Spectrum of Difference

Last week the issue of Asperger's syndrome loomed large on my horizon. It began with BBC Radio 4’s programme, Out of the Ordinary, a documentary series uncovering stories from out of left field. Last week’s broadcast focused on why so many women think their men have Asperger’s. One woman even has a daily blog about it.

Said to affect how the brain processes information, people with Asperger’s can find it difficult to form intimate relationships/friendships; feel awkward with social interactions e.g. understanding social rules and body language, and can experience communication difficulties (such as a tendency to take things literally).

It is estimated that one in every 100 people (and I suspect that it is 3 or 4 times higher) in the UK is on the Autism Spectrum which now includes Asperger’s. Instead of the term ‘disorder’ some speak of ‘neurodiverse’, as opposed to ‘neurotypical’. This diversity includes those individuals ascribed as ‘gifted and talented’ and ‘geeks’.

Journalists, as opposed to clinicians, have suggested that individuals such as Obama, Romney, Bill Gates, Warhol, Orwell, Hitler, Einstein, Newton, Shakespeare and Socrates are/were on the ‘spectrum’!

Asperger’s became a mental health disorder when the condition entered into the fourth edition of the American Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM4) – the bible of clinicians. There is now some regret about including Asperger’s in the DSM4 as a mental disorder.

Why does a different wiring of the brain have to be termed a disorder? As in those catch-all diagnoses with their prescribed cures, there is a flaw at the very heart of it all. We are quick to label as ‘abnormal’ that which we do not understand or believe we are not?  Diagnosis can be used to pathologize normal human differences.

My favourite fictional ‘asperge’ (unconfirmed by the show’s creators) is Saga Norén (played by Sofia Helin) the female lead homicide detective in BBC Four - The Bridge, a Scandinavian crime drama series. Saga is highly intelligent and smart; her thinking comes sharply out of left field, which makes her incredibly funny, but she doesn’t know it. Her way of being is the norm to her. She is perplexed by why people cannot simply tell the truth! I wish The Bridge - only on its 2nd series – longevity, it’s such a brilliant production.

My grandson is on the ‘spectrum’. He goes to a school for the differently abled, one that follows the various ‘key stages’ in education up to the age of 16, but where each pupil is allowed, enabled and encouraged to reach their highest potential but at their own pace.

At 12 years old, J is very independent, and has his own ‘for safe-guarding’ mobile phone. He travels to and from school by bus just like any other commuter, which initially disconcerted the school. J knows when he has crossed a line and often allocates himself ‘time out’ or buys his sister chocolates to make amends for any toadishness towards her! His mum tells J that Autism is not an excuse for bad behaviour.

There are areas where my grandson is not as capable as some; in other areas he is more capable than most, just like the rest of us. He is a football ace, swims like a fish underwater, has a passion for cars – no not cars, hot wheels – and is keen to teach me to play chess! Only his sister (described by her school as a G&T - talented and gifted that is) can beat him at Wii games. My grandson is differently abled, as differently abled as I am, as everyone else is.

Apparently more males than females are diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. Some of the more common characteristics of the condition include:
  • Average or above-average intelligence
  • Difficulties with high-level language skills such as verbal reasoning, problem solving, making inferences and predictions
  • Difficulties in empathising with others
  • Problems with understanding another person’s point of view
  • Difficulties engaging in social routines such as engaging in ‘small talk’
  • Problems with controlling feelings such as anger, depression and anxiety
  • A preference for routines and schedules which can result in stress or anxiety if a routine is disrupted
The BBC programme suggested that women push for this diagnosis for their husbands/partners because they want help with their relationships! Men are from Mars are they not? So of course they seem somewhat odd to us women. Sarah Hendrick’s Asperger's Syndrome - A Love Story and Maxine Aston’s  Aspergers in Love describe what to expect when in relationship with someone with the syndrome. So, no need for marriage guidance then.

I had to chuckle when a friend who had also listened to the programme told me a light bulb had gone on for her. She proceeded to do the inventory on line on her husband’s behalf and he, from her answers, scored 39 on a scale of 1-45! Are you going to tell him about it I asked?  ‘No’, she said, ‘better not, but the knowledge explains a lot, and I understand much more about the dynamics in our relationship’.

I did the test too and scored seven. So, some other ‘disorder’ describes my deviation from norm then (or perhaps the stereotype). I am for the positive deviance that challenges the manipulative and abusive power of the tribe.

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