Thursday, July 5, 2007

Is It Asperger's, or is it Boys Being Boys?

I’ve been posting a bit about the lively kids with Asperger's Syndrome that I'm working with this summer. One of the challenges in our group is that there are two kids bent on aggravating the counselors and discovering our limits – and theirs. Cursing, repeatedly introducing inappropriate topics, and wrestling and play-fighting ad infinitum.

There are numerous interesting questions here. First is the issue of whether and how their disorder influences their misbehavior.

Sometimes, it seems clear that they’re just being teenage boys. I’ve read some great literature on the cutting edge of boys’ psychology, and seen some great documentaries. (I highly recommend Michael Thompson’s lively film Raising Cain as a basic primer on the subject.) To sum up only one sub-theme in a crude way, we need to let boys be boys much more than we are (within reason and in thoughtfully considered ways). They are being squashed by the school systems, standardized testing, and increasing gender discrimination. Generally, I agree.

In this light, our boys’ behavior needs to be allowed to the limits of the counselor’s abilities to tolerate it (and as long as everyone is safe and not unduly offended). Our clinical director has suggested this very approach, and she knows these boys from previous years. She feels that if we let them range a bit, they’ll settle down and start focusing on their own. She’s seen it happen with them before. We tried this approach today, and, though it’s too early to tell, there were promising differences.

Then we get to the Asperger’s angle. Features of the disorder include getting stuck talking about one topic over and over (perseverating), inappropriate comments that “typical” people sometimes find shocking, and an inability to conceive of other people’s points of view. My impression is that these problems aren’t at the heart of the misbehavior. At least one of these boys is extremely smart and pretty high-functioning. I think he might even be using the Asperger’s profile as an excuse to repeat behaviors that he knows will annoy people.

However, the clinical director made a good point yesterday. The boys might just be trying to connect with this behavior. This relates to a deeper deficit in Asperger’s people: The inability to make social contact in the ways you and I take for granted. Now we might be getting somewhere.

It’s very possible that the boys are using this behavior in a sort of self-soothing capacity. Aspies usually find everyday human interaction impossibly confusing. But ticking off an adult is a fairly short, predictable process, which they internalize every time we say to them “Stop that!” (It also has the secondary gain of making the kid look cool in others’ eyes.) In other words, the inner equation might read, “I feel edgy -->I can’t take the edge off by talking to someone in a typical way (because I’m an Aspie)-->I curse/hit my friend/get scatological--> authority figure reacts negatively -->this predictable response from my action makes me feel more secure because I am more in control of my environment.” The content of our response might be negative, but that barely registers.

Now, it’s possible many non-Asperger’s kids have the same motivation for their misbehavior. But Aspies have a lot of extra need to control their environment. Through their eyes, it is always, always going haywire on them.

Just some thoughts on Day Three. I'm sure they'll change with seasoning.


Eric Little said...

I find that word "perseverating" fascinating. Claudius tells Hamlet that his mourning for his father is unnatural: "To persever / In obstinate condolement is a course / Of impious stubbornness, 'tis unmanly grief..." Within 50 lines Hamlet goes into his most "perseverating" soliloquy, in which he keeps returning to the same thought--his mother married his uncle too quickly--like a dog biting at a wound. "Talking about one topic over and over" indeed.

Beastinblack said...

I have AS and I was rather well behaved at school and home, I was just seen as lazy and selfish.