Will My Child Ever Be Normal . . . ?
Martin is a handsome thirty six year old man with a masters degree in history. He is also single, has had no full time job, and still lives at home with his mother. Not because he wants to, mind you, albeit she and he get along quite well. Rather, Martin has Asperger's, a rather serious case, and on a severity scale from one to ten I'd say Martin would rate a nine. On a good day.
The thing is, a lot of people with Asperger's somehow manage to have normal lives. Geeky in places, yes, but otherwise normal in the eyes of the world. So why has Martin, with his high IQ, struggled more than most? I've asked myself this question about Martin time and time again. It took me three years to find an answer I could live with.
For many years, Martin's mother had been asking herself this same question, each time Martin had a meltdown. At age three or four, the meltdowns were hard to endure. At thirty-six, they were beyond hard. They were almost unbearable.
Martin himself had frequently asked me this question as well, each time he spiraled into hopeless which, in the first two years, was often. And when he'd ask me, I'd do my best to find some shred of progress which might offer him hope. A light at the end of the tunnel which he could look forward to.
So will Martin ever be normal? My answer may surprise you. Moreover if you are the parent of a newly diagnosed Aspie, wondering if your child ever be normal may feel like the most difficult question you have to deal with.
My thoughts? Before I offer you an answer (and I will), I first need to tell you something about me. You see, I, too, have Asperger's, like Martin, a rather serious case. In fact, if asked to rate my own level of severity, I'd have say my Asperger's is just as serious as Martin's. This then begs the question, how have I managed to attain so much of what society would say makes me normal when a man as smart as Martin can't seem to find his way out of his meltdowns? What in fact makes Martin's life and mine so different? For that matter, why make such a big deal of the differences between Martin and me?
Why? Because in the answer to this question lies the key to resolving the "will my child ever be normal" question. So will your child ever be normal? Big breath now. No, your child will never be normal. At least not in the statistical sense of the word. He will always have Asperger's. This is not going to change.
At the same time, your child has the potential to live a very normal life. An exceptional life even. How? In the same way folks recovering from alcoholism achieve very normal lives. By looking at "what it was like, what happened, and what it is like now." In other words, by using a bit of the old contrast and compare.
Not sure to what I'm referring? Have I hit your "too good to be true" button? If so, then know you're in good company. In fact, if you read what experts say about Asperger's and at the same time, pay close attention to what they disagree about the most, you'd find this question; will my child ever be normal, underlies much of what they argue about. In truth, this question may be the biggest fear monster of all with regard to Asperger's. And apparently this holds true for professionals and parents alike.
How then can I feel such admittedly blatant optimism? In future columns, I'll be explaining this optimism to you. Including that I will offer you ways in which to make this very same kind of a difference. Know that each of the things I'll tell you is based on something which has helped both me and those I've worked with to live more normal lives. And in a moment, I'll share with you the first of these ideas.
Before I do though, I need to qualify something. When I say, "live more normal lives," I am not merely referring to ways in which people with Asperger's can learn to imitate normal. I, myself, strongly oppose interventions which ask that anyone pretend to be normal. Rather, I'm talking about ideas which may lead to genuine, life changing possibilities, each built on finding the positives in Asperger's, as opposed to trying to eliminate what many folks see as the "brokenness" of Asperger's
Of course, the real question you need answered here is the one prototype American psychologist, William James, frequently asked himself a hundred years ago, whenever he wanted to know if something was true. He would ask himself if this idea held any "cash value"; if it was pragmatically true. So is there any cash value to ideas which may help an Aspie to feel more comfortable around normal folks? Ask Martin. Last year he had his first ever romantic relationship. His meltdowns have decreased to the point where they may soon become extinct. And currently, he's happily employed for the first time in years.
How did he manage to do this? Again, the key lies mainly in knowing how I, myself, managed to escape the almost Saturnian gravity of Asperger's when Martin did not. How did I? It's simple really. All Aspies, regardless of age, share a common thread; their special interests. And as luck would have it, unlike the interests of most Aspies, my special interest; human personality, generalizes to society at large. A fortunate coincidence, to be sure.
At the same time, I've had to learn that my special interest may not be interesting to others. As well as some rather mundane but related concepts such as that people talk about the weather so as to have an excuse to connect, and not so much because they give a hoot about the weather.
Has knowing this stuff made me normal (smile)? Not exactly (sigh). And if you put me in a social situation and bring up the Yankees, you'd see this right away. However, over the past few years, I've learned to love being in social settings in ways I never thought possible. I've also helped quite a few Aspies to feel the same way. Most important, I've been able to repeat what I've done with remarkable certainty.
What does all this mean as far as actually helping someone with Asperger's? Or if you, yourself, have Asperger's, what does this mean about helping yourself?
Know that in future columns, I'll be sharing a lot regarding the idea that the real goal for Aspies should be their becoming comfortable with being around normal, rather than on being normal. As for how these ideas work, they all have one thing in common. They hold the potential to provoke what I call an "emergence." Or said in normal language, the potential to cause an "aha"; a personal realization.
