I wanted to write about Asperger’s because many people suspect that their child has Asperger’s from reading symptom lists. As soon as they see their preschool child has some autistic symptoms but not the language delays, they will start wondering. (See my post on “It’s not all Autism” for similar commentary about this problem.)
But very few preschool children will be diagnosed with Asperger’s, and my personal belief is that in most cases, it is better to wait until the child is elementary age to diagnose. This is because most of the symptoms are, in essence, symptoms of relational immaturity. All children start out with these symptoms, to one extent or another. It is not until the child is older that you can tell his/her relational experiences have not led to maturity. In some cases, there are definitely diagnostic tip-offs before age 3. But many Asperger’s sufferers have become adults before discovering the truth. It is definitely one of the hardest disorders to capture on paper.
When you encounter an Asperger’s child, you often know. But you may not know exactly what the problem is. An Asperger’s child has a peculiar orientation to the world. They seem in it, but not of it. They seem interested but not attached. They know a lot, but their knowledge seems impersonal. They give inappropriate or inadequate responses to interactions, such as speaking too loudly, off-topic, unkindly, flatly, etc. They often don’t make eye contact, don’t seem to be gauging your interest as they speak, and are resistant to manners, customs, and teaching about such matters. In social matters, they just don’t seem to be “getting it.”
These are just some of the symptoms, which can be symptoms of other autism spectrum disorders. Essentially, Aspergers is a social/emotional detachment disorder which is neurologically based (i.e. not based on circumstances, stress, or intention). The cognitive hardware that receives and expresses emotional/relational input is damaged. Have you ever had an existential experience, like at someone else’s wedding, where you see all kinds of people having fun and participating, but you don’t really know them? You feel distant from them, as an outside observer, and recognize that however genuinely they are laughing and relating to one another, you have no connection to them. Nor do you have the relational capital necessary to go over and just join in the conversation. This is sort of the way having Asperger’s is described. From self-reports, we get the sense that many of them are having the truly existential (detached) experience of the world where they are smart enough to rationally understand what is going on between people, but they are emotionally and socially hindered from vicariously experiencing it (entering in), interpreting it, and reciprocating it back (expressing to others). Thus they come off as awkward, disrespectful, or self-centered.
But keep in mind, Aspergers is not a character or personality deficiency—it is a neurological problem. The person is unable to recognize or engage within themselves what needs to be changed.
Depending on the individual’s intelligence and verbal abilities, Asperger’s people may be able to overcome a lot. But they have rely on memory for many manners and customs, and have to be taught explicitly about all the rules which other people seem to understand naturally. (Of course, as special needs teachers know, “naturally” is not exactly natural.) They have to be taught to recognize relational cues, including those from faces, gestures, and circumstances. They have to be taught context cues, which is very difficult for the analytical mind to grasp. Until those context cues are mastered (and many can really only be mastered by intuition or discernment), the Aspergers’ patient will have trouble with many holistic concepts such as:
Diplomacy (hurting another’s feelings, being polite, respecting ethnicity/differences, respecting different tastes/styles, resisting sensitive subjects, acknowledging or reciprocating others’ contributions, recognizing when someone is embarrassed, obliging oneself to be charitable, perceiving boundaries, respecting authority, adjusting one’s style i.e. based on family from acquaintance, old from young, sick from ill)
Conversation (letting others talk, using appropriate tone/volume/voice, responding to others, initiating properly, ending properly, chit chat, giving others time to think/answer, asking questions, knowing when they’ve talked enough, reading between the lines)
Posture (giving others space, not leaning, touching others appropriately)
Character (not being prideful, not being bossy, Golden Rule)
Receiving/Expressing (sympathy, empathy, apologies, thankfulness, compliments, praise, congratulations, help, relief, thankfulness, being proud of someone else, humor)
Identity (sense of belonging, understanding one’s heritage, understanding a history/significance of one’s own past, believing in traditions, forming one’s own convictions, experiencing freedom, valuing friendships, perceiving whether one is accepted, wanting someone to be intimate with–spouse, best friend, pet!)
So you can see why these types of things are too hard to judge in a preschooler… none of them have these abilities!
You can also see why other disorders, including learning disorders, auditory or sensory disorders, communication disorders, and personality disorders could also be possible diagnoses rather than Aspergers. One of my sons who has had language problems since he was a baby, for example, was stalled in much of his social development because we could not talk with him about these concepts until he was over four years old. Little kids start picking up things like empathy and manners as young as one and two years old (just little seeds), and acquiring that relational capital for more understanding later. But if you are hindered in relating to your child for any reason in those early years, they can show significant emotional or social immaturity. Firstborns, only children, and spoiled children can too! ;-) The key difference between them and the Asperger’s patient, however, is that the Aspergers is not able to understand 9internally witness) what you are talking about. The non-Asperger’s should be able to understand what you mean, even if he or she doesn’t have the skills to talk about it or change their behavior right away.
In closing, Aspergers is an auto-recognition disorder that is hard to describe but causes a significantly socially peculiar spirit to a child. Essentially, they have an overly analytical mind which does not know how to process social/emotional/relational information. They may underperceive input, or receive it but not know how to interpret it, or know how to interpret it but not know how to reciprocate expressively. Because the nature of relationships is synthetic and often highly contextual, the Aspergers child will have to be given an educational program that is able to analytically break down the concepts they are struggling with, as much as possible. And because of the challenge in capturing the Asperger’s repertoire on paper, you do not want to jump to conclusions about your preschooler having Asperger’s unless you have some experience with the syndrome. It’s not one of those disorders you can diagnose in a three-year old who has some autistic-leaning symptoms. It should definitely be done by a professional.