inference of being a diagnostic label, an illness, or a defective population. Looking at the diversity of features found in aspie individuals, some will only have a few and others will have many of the traits and characteristics. The expression of a developmental or genetic trait can afford significant advantages without any associated impairments. Another side of the spectrum shows the expression of many developmental problems, autism spectrum impairments or disabilities. To be assigned a diagnosis or a disease label can contribute to a "poor self-concept of being defective" vs. being a person to be respected and seen for potential as having unique talents and worthiness. An association with an illness or diagnosis can lead to discrimination from others. High functioning aspie individuals can still experience:
non-acceptance and non-support as in social networks, families, organizations, and in job settings
inadequate resources as in the community or educational systems
rejection by peers, discrimination, bullying
problems in getting through school, finding work, establishing a career, or suitable relationships
economic disadvantage, hardship, isolation, and disfranchisement
Aspie individual need support and assistance,
just as those diagnosed with ASD or Asperger’s Syndrome do. “They need to be informed and learn the secrets of typical social understanding and require help to negotiate through the social world that surrounds them. The challenge may be more comfortable for aspies than for those with Asperger’s Syndrome as a direct result of the people who surround them”.* See Attwood paper "Aspie Criteria"*
As a consultant in medical and psychiatric facilities, conflicts arose between staff and patients.
Patients would have difficulties interacting with their peers or staff. If problems following the guidelines of the unit occurred, difficulties would ensue. The staff’s expectations were for each patient to behave and interact as expected. Individuals involved in conflicts did not take well to correction or admonishment. Incidences could escalate, from agitation to combative, aggressive, or destructive behavior. The staff could be reactive with more verbal or aggressive behaviors than needed.
The perceived offending person was often diagnosed with official labels. Some were:
attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
schizoid, or schizophrenia
bipolar disorder or depressive disorder
social anxiety or obsessive-compulsive
These were some of the tried intervention:
isolation of the involved individuals
recording of the inappropriate actions
options considered were unique behavioral treatment plans, consequences, or medications
When a careful history was taken on identified offenders, developmental issues or traits were found associated with high functioning autism spectrum, an Asperger's profile, or a person with significant aspie traits. These characteristics would then be considered as an important influence on the conflicts that occurred between peers or with staff. Some of these individuals identified had other exacerbating problems as:
prior life events
early life in a disruptive home environment
early life abusive or neglectful significant others
drugs and alcohol abuse
traumatic brain injuries
Other existing problems like - ADHD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, and depression – can improve with behavioral or other treatments.
Aspie traits include – no significant intellectual impairment – with possible difficulties in:
ease of social engagement
perceptiveness, empathy or intuitiveness
social cue recognition
passionate interests in certain specific areas
Aspie characteristics may be helpful for some; however, this can be a problem for others.
Positive characteristics can be strengths for success and contribution. Negative characteristics may contribute to rejection and discrimination. Several significant traits together can be problematic. Difficulties may occur in daily functioning, work, and related social activities. Education an
d instruction to all participants involved can improve a conflict situation. A more positive therapeutic milieu can develop in the physical and social setting. The education would include a discussion about individuals and their differences. Negative traits would be viewed in a constructive manner and not as a defect or a “pathology.” Aspie attributes have a positive potential to contribute to the group. Recognition of differences in social interactions, interpersonal communications, and behaviors is a start on the path toward acceptance, flexibility, tolerance, and non-discrimination.
Individuals with these traits can develop low self-esteem, defensive, reactive type of behaviors.
This results from repeated experience of:
rejection from their families and peers
failures in the educational system
bullying, rejection, and discrimination
unemployment and lack of access to necessary programs and accommodations for their needs
exclusion from many social setting
lack of mental health and educational support services
lack of appreciation for their differences and potentials
lack of tolerance, acceptance, and support
Aspie traits in an organization can also lead to conflicts.
