Recently I wrote about Asperger’s syndrome as originally described by Hans Asperger, the man who discovered this condition. He believed the fundamental problem that everyone with Asperger’s suffers from, no matter the degree of severity, is a disturbance of contact with the world, especially the social world
We humans have an inborn drive to have contact with the world around us, to engage in life, interact with the outside world and pay attention not only to ourselves but to those around us. Asperger realized that some people don’t have this innate capacity. Instead, they prefer to focus their attention inward, towards themselves, minimizing their contact with themselves and what occurs around them. He described Asperger’s syndrome as a “disturbance of the lively relationship with the whole environment.” Simply put, Asperger’s is a problem of impaired contact with the world.
In my previous article, I described two consequences of this problem. One is the difficulty people with Asperger’s have understanding how others think, feel and act. Since their basic focus is inward, towards themselves, their social comprehension is limited. Understanding others comes through watching how people operate, then practicing what they see in order to learn to how they themselves should behave.
The other consequence is how durable Asperger’s is. Since the fundamental problem of inwardness appears from earliest moments of life, Asperger believed it to be an essential part of the person’s self. As such, it is constant throughout one’s life.
In this article, I want to describe several related characteristics of Asperger’s syndrome. These are commonly described in the literature on Asperger’s but not as often as Asperger himself describe them. I believe his thinking about them is worth paying attention to.
The Language of Asperger’s Syndrome
Language expresses interpersonal relationships as much as it does objective information. The tone of one’s voice, inflections, how words are emphasized or abbreviated, these are all crucial to expressing one’s emotional state as well as meeting the emotional state of others. We soften our condolences to someone who has suffered a significant loss, for example, because it conveys our empathy better than would consolation delivered in a flat, monotones voice.
Because contact-creating expressive functions are deficient in people with Asperger’s their language appears unnatural, it doesn’t match either their own emotional state or that of the listener. It may be shrill, too soft, wooden sounding, overly intense, exaggerated or in many other ways artificial, stilted and strange.
In whatever way speech is conveyed, the language of Asperger’s appears abnormal, like an imitation of how a conversation should be, missing the needs and expectation of whoever is listening, as though it is directed not to the person listening but instead into empty space.
The Behavior of Asperger’s Syndrome
Although much has been written about how people with Asperger’s typically act in their daily life some of what Hans Asperger had to say about this subject has been lost in translation. For instance, he believed that while this condition often allows people to see things and events around them from a new point of view, it interferes with their ability to assimilate and learn conventional knowledge.
Asperger understood the personality of people with Asperger’s to lack congruence between emotion and intellect. He recognized how they follow their own wishes and interests without considering outside restrictions. He noted their muted, sometimes absent, sense of humor. He observed the tendency of people with Asperger’s to collect objects, not to make something of them and to appreciate them but to possess them. He recognized that their emotional difficulties are not due to an absence of emotion but instead to a disconnect between emotion and thought.
Above all, Hans Asperger’s pioneering contribution to the understanding of the condition to which his name will forever be linked is his discovery of the absence of an innate ability to direct one’s attention to the outside world, the fundamental problem of Asperger’s syndrome.