Category Archives: NTs on ASD

Words with Friends…and Asperger’s Disorder

We are two weeks plus into the school year and the honeymoon phase is about over for most of my clients. They’ve made the transition, mostly without incident but not without anxiety and struggle, until this week. The emails and phone calls have started to trickle in with small blips that have sent them to the principal’s office, to the buddy room, to the safe seat. The recurring problem area this year relates to language, specifically what others deem “violent” language, both verbal and nonverbal. “I’m going to kill you”. A fake gun out of three fingers to one’s head. “Shut up or else.”

I know, and Tony Attwood has documented, that individuals with AS tend to use graphic language. Blood, guts, boogers, vomit. I think it relates to their visual strengths, as these words intensify their (and the listener’s) ability to imagine what is happening. NTs use these words for effect, for emphasis, for attention, purposes that are variations on the theme of storytelling.

Aspies use these words initially as echolalia. A video game, a movie, a peer, a parent, a sibling utters “I’m gonna kill you if you…” and the phrase resonates, perhaps with a special interest (i.e. video games, Civil War, combat, guns, the human body), perhaps because of how the words themselves sound, and perhaps due to its efficiency at producing a response. “I’m gonna kill you” immediately can mean so much — “whoa! back off” or “he means business, I better take him seriously” or “this could be dangerous”.

After the initial repetition comes the trial period. We’ve moved past novelty into the world of “Man, this really works.” The complicating factor is not knowing why it works, only seeing the end result. If someone is bullying you relentlessly and suddenly rolling around on the floor while mooing like a cow is an effective strategy, you’re likely not going to stop to analyze the rationale for its effectiveness. Well, not initially, and — what’s more — you have the power to process all of the core elements of a situation (social, nonsocial stimuli) that enable your social and environmental understanding. Our Aspies are not always so endowed. We roll and moo, they turn a phrase, it’s all the same: Mission accomplished. But, we all know it’s not that simple. The fallout indicates that the weight of the words is more than Aspies could ever fathom.

Case in point. I received a call yesterday from a local school with some of my favorite staff in the area. As the story goes, my client was unhappy with the topic of conversation in history class and used a piece of wire he found on the ground to make a pretend gun to pretend shoot at his classmate. He tells it very similarly. So, we have the same basic plot with the same basic ending, but the nuances and the subtle themes that provide the meaning to our story are far less developed. When I asked him “why” this mattered so much, his response was, “It’s mean.” Well, yes. Putting a gun to someone’s head is a mean gesture, but why? “Because I might kill her? But I wouldn’t. I won’t. I’d never.” Interestingly, another group member (who has struggled with this issue himself) said, “But they don’t know that. Our conditions make us vulnerable.”

We could say case closed on this page — the boys recognize that their words carry meaning due to the fear of a threat, due to the possibility of follow through, due to what another group member cynically called “paranoia”. The boys recognize the unfortunate life lesson that Asperger’s, and other “conditions”, bring stigma, judgment, and suspicion. But, I wouldn’t be satisfied with that rendition. It would be like Twilight without Full Moon, Harry Potter without the Deathly Hallows, War without the Peace. It’s not as though they emerge from the womb toting guns, talking like sailors, and ready to take no prisoners. On the contrary, these boys cringe when another says “pissed” or “crap”. These boys apologize for hurting a bug, for breaking a Lego creation, for saying something mean to their parents. They have deeply embedded rules about right and wrong. So, how does a make-shift gun and a threatening phrase sneak past their judgment?

I’m convinced that the answer lies more within the NT world than the ASD world and things get lost in translation. I’ve been asked to verify, “He won’t kill anyone right?” In essence, he says it without intent, right? Talk about a loaded weapon…I mean, question.