In a medical setting, this could be with other staff members as well as with some patients. High achievers in any field can have successes because of their unique aspie attributes. The same people, however, may appear to others as having negative characteristics as being:
arbitrary in their decision-making
over-talkative, rambling, intellectual thinkers
to cut people off, interrupting, or change the subject
to have a strong belief or attitude that they are right
to be scrupulous or a perfectionist
to be obsessive compulsive about completing things in a valued way,
to be impatient, rude, or arrogant
to be a bully or tyrant
not to be a team player
odd in mannerisms
People with aspie traits might tend to:
become irritated when distracted from their work or conversation
feel that ordinary social conversation or small talk is irrelevant
prefer to work alone or to be alone with their activities and projects
less comfort or interest in the usual social encounters than a neuro-typical person (a person without aspie traits that represent most of our population)
Persons with aspie traits contribute and gain respect in organizations for:
high intelligence, reliability, persistence, open-mindedness
positive work ethic, honest, follows the rules
determined, original or unconventional in problem-solving
creative abilities, technical skills, verbal skills
getting to the point and forthrightness even when not tactful or in their self-interest
aware of details and errors that others don't see
able to absorb and keep significant amounts of information
self-motivated, independent learners, able to generate novel solutions
the ability for spending time alone for research and completing projects
a perfectionist can perform repetitive tasks with precision and commitment
willingness to learn social skills which a not natural for them
ability to tolerate rejection and frustration to complete work
sees the best in everyone even though it sometimes backfires, reliable as a friend
the sense of social justice and fairness, advocate for the oppressed, bullied, and disadvantaged
Conflicts can arise between staff members and a person with aspie traits.
Resolution involves interventions such as team-development-work along with focused education about:
the uniqueness of personalities
tolerance and acceptance of difference
Consideration is to bring in a consultant who is knowledgeable about aspie individuals for training. If an individual of concern has aspie characteristics, but in addition, a history of other significant co-occurring
problems as noted above - earlier life trauma for example - would be a candidate for focused therapy work in that area. Use of an executive-functioning-coach can be essential if executive functioning is a major difficulty.
People with aspie traits need to be recognized for their strengths and contributions.
With their talents and genius, they are able to do complex tasks as well as complete projects. They are able to complete tasks which other neurotypical people (those who do not have the aspie traits) either couldn't do or have failed. Peoples’ differences are essential for the survival and success of a group or organization. It takes a team with diversity. Talented people with unique traits make our society function. The person who can see the big picture can come up with novel strategic ideas and solutions to the problem. The person that can stay on task can bring a project to completion. They can get past small failures or distractions to get things done. An accepting and supportive culture stops discrimination with training and education where needed. These principles apply to couple's relationship work as well. Acceptance and understanding of each partner’s strengths and weaknesses comes first. Then a successful relationship that operates in a complementary fashion can ensue.
There is much evidence that aspie traits are genetic.
You often find these characteristics in other family members. Early life experiences or environmental influence can affect these characteristics or traits as well. There is great diversity in presentation and features seen in the aspie population. Performance and levels of functionality will depend on each person’s pattern of development. Adaptation to a “neurotypical” population (the majority of the population that does not have the aspie traits) is a challenge where acceptance is lacking. Successes with societal participation, work, independence, and social integration comes with support and education. High functioning aspie individuals can have difficulties or disabilities. The degree can depend on the presence of other co-occurring problems or debilitating conditions. There may be the need for significant support, specialized programs, and sometimes medication.
Bob*is a highly-paid staff in resource development at a high-tech software company. He had difficulty finding and keeping a job. At age 38 he discovered that he had an aspie profile. Bob was intelligent and had admirable skills - especially in the tech areas. He related well to others that had similar interests. He lacked executive skills, as in organization and time management. It would take him forever to complete any of - what he deemed - important projects. He would misplace important papers and be easily distracted. His self-esteem was low. He had experienced rejection and discrimination at prior jobs and during his school years. Bob found an employment advisor who worked with aspie clients. First, there was a referral to an executive-functions-coach, who helped him plan his time. Time blocks were set up to help him organize his work schedule, allowing him to get all his priorities accomplished. He learned how to avoid procrastination, and how to break large tasks down into doable chunks. He became better at prioritizing, starting a task, focusing and finishing. He began to use a planner to organize things. With his employment advisor, he worked on presentation and interview skills. He chose companies where his unique skills and aspies were accepted and valued. His current company was a good fit, and he thrived there. He made some friends in his new organization. These new friends shared some of his interests and even some of his “aspie” traits. *To protect confidentiality, the above is a composite of some clinical experiences and does not represent an actual person or any prior patients.
