Having support throughout childhood and teen years is what can make the difference for a life of opportunities as an adult.
Medical advisor María Isabel Betancur Navarro, psychiatrist, practitioner at Coomeva Private Healthcare
In a world laden with standards and overarching qualifiers, where academic, work and social patterns are designed for people to achieve pre-established goals, places for those who are “different” are hard to come by and, without a doubt, difficult to manage.
The way people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) communicate with the world is what makes them different from others. Socializing and communicating with others are key elements of being able to relate and understand reality, and are the main challenges faced by those who have this disorder. While the control people with ASD have over themselves inhibits their contact with others and restricts the development of their social skills, this does not just mean that they have a medical condition, it also means that they are neurodiverse.
While Asperger’s has been included as part of the autism spectrum in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association, a variety of questions and myths persist about this syndrome. Many have considered this condition as independent from Autism, calling it the “genius gene,” as it is associated with people who are well-known in the sciences, arts or technology. Whether Albert Einstein or Bill Gates have had this syndrome, or whether the character of Sheldon Cooper from the fictional TV series “The Big Bang Theory” is based on a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, are theories that are often discussed by many. Asperger’s is not a matter of being a genius, however. People with Asperger’s are often known for having an outstanding skill due to the characteristic aspect of the syndrome called “restricted interest” where they spend most of their energy and time on something they are very interested in. If this skill is strengthened enough, they may get recognition for it and accomplish great things, yet this does not come without the difficulties of managing their emotions and interacting with others and how these have an effect on their cognitive performance.
This is when it becomes important to reflect on how to approach the treatment of Asperger’s. Is the idea to normalize those who are different? Or change those who face these different challenges to make them fit within a system? While change is possible, certain realities must be acknowledged. According to psychiatrist María Isabel Betancur, the goal is for people living with Asperger’s to develop to their full potential and adapt as much as possible to society. To achieve this, transformation is key; not just for patients but for the different individuals that surround them. As the specialist emphasizes, “Rehabilitation is a collaborative effort that involves family, teachers and friends.”
Challenges as a family
Getting a diagnosis within the first seven years of life and being prepared to treat it with the right therapy will aid in a good prognosis for this syndrome. Asperger’s is not easy to diagnose, as its symptoms can be confused with behavioral disorders, but the sooner one can be made, the better chances are for adapting to it.
As Betancur explains, the challenge to parents or to people who work with those who have this syndrome, is to become educated and thoroughly trained on behavioral therapy in order to help bridge them with reality. For her, “Family must have realistic expectations that focus on the person being successful at what they like to do most and not in all aspects of life.” This involves educating ourselves to respect the conditions that make us different, “Manage your emotions so you don’t frustrate the child; identify what the child struggles with,” she adds. While it is important to motivate them and support them in developing their potential, expecting someone with Asperger’s to be like the rest or to meet the demands of society is a heavy load for them to bear in life. In a blog that specializes this disorder, the Chilean writer Leonardo Farfán (who also has Asperger’s), makes a call to accept differences, as this is something that benefits us all. “In a world where we are all so alike, being different is a problem, an annoyance and even a punishment,” he writes.
Support is key
Getting professional and family support at an early age is key, as the first years of life are when the brain can be most stimulated. It is understandable that as parents or friends, we are not prepared to deal with a disorder that we are unfamiliar with, which is why it is important to seek out guidance and get training on different forms of therapy. One such therapy is holding therapy, proven to be successful for managing times of stress and anger. It is also important for those with this syndrome to find opportunities to play, try new things or activities such as music or sports, and for others to support their ability to interact with their peers.
How to understand and identify it
Similarities with Autism: the term “autism spectrum” refers to the different degrees of development disorders there are. Asperger’s is normally hold a high degree of functioning in this spectrum, as it does not affect cognitive or language abilities. The main challenges those with Asperger’s face are with social skills, which can affect one’s performance at school or work as well as one’s ability to have a relationship.
This disorder is characterized by not being able to maintain adequate social interactions. People with this condition are isolated and focus their conversations on their own communication needs without showing much interest in what others have to say; they have a hard time understanding expressions with double meanings as well as non-verbal communication, which is why it is difficult for them to understand the feelings of others. They can also be recognized for their restricted and repetitive behaviors.
- Abnormal or inappropriate intonation, and unusual vocabulary for their age group.
- Difficulty joining in to play games with other children, to the point of not having friends.
- Aggressive behavior and extreme reactions if their personal space is being invaded.
- Using accents, gestures or expressions that are not typical of their age group.
- Abnormal relationships with adults: they are either too intense or nearly inexistent.
“They understood that Miguel was different. He was how he chose to be. The fact that he didn’t jump didn’t make him less of a frog, it made him a frog that didn’t jump,” excerpt from La rana que no saltaba (“The Frog that Didn’t Jump”), by Leonardo Caracol.