Ah, Asperger Syndrome. Also known as 'Asperger's Syndrome', 'Aspergers', 'AS' and an upcoming favorite, 'High Functioning Autism'. If you've spent any time on the Internet, you will have run into someone claiming that s/he has this condition and you're now wondering what it really means, or if it means anything at all. Well, we here at TV Tropes aim to fix you up with that info.
Asperger Syndrome was discovered by Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger in 1944. He noticed that some of the children in his practice were somewhat socially awkward, and began studying them. Since obviously there wasn't a name for it at the time, his official term for them was 'Autistic Psychopaths', though at the time 'psychopath' didn't quite have the negative tone it has today. Indeed, good old Hans had a generally positive view of what he called the "Little Professors" due to their ability to memorize facts, and unlike his colleagues at the time was very positive about what Autistic children, if given a supportive attitude, could achieve.
As of December 2012, Asperger's Syndrome has been reclassified as part of the Autism spectrum by the American Psychological Association, to mixed response.
Characteristics of Asperger's Syndrome
So what characterizes someone with Asperger Syndrome? Here are some signs to look for (they may have all or a few of these signs and to varying degrees):
Delays in social interaction. It's been called a "social skills learning disability", and for good reason: People with AS and other sorts of autism have difficulty learning the non-verbal parts of social interaction, whether that's making small talk, dating etiquette, or just looking someone in the eye. Like anyone with a learning disability, people with AS can learn social skills - but it takes them a great deal of time and effort, and may always be difficult to do and imperfect in execution. For those wondering, this is the thing that causes most people on the Internet to self-diagnose, as it's usually the most visible symptom of AS. However, there are many factors to this problem with social interaction.
Logical Thinking. To the point that an Aspergic can border Cloud Cuckoo Lander territory, they think in a very step-by-step manner, each conclusion a result of the one before. And it all works perfectly, except for when it doesn't, because society as a whole isn't perfectly logical and predictable. We all know the world is crazy, but only an Aspergic would think you can make sense of society by categorising every facet of it seperately.
An Aspergic: "The most irrational thing about society is that it thinks I'M the irrational one."
Literal Thinking. Along with logical thinking, nearly every aspect of Asperger Syndrome links back to how strongly this characteristic presents itself. Generally associated with their difficulties with metaphors, sarcasm, and satire. But to pretend the world is other than you see it as, is to the literal-minded Aspergic an illogical and irrational course of action. This leads to them speaking their mind with no regard for the opinions of others, which makes them terrible liars. Those who are taught to be 'polite' and keep their thoughts to themselves are still prone to outbursts of emotion which can come as an unpleasant surprise to others and obviously doesn't help in social situations at all.
An Aspergic: "If we see the world differently, why should I pretend it is anything other than how I see it? Why should you pretend? Once we know we disagree we can agree on a compromise, rather than lying. Then we can be friends."
Lack of social 'empathy'. NOTE: This does not mean sociopathy. Another biggie, the term "empathy" is misleading, as people with AS do feel and appreciate emotions, but they are unsure of what emotion others are feeling. Extreme literal thinking means they can't see why a person would pretend to feel otherwise than they do, and this difficulty is solved by the only logical course of action - to paste in the emotion of whose emotions they are aware - usually themselves. Thus, if they feel happy, they assume the other person feels happy until they are informed otherwise. Unfortunately, even when knowing how the other is truly feeling, they may not know what response is wanted; if they want to help, logic dictates they respond with how they would want to be treated, which isn't always accurate.
This all leads to a very 'Treat others as you would be treated' attitude - not a bad thing, and one factor in why Aspergics can be so nice, but not appropriate to every social situation. People with AS may be completely unaware of, or unable to understand and "correctly" follow, social rules that seem utterly self-evident and obvious to everybody else. For example, an AS individual in a romantic relationship may not know that their partner wants them to say "I love you", because they assume that the fact that they love their partner is a given and needn't be said more than once for both people to know it.
Another part of the empathy problem is that some people with AS also have trouble showing their emotions. They might not change their facial expression at all. When they come to realise this, they often overcompensate with even more grandoise gestures and obvious statements of how they feel.