At dinner last night, I sat with an old friend and a new acquaintance. I listened to how we described things. “It kills me to think….” “If that doesn’t happen, I’ll have to….” “Shut up!” So, what’s the difference? I think, for now, two things (and I’m sure there are more). The first relates to delivery. We were laughing, joking, sharing, and confiding. Their was no anger, no fear, no suspicion, no concern. We sat in a large restaurant saying these things — just like most middle schools sit in a large cafeteria and say these things — without so much as raising a flag. No one gave us a side-long glance, no one called the manager, no one escorted us out. So, it could lead one to think that if you are joking and happy, these comments become okay. That was my initial thought, and I don’t entirely think it untrue but I think it’s not that simple.

The more important component is one of relationship. A relationship brings history, personal understanding, shared knowledge, and shared experiences. When I hear my friend say, “I’ll kill you if you tell her…” I know that she is not going to pick up her steak knife to stab me, push me down the stairs as we walk about of the restaurant, or try to commit vehicular homicide. As such, I laugh. She laughs. And, the new acquaintance begins to learn, to build a catalogue of how we interact. This catalogue acts as a reference guide letting her know what it “okay” and “not okay” — at their most basic levels. My friend and I have already created this catalogue but we add a new chapter and a new index entry with the new acquaintance. The relationship expands. It does not diminish due to our language. In fact, the language helps it grow.

So, why does this paradoxically simple and complex process fail to happen with Aspies? That is a loaded question that I should erase and revise so as to avoid easy, obvious, needed backlash. Interestingly, though, I would wager most NTs believe that relationships do, in fact, fail for those with ASD. I know better. I’ve seen better. I’ve seen these very boys joke with each other about “killing” and “shutting up” and “bombing” without so much as a blink of an eye, raised blood pressure, red alert. From them or from me. We have that shared history together in which we feel safe, free, and comfortable. Maybe the better question is why does it sometimes succeed, sometimes fail? Maybe it’s an Aspie-NT phenomenon, not an Aspie-Aspie/NT-NT issue. I’d like to think that the chasm between us isn’t so wide, so desolate. As a matter of fact, I know it’s not.

I go ’round and ’round with this issue. Trying to help them push past their impulsivity to utilize a more appropriate phrase, while all the while they hear the echoes of this language in the hallways, the classrooms, the locker rooms, and the lunchrooms. It seems to be simply words with friends…until spoken by an Aspie.


Posted by on September 8, 2011 in NTs on ASD


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Isn’t There More to Autism than Vaccine-haters or Pro-Lifers?

With the Supreme Court entering to ostensibly end (but truly to reignite) the debate over whether vaccine manufacturers can be sued for injuries allegedly caused by the vaccine, I can’t help but think we are in the eye of the storm — a temporary, albeit not-so-pleasant calm in the midst of the storm. As I look I round, I see an autism community divided, collateral damage that, well frankly and mildly crudely, pisses me off to no end. As I have written about the effects of this bifurcation of the community, I won’t digress, but I will talk about the teams.

On one side of the proverbial fence stand the Vaccine-haters, who point to different scientific experiments (what the “pro” vaccine community, which I will creatively call “Pro Lifers” due to their arguments as to the benefits of vaccines, call pseudoscience) to augment their point. They blame thimerosal (a Mercury-based preservative) for its toxic effects, which the “other team” rebuffs with arguments of subthreshold levels that can be eradicated by the body. But wait, the Vaccine-haters retort: But not my Johnny! His body can only do so via chelation, a medical treatment that — you guessed it — the Pro-Lifers find specious at best and liken to ECT at worst. The Vaccine-haters point to behavioral changes following the vaccines. They wave their hospital discharge summaries for intense fevers, diarrhea, vomiting, and, ultimately, the report that diagnosed the autism spectrum disorder. Our Pro-Lifers hold that same report, but their attribution theory is “better”; they site some breaking news about living too close to a highway and birthing a child too soon after an NT child.

This is our reality, like a red state-blue state politically drawn map, a rally with picketers on both sides with signs attempting to undercut the other, or a sporting event with fans donning their team’s jersey while holding a sign besmirching the other team’s best player.