Why an "aha?" Because, while there are many good sounding ideas out there, only aha's are permanent. Why? Because in the process of having them, a person's very nature gets altered. This means the cash value of these ideas continues to exist even on bad days; even when a person's will power wears thin; even when the person forgets why he is using them.
This permanence then is why I call these ideas, "interpersonal realization tools." Each idea holds the power to help someone with Asperger's, or someone who loves someone with Asperger's, to face yet another aspect of the "will I even be normal" fear monster head on, and to do this in a lasting way.
So if you have Asperger's, will you ever be normal? By now, you know my answer. No, you won't. At the same time, you can learn to love being around normal, and in doing so stop feeling so alone and afraid.
Now let me introduce you to this column's, "interpersonal realization tool"; learning to see the difference between the special interests of Aspies and the interests of normal folk.
- Social skills deficits are the hallmark of any autism, whether this be Asperger's, Kanner's, or otherwise. With Asperger's, the key to understanding what prevents these social skills from developing lies in the idea that Aspies have "special interests." Moreover this idea holds true regardless of what physiological differences and or special circumstances may underlie this condition. What makes these interests "socially special"? Asking yourself this question is a good place to begin to change.
- Now try contrasting and comparing this aspect of the Asperger's personality with the way normal folks behave. All Aspies have these kinds of all-consuming special interests. Most normal folks do not. This in part is what makes it so hard for normal folks to understand how people with Asperger's can be so blind when it comes to knowing how it feels to be on the other end of one of their impromptu dissertations. As well as what makes it so hard for normal folks to see why Aspies get so hurt and angry when normal folks cut them off. Which they do, of course, only so as to keep from drowning in an informational deluge.
- This then is a good starting point from which to help someone with Asperger's to become more authentically normal. Have this person explore the idea that all Aspies have special interests, and all normal folks do not. At least, not all-consuming ones. How might you best help them do this? Ask them to make a list of their special interests. And for God's sake, please do make sure you tell them the rules for making this list (smile).
- What are the rules? Rule one. The list may have one thing on it, or it may have ten things on it. It may also have changed a lot over their lifetime, or it may have remained the same since age three. Whatever the case, the rules are the same. The list must be limited to what fits on one side of one page. Rule two. Each item on this list must be limited to a title and one paragraph. No more than this and no less. Rule three. They must be given a full 24 hours in which to write this list. They must also feel free to use as much or as little of this time as needed. At the same time, whatever they come up with must be promptly turned in to you within an hour of it being done. Finally Rule Four. There are only three rules.
- Now leave them alone and do not ask them how they are doing. Even if you see them doing nothing, let them be. And if the person is too young to make this list on their own, then create a time in which the two of you can do this together, remembering that the goal is not to make a perfect list. Insights do not require perfection. Only seeing beauty where you did not expect it. Doing your best is all that's required then. You can do no more.
- When the list is complete, have the person sit down with family members and ask them if they too have any special interests. Before beginning though, be sure to let the Aspie know that they are not allowed to share their list for now, that for now, it is to remain private. For people with Asperger's, this alone can be an eye opening experience. It can also be the beginning of understanding what the normal world calls, "boundaries."
- The overall goal here is simple. If you can help an Aspie to see what makes their interests "special," then this idea alone can create great insight and hope in them. After all, these folks very much want someone to tell them what normal is. Which is why they constantly ask you to tell them, and remind you of, the "rules." The thing is, "normal" is not something rules can describe. Moreover, if you doubt this, then try reading what personality theorists see as the rules behind what motivates humans to do anything, match making to back scratching. Then compare what they say to what you know to be normal. And trust yourself. Whatever they say, your experience is the real truth. Unless of course you think there actually is such a thing as a "normal" which is defined by rules. In which case, you may want to have yourself evaluated for Asperger's.
- The next step then would be to learn to see these special interests as something more than a social deficit. Here the thing to remember is that beneath these socially alienating behaviors beats a heart of gold. What I'm saying is, regardless of what it may seem like on the outside, people with Asperger's are amongst the most caring, least prejudiced, and most motivated people I know. The problem lies in that they find it hard to believe others do not share the same all-consuming interests. This is why they tend to react so defensively when asked to refrain from sharing about these special interests, and why they can feel so ashamed when this happens.
- Finally, if you keep in mind why they share these special interests, it can help. They share them mainly because it is their way to connect to others socially. Thus if you can see these interests for what they are, then you have the beginnings of understanding what it's like to have Asperger's. These special interests are their only escape from the profound loneliness Aspies feel. This makes helping them, and you, to see the nature of these special interests the beginning of teaching them to love being around "normal."
Steven Paglierani is a writer, teacher, personality theorist, and therapist whose work on human consciousness is read weekly by thousands all over the world. He is the author of the first fractal personality theory; Emergence Personality Theory, and his mission is to make the world better for children by restoring and deepening their love of learning.