By | Published On: May 29, 2013 |

As a Psychologist my work is very largely about helping people. In some cases my primary role is to help them recognise something that hasn’t occurred to them about a problem and that way we are able to go on and solve it together. The most rewarding part about my work therefore is often when I manage to heal, soothe or even fix whatever problem they have. However, it’s always difficult when I meet an issue where I cannot help enough (by my perfectionist standards) because ultimately I cannot change something about them. This is the case with Asperger’s syndrome.

If you have never come across it before you may be interested to know the symptoms and the definition. Asperger’s is named after the man who identified it and is a mild form of autism that affects social interaction and behaviour. Autism can range from mild to severe, affecting social interaction, behaviour and language skills. There is a great article referring to the range of disorders, their symptoms and the management of the condition here;. In an extreme case someone with autism finds the world incredibly chaotic and difficult to interpret which in turn can isolate them as they struggle to understand situations, the emotions of others, and their own reactions. Asperger’s can be less severe but many people who experience it can find relationships particularly difficult as they interpret information quite differently to their partner. In turn the partner, who may be Neuro typical or NT as it is called, can become quickly confused at the reaction they get to situations they are both experiencing because they naturally expect their partner to ‘see’, hear and interpret data the same way they do.

No one is quite sure what causes autism as genetic, environmental and neurological factors may all contribute but people who come and see me have often felt different and not known or been told why. This is a painful situation and often diagnosis can help because it helps people begin to make sense of their world or at least their reactions to it. I would like to emphasise at this point that a Clinical Psychologist is better equipped than I am as an Occupational Psychologist at conducting a full diagnosis, but I am always happy to help where I can and I usually work together with a Clinical expert in order to provide the best help possible.

The symptoms of Asperger’s fall into several categories and these are as follows: –

  1. Experiencing difficulty in connecting with other children or adults. This may be because people who have the syndrome are unable to pick up on social cues such as knowing when to stop talking and let someone else speak, or they may misunderstand humour and struggle with body language and what the person is ‘saying’ as well as what they vocalise.
  2. They may have a strong desire for familiar routines, dislike change or anything being moved around them especially once they are older and have control over where things go in their household.
  3. They can lack empathy for others as a result of a lack of activity in the part of the brain where emotion is felt. People with Asperger’s do experience entirely different neurological activity according to brain imaging scans. Consequently, they may respond very logically where an emotional appreciation or answer would be more appropriate.  However, research suggests that many may be over-sensitive to emotion experiencing strong emotional reactions themselves and feeling an intensity of emotion to situations or visual cues such as watching a film.
  4. They can be preoccupied with a narrow range of interests but know these subjects particularly well, collecting items related to them even reaching such a volume that it constitutes hoarding.
  5. They have heightened sensitivity and become over stimulated by noise, lights or strong tastes and textures.

For many people experiencing Asperger’s it is the cumulative impact of these symptoms rather than any one symptom itself which can make them feel particularly anxious and depressed. People I have met with the syndrome often function well if they are left alone to adapt and find ‘their own way in life’. They do this by being allowed to withdraw if they need to, spend time alone rather than socialise, and tend to avoid public events even when it may involve their own family, although the latter can be because they feel aware of being judged and wait to be criticised which damages their self esteem.

Although some may have learnt this adaptation and therefore become happier with their own company rather than struggling to relate to others, if they have experienced depression as well it is often because they are saddened as a result of simply not understanding how or why they may get something wrong in the eyes of another person. Life can therefore be one long series of criticism for them especially if they try to connect with people in their workplace, or have tried for a long term relationship but subsequently divorced without really understanding why the relationship failed or how they could have saved it.

As a Psychologist working with couples is often the most rewarding because the Asperger’s individual can be significantly helped if they learn how to appreciate their traits rather than disliking them, learn how to recognise the emotions others are feeling and what to do or say, and that being ‘different’ doesn’t make them wrong. In her book ‘The Asperger Couple’s Workbook’ Maxine Aston describes how an Asperger’s individual sends and receives information on a logical wavelength, problem solving situations they come across or, if they are an intense emotional responder, reacting with concern and discomfort to almost everything they meet. Neuro typical individuals on the other hand process information through an emotional filter and can register all sorts of emotions and levels of that emotion then articulate it easily which does not come as quickly to anyone with Asperger’s syndrome. Her book does an excellent job of providing a number of tools for people to use either as individuals or as a couple, and is available from Amazon for approx £11.00 plus shipping.

The other site worth visiting that has a wealth of incredibly helpful information and regular short newsletters is www. aspergerstestsite.com. The site is not only genuinely useful but it has an online test where people can measure the reactions they have to situations, helping to point them in the right direction should they realise there are difficulties they have experienced but not known whether what they are experiencing could be identified as Asperger’s syndrome. The link for the test is here: http://www.aspergerstestsite.com/75/autism-spectrum-quotient-aq-test/#.UZuj8r5wYdU

One of the tools Maxine Aston recommends is a colour coded card system that helps both the person with Asperger’s and their partner communicate better. The cards need not be used long term, but at least initially it can help to hold up a card (which has a colour both have agreed), which represents various emotional states such as anger, or confusion, happiness, or enthusiasm. Learning what is being felt and then knowing how to please the other person by appreciating what to say in response, makes a huge difference to the intimacy in a relationship, rather than persistently getting this wrong which leads both parties to feel uncertain, alienated or rejected.

Also useful is ‘the anger thermometer’ which illustrates a simple way of showing how increasing anger reaches a boiling point or a point when people no longer feel in control of themselves. Anyone learning to use it will recognise when a situation they are experiencing makes them feel a 6 or a 7 for example, which indicates they and their partner should stop and return to the issue at a later time. For someone with the syndrome this rapidly reduces the risk of charging on and doing more harm than good through the things they say or in many cases the things they don’t say. There are rules to discussions and the primary rule is that things of importance must always be revisited otherwise people tend to avoid conflict and learn to fear it.

As a Psychologist who is acutely aware that relationships between people whose emotional barometers are classed as reasonably normal often go wrong because of misunderstandings, I think a tool like this can be of enormous value. It could be argued that more of us would succeed in our relationships that way, and not end up divorced irrespective of our personality type.

If you have questions or concerns related to the subject of this blog, or if you have Asperger’s syndrome and wish to discuss the issues raised, I would be very interested to hear from you. Please contact me at sue@suefirthltd.com