An Aspergic: "I wouldn't tell you it made sense to me if it didn't. So why doesn't it make sense to you, too?"
Narrowly defined interests. One of their more obvious traits. People with AS tend to build up a lot of knowledge about their interests, which run the gamut of... well, everything. Some people are interested in things that are age-appropriate, some will be interested in things that either are viewed as "too old" or "too young" for them. Some people will be interested in things that many people are interested in, others will find obscure interests. Interests can also change from time to time – some end up defining their lives with a certain interest, while others may change it every other week, but while they are into one thing, be passionately so. Some people have one obsessive hobby and then 'sub-hobbies'. For example, their obsessive hobby is writing, but this is made less obvious by the way that they have in the past obsessed over Transformers, Sonic the Hedgehog and Sylvanian Families, and even add new fandoms to the rotation, and so end up compiling a great deal of trivia and expensive collectibles about ALL these fandoms, but what all the fandoms have in common is that they intensely enjoy writing about them.
An Aspergic: "I find fire extinguishers fascinating. Thus I assumed you did too. There's no need to be polite; I'd tell you if you were boring me."
Speech issues. There are a lot of issues that can arise with AS speech. Some speak too formally. Some speak in a manner that is too fast or too loud. Others will maintain a monotone, have tics or wildly inflect. Again, it varies from person to person. A desire to be as precise as possible will often lead to Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness, and oblique references and metaphors can lead to Blunt Metaphors Trauma. There may also be some stuttering, which may be countered by speaking louder (helps in debate team), and using extravagant hand/arm gestures to help convey one's meaning, in lieu of appropriate facial expressions.
Motion and Motor Control. Associated with AS are various possible satellite traits: Physical clumsiness; tendency to move in repetitive ways, especially when stressed, called "stimming" (think everything from tapping your foot to rocking or flapping your hands); stiff and awkward walk; extreme sensitivity to sensory input (lights, noise, smells, fabrics...), social anxiety (not actually AS itself but often found alongside it), anxiety in general, a tendency towards epilepsy, difficulty planning and executing plans, excessive literal thinking, hyperactivity, a strong attachment to routines or familiar objects, and food allergies. Being able to focus to an abnormal level or for an abnormal length of time is common, as is difficulty in multitasking and dividing attention. These may manifest in many different ways and combinations depending on the person.
Gaze Avoidance. Like most people in the autistic spectrum (as well as some social anxiety disorders), there are often troubles maintaining eye contact; it can actually feel uncomfortable or even painful. Because of this, since the non-verbal components of social interaction - body language and facial expressions - are largely learned visually, many with AS tend to have uncoordinated body language themselves (this can often tend to make people feel that they seem "creepy"), as well as an inability to correctly interpret the body language of others, often mistakenly described as a sort of "body language blindness" but more accurately described as a sort of "body language dyslexia" instead. Conversely, those aware that they are not meeting gazes, and becoming concerned that they may seem insincere may focus their gaze on someone for too long in a way that might make the other person feel uncomfortable.
Of course, some people with AS do learn body language and emoting by studying actors in TV/film/theater and acting out their emotions. Compensating like this is terribly exhausting, as they're essentially giving a live stage performance any time they're talking to someone, and it can also lead to people sensitive to body language consciously or unconsciously realizing that the "aspie" is acting (as opposed to being natural), which is the sort of thing that in many people would be a danger sign. As a result, the "aspie" can come off as "creepy" even if they've theoretically solved their aforementioned body language problem.
Studies have shown that individuals on the Autistic Spectrum usually have a greater than average sensitivity to/empathy with, and desire to help, when they do notice somebody in pain. Their bluntness and lowered social inhibitions can make it easier for them to step forward to help than people who act 'sensitively' and tactfully ignore somebody's distress.
Asperger's was previously thought to be around four times as common among men as women, but is now believed to have roughly the same rate of frequency. There are several reasons for the apparent discrepancy, including that the obsessions associated with female Asperger's (ex. reading the same book many times) are less obvious than those associated with male Asperger's (ex. learning everything about World War I airplane engines), and many ASD traits (e.g. shyness) are not seen as unusual in women, or as socially crippling. Part of the problem is that most of the data comes from male subjects and thus may bias diagnoses, such that Asperger's is diagnosed more frequently among men.
