Parents, teachers and partners always tell me that children/adults with Asperger’s Syndrome or NLD should be more self aware, not engage in annoying or rude behaviors and self-advocate when they don’t know or understand something. They’re supposed to develop “EQ” on cue. I always respond that people don’t get what they don’t know; expecting people to act on what they don’t know is fundamentally unrealistic.
Mike was in the cafeteria eating near some other kids when he saw a slightly overweight girl sit down with chocolate cake on her tray. “You shouldn’t eat that, it will make you fat,” he offered. He had been told, “Never be rude” but he thought he was being helpful.
Emily was listening to her teacher’s lecture on the South in the 1950’s and 60’s. He was detailing the many specific events that had taken place: lynchings, church bombings, being denied the use of restrooms and water fountains, etc. He never said specifically that this was the early history of the civil rights movement and she didn’t make the connection that this was inferred. When he assigned an open-ended prompt to discuss the early civil rights movement, Emily felt he’d never told them even though she knew all the details he‘d mentioned.
John walked into the living room after dinner where his daughter and wife were talking. He felt he wasn’t invited to be involved, so he went back to his den to listen to music for a few hours. His leaving was a regular routine – but John was very surprised to learn that his family’s perception of him was that he was uncaring and uninvolved.
If Mike understood that he was being rude and hurtful, if Emily realized she was missing a main organizing idea that was inferred, and if John realized the impact of his behavior, they would have “gotten” what they missed in the first place.
Some people with Aspergers and NLD are very self aware; others aren’t. Self awareness requires other awareness and picking up the non-verbal cues that guide social behavior. Self advocacy requires understanding what was inferred or missed. These are fundamental challenges for many AS/NLD individuals.
Helping people be aware of what they miss is obviously tricky. It can be helpful to first identify recurring situations that often end up in problems. Then, we work together think of a way of handling the situation taking into consideration what usually goes wrong. The key to awareness is recognizing the recurring situation as it comes up or even ahead of time, and using the strategy that was already created.
Mike’s situation was when he tried to engage someone with a comment; he needed something more specific to help him than “don’t be rude.” (The same can be said for “be more thoughtful” or “be nicer.” Those don’t really say anything usefully specific.) When Mike wants to comment on what someone is doing, his purpose is usually that he wants to connect socially. He could say something positive, like “Would you like to sit here,” or “That chocolate cake looks good.” The emphasis is on being positive.
Emily’s problem situation was when a teacher was giving a detailed lecture and there might be inferences she missed. She would do best to share with the teacher early on that she worked hard to master all the information, but she had a hard time identifying underlying organizing ideas, abstracting main ideas. (This can be important with a boss or teacher who expects someone to know what’s prioritized without being specifically told.) If the teacher or boss isn’t able or willing to check in with her, Emily needs to check in herself to go over what was said and be sure she knows what’s important. For students in middle and high schools, they often ask for and get study guides that give outlines indicating the main ideas covered.
John’s situation was when people he cared about (especially family) were together and he didn’t have an active role or have something clear to contribute. Even though he wasn’t specifically involved, it was important to stay in the same room and listen. We talked about how to show interest and that sometimes people don’t want to be fixed, they just want someone to listen and express caring. He definitely wants them to feel that he cares about them. He could stay and be engaged by listening, or if he needed space, he could acknowledge them before excusing himself instead of just walking away.
This is a situation that can be resolved if everyone understands what’s happening – if the non Asperger person understands the intent of the person with Asperger’s. There’s no point in being angry at someone for what he or she misses; actually, it’s counterproductive in that it builds resentment on both sides. Strategies need to be based on something that can be observed like a specific kind of situation. Strategies need to be concrete. Self-awareness isn’t magically knowing what you don’t know; it’s recognizing the situations that create problems and knowing a better way to handle them.