(All names in this post are fictional, and all case examples are composites.)
I’m working this summer at a camp that has found a very fun way to teach social pragmatics to kids who have Asperger’s Syndrome (go here for all related posts). Yesterday marked three weeks in – the half-way point. The group seems to have taken a step forward this week, as various individuals come out of their shells and get more comfortable.
Others, in my group and elsewhere, are still suffering. Some of that derives from their inability to understand typical boy’s behavior. One of the deficits that defines the disorder is an extreme literalism in all interactions. When this literal quality runs up against the kind of teasing and rough-housing to which boys have subjected each other from time immemorial, you can imagine the results. Even high-school-age boys end up deeply wounded and permanently on the outside of social acceptance.
(I focus here on boys because I’m very intrigued by boys’ psychology, and because boys are the overwhelming majority in the Asperger’s population, and thus at our camp. We have one girl in our group of nine campers, and some groups are all boys.)
I’ve said elsewhere (and it has been seconded in learned comments on one of my Asperger's-related posts) that just because someone has Asperger’s doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a personality separate from the disorder. Our teenage boys curse, wrestle, and insult each other in every offensive flavor their considerable creativity and intelligence can generate. American boys (as a vast but viable generalization) have always found it easier to connect with each other in this manner than to express direct, non-ironic affection for each other. Call it sad, call it fun. Call it all-American, or call it oppressive cultural gender role influence. Call it what you will, but it is real and prevalent. And many Aspies end up on the painful end of the exchange, because they simply can not get it.
About this literalism: Let’s say camper Will asks me when we’ll be going outside, and I casually reply, “In half an hour.” If 31 minutes go by, Will immediately, loudly protests my violation of my word. There are other Asperger characteristics at play in that interaction (inflexible thinking, rule-bound behavior), but literalism is a big one.
Keep in mind also that Will has entered our highly rambunctious camp group after 10 or so years of relentless teasing of a much more vicious sort, at the hands of truly mean boys at school. They find his other Asperger traits (a speech defect, or obsession with favorite topics, or slow mental processing time) easy fodder – and then zero in all the more cruelly when they find out Will can quite easily be deeply wounded. By the time he arrives at camp, he often takes any comment as a sword through the heart, much less one that – heard literally – contains clearly negative language directed at him.
Tune in tomorrow to find out what happens when Will’s literalism runs up against boy-code behavior.