But, what if we wore the Red Sox jersey with a Yankees hat? Can God “hate gays” and “love them” too? Can you be pro-life and have an abortion? Can black and white exist harmoniously?

I think so. Isn’t it called gray? Or grey? Either way, isn’t that an option, too?

I recognize that I am not just asking for black and white to play nice. I am asking for them to give just a little of their hue and mix it to produce something entirely new. What would that look like in our world of Vaccine-haters and Pro-Lifers? Vaccin-Lifers? Pro-haters? No, those seem to be synonyms for our previously identified teams.

To be honest, I do not have the answer right now, which frustrates me, again, to no end. But, for now, I’m trying to be grey/gray. For me, that means listening and learning, not spitting, picketing, and yelling.


Posted by on January 13, 2011 in ASD in the Grand Scheme, NTs on ASD


“Rude” and “Weird”: Woman says of Boys with Asperger’s

One Saturday a month, I take a group of middle school boys with Asperger’s Syndrome into the community. Our goals? A combination of community-based instruction, including skills like waiting in line to order your lunch, how to amend a mistake with your meal, and how to get a clerk’s attention, and socialization. Put simply: Plain ol’ hanging out on the weekend.

The reactions of the community members we come across are one of the most important components of our day. Unfortunately, as much as they present “teachable” moments, their reactions quickly and often rudely highlight skill deficits as “mistakes”.

Today, only two boys joined me at a local fast food restaurant for the first activity on our list. The boys and I have been on many an outing, so I hung back as we walked in to see how their behavior would fair. A small girl, about five-years-old, was standing at the register ordering a frozen treat. Her mother was about five feet behind her, waiting and watching. In essence, our situations were identical; we were waiting for the inexperienced to build self-confidence and competence under our watchful eye.

One of “my” boys cut in front of this young girl. “Mistake” #1. Calling his name, I garnered John’s attention, and he walked over to me. No surprise, he loudly shared that he was completely unaware of his error. He was not apologetic. He rejoined the line, behind her. After the little girl ordered, John loudly announced what he wanted — a mango smoothie and a large order of fries. I was pleased. He looked in the clerk’s general direction and spoke clearly and slowly. He dug his $20 bill out of his pocket and dumped it on the counter.

“Rude,” I heard the woman say. Apparently, Mistake #2. Ironically, I always remind the boys to hand their money to the cashier in case of this general reaction. John gathered his change and stood by me waiting for Mike. John began talking to me about his latest YuGiOh card addition. “Weird,” the woman muttered. I know John did not hear this comment, so I can only assume the quip was for my benefit. Mistake #3 is all on me.

I told the boys to get their drinks, preparing to educate this woman about AS. And how it means hyper-focusing, me-oriented behavior, poor volume control, poor perspective taking, intense interests. How her five-year-old can be, in some respects, on the same social plane as my two 13-year-old clients.

As I turned to her, the scene felt like slow motion. I ended up face to face with her. I looked down at her daughter and said, “Great job ordering your ice cream. I hope you enjoy it.” I walked away.

My mom would call my response, “Killing them with kindness”. As I sat down with the boys, I couldn’t help but feel like I had betrayed them. Like I missed an opportunity to inform an unknowing person about a hidden disability that is misunderstood in so many ways. The boys didn’t hear or see her reactions, in fact they were happily eating their burger, fries, and smoothies and talking about the movie we were scheduled to see. I felt like I was the only one to defend them and I took the high road. In the end, I rationalized that this outing was about the boys, having fun and learning. But, there is still a voice in my head that wonders if I made the right choice.


Posted by on November 7, 2010 in ASD in the Grand Scheme, NTs on ASD


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The Needs of ASDs Go Beyond Mental Health

Working with psychologists, social workers, and counselors has been (and continues to be) priceless. ASDs have common, specific co-morbid conditions that are prolific mental health issues in the general population. Depression, anxiety, and AD/HD are diagnoses that my colleagues treat most typically and that my clients most often also contend with. My colleagues would argue that some of my clients struggles are more related to these mental conditions than their ASD.

