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How Asperger's Syndrome / High-Functioning Autism / Mild Autism Spectrum Disorder Affects Adults Socially

Asperger's Syndrome, a.k.a., high-functioning autism, a.k.a., mild Autism Spectrum Disorder is an in-born variation in brain wiring which makes socializing more difficult for those who have it. This article will go into detail on its features, with a focus on how it impacts adults in social situations. A second article discusses some of the broad ways people with it can work to improve their social skills.

Intro / Preamble

What's with all the different names?

You'll see several terms for the same underlying condition:

I could go into more detail about how all the names came about, but I don't want this intro to go on forever. Basically the official diagnostic categories clinicians use have changed over the years. Asperger's Disorder is an older diagnosis, that's now been folded into Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Someone who previously would have gotten an Asperger's diagnosis would now be considered as having less-severe ASD. "High-functioning" was never an official diagnosis. It's a subjective assessment that someone is on the autism spectrum, but seems to have less-serious impairments.

So if Autism Spectrum Disorder is the up-to-date, proper term, why use Asperger's Syndrome and high-functioning autism at all? Well, because those are the names the public still mainly thinks in terms of. Not everyone is up to speed on the latest revisions to the diagnostic manual. I'll update the phrasing in the article down the road if the terms people use start to shift. I'll mostly use Asperger's Syndrome for the rest of this article.

Very quick overview of Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism Spectrum Disorder is a developmental difference, not a mental health illness. I won't reproduce the full set of diagnostic criteria, but they describe people on the autism spectrum as having two broad characteristics:

  1. They have difficulties with social communication and social interaction
  2. They have "restricted patterns of behavior, interests, and activities", which can show up as things like repetitive motor movements, needing to stick to the exact same routine everyday, having narrow interests, and over or under-sensitivity to sensory stimuli.

A lot of that may seem vague, but I'll go into more depth soon.

Severe vs. mild cases of autism

The symptoms of ASD can range from mild to severe. This article will focus on the features of Asperger's / mild autism, but you can't really get a sense of what "mild" means if you don't know what the other side of the spectrum looks like. It's not an exhaustive list, but here are some of the main differences:

It's a crude, oversimplified distinction, but all in all people with severe autism just seem more obviously intellectually and developmentally disabled. However, appearances can be misleading. Some people with so-called "low-functioning" autism are much more intelligent and capable than their "disabled" first impression would suggest.

In contrast, those on the less-severe / Asperger's end of the spectrum seem more quote-unquote "normal". They may come across as a bit odd or socially clumsy, or have trouble holding down a job, but nothing that would place them outside of the "regular person" camp. Once again, appearances aren't everything. Someone who's labelled "high-functioning" because they're outwardly smart and chatty may struggle in many ways to live a full life.

A few assorted points about Asperger's Syndrome

The three broad ways Asperger's can lead to social difficulties

I'll organize the list that makes up the bulk of this article according to these categories:

Of course, sometimes the line between the first two categories is blurry, but I still think it's a useful lens to view the symptoms through.

Features of Asperger's Syndrome that are inherently socially impairing

A less-developed intuitive understanding of how to socialize

Non-autistic, or neurologically typical, people instinctively grasp many aspects of socializing. Even if they're a little awkward, even if there are things they need to practice or have spelled out to them, they still effortlessly understand way more than they realize.

For people with Asperger's it's not nearly so easy. When they're talking to someone they don't have that deep, built-in sense of, "I know what to do here". They don't have the unspoken skills and knowledge that most people automatically absorbed. Even the smallest interaction can seem illogical and mystifying. People with Asperger's Syndrome (AS) often make comparisons such as:

All this isn't to say people with AS are lost causes when it comes to learning social skills, but it's usually a longer, slower process where they have to deliberately piece together what comes naturally to most people. Even as their social skills become more polished, they can feel like they've used trail and error to learn how they're expected to act on the surface, and they still don't fully grasp the principles underneath it all.

Difficulties with taking on other people's perspectives

This symptom has been described as mind-blindness. People with Asperger's Syndrome have trouble putting themselves inside another person's head and figuring out what they may be thinking or feeling. It's not that they're totally oblivious to the idea that other people have their own way of looking at things, they just have a harder time arriving at what that is. They can sometimes default to assuming everyone thinks the same way they do.

For example, they may tell a story, but not explain any of the characters or background context the listener would need to understand what was going on. The person with AS already has that information, and didn't consider that the listener couldn't know it.

