Neurology & Context

Dania Jekel, Executive Director
Blog Post

It’s almost fall, the academic year has begun so I thought I would address a slightly more academic topic.

I’ve been thinking about many of the traits associated with Asperger’s and similar profiles and how they are perceived in our society and by ourselves. When a parent decides to have a child or teen evaluated, it is typically because the child is struggling socially, having difficulty in their school environment, or exhibiting behavior issues. When an adult seeks a diagnosis or discovers on their own they identify with this profile, it is often as though an explanation is finally given for a lifetime of feeling anxious, socially awkward, exhausted from pretending to be someone different, and not quite fitting in.

But I would like to suggest that a person’s traits that may create difficulties in particular settings are not intrinsically negative or maladaptive. In fact, many of these same traits that may be ill-suited for some situations can be an incredible asset in the right situations.

Location

Awhile ago an adult told me he loved traveling in Japan where the rules of greeting and social interaction are clearly spelled out, and the rules are rarely broken. Eye contact is not expected and dress is standard. His Asperger traits weren’t disabling to him in Japan.

When I was in school (until the 60’s), we sat alone at our assigned desk, in a row and were expected to memorized information, dates, names, and math formulas. Perhaps this was a learning style better suited for many on the spectrum than the current pods of desks, group projects, expressive writing assignments, and multiple transitions throughout the day.

People on the spectrum clearly have a different way of thinking, perceiving and processing sensory and social information. As a result, I have always viewed this difference in neurology as a combination of strengths as well as challenges. But I now realize this is way too simplistic, because describing Asperger traits as or challenges is completely dependent on the environment or the context.

Many neurological differences only become difficulties because of the environment and expectations in our current society, in our educational system, in our community, and in our workforce. The importance our society places on the social aspect of life, on multitasking, the ability to cope with ambiguous situations, the fast pace, the ability to deal with a barrage of information, are all things which might be ill-suited to someone with a different neurology.

The reality is that many of the traits associated with an Asperger profile, depending on the setting or environment, can manifest as strengths, or even be irrelevant.

Hyper-focus

Let’s take for example the trait of hyper-focus, which is usually viewed negatively as disabling “perseveration.” A child may become so focused, he or she can’t transition from one subject to another, or struggles to engage in other activities outside of a special interest. Yet that same trait would be essential to be an author who could focus on writing for hours every day without distraction, or a Ph.D. student who needs to spend large amounts of time on research and writing to complete a dissertation. A chess player, a house painter, an antique car restorer, a musician–all of these professions require the ability to maintain focus for long periods of time to be successful.

Details

Or take another Asperger trait which is generally defined as a disabling or maladaptive: the preference to absorb details rather than the big picture. For example, I know a software developer who dives so deeply into the details and minutia of the problem, he spends countless hours doing unnecessary work and doesn’t complete the assignment. But if the person is an editor or is doing quality control, or perhaps (like Darwin) studying the shape of finches beaks, this attention to detail would be an asset, not a liability or weakness.

Environment

And even beyond this, some common Asperger traits are irrelevant in a different environment. Difficulty with social skills isn’t an issue if you are a farmer working with animals or plants. Problems with communication lessen or be non-existent if you are with your tribe–the people that share your neurology, interests or passions. Anime lovers, marathon runners, long distance hikers–whatever the group may be–they are all people who speak the same language and talk about the same things. The social style that may be maladaptive in the outer world is suddenly very adaptive within this world. Difficulty with certain sensory elements are not an issue if you live in the country, and can even be an asset is you are a musician or a cook. Difficulty with executive functioning doesn’t matter if you have an structured job with predictable routine or are able to have an administrative assistant or a house cleaner.

Most importantly is the process of knowing oneself and then constructing, creating, and finding a world that fits who you are rather than changing yourself to fit the world. There are skills you do need to develop in order to access the things you desire, which can be especially challenging when you are younger, but it is important to recognize your traits–not necessarily as strengths and weaknesses, but as intrinsic parts of you. Only then can you find the living and work environment, social situations, and community that will fit your natural way of being.