I would disagree. But, that is not the scope of this post.

At the top of the hour, doors close for a fifty-minute session. Inside, concerns are presented, discussed, and therapy occurs. When the doors reopen and clients walk out, they aren’t seen or heard from for another week, month, or year. Phone calls are for crises management and emails are rare. Releases of information are signed for psychiatrists and perhaps even schools for “coordination of care”.

After four years of working in private practice and observing this model, I’ve always known my clinical practice is different in most all capacities, but I arrogantly assumed I was a better clinician, more dedicated to my clients. The reality is, I have a greater vision for my clients than management of their “conditions”. My vision for individuals with ASD transcends mental health to issues of empowerment, success, and acceptance. One could argue that these ideals are founded on healthy mental health, and I do not disagree. But the current service delivery paradigm of mental health is not effective for individuals with ASD.

I plan for the day when I will open a clinic with a multi-disciplinary focus solely for ASDs. Until then, there are times when sleeping is difficult because I wish I could do more. Just not yet.


Dear Autism, A Small Request, Love Asperger

No offense autism, but you receive a lot of attention. If I search for you on Google, you yield 14,200,000 hits. I, on the other hand, only yield 3,860,000. On, I have 2,244 results; you have have a few more (9,466). On Twitter, you (#autism) are far more common than my incarnations (#asperger or #aspie). We have similar birthdays (1940s). Yet, you entered the DSM-III in 1980 , and “autistic” traits were noted starting in 1968. 1994 was my debut and, rumor has it, the DSM-V will be my demise.

You’ve worked really hard for this attention and awareness, and man, do you deserve it. I could hang on your coat tails. We are both on the same spectrum, as you know, but I don’t want to take your attention. I just want the world to see my shades, too. Many call me the Invisible Disability because I appear “normal”. The more my challenges present themselves, their “weirder” I look to others. But, I have struggles, too, which are variations of what you experience.

I can talk, but conversations, jokes, sarcasm, figurative and abstract language, and talking under pressure are all so challenging. I often sound more competent than I really am. I sometimes have an extremely high IQ, but this number is misused to set equally lofty expectations across areas of functioning that are not always appropriate. I am both highly aware and highly unaware of my surroundings. My internal war with anxiety is often debilitating. My “stimming” can be more subtle but no less necessary. I believe in fairness and justice, which is admirable but I’ve been told I can take this too far (although I’m still not sure what this means). I, too, get confused by those NTs, who are my coworkers, my significant others, my friends, and my adversaries (at times).

I guess, I just want those that know about you, to know about me. We are family, which is by birth, but I’d like to think we are also friends, by choice. In the battle of awareness and quest for acceptance, I stand proudly with you by my side.


Posted by on October 22, 2010 in Educating the NTs, NTs on ASD


When “Normal” is Perfectly Asperger’s

Four weeks ago, a fight broke out in one of my groups. On the day this transpired, I blogged about the boys’ attempts to protect me (I had recently had surgery) as firm proof for the doubters of AS and empathy. Today, one month later, the boys are still dealing with the aftershocks: curse words, violence, a containment plan, a safety plan that has me — their fearless leader — “down for the count” (as they describe it), and the “us” versus “him” mentality that has emerged.

The boy who was the target of the initial blows has been particularly articulate about this situation, offering not only his take on the events but also his thoughts on how to prevent the issue again. Today, though, his most recent comment was brilliant in ways he could never know at his young age of 1o.

“You guys, we are all pretty normal in this group…[murmurs of “yeah…” and “except for…”] Two weeks ago, I became scared, tried to protect myself, shutdown, and couldn’t talk. That was my Asperger’s.” Without skipping a beat, one of the other boys responded, “And that’s a perfectly normal response in that situation. ”

What was perfectly “normal” was perfectly Asperger’s. What was perfectly Asperger’s was perfectly “normal”. This can’t be an isolated realization, right? Please, share your perfectly normal, perfectly Asperger’s moment.