Asperger's and "empathy"

There's a misconception that people with AS lack empathy entirely. That misunderstanding comes from the fact that the word is used in several ways. It can refer to being able to know another person's thoughts or emotions, and sometimes to feel them yourself. As mentioned, people with AS do struggle with this kind of perspective taking.

"Empathy" is also sometimes used to mean "caring about another person's struggles" or "feeling sad for them". People with Asperger's absolutely have this kind of empathy. For example, they may feel terrible for a classmate who's being bullied. In fact, some people with AS say they feel 'compassion empathy' too strong, which they sometimes refer to as hyper-empathy.

Finally, "empathy" can mean to "care about another person's struggles, and show it in the expected way". For example, if a friend falls and twists their ankle, to show that you're upset and concerned, and want to help. By this definition people with AS can come across as unempathetic. They may care, but not know to make a show of it. Or they maybe they mistakenly concluded, "Well, if I hurt my ankle I wouldn't want someone making a fuss over me, so that must be what everyone else wants as well."

Ignorance of social rules

Someone with AS can be unaware of the little social rules and niceties many people take for granted. That's partially because they don't unconsciously notice and absorb these rules like most people do. They also lack the perspective-taking tools that might let them arrive at rules on their own. They can make simple mistakes like not thanking someone for a favor, because they never learned that's what people do in that situation.

With time and life experience they can be catch up on many of these rules, but they may still have the odd gap in their knowledge. They may feel ill at ease in unfamiliar situations because they know there are probably lots of unwritten guidelines they won't be aware of, and are worried about inadvertently breaking one of them.

Difficulties in picking up on non-verbal communication

People with Asperger's Syndrome have a hard time reading the messages in others' body language, facial expressions and tone of voice. They may not intuitively understand what emotions certain expressions, vocal inflections, or postures are communicating.

A well-known example of this is a person with Asperger's talking to a group about their hobby, and not noticing that everyone has bored, closed-off body language, and that their replies of, "Wow, that's super interesting!" are being delivered in a caustic, sarcastic tone. They think the conversation is going well, and are caught off guard when everyone suddenly gets up and walks away. People with AS also commonly complain that they didn't realize someone was flirting with them at the time, and were only told about it later by a friend who saw the whole thing.

When people with AS are younger and more socially inexperienced it seems they're more oblivious than anything to other people's non-verbal communication. Once they're aware that it's something they need to pay attention to, they still struggle with consciously trying to decode it. They have to allocate some of their limited mental resources to it, and don't read it effortlessly and automatically like typical people do.

Difficulty picking up on subtle social cues

The above issues - lower social intuition, ignorance of social rules, and trouble with perspective taking and reading non-verbal communication - combine to cause people with AS have a really hard time reading subtle social cues. They usually can't take hints. They usually can't "read between the lines". They're probably not going to notice that slight change in vocal inflection which means, "I want you to ask me a follow up question about what I just told you". They do much better when people are clear and explicit with them, but unfortunately the social world often runs on the principle of, "I'll say or do one thing, and everyone should just know what I really mean".

Difficulty recognizing and expressing their own emotions

Aside from having trouble reading other people, someone with AS may not be totally plugged into what they're feeling themselves. Even when they know what they're experiencing, they may have trouble getting that message across to others. They may find themselves getting really upset out of nowhere because they didn't notice the milder emotions that led up to it.

Trouble with conversations

A tendency to speak in monologues focused on what they want to talk about

People with AS are well known for talking 'at' people rather than with them. Their default conversational style can be to deliver a monologue to their listener, usually about their favorite interest (more on that below). Monologues aren't inherently bad - sometimes the other person wants to hear one - but people with AS often launch into them at inappropriate times. Because they aren't as tuned into body language, they can keep speaking even though the listener seems bored. Another thing they'll do is frequently try turn the conversation back to what they want to talk about.

They're not doing this to deliberately try to annoy anyone. It's just that they're enthusiastic about their interest and want to talk about it. Everyone does that sometimes, people with AS just do it more. It's also an area where they feel comfortable, so if a discussion goes into other territory they may feel lost and left out and unable to contribute, so they'll try to steer things back into their comfort zone.

Again, kids with AS are benignly oblivious when they corner a classmate on the playground and deliver a one-sided speech about how the upcoming patch to an RPG is going to tweak the combat system. Adults know better and try not to go on and on about a topic. However sometimes they just feel like they have to do it anyway.

