I’ve read posts by people who are neurodiverse (Aspergers, NLD) who actually wonder if they’re too smart. They don’t meet people’s expectations for “autistic” so their behavior is misinterpreted, their needs are overlooked and the expectations of their performance doesn’t take into account the challenges of their neurodiversity.
The issue can be behavioral, at home or at school. Parents complain, “I don’t understand why he always fights going out, he’s so stubborn” or teachers call a student rude and unmotivated. The parent or teacher need to understand how the behavior is related to the syndrome – perhaps a break in routine, a rapid transition, sensory overload, the task itself or social misunderstanding.
Another possible solution is for person with Asperger’s to explain the situation from his or her point of view. Some with Aspergers feel that they shouldn’t have to explain themselves. Neurotypicals (those without Asperger’s) ideally would understand but the fact is at times they don’t and might be confused or frustrated. The best way to get respect for a perspective is to make it clear. Misunderstanding can be on both sides.
Sometimes the issue is not that the person with Asperger’s won’t explain, but has difficulty finding the words to explain, has experienced disrespect when making the effort or becomes emotionally triggered by the request. I find the best strategy for neurotypical parents, teachers, spouses or co-workers is to begin with the attitude that the person with Asperger’s isn’t being lazy, disrespectful, unmotivated or oppositional, and it’s a question of mutual understanding. That at least provides the possibility for fruitful discussion.
I worked with a teenager with Asperger’s whose parents complained that he always mumbled, driving them crazy. If he was performing some clearly ASD behavior they would have “gotten it,” but this boy was simply “quirky.” The teen complained that his parents were always yelling at him, which he saw as purposeful cruelty since he had auditory sensitivity. When I asked about his mumbling, he said that he tended to work through ideas out loud. I explained to him that his parents thought he was talking to them when he talked out loud around them. He hadn’t realized that, and his parent’s behavior made more sense. Once his parents understood the situation, they learned to ask whether he wanted them to listen.
Another problem is speaking out in a way seen as disruptive and rude, especially if it challenges an authority figure. A teen with Aspergers told his art teacher (and class) that he refused to do his in-class assignment. His reason was that the teacher had taught them to draw faces on paper, but now expected them to make the head, neck and shoulders of a person out of clay. He felt he had no preparation and that the task was unreasonable. (Another possible problem for a student with Asperger’s might have been difficulty with the sensory properties of the clay.) This boy often ignored the rule not to speak out in classes and ended up in the principal’s office. The school knew his diagnosis but the cycle of his being disruptive and going to the principal’s office was repeated often. The teacher and principal never considered asking him why he spoke out, assuming he was simply disrespectful and rude. Having a discussion let the principal understand the boy’s resistance and helped the boy understood the problem of interrupting class.
High intelligence can also mask learning issues, or lead to inappropriate assumptions of academic skills. A student’s verbal intelligence may lead teachers to expect performance across the board at the level of the verbal skills. For example, a teacher might see refusal to write an essay on the feelings of the characters in fiction as oppositionalism or as a lack of motivation. Actually, the reason for the refusal to do the assignment is apparent if one takes into account the student’s diagnosis; inferential thinking and taking others’ perspectives are weaknesses. On other tasks, the problem may be different: difficulty understanding the intent of the question, having weak executive function skills in writing, or even dysgraphia. Areas of relative weakness can also be frustrating to the student, since those with Asperger’s are often perfectionistic.
Schools may rely on testing to confirm problem areas, and problems with inferential language and holistic thinking are often too nuanced or at too high a level in language skills to be assessed with available tools. Bright students usually score in the normal range or above on basic tests of language skills. A similar problem can be present in reading comprehension; the passages used in reading tests are inadequate to assess problems in reading entire books in literature. Tests assessing writing with a short essay may not reveal difficulties with planning and writing long papers. Schools may need to take into account work samples compared to evidence of superior intelligence to understand academic problems.
Another problem I often hear is when the parents of a student with Asperger’s are told that the student is at grade level (or better) academically, so services aren’t needed. I’ll go through this more in another blog, but the law (IDEA) defines education broadly to include social and emotional learning. Students on the ASD spectrum or NLD obviously have social difficulties and would need services to make progress in the social emotional realm. Post secondary work takes social, emotional and academic skillfulness.
It’s important that schools and families take seriously the less obvious but still serious needs of Asperger’s or NLD individuals who seem basically OK, and not forget the cognitive, sensory or behavioral challenges they might still encounter. Labels of “uninterested,” “unmotivated,” “rude,” and “oppositional” don’t further understanding; a genuine respect and effort to understand can result in changes or accommodations that make are helpful to students and productive for schools.