A week ago, my wife and I were the guest speakers in a counseling class. The topic was the impact of disabilities on the family, but when the students learned that I also have Asperger’s syndrome , they decided they would rather talk about that. It was a great discussion and the students asked very good questions, but then one student asked the question that has stuck in my mind all week: “How can we, not as counselors, but as friends, best reach out to those with Asperger’s syndrome?” I think this question is worthy of a book, which I may attempt to write. Until then, I’d like to share my thoughts from this week.
Hans Asperger wrote:
These children often show a surprising sensitivity to the personality of the teacher. However difficult they are, even under optimal conditions, they can be guided and taught, but only by those who give them understanding and genuine affection, people who show kindness towards them and yes, humour. The teacher’s underlying emotional attitude influences, involuntarily and unconsciously, the mood and behaviour of the child.
I believe this applies to any relationship. Certainly, a friendship requires some learning as we get to know our friend, and I think we are all far more likely to be interested in getting to know someone who shows us understanding and genuine affection, especially if we can laugh with him or her as well.
If you would be a friend to someone who struggles socially, whether you know they have Asperger’s syndrome or not, you have to be willing to show understanding. Especially when I am stressed or uncomfortable, my body language and facial expressions may seem to convey messages that aren’t necessarily accurate. I’ve had several friends say to me that they feel I look angry or like I just want to be left alone. Many of my high school classmates have recently told me that I always seemed like I wanted to be left alone. (Perhaps it was because high school was terrifying to me.) Try asking me if I’d like some company, even if I don’t look very open to it. I’m often unaware of the signals I give off, and I can tell you that I will usually be delighted to meet a new friend. Give me room to be a little different as we get to know each other. I can assure you that I will be whether you let me or not, and I’ll be much more comfortable if you are ok with it. I think you will find that I’m often willing to laugh at my weirdness if I know you love me no matter what.
Speaking of love (and I’m talking about the kind of love shared between friends), my wife often likes to say that I need people to “love out loud.” By this, she means that I need my friends to demonstrate affection in ways that I can “hear” and understand. Different people like to be loved in different ways, and people with Aspergers syndrome are as unique as all others. One thing that we do have in common, though, is that we have difficulty understanding the non-verbal signals that other people use when they interact with each other. I’m not able to see that you love (or like) me by the way you look at me. Especially early in the relationship, I need you to be a bit more verbal. At first, you might tell me that you’d like to get to know me or that you’d like to be my friend. My closest friends often tell me that they love me and show it in other ways as well. In short, try to express clearly in words where the relationship stands. In some cases, that may be as simple as addressing me as “my friend,” or perhaps some funny nickname you and I come up with.
Stephen Bauer wrote, “The common belief that [persons] with pervasive developmental disorders are humorless is frequently mistaken.” My wife and closest friends can assure you that this is very true. Yesterday, I nearly made a good friend spray her drink through her nose and I even got some giggles out of her son. Most humor relies on a shared context in order to be funny. Non-verbal signals often communicate that context. Consider, for example, how you might tell that someone is being sarcastic. I often miss those signals, but that doesn’t prevent me from enjoying humor. It just often takes a different form from what you are used to. I’ve noticed that my humor often gets a delayed reaction because it takes a moment for people to get it. Keep an open mind and let’s learn to laugh together.
My psychologist told me that Asperger’s syndrome leads to social dysfunction, which leads to social anxiety, which leads to depression, which leads to further social dysfunction. By giving me understanding and affection, and in sharing humor with me, my friends have helped me slow down, then stop, and then reverse this vicious cycle. Succeeding socially leads to confidence, which leads to further successes. I won’t say that I no longer struggle, but I’ve come a long way from the deep depression I’ve struggled with. You could make a huge difference in someone’s life. Even better, you could make a friend for life. I love my friends dearly, and I thank each of them for taking the time to ask the right question.