Asperger’s Syndrome is one of the most widely known about disabilities but one of the most commonly misunderstood.
Usually the person in the office who can be a little OCD or who doesn’t get the work ‘banter’ is branded as ‘on the scale’. Which is usually thoroughly unhelpful not only for the individual (especially if they do have some challenges) but because it furthers a wildly inaccurate stereotype.
Roughly 1 in 200 people have Asperger’s syndrome, which is roughly 350,000 people in the UK alone. So there’s a strong chance you know someone with Asperger’s Syndrome even if they don’t have a diagnosis.
Like autism, Asperger’s Syndrome is a developmental disability that affects how the individual perceives the world and how they interact with others.
It’s not a one size fits all condition and whilst individuals with Asperger’s use a ‘spectrum’ scale this is more to do with the types of challenges they face than a severity scale.
Where Asperger’s differs from autism is that individuals with the syndrome tend to be of average of above average intelligence and do not (usually) exhibit the same learning disabilities that individuals with autism can have.
They are less likely to have challenges with speech but may still struggle to understand or process language.
Individuals who live with this challenge describe the world as overwhelming and confusing. They struggle to relate to others, lacking the innate ability to build a rapport and are often misunderstood.
They struggle to interpret verbal and non-verbal communication (expressions etc.). This usually comes with a very literal understanding of language so tone, vagaries, sarcasm, abstract concepts and metaphor are all difficult to concepts to grasp.
The Marvel movie franchise Guardians of the Galaxy has introduced us to a hero that has similar struggles who younger audiences are increasingly relating to: Drax the Destroyer.
Drax the Destroyer (image courtesy of Disney & Marvel Studios)
Intimidating name aside, Drax is from a species who are completely literal so, for them, everything is taken at face value and have a direct (to the point of terse) way of communicating.
Whilst Drax, during the course of his adventures with Star Lord, Gamorra, Rocket and Groot learns to pick up on when his friends are using sarcasm or metaphor in conversation, for individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome it’s not quite so easy without support.
Considering how nuisance communication can be, living Asperger’s Syndrome can be an extremely lonely and distressing experience.
The 7% rule theorised by Professor Mehrabian postulates that only 7% of all communication is verbal. 38% is made up of vocal elements (tone etc.) and 55% is made up by gestures, posture and facial expressions.
Because we know that individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome struggle with these areas of communication, those feelings of loneliness and frustration are suddenly a lot less surprising. Imagine only ever understanding 7% of what’s being communicated to you.
Even if the number was much higher - 25% for example - that’s still a lot of missed information that helps us form relationships. Not understanding, or even noticing, why someone is smiling is a huge barrier to building those meaningful relationships.
It’s a little bit like living in a different country to your own, with only a basic understanding of that country’s language and culture but you’re incapable of learning anything more.
You would be in a permanent state of confusion and frustration, constantly being misunderstood or misunderstanding.
It’s easy to understand why individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome sometimes experience anxiety or become agitated in social situations.
So next time you think someone is ‘on the spectrum’ stop and ask yourself if what you’re saying is not only accurate but helpful.
Because if they do live with the challenges of Asperger’s Syndrome then chances are they could do with your support.