Monday, February 16, 2015

Asperger Syndrome: When a Fish Must Learn to Climb a Tree

My son that has Asperger Syndrome likes to see things in blacks and whites. Gray areas and nuance can be problematic. He is often obsessed with comparisons, always trying to rank things in terms of right and wrong, good and bad. It's part of how he makes sense of his world.

But being an 'Aspie' doesn't mean that our son doesn't experience the run of the mill kinds of things that other mid-teens experience. Who isn't self conscious about ... well, just about everything at that age? When coupled with some of the Asperger and related issues our son deals with, his mid-teen issues sometimes present themselves in unique ways.

For example, pretty much all mid-teens wonder whether they are physically attractive ... enough. They try to develop a sense of this by taking cues from others. This can be challenging for Aspies, since they often have difficulty comprehending signals from others. So in his quest to comparatively rank himself on the scale of goods and bads my son recently asked me forthrightly, "Dad, am I handsome?"

Part of a parent's job is to be biased toward their children without being disingenuous. But an even bigger part is steering their kids in the right direction. Even trying to filter for my inherent partiality, I think that our son is quite handsome.

But obsession with physical beauty hardly seems like the path to happiness. If we overemphasize outward beauty in ourselves, we will likely allow our perceptions to inappropriately cloud our judgment of others. (See Elder Dallin H. Oaks on this topic.) How should I help my son understand this in a context he can appreciate?

In another recent exchange our son asked me, "Dad, am I smart?" I knew what he was getting at. He struggles in school. Despite his native intelligence, his outside-of-the-mainstream brain function meshes poorly with standard pedagogy. He has a learning plan at school and he gets specialized help. But the message that is pounded into him day after day is that he is deficient, that there is something wrong with him.

Coupled with his natural tendency to rank things in terms of goods and bads, our son can't help but feel that he is on the bad end of the spectrum. Sometimes we as parents reinforce this unfortunate view of things.

While I formulated a response to my son's question, I began to smolder inside as I realized that he was up against a system that will always class him as deficient. The way we rank academic achievement in our schools is a pretty crappy way of determining how smart children are. Grades only show how well one functions in that system, not necessarily how smart one is. Intelligence comes in a much broader set of categories than we measure in our school systems.

The reality is that our son will never fit that well into the school system. He exemplifies Einstein's proverbial fish trying to climb a tree.

I understand the economics behind this. We necessarily focus school on the middle 60% for cost effectiveness. The further we get away from the median, the more unique students' needs become and the more challenging and expensive it becomes to address those needs. Thus, the tendency to treat those outside of the mainstream as flawed and inferior.

But this knowledge doesn't make my son's plight hurt any less. He will continue to receive a continuous stream of varied messages telling him that he isn't good enough, that his uniqueness is a problem rather than an opportunity to pursue a distinctive course that ought to be celebrated. Those messages will come from just about all corners, not just from school. It bothers me to know that some of these messages will come from those of us that are closest to him, including me.

Many Aspies eventually learn to successfully navigate life. One thriving Aspie says that functioning well in mainstream society for an Aspie is like learning to live in a foreign country. You can become quite comfortable with the culture and the language, but no matter how long you live there you will always be a foreigner. Living in this 'foreign country' may become second nature, but it still won't be first nature.

I yearn for our son to be happy and contented. But there's only so much a parent can do. Much of the hard work of learning to embrace his uniqueness in a way that allows him to function well in society will necessarily come through our son's own efforts and struggles. Our job is to support him as well as we can in this pursuit. I pray that we will do better at helping him rather than making him feel defective.

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