Difficulty with keeping their statements coherent

When they're talking Aspies may not put everything together into a cohesive package that the listener understands. They may seem to ramble on, go off on tangents, or not arrive at any particular point. Partially this may be because they're not good at looking at things from the listener's point of view, and considering what type of information they would need to know. They may also be more thinking out loud to themselves, rather than trying to have a two-way exchange.

Difficulty with responding to other people's statements

People with AS often have a hard time thinking of what to say, and aren't good at seeing various ways they could respond to the statements other people throw out there. For example, if you asked how someone was and they mentioned how they had gotten into a minor car accident this morning, there's all kinds of possible things you could say in response:

However they decide to reply, a typical person would probably think of these possibilities pretty quickly and then just go with one of them without analyzing it too much. Someone with Asperger's may think, "Wait, how on earth did you come up with those so fast? Why did you choose to go with that one instead of the other three?" Even if you gave them some conversational rules for this kind of situation, they may still miss the gist of them. Like they may respond to a statement about an accident with some trivia about NASCAR crashes.

Difficulty with back and forth dialogue

They can also have trouble with the back-and-forth give-and-take of a conversation. This is where they may revert to their habit of talking at people. They may not think to ask questions that give the other person a chance to speak, or have trouble coming up with them.

Difficulty following transitions and topic changes

Another issue Aspies can have is with switching topics. There could be an exchange between three friends such as:

Friend #1 mentioned a certain bar, which reminded Friend #2 of how they may be showing some playoff games there. That talk of sports reminded Friend #3 to update everyone on the status of his brother's exercise-related injury. The leaps in topic aren't anything that unusual, but someone with AS may struggle to see the connection between those three things, let alone be able to follow the conversation or know what kinds of statements would be appropriate to chip in themselves. Their lack of understanding in this area may make their own, less-practiced, topic changes seem abrupt and out of the blue.

A tendency to think literally and have trouble with understanding humor and figurative language

"Impairing" might be too strong a word for this one. People with Asperger's Syndrome can be very literal and concrete in their thinking. Like you may ask them, "Could you go to the store and buy milk?", and they'll reply, "Yes" and then go back to what they were doing. From their perspective they were answering a hypothetical about whether it would technically be possible for them to buy milk or not. Misunderstandings like this can lead to conflicts. Like their roommate may get annoyed at them for not going out to get milk like they apparently said they would.

They may get confused by more figurative or metaphorical language. For example, they make a small faux pas and their friend jokingly tells them they "put their foot in their mouth". They reply, "... ...No, I didn't. My foot's still on the ground". Everyone then remarks that they're "slow" and "weird".

They can also have a hard time grasping humor. It's not that they lack the capacity to make jokes or find things funny. It's just that when they're sitting around with a group of people who are telling stories and cracking each other up, they may have no idea what everyone finds so amusing. Or they'll make a joke that's amusing to them, only to get blank stares in return.

A tendency to be naive, trusting, and gullible

Especially when they're younger, people with AS tend to take others at their word and be easy to mislead. They may fall victim to cruel pranks such as, "Stacey likes you. You should go over to her and tell her you love her in front of all her friends." With age they may become more skeptical and wary, and will no longer fall for obvious tricks or lies. However, they may still have somewhat lower defenses against manipulative, exploitative people, and can end up in unhealthy relationships.

Getting drained by socializing much more easily

When neurologically typical socialize they carry out a lot of skills without really thinking about them. For example, they may take in a classmate's facial expression and near-instantly be able to:

  1. Know the expression means their classmate is confused and mildly annoyed
  2. Take on the classmate's perspective and deduce why they're confused and annoyed
  3. Figure out what to say next in order to clear up their confusion and make them feel better

Someone with AS can do this to, but the solution won't effortlessly pop into their head, at least not until they've had a ton of practice. They'll have to consciously think through each step, which is a drain on their mental resources. They can't socialize for as long before they feel depleted.

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Features of Asperger's Syndrome that can lead to problems because they clash with social norms

Special interests

People with Asperger's Syndrome usually have one or two areas they're intensely interested in and spend a lot of time pursuing. They may be into fairly popular things like video games, computers, trains, animals, or fictional worlds. People with AS can also be interested in subjects that would strike a typical person as esoteric or random. Like they may know everything there is to know about medieval dye making or 50's country singer Patsy Cline. Someone with AS could keep their special interest for a lifetime, or move on to a new one every few years.

Researchers have noted that people with AS often pursue their interests with a focus on accumulating facts, not necessarily understanding the big picture. For example, someone who's interested in The Beatles may be able to tell you the details of every talk show they appeared on, but not really get what their music was trying to say, or how it fit in with what other bands were doing at the time. Of course, that's a subjective value judgment about the "right" way to be interested in something.

