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January 11, 2010


You’re sitting in English 111 and three seats in front of you is another student whom everyone in the class  calls “Data” after the Star Trek character. “Data” is a walking encyclopedia of information that most students in the class find irrelevant.  The student’s name is John but no one, including the instructor ever calls him by name because he is always talking in class – monopolizing whatever discussion arises.  When John gets excited about an idea or something that is said he clears his throat very loudly and everyone in class braces for what is always a long and boring recitation of factoids about the topic at hand.  Today John is rattling on about lottery tickets and the instructor  said  “Thank you once again for your shrewd analysis”.  John continued to talk and when the instructor said “OK. Enough” John started talking very loudly and became belligerent  – surprising everyone.  John wears the same clothes everyday, minus socks, talks at you and looks at your chin when he talks to you.  Everyone rolls their eyes when he comes in to class.  In short, you think he is weird and annoying.

If you are a student or faculty or staff at BCC or anywhere in the world you have had interactions with someone who has aspergers.  If you don’t know much about this neurobiological disorder that is a type of autism, you have probably been annoyed or befuddled by those interactions with a person with aspergers.   Below is some basic information on AS to help you understand some of the immense challenges a student with aspergers faces in an academic setting as well as some of the great strengths they typically have.

What it isn’t:

It isn’t a collection of habits that are intentionally gained to  annoy you.   It isn’t gender specific though it seems to affect more males than females.  It isn’t a disorder for which there is a test.  It doesn’t affect everyone the same way though there are many basic shared observables.

What it is:

It is sometimes not diagnosed.  It is sometimes over diagnosed.  It is a lifelong diagnosis.  Because of the disruption it causes in a person’s ability to understand subtle non-verbal communications, their difficulty in sustaining eye contact with others and the favoring of concrete interpretations people with AS are often described by others as not getting it, weird, odd, clumsy.  They are generally aware they are different and are through their school years often bullied by their peers adding to their sense they are different and not OK.  People with AS are sometimes depressed and operate in the world without a lot of friendship support.   They are also sometimes exceedingly anxious because their processing is so different. They have difficultly filtering out unimportant sounds, smells, and other stimuli  which makes classrooms sometimes very difficult places to be.

There are a lot of theories about what causes aspergers but most point to a combination of genetics and environmental factors.  Abnormal migration of brain cells during embryonic development means significant differences in brain cell connectivity and structure. The structural differences in turn change how the person operates in the environment.  Whether this tendency for abnormal migration is genetic or because of environmental factors or a combination is under debate.  The fact that there are more and more people being diagnosed with aspergers may point to an increase in awareness and understanding the diagnosis better  or it may be due to an increased prevalence because people who are similarly

Common characteristics of Aspergers:

The person may have difficulty reading facial expressions, gestures or social cues.

The person may have difficulty acting like everyone else in social situations especially when the rules are implicit.

The person does not have many friends.

The person has difficulty expressing themselves and communicate through posture and tone

The person may have a narrow range of interests and may be pursued obsessively.

The person may have extraordinary memorization skills.

The person may have abnormalities of speech including impairments in their tone and may “talk funny”.

The person may have low visual-motor coordination making them appear clumsy.

The person may have difficulty with change and have a preference for keeping things the same.

The person may have very low self-esteem and depressive symptoms because they are aware they are different but have difficulty in acting like everyone else.

The person may because of previous experiences beleive nothing can ever help them and as a result they stop trying and may resist an offer of assistance.

The person with aspergers may be able to tell you the name of every senator in the history of New York State but may have difficulty in understanding the significance of political differences between democrats and republicans.

The person may cope with anxiety or feeling overwhelmed by noise, smells, etc., by engaging in repetitive behaviors like rocking, or clicking their tongue.

The person may have difficulty “seeing the forest for the trees”.

The person may have difficulty with understanding information that is presented verbally that is abstract or laced with metaphors because they tend to use concrete or literate thinking.

The person may learn best if presented with visual information as well as verbal information.

The person may have a narrow interest that may lead to a cure for a disease, a new gadget we will all want or some other far reaching consequence.

The person may be extremely articulate verbally and can add value to a class discussion by their unique processing.

The person may be very creative and imaginative.

The person will do better in college if others are more tolerant of the differences they observe.

You come to class and are alarmed at the amount of noise in the room.  It is hard to pick out what sounds are important because initially they’re all at the same level – at least to your ears. You can hear the music coming out of the ipod connected to the head of the guy sitting behind you and the “boom, boom” of the bass is all you can hear.  You don’t notice the girl saying “excuse me” three times in a row as she tried to get by you to her seat and you don’t notice the students sitting around your part of the room rolling their eyes though you have noticed many other things. The lecture seems to have started and you are pleased the instructor has mentioned  the story “The Lottery” and you tell the instructor that you have collected games,  several of them very rare, but have never gotten into lottology, the collecting of lottery tickets.  The professor thanks you for your comments but then says “Enough” after you add another piece of information.  You hear a lot of people in the class  laughing and feel you’ve done something wrong, or funny, but you don’t know which.  You start clicking your tongue which always helps you to focus and filter out the other noises.  You hear more people start to laugh and get angry.

What can you do to foster neurodiversity tolerance?

Avoid sarcasm (it’s a good idea anyway) because they might not get it and it just confuses.

Understand the role of “stimming” – the repetitive actions of a person with aspergers who has become anxious – rocking, tongue clicking, other movements and be compassionate.

