My son is 27 years old and he has Asperger’s Syndrome. It doesn’t completely define him, but it’s part of who he is. Lately, he and I have been talking a lot about how his being on the autism spectrum affects him at work. And, in what may be an on-going series, we’ll be figuring some things out here.
We don’t pretend to have all the answers. We only know what’s true for us.
One of the true and best things that’s happened in the past six months, is that my son has begun to advocate for himself. Speaking for both of us, I’ll just say right here that it’s fucking hard. But I think we’re okay with that. We’ve been at this a long time. Twenty odd years ago, the diagnosis de jour was ADHD. (And, that’s a post for another time.)
We’re a little nervous. Not about the talking part, but about the public talking part. So, help us out from time to time. Let us know how we’re doing.
First up: a (true) story about how my son learned how to communicate with dogs.
My then ten year old son and I were driving home from a dog obedience class. Felix, our young male whippet, was curled into a tight ball, asleep in the back seat. The class had been pretty exhausting for him. Although confident in a pack of his own kind, Felix wasn’t so sure of himself in a group meeting with different breeds of dogs and indecisive owners.
Despite his canine anxiety, he’d done all right today. Together, he and I had avoided the aggressive dogs in the room as we went through all of the exercises. He’d more than earned his long snooze during the ride home.
Not so my son who was eager to talk about what he’d watched that day.
“Mom,” he said, “that rottweiler was pretty nervous.”
“Yeah. I could tell by how his ears looked and how he was standing.”
Much to my amazement, for the 45 minute drive home, he talked nonstop about all of the dogs in that class; the dogs that were not so confident (like Felix and that rottweiler), the dogs that wanted to take charge. Had I noticed the other two small dogs in class? One of them thought he was as big as that Great Dane!
My son had grown up around dogs and not just the obligatory family dog. Because I’d been active in dog rescue, my son learned early on what it was like to live with greyhounds and whippets. His best teachers were the first Great Dane and the German Shepherd Norweigan Elkhound mixed breed dog we had when he, himself, was young enough to be considered a littermate.
While other moms headed up school committees or baked cookies for classroom parties, I was the mom that spent weekends at dog shows, had long telephone conversations with my friends about dog behavior with my son playing in the background. I talked with perspective adopting families about bringing a dog into their home; treated dog crates like end tables, did the occasional media spot on ex-racing greyhound adoption. All this with my son happily underfoot.
It was a whirlwind time that began before he started kindergarten so that, by the age of ten, much of his knowledge about dogs was intuitive. But, this was the first time he’d offered up his interpretations about dog behavior. He was amazingly accurate.
Dogs communicate with their bodies. If you don’t pay attention; take the time to learn, you miss all the nuances of how they speak. That my son has mastered this complex science of communication is all the more miraculous because he has Asperger’s Syndrome, a neurological difference that affects how he himself communicates.
He can hold his own in a conversation with one other person, especially if he knows you. In fact, if you don’t know about his diagnosis, you’d never think anything was
Unless you boned up on what distinguishes aspergers from other disabilites.
People who have aspergers struggle with communication, especially when they’re in a group of people. I can’t imagine what it’s like to stand with two or more of my friends or co-workers and be clueless to all of the shades of meaning chasing after their conversations, batted back and forth like ping pong balls gone wild on steroids.
I can’t imagine it because I’m one of those people who’s verbally quick, easily juggling two or more of these on-going chats while picking up on the invisible conversations that are just as loud but never spoken out loud. The inneundo just below the surface conversation between three co-workers, one of whom is my son. He’ll pick up on the negative emotion of what’s being said but, it takes him some time to process what he’s heard. By that time, the conversation has galloped off in a different direction.
How is it that my son can sit and watch an obedience class with 8-12 dogs in attendance or walk into a kennel suite that houses the same number of dogs and can accurately
interpret read each one?
Temple Grandin would tell you that part of the answer is in the details.
People with autism are really good at seeing details. “When a person with autism walks into a room,’ one researcher said, ‘the first thing they see is a stain on the coffee table and 17 floor boards.’ That seems an exaggeration and an overgeneralization to me, but the idea is on the right track.” - Rethinking The Autistic Brain, Thinking Across The Spectrum, by Temple Grandin. Pg 120
It’s not the complete answer, but it’s a positive starting point, unlike a lot of the material that’s out there.
Where does it get complex?
For my now 27 year old son, it gets more complicated with humans.
Sitting in a meeting with more than two items on the agenda with more than one other person in attendance, he gets confused. He can’t track the many conversations that start up, get interrupted and circle back around the table. If he’s on his own, without the benefit of someone there to facilitate the communication, he’s completely lost.
Let’s point this post in one final direction:
If you are a manager of a department or the owner of a company and you know that someone you work with has aspergers, one of the worst things you can say is, “Well, you know, communication is a two way street.” Yes, it’s a two way street, but if you’re the person who has aspergers and you’re driving the car, there are dangerous pot holes and unexpected detours that will delay or forever prevent your arrival.
Do you have a similar story that you can share in the comment section? I’d love to hear what you’re going through. And if you know of someone who would benefit from reading this post, please share it. Together, it’s time for us to make some real change in the world.