There's nothing intrinsically wrong with having one interest over another. Some people with Asperger's even turn their expertise about their special interest into a rewarding career. Special interests can cause social problems when other people see their hobbies as weird, or judge them as being too obsessive. As I already covered, the way people with AS talk about their interests can also put others off - when they deliver monologues or want to speak about nothing else.

Non-typical body language

Aside from having trouble reading other people's body language, the non-verbal communication of people with AS often isn't typical either:

Technically many styles of non-verbal communication aren't inherently better or worse than others. What's considered standing uncomfortably close in one culture may be the norm in another. If someone doesn't make a lot of expressive gestures, it may be a little harder to know what they're feeling, but is it really that bad?

However, practically if most people see your use of eye contact or personal space as weird and off-putting, you're likely going to decide to make adjustments so you can get better reactions. As they get older most people with Asperger's work to make their body language more like everyone else's.

A tendency to be clumsy

To further add to the awkward stereotype Asperger's seemingly makes people become, people who have it can be clumsy and uncoordinated. They may have a hard time throwing a ball, or learning to ride a bike. To put it another way, they suck at sports. We know how much that helps kids be welcomed and accepted during their school years.

Non-typical sounding voice

The voices of people with Asperger's may seem different too. Their voices may be droning, nasal, or monotone, or have a strange inflection or rhythm.

Non-typical use of language

People with Asperger's have no problem acquiring language, but they often use it in peculiar ways. They may be verbose and use unnecessarily big words. They can also talk in an overly formal, proper way. Sometimes they'll use metaphors that only make sense to them. Deep down there's nothing wrong about using one style of speaking over another, but people may see it as odd or pretentious.

A blunt, overly straightforward communication style

People with AS often offend others or are accused of being insensitive because they seem to have no mental filter. The stereotype is of a person with AS talking to someone at a party, and matter of factly commenting, "You've got really crooked teeth. When are you going to get them fixed?" Part of this problem comes from the whole 'trouble with understanding another person's perspective' thing. People with AS tend not see what the big deal with being direct is; they tend not to care when someone is blunt with them, and assume others feel the same way.

Again, kids with AS tend to speak their mind by default. By the time they reach adulthood they know not to do it as much. They'll have learned to apply rules like "Don't comment on people's physical flaws". They may still grapple with a natural tendency towards straightforwardness though, and feel frustrated and confused with the indirect, roundabout way most people seem to communicate.

Valuing logic, truth, and accuracy

People with Asperger's Syndrome can place a lot of importance on whether something is true or correct. They can also value accuracy more than the idea of maintaining social harmony or keeping a conversation on its rails. This can lead to them frequently correcting others. Here's a stereotypical example:

Person #1: "Oh, I had to kill the grossest centipede in my house today. I hate bugs!"
Guy with Asperger's: "Uh, technically centipedes aren't bugs. The term 'bug' refers only to insects with sucking mouth parts from the order Hemiptera."

The fact that the person was using 'bug' in a widely accepted informal way, or that the definition of the word wasn't really relevant to the overall statement didn't matter. They said something technically wrong, and the person with AS felt a need to rectify the error and restore balance to the universe. From their perspective they did the person a favor by fixing a gap in their knowledge. If they made a mistake, they'd want someone to let them know. The problem is many people don't like being unnecessarily corrected, and may see the person with Asperger's as uptight, pedantic, condescending, or as trying to show off how smart they are.

This is one more area where adults learn to rein themselves in a bit. However, they may still find themselves compelled to correct people, and sometimes find themselves halfway through a lecture before they realize that they've done it again.

Rigid thinking / Getting Stuck

People with Asperger's can think in an overly rigid way. They can also sometimes become "stuck" on a topic and have trouble moving on. They don't mean any harm by it, but other people can become exasperated at how they're seemingly being obtuse or difficult.

Here's an example, that also shows the way people with AS can think too concretely: A co-worker tells a person with AS that if they were good at bowling it may help them meet people. The Aspie asks exactly what they mean by 'good' at bowling. What average score would they need to get per game? What's the minimum score they would need to score to earn the 'good' label? Are there any particular tricks or techniques they have to learn to seem 'good'? The co-worker says they aren't sure, and, "You should just know what I mean." The person with AS still wants more clarification and won't drop the subject.

