Living in a society when you have a different way of seeing the world is never easy. Thus is the situation for people with challenges on the autism spectrum or the area of the schizoaffective disorder. Those with such situations tend to suffer, due to society’s lack of understanding of how their brains vary in understanding, compared to the majority of the population. This is needless and wasteful.
One of the broadest smiles I have witnessed in counseling work is when I tried to explain how a teenage boy’s mind works and he had difficulty following. I ended up just saying, “You are from the Planet Zargon. You operate on a higher plane. With your wisdom and rapid thoughts, you will always be coming from a different place. Be proud and be kind to the rest of us, Prince of Zargon. If you can hold your anger and your tongue, you will accomplish great things”.
That may sound disconcerting and something out of the mouth of Yoda, but he understood and appreciated the boost to his greatly damaged ego. He has a combination of Asperger’s Syndrome and a Bipolar Disorder. He is brilliant. In a past career, I managed a Classic Rock radio station and this teen knows more about the music of the ‘70’s and ‘80’s than I do. He can name most members of most bands. It is an area of interest to him. This is how the brain of a person with Asperger’s works. They may fail in the classroom but areas of interest become obsessions and they thrive on the information. One adult Asperger’s patient remembers everybody’s license plate number and home address. When he approaches people in public places and tells them their address and license plate number, he often gets to meet the local police. This is a classic example of how a harmless, yet differing thought process, can get a person with a different way of thinking in very big trouble.
Like others with the traits of autism, Asperger’s people also tend to “stim”. This is a way of saying they need constant stimulation. The teen with the music obsession carries drumsticks in his coat pocket and will perform a drum solo in thin air, while he talks with you about another area of interest--world history. Another teen we counsel feels the need to move about constantly. He will walk around the clinic, trying different chairs, laying on the hardwood floor and then wander again, all the time holding a highly intelligent conversation. Does any of this remind you of a fictional physicist on a very popular TV show who always has to have “his spot”? Yes, Sheldon Cooper from “The Big Bang Theory” is a characterization of a brilliant mind with a bit of an autism twist. The Sheldon character likely has Asperger’s. Yet, the character has his own style of charm and grace and can be extremely kind.
Young people with Asperger’s can stim by dancing constantly, flapping of the arms or clapping of the hands. They may repeat phrases or lines from cartoons or movies. They can be somewhat annoying and suffer from the reaction of adults and, especially, other children who cannot understand the nature of the Asperger’s child. This often breeds bullying, which is highly illogical to their bright young brains.
Frustration and intense anger are often common with a child and young adult dealing with the societal reaction to their style of thinking. Adults often become withdrawn and find a singular area of focus to survive mentally. Asperger’s teens can be dangerous, if bullied constantly. The next-door neighbor in my hometown had Asperger’s. The result of constant teasing ended the life of an innocent young woman at the nearby university, as the young man’s childhood tormentors also attended the college and played a trick on him, which resulted in him believing the Homecoming Queen wanted to date him. Her rejection of his approach cost her life, as he drove home, grabbed his father’s handgun and then returned to the student union, shooting the woman who had no idea why he thought she wanted to date him. He had progressed into a state of psychosis and could not recall much of what he had done. During his trial and acceptance of an insanity plea, the judge scolded the hometown bullies, all of whom were summoned into the courtroom. Numerous lives changed drastically, due to the misunderstanding of the man with Asperger’s. A woman died. Her family suffered. The young man spent the next 15 years in a state hospital, then more years in half-way houses, then under the guardianship of others, until he died recently, ending a miserable existence.
If this man had been understood and appreciated by those in my hometown, life could have been much different. He may have ended up as a great mind of science, much like the fictional Sheldon Cooper. He may have contributed greatly to the arts or to higher education. The fear of difference and ridicule of non-conforming social style, robbed society of tremendous opportunity.
This is an extreme, yet, not isolated case. The adult who loves to remember license plates and addresses delivers pizza for a living. Obviously, he is very efficient. However, what is society missing by having such a mind delivering pizza? Social fears of this man’s intense stare and differing behaviors have cost him, greatly. He takes the word of others literally and has been imprisoned by his actions, due to believing a lie. He tends to “weird” people out. This brings about police interaction. It is a vicious cycle in his life.
Much of the Asperger’s and autism characteristics, along with those of the schizoaffective person, are due to rapid thought. We are not talking slightly above normal. Compare your own mind’s speed to that of a supersonic jet. Such rapid processing of thought leads to a logjam of measured reasoning, much as your computer stalls out and freezes, when you have too many programs open and the processor’s speed overcomes the RAM. Is this evil or “weird”? No. It is just different and there are societal advantages of nurturing people of this ability and not demeaning them.
Treatment for Asperger’s is controversial. Some doctors will put the patients on antipsychotics to slow the thought. In some cases, this is helpful, as it allows the person to fit better into society. It also removes some of the anguish of rapid and scattered thought, which can be confusing and upsetting to the person engaged in the supersonic brain synapse movement. People with Asperger’s can live their lives as a person with constant bipolar mania, which allows for damaging social errors to occur. They cannot sit still. They can’t measure what they say before saying it. They don’t read social cues. They’re what many refer to as “geeks”. However, have you ever met a geek who is a bully? Have you ever met a geek who is not excited about the world? Have you ever been in the presence of a geek who has nothing to say, once you have broken the ice of their social anxiety?
Geeks can be great people. They invent things. They create and compose. They can even do our homework for us. Most people labeled as geeks have bright minds and bright personalities, hidden beneath a crust of social anxiety that stems from differing thought patterns to the majority. What a waste can be to set aside the geeks of society and not appreciate them. Much of what I do to help people of this nature is encourage them to celebrate their difference and heightened abilities. If they come to accept themselves, they can help others to accept them.
Next time you encounter such a person, try and understand them and give them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they’re trying to tell you something you find boring and are so enthusiastic that their eyes are wide and their speech is rapid and they seem ready to physically implode. Try and look beyond that socially awkward situation and appreciate the geek within. You may find that you are elevated in your efforts and come to appreciate their black and white and logically connected thinking pattern that does leave them with a deep appreciation of right and wrong. So, if you are in a group and see a person of this nature alone, play a quick game of “rock, scissors, paper, lizard Spock” to decide which of you will approach the person and engage them in what may be invigorating conversation. You may find that the “force” of human kindness and wonder is stronger with that person in your life and that your time with them can be, as Chief Science Officer Spock would say, “fascinating”.