Asperger Syndrome (AS): Myths and Facts
(Note: as detailed below, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders now uses the term Autism Spectrum Disorder, but many people still use Asperger Syndrome or similar terms.)
- People with AS don’t make eye contact. Many of those on the autism spectrum make excellent eye contact, at least some of the time–often because they have learned this is an expected behavior. Others find eye contact uncomfortable, unhelpful, or distracting, as they have difficulty “reading” the nonverbal messages people communicate with their eyes.
- People with AS don’t have a sense of humor. Actually, having AS allows people to see life from a different angle, which can be conducive to humor. Actor Dan Akroyd, of Saturday Night Live and numerous popular movies, has publicly disclosed he has AS.
- People with AS are loners who can’t make friends or get married. Many of those with AS crave relationships. There are support groups for partners of those with AS and for neurodiverse couples (in which at least one partner has AS or a similar issue). There are also psychotherapists who specialize in working with neurodiverse couples.
- Everyone has “a touch of” AS. This statement trivializes a true brain difference. Individuals with AS have an extensive pattern of traits that distinguish them from “neurotypicals,” even though they may sometimes have a good deal in common as well.
- People with AS are “savants” or geniuses. An estimated 10-25% of those on the spectrum have exceptional talents or abilities. People with AS range from average to highly intelligent.
- People with AS have no empathy. People with AS may not always know the expected response in some social situations – and thus fail to make an empathic statement – but that does not mean they are unable to empathize. In fact, new research supports the existence of empathy in those with autism.
- AS is a male condition. Males are diagnosed about four times as often as females, but it is likely than many females with AS go undiagnosed because of how they present (e.g., sometimes having relatively good verbal, social, or nurturing abilities). There are many informative books on this subject, such as Aspergirls, Asperger’s and Girls, and Women and Girls with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
- AS is diagnosed in childhood. Many adults with AS have been diagnosed in their 50s or 60s – or not diagnosed at all. It’s likely that most older adults with AS don’t know they have it.
- AS is a mental disorder or disability. AS is a brain difference that may or may not be accompanied by other difficulties. Some of those with AS are unable to hold down a steady job or maintain friendships, and suffer from anxiety, depression, or other conditions. Many others are very high-functioning.
- People with AS are math or computer geeks with no creativity. There are many artistically talented individuals on the autism spectrum. In fact, the Asperger/Autism Network has an Artist Collaborative.
- AS makes people violent. Being bullied or rejected may have led to violent behavior in a small number of individuals, but as a group, those with AS tend to be gentle and law-abiding.
- People with AS are cold and distant, not affectionate. Some of those on the spectrum are sensitive to touch or pressure, but many others enjoy affection.
- “All males are like that – it’s not Asperger’s.” This is a common response to hearing about an AS characteristic such as difficulty reading social cues. Another common response is, “I have that symptom too (e.g., social anxiety), so you can’t have Asperger’s.” AS is a syndrome – a collection of qualities – not a single symptom.
- AS is an obsolete diagnosis. It’s true that the DSM-V no longer lists Asperger’s, but the DSM is only one source of information, and is regularly revised. The DSM is based on a medical model, but many people see AS as a difference, not a disease. AS remains a useful concept.
- AS is a lifelong difference – like having blue eyes or being left-handed. There is no “cure,” and many of those with AS have no desire to be cured.
- The mind of a person with AS tends to focus in a narrow, intense way. As a result, many individuals have deep interests about which they are knowledgeable and passionate.
- People with AS are often attuned to small details but may have difficulty with executive functioning – organizing and completing tasks.
- AS and similar traits seem to run in families.
- “Black and white thinking” is common among those with AS. However, they may be able to appreciate “shades of gray” in a situation, especially with the assistance of others.
- Anxiety about change can lead some with AS to have rigid routines.
- AS makes it hard to read social cues. This can lead to social awkwardness and isolation.
- Communicating nonverbally (e.g., with facial expressions, gestures, and tone of voice) can be difficult. On the other hand, some individuals on the spectrum are quite talented in theater.
- Some of those with AS have sensory sensitivities (or reduced sensitivity) and are hyper-aware of sounds, smells, tastes, or other sensations. These sensitivities can lead to avoidance of certain situations (e.g., bright lights, crowds, spicy foods).
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