Adrienne: Every parent wants their child to succeed… but the parents of children with Asperger’s… often have additional concerns around interpersonal relationships, or their children’s job prospects. Despite those concerns, it turns out that these kids may actually have an advantage over the rest of us. Today– we’re joined by our Wellness Columnist, Scott McPherson to learn more about why that is. Hi Scott!
Scott: Hi Adrienne!
Adrienne: So, I understand you have a special affinity for teens and young adults with Asperger’s. What is it about them that you like so much?
Scott: First off, I can relate to them. We’ve talked before about the brain injury I suffered as a kid. It was my questions around that injury that lead me to study mindfulness. But that accident also placed a weird kind of grid over everything I looked at. After it, whether I looked at numbers, or a map, or people, I kept noticing patterns. And because that perspective was so new for me, that made me very conscious of it. Over time, I eventually realized that those types of patterns and relationships were what people with Asperger’s were often focused on. So, after the accident I had the old me, plus a layer of new me. Being able to see both is what allows me to translate between the two perspectives, and I’ve learned that’s helpful for those with Asperger’s.
Adrienne: How does the perspective of someone with Asperger’s differ from someone without?
Scott: We tend to be more emotionally based, with a focus on interpersonal and group dynamics. But people with Asperger’s operate with an intense dedication to a form of intrinsic logic. It’s their fierce need for that logic that can be so challenging for others. It’s why they’re often viewed as being difficult, or too blunt, or rude, or hurtful. But then, we have to remember, we’re all challenging for others in some way. And there are also major benefits that come from them having their dedication to reason. For instance, they often have a much stronger sense of justice, so they can show a lot of courage in their pursuit of consistency. That explains people like the young environmental activist Greta Thunberg, and why people with Asperger’s are often good at things like math and strategy games. People with Asperger’s can be happy and healthy. They just usually need to learn more about how others see things, and how others see them.
Adrienne: So what is it the kids are learning that is making the difference for them?
Scott: The first thing they need to do is to become more conscious of their Asperger’s. It’s amazing how many of them have the diagnosis, but almost no awareness of what those thought processes look like or mean when it comes to their daily lives.
Adrienne: And how does that translate to them feeling, or performing better?
Scott: First off, it partially normalizes them, which helps a lot. They’re often not treated well. A lot of them see themselves as being faulty, or broken or somehow ‘less.’ So many of these kids have very negative self-images, when in reality they’re just not managing who they are, just like we all need ways to manage who we are. Once they can see what their Asperger’s is, rather than what it’s done, they start to shift their sense of it from being a weakness into one of it being a strength. -It goes from just being a sad problem to being a useful tool …with a price. They’ll still have their personality and some of their conflicts. But we all have those. What they gain is the sort of understanding that allows them to communicate more effectively. And that can save them from a lot of grief. With that issue out of the way, a lot of them can really excel.
Adrienne: Can we really go so far as to say their Asperger’s is a gift?
Scott: If they’re managing it well, in some cases I think that’s fair, yes. The difference between someone struggling with Asperger’s versus someone flourishing, often has less to do with the Asperger’s and more to do with how they’re managing it. For example, that ability to reason also leads a lot of people with Asperger’s to really successful careers. We see a lot of scientists and engineers fall into that category. I had the good fortune to have dinner and beers with Harry Kloor, the only person to ever get two PhD’s on the same day. He’s mostly known as the Chief Scientist for the X-Prize. When I asked him how many people in his labs had Asperger’s he said he was pretty sure it was all of them.
Adrienne: Who are some other examples of highly successful people with Asperger’s?
Scott: I already mentioned Greta Thumberg. There’s also her fellow environmentalist Chris Packham. He was just on BBC’s Hard Talk discussing his Asperger’s. Reviewing his papers, experts believe Einstein was. Mozart may have been as well. The same for Alan Turing. Bill Gates was diagnosed. Steve Jobs was viewed as having it. The movie director, Tim Burton. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld also identifies with the condition. And of course Temple Grandin is famous for her work in agriculture, and for the Clare Danes film made about her. The important thing is that all of these paths share their use of logic. But someone doesn’t have to be famous. Their use of logic can play out just as successfully in jobs like being a programmer, a mechanic, an accountant, lawyer, or engineer. The point is, there are places that value the qualities that those with Asperger’s often have.
Adrienne: But even if they find a job that suits them, what about romantic partners, or friendships?
Scott: The people that have positive relationships with those with Asperger’s do that because they allow that person to have Asperger’s. For them, what would be rudeness from a non-Asperger’s person, is just a knee-jerk reaction from someone with Asperger’s. They know the person doesn’t mean whatever they said, personally. To the person with Asperger’s, it’s like they’ve been tickled and that’s their laugh, or they’ve been hurt and that’s their yelp. Those reactions are largely involuntary. And there are people who learn to see those things in that way, and they can have very happy relationships with people with Asperger’s. In fact, many people are already doing it and they just don’t know their partner would qualify as fitting the definition. We have to remember that Anthony Hopkins was in his 70’s before he was diagnosed.
Adrienne: So then there are likely lots of couples where Asperger’s is actually a part of their relationship without them even realizing that?
Scott: For sure. If someone’s spouse is willing to drive the house crazy with their dedication to spread-sheeting absolutely everything; Or if they’re insanely anal about how things are organized, these could all potentially be people on that spectrum that are just undiagnosed. But the fact that those couples are together and that no one felt the need to seek a diagnosis sort of proves that this is not some death sentence for happiness. It is possible for people to have very rewarding relationships. It’s just that the person with Asperger’s often needs Asperger-related lessons on dating. And maybe even more importantly, they also need to teach the people dating them, how that can be done in ways that are rewarding for both parties. That’s obviously easier if both people have Asperger’s, but even if they don’t, it can absolutely work if they know how.
Adrienne: Okay. A really interesting look at this. Thank you Scott.
Scott: My pleasure.
Adrienne: Scott McPherson is our wellness columnist. He teaches mindfulness at relaxandsucceed.com, here in Edmonton.
Every couple of weeks I have the pleasure of joining Adrienne Pan, the co-host of Radio Active on CBC Radio One. You can listen via AM740, FM93.9 (in Edmonton), through the CBC Listen app, or via the web on Radio One at CBC.ca. Today we’ll be on at 5:20pm.
Once the show has aired, if there is an audio version available I will add a link to it here. A listing of all of the columns is here. For those without audio versions, I will attach a transcript of the column to the bottom of this post after its airing.
Too many people with Asperger’s are taught to focus on the condition’s weaknesses rather than its strengths. Every type of life includes both, so those with Asperger’s are not unusual in having to find ways to manage their personality. By implementing ways of taking more conscious control over their lives, those with Asperger’s can learn to make the best possible use of the advantages their condition offers them.
Please Note: This is an issue around which many people have strong feelings regarding what definitions are used, and I fully expect there will be those that disagree with mine. I respect that others have their views for very good reasons. I do not value my reality over anyone else’s. But this is the understanding I employ simply because, by using the patterns I sense, and by using the methods I use, I have helped people change their lives for the better. But that path does not negate the value of other paths for other experiences. In the end, I leave it to the student to decide if they feel healthier and better.
If you’ve never heard the CBC Radio Active show before, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. They have a great team.
Take care everyone. Here’s to a grateful day for all of us.
A serious childhood brain injury lead Scott to spend his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and identity. It made others as strange to him as he was to them. When he realized people were confused by their own over-thinking, Scott began teaching others to understand reality. He is currently CBC Radio Active’s Wellness Columnist, as well as a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB where he still finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.