Another example: Someone with AS is helping you make dinner, and you ask them to cook the rice, and tell them to stray from the instructions on the package a bit. Even if you explain why the rice should be prepared that way, they may insist on following the official instructions and not be open to doing things any differently. It's not that they get where you're coming from and simply disagree with you, they may really not be able see the other possibilities.

Liking structure, routine, and predictability

People with Asperger's Syndrome can have trouble going with the flow. They often have daily routines they like to follow, or certain ways of doing things. If they hang out with their friends they can develop a set idea of how the evening will progress, and get frustrated if things veer off course. Obviously this doesn't mesh with many social situations, where simple plans, like where everyone is going that night, can change up until the last second. People who aren't aware of how their minds work may get annoyed at them for seeming so inflexible.

Planning problems

Asperger's can make it hard for people to plan or organize their time. This can sometimes lead to them seeming flaky or unreliable.

Sensory sensitivities

People on the autism spectrum can have senses that seem to be wired differently. This can make them over or under-sensitive to certain stimuli. Each person with sensitivities has their own mix of them. A few examples:

People on the autism spectrum can find themselves in situations where they're bombarded by too many intense sensory sensations at once, which is very uncomfortable, agitating, overwhelming, and distracting.

These sensitivities can cause social problems in a two ways. First, they can drive someone away from common social venues. Like they may find the noises and smells of a pub intolerable. This can make them miss out on opportunities to meet and hang out with people. Some close-minded types may also look down on them, because supposedly everyone likes pubs, and anyone who doesn't must be a freak. They can have a similar problems with hobbies, e.g., they may want to get involved with a certain martial art, but hate the feeling of wearing the gi, and have to drop the class.

Second, their sensitivities, especially around being touched, can lead to hurt feelings, misunderstandings, and disapproval. For example, someone give an Aspie a friendly pat on the back, and be offended when they flinch away from it.

Stimming

Stimming is the slightly-less-formal term for self-stimulatory behavior, which is common among people on the autism spectrum. Stims are repetitive behaviors they use to calm themselves, stay focused, or exert some control over the sensory input they're taking in (if they're starting to feel overwhelmed they can stim so they can at least get some predictable, controlled input from one sense; if they're feeling understimulated they can add some on their own). Some forms of stimming are:

You may be wondering, "What's the difference between stimming and run-of-the-mill fidgeting? Non-autistic people often make repetitive movements or get up and move around when they're bored, antsy, or upset." The answer is stimming and fidgeting are in the same ballpark. A key difference is that many stimming behaviors look "weird" to typical people, while common ways of fidgeting are considered "normal". People on the spectrum may also engage in stimming more often, and do it in situations aside from ones that would make someone fidgety.

Stimming is harmless, and even helps people with on the spectrum feel better. But many people don't understand it and think it looks strange. By adulthood most people with Asperger's have learned to suppress or hide their stimming when they're around anyone who may look down on it.

Meltdowns

If someone on the spectrum feels too stressed and overwhelmed their feelings might boil over into an emotional meltdown. In children meltdowns usually look like temper tantrums. Adults with Asperger's who meltdown may become angry, but they're just as likely to emotionally shut down and retreat into themselves, cry in frustration, say something cold and critical, or be overcome by self-pity. Meltdowns feels unpleasant to people with AS they're happening, and can leave them feeling embarrassed after the fact. They may burn bridges or seem unstable if they meltdown around people who don't understand their condition.

Mood problems that commonly occur as a side effect of having Asperger's Syndrome

Life is often more stressful when you have Asperger's:

In response, people with Asperger's may develop mood problems:

Anxiety and shyness

Some people with Asperger's say they always walk around with at least a low-grade level of anxiety. Partially it's because their sensory sensitivities can leave them feeling frazzled. Social anxiety is also common in people on the spectrum. They've had enough negative, perplexing social experiences that interacting with others makes them feel wary and nervous.

Depression and low self-esteem

Some people with Asperger's react to their difficulties by becoming sad and demoralized.

Anger and bitterness

Other people with AS become angry in the face of all the ways their condition thwarts them from getting the things they want. They may have short tempers, and get mad in response to small frustrations. A life of being left out, picked on, and misunderstood may also give them a simmering resentment and sense of alienation towards mainstream society.


Whether they're overly anxious, sad, or angry, these moods can be harder to cope with because of AS issues with recognizing and expressing feelings. Someone with Asperger's may seem more temperamental because they often don't recognize their anger building until it's coming out. They may feel depressed and discouraged, and try to share those feelings with someone, but not get the release they need because they're not as good at putting their emotions into words.