Speak in an even tone, avoid open -ended questions or metaphors or colloquialisms.

If you see someone making fun of another student who has aspergers (or anyone else) be an ally to the AS student and get involved.

If you see an AS student getting aggressive or agitated consider that it may because they are experiencing sensory overload or they feel bullied by someone – perhaps because of past experiences combined with a current misunderstanding of another student or the professor.

If  an AS student does not acknowledge you outside the classroom consider this is not rudeness but may be a significant disruption in facial recognition skills.

If an AS student lays their head on the desk during a class lecture don’t assume they are being rude – they may be trying to filter out noise.

Try to imagine if you had trouble separating background noise form other noises in a classroom – the professor’s voice and the pencil tapping 2 rows away and the noises in the hall are all experienced at the same intensity.

When an AS student talks in class in an abnormal sounding voice or if they talk like an encyclopedia accept the differences as part of the diversity of people you know.  Not better, not worse…just different.

If an AS student is talking in class and fails to recognize that everyone else is annoyed or bored with what might sound like a lecture say the student’s name  – “John, an interesting fact/comment. OK,anybody else?”

If  an AS student stands too close to you or is speaking too loudly for your comfort it’s OK to say something but obviously how you say it makes all the difference between shaming someone or giving them some useful feedback.

Albert Einstein didn’t wear socks to his Nobel Peace Prize ceremonies – one can imagine the scratchiness of socks was just not worth it to him…he didn’t speak fluently until he was nine leaving his parents concerned their son was retarded. Most experts believe he had aspergers.

Like the PC you are very likely reading this blog on?  Thank Bill Gates who is thought to have aspergers.  But for his perseverance, intense focus and interest we might still be using the typewriter and carbon paper.

Dan Aykroyd, Elvis Presley, Leanardo Da Vinci – all thought to have aspergers.


3 Comments leave one →
  1. Suzaku permalink
    January 11, 2010 1:54 pm

    Well, I’ve never heard of tongue clicking as a stim, but I have heard of arm/hand flapping, rocking, and pacing as stims.

    I’m familiar with Asperger’s, because I’m diagnosable on the Autism Spectrum.

    Quite frankly, it’s not our own perceived weaknesses that are most likely to get us. It is others’ rejection of oneself. However, possibly, if we haven’t been shown equal humanity, if we’ve experienced nothing but degradation, then our depression may stem from the same place as our miscommunications. Being aversively conditioned not to turn our great and sometimes marvellous intellects toward communications because our current efforts are worthless may be robbing us of happiness, as well! That is so wrong and messed up, it should have already been noticed. However, your people so often miss the individual trees for the forest, that I do unfortunately understand.

    Thanks for explaining about the sensory overload, though. We also get emotionally overloaded at times.

    Thank you for your time.

  2. Suzaku permalink
    January 11, 2010 4:36 pm

    Well, yes, I get it.

    Do you mind if I be frank with you, Counsellor? My sister (who lives in “a whole ‘nother Country” or some such place, to borrow the metaphor) said it sounded like you hadn’t ever interacted with an ASD type person. I kind of get it. Some of what you wrote also happens to give me a chuckle. Sorry, but hand flapping is much more common as a stim than tongue clicking. However, you were dead on about the rocking. It’s also possible that we use stims as expressions. I know I do.

    Now, what I think that I’D like to be doing in response to your article, is a compare and contrast of Neurotypicalism, ADHD, and ASD. Hmm….

    Thanks for the idea!

  3. Lynn permalink
    January 12, 2010 12:45 pm

    I wanted to say thanks for posting about Aspergers on your blog. I’ve had several AS students at my University and no one had a clue as to why they were such “odd ducks.” Even some people in the administration didn’t want to deal with these students, and never bothered to find out what was going on with them. They were simply labeled problem students. It’s amazing that you’re opening this conversation up on the community college level, where I’ve also had some AS students.
    Most of what I learned about working with AS students came from research and speaking with the AS students themselves. One student constantly interjected with commentary on atomic structures – he could find a way to make atoms “fit” into any conversation. He did a kind of clicking when he was upset or excited. He didn’t think anyone knew he had Aspergers until another student asked him. It was a public speaking class, and he asked if he could do a presentation about it. Another student simply announced to the class in the first minute that she had Aspergers, and that she was working on not interrupting and asked that people not to take it personally when she didn’t know them outside of class. (Surprisingly, she recognized me a year later. She pointed to my head seemed to tug at her ear. She used my red hair and a physical action to remember my name) In every case I’ve been lucky that students where I teach accept diversity, but it can be a difficult line to walk when students DON’T understand Aspergers or know that it exists.
    I think education is important. TV shows like Boston Legal and Law and Order have included characters with Aspergers. On Boston Legal they discussed how people with Aspergers were treated as outsiders, and many of the lawyers called Jerry Espenson “hands” because he was so fidgety and grabbed at his jacket so much. They did some good work on education and underlining basic human rights, but also had Jerry Espenson purring, hopping and jumping, and making popping noises and fish faces. On the show nothing was sacred, so even as they educated people about Aspergers, they poked some fun at people’s perceptions of it too.
    Vincent Donofrio’s character Detective Robert Goren on Law and Order is more understated. No extra strange tics – no purring or interjection , just something out of place that you can’t put your finger on. I don’t watch the show, but many fans comment that it’s the best representation of AS they’ve seen – highly intelligent, processes things a little differently and a bit quirky.
    Hopefully, more people will read this and begin to discuss the issue.

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