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Posted by on October 20, 2010 in ASD in the Grand Scheme, NTs on ASD


An Epidemic: Bullying and ASD

Remember the good ol’ days, when bullying was some sticks and stones with a side of words that really did hurt us? Come on, remember, that was after the time that we had to walk both ways up hill in the snow for two miles to get to school? In case you have not forgotten, holding onto those memories might be of high priority given the state of bullying these days. It’s not just rampant. It’s an epidemic that targets the ASD population due to some of the inherent qualities of ASDs.

1. “It’s hard for me to trust people. I like ‘Pokemon’ and everyone at school tells me it’s for babies and losers. I still like it, but I don’t talk about it. I’m always worried that it will leak out on purpose or on accident.” Logan made this comment in the context of a conversation about making friends amongst a group of other middle schoolers with AS for whom friendships have been more successful than one might guess. Logan talked further about how he and his three friends carefully select a cafeteria table that is secluded “enough” so that they can talk, but they are “always on the lookout”. Expressing personal interests makes everyone vulnerable but not necessarily a target. Logan shows us some of the “ammunition” bullies gather for future use.

2. It appears that bullies find doing their deed much easier to those who resemble them. Enter, Asperger’s Disorder, the hidden disability. In IQ and phenotype, no “apparent” differences. Behavior, speech, mannerisms, appearance, apparent differences. These must be “choices,” a bully thinks, so let’s make fun.

3. To some extent, no matter how much I cringe at endorsing this, life is about fitting in. NTs have somewhat of an edge because they understand the endless derivations of mainstreaming one’s self. Aspies and auties are just trying to figure out “the rules” and, in this process, they stand out.

I once tried to explain to a teenage girl why she had to shave her legs and under arms, wear a bra, fresh underwear, and clothes that fit her, wash her face, hair, and body, brush her teeth and her hair, apply deodorant and …… the list still exhausts me. My basic premise was health oriented, rather than the utilitarian, “You just have to.” When that failed, I tried this explanation: Imagine you and everyone else in standing on the Earth (we already do, I know). Each of these things you don’t do moves you one planet away from those you know and love. This failed, too. My savior? The eternal homogenization: high school.

4.”If I tell you to go jump off a bridge, do you think I really mean it?” “Only if there is a bridge in sight.” The desire to have friends, fit in, and homogenize can make anyone gullible. It just so happens that auties and Aspies are (lovingly) gullible and naive to start with. Struggles with understanding social nuances, pragmatic and nonverbal communication, and perspective taking can leave some with ASD a bit less than prepared for savvier predators. Take Josh for example. He has a crush on a girl. This girl “likes him back.” Two boys at school discovered this mutual attraction and used text messages to “invite” Josh over to the girl’s house, only to have her be “out” with her ex-boyfriend “having sex”.  Josh had to be told that the number texting him was not his crush’s.

5. Ultimately, individuals with ASDs become the ideal target because we turn a blind eye. Two years ago, a client had been relentlessly bullied in his middle school. His only response, “Please stop” because it was polite and courteous. Tyler and I tried many, many different things to no avail. So, finally, I gave him two little words and told him I would pick up the pieces if he got in trouble. The next day, Tyler’s school called. He was in the principal’s office for yelling at his lunch table for making fun of his kosher meal. “Tyler informs me you told him to say this. Are you sure you are the right fit to work with kids?” I was asked. So, I told him about the day I came into his utopian school and heard “fag”, “gay”, “freak”, “weird”, and “douchebag” amongst other choice words. I told him about how most of those words were spoken to Tyler on a daily basis. I told him that I most certainly told Tyler to say “shut up” and that if he was punished for those words, I was assuming the principal would also use some good ol’ fashion soap washing for the rest of the student body.

But those words by those kids hadn’t been heard or reported. They knew when to shut up.

Bullies have it made. They’ve found the perfect mark, it seems. Those who stand slightly apart, who don’t always know that they do, who don’t always care that they do, and who can’t or won’t defend themselves.

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