High functioning individuals that are not impaired by aspie traits or co-occurring problems, have the potential for:
gifted intellectual problem-solving
coming up with needed creative solutions
ability to think outside of the box in original ways
leadership and advancing knowledge in the area of interest.
Their strengths need appreciation and support. Recognition and encouragement are needed throughout childhood, in school, organizations, and the community. They can be the person that comes out with a money-making product that saves an industry. They could be the general that wins the war. They could be a surgeon and master mechanic that can fix things and save lives. An aspie individual may need support and guidance from their employer. Job expectations should be clear. Help with interpersonal skills to aid effective and cooperative teamwork is important. Help with organizational skills, time management, and priority setting is also valuable. Successful employment or career opportunities offers the many potential benefits - an increase of income, improvement of self-esteem, offering a place to apply talents and abilities, and provide a setting to develop a positive social network. Help is available from resources as the Job Assistance Network (JAN) that offers help with work accommodations or Vocational Rehabilitation Services - see resources below. Whatever the name, label or diagnosis one chooses - or with which one best identifies in their search for meaning, help or support, whether Autistic Spectrum, High Functioning Autism spectrum, Asperger's Syndrome, or Aspie - is fine and supported by me. In this article, I wanted to explore and to get a better understanding of the different names and classifications. My intent was not to offend anyone or to undermine any individual's beliefs regarding their learning and struggles to either comprehend or understand this complex area. This article was a little Aspie lengthy and Aspie loaded with some of my bias, but it is all about sending some love and support to all that want to know more about this topic, for those who have been confused about some of the terms and labels used, or for those who have personally struggled with some of these issues.
The Asperger / Autism Network (AANE) A positive presentation and understanding of Asperger’s are available in several articles written by staff on the ANNE website – which works with individuals, families, and professionals to “help people with Asperger Syndrome and similar autism spectrum profiles build meaningfully connected lives.” Following is a quote from the ANNE website with a link on “Neurodiversity”: "Diagnostic labels, by nature, define disorders and tend to ignore the strengths, gifts, and adaptive benefits of the individuals diagnosed. In contrast to this, the Asperger constellation of traits has more recently been described as the product of natural variations in human neurology that lead to differences in individual experiences, sensitivities, and perceptions. It is not necessarily a neurological “dysfunction”; rather, it is evidence of “differently” functioning neurology. “Neurodiversity advocates propose that instead of viewing this gift as an error of nature . . . society should regard it as a valuable part of humanity’s genetic legacy while ameliorating the aspects of autism that can be profoundly disabling without adequate forms of support” (Silberman, p. 470*). Just as the natural world thrives through a web of diversity, offering up a range of valuable interconnected attributes, so does humanity”. http://www.aane.org/neurodiversity/ Job Assistance Network (JAN) "The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome” by Tony Attwood an excellent resource and review
“Aspie Criteria” - A helpful article by Attwood. “NeuroTribes – The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity” by Steve Silberman - important book, excellent read, and resource for an in-depth history, present and future overview of the Autism Spectrum and Asperger’s, written by a very talented journalist and a New York Times bestseller. What is Asperger's Syndrome? - article by Atwood “Asperger’s from the Inside Out" by John Carley - a helpful book, for Asperger adults. GRASP - Global and Regional Asperger Syndrome Partnership – a good resource – an organization run by people with Asperger's and Autism Spectrum Disorders, to help their peers with programming to increase the independence of Autistics and individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders. They have established workshops, social events, and groups, and helped increase the visibility of ASD adults within society with emphasis on Community-Based Outreach and Individual Self-Advocacy – advocating for Individuals on the Spectrum. Autismspeaks.org - Another source of information on recognition and understanding Asperger’s. Take an online Asperger’s screening test, like the AQ test, if interested at any of the sites linked below: http://aspergerstest.net/interpreting-aq-test-results/ https://www.autismresearchcentre.com/arc_tests https://www.aspergerstestsite.com/75/autism-spectrum-quotient-aq-test/
Article by Ron Parks, MD and edited by Shan Parks