Physical sensitivity may be either significantly greater or significantly lower than that of a neurotypical, in at least one area. Hypersensitivity is common, often causing the AS subject to be a Picky Eater or have difficulty in wearing certain types of clothes. Hypersensitivity to noise is also common. On the other hand, there are records of AS subjects who have reduced physical sensitivity, or at least show no outward signs of discomfort, including one boy who showed no sign of pain at all prior to diagnosis of a twisted testicle (normally a very painful condition).
Unusual friends. People with AS often have trouble making friends their own age, since the hobbies they developed as children, say for a cartoon show, are not so common among the 30+ age range. They don't always notice if their friends make jokes at their expense (which leads to some people mistakenly assuming that they don't care. If they do notice, the chance is 90% that they will care), or what their background is, or their age, or their political or religious beliefs, or if they have disabilities, just as long as they show some interest in the "aspies's" own field of interest. This is part of what makes those with AS so accepting of others and often results in them being friends with other social outcasts. They also tend to prefer a small, close-knit group of friends as opposed to a wide social network. In some unfortunate cases this can result in them making very poor choices for their friends.
As with many other learning disorders, people with Aspergers often appear less physically mature than others their own age, with a tendency towards rounded faces - which are usually associated with children.
It's not unknown for subjects to compulsively talk to themselves in various different ways.
Because of the gaze avoidance, body language and other social interaction issues (as well as their tendency to take things literally), Aspies can often be Oblivious To Hints.
Myths about Asperger's Syndrome
There are a number of common fallacies, misconceptions and outright lies surrounding Asperger's and other autism spectrum disorders. These common misconceptions include:
It doesn't exist. Yes, there are false diagnoses (and many more false self-diagnoses). If every condition which had those didn't actually exist, we wouldn't need doctors.
Social disability means talent in a particular field. One of the most popular misconceptions on Asperger's Syndrome, made worse by how Hans Asperger himself described these people as "Little Professors". While a persistent obsession with any particular subject that leads to lots of study and practice in that subject may help in getting really good at it, people with AS are otherwise generally no more or less talented in anything than anyone else could become with that much study. How famous geniuses (supposedly) had Asperger's (e.g. Albert Einstein) adds to the problem, and this of course attracts antisocial people to self-diagnose themselves with Asperger's, causing the syndrome as a whole to be associated with...
Self-inflated Insufferable Genius/Asperger's as an excuse for bad behaviour. There's no real connection whatsoever, and may have just been borne out of people over the Internet using Asperger's Syndrome as an excuse to be a jerkass or a Know-Nothing Know-It-All. Part of the reason AS is a popular self-diagnosis is because Asperger's is linked (particularly in pop culture) with Idiot Savant characters who are brilliant but lack social skills. Such individuals are often the first to latch onto postmortem conjectural psychology calling various famous people like Albert Einstein autistic. They arrogantly believe that not only should having AS free them from judgement for being socially inept, but also pin them as genius-tier masters of their field. This is particularly infuriating for people who really do have AS, since as this practice continues they find it harder to explain accidentally offending somebody without being seen as liars, or worse as trying to make an excuse for bad behaviour. Most genuine Aspies don't see Aspergers as a 'Get Out Of Jerk Ass Free' card, just an explanation.
If somebody offends you, then tells you they have Asperger Syndrome and that's why they offended you, you can generally tell if this is true by a simple observation - If the admittance is followed (or preceded) by a genuine apology, it may be true. If it's followed by the expectation that you should now apologise to them for being offended, they're probably just jerks. If they do neither, simply mentioning it, it's almost (but of course not certainly) always true and simply an observation with no blame or excuse for either side attached.
If anything, given that the symptoms of Asperger's syndrome tend to lead other children (and sometimes adults) into bullying them, they usually tend to have a lower sense of self-worth. This tends to be confused as a symptom of Asperger's due to the lack of social empathy and the tendency to dominate conversations.
While a case could be made that some who have been consistently bullied may consciously develop or become egocentric and cultivate feelings of a superiority complex as a psychological defense mechanism, this does not directly correlate with AS. What might correlate to it is that since people with Asperger’s tend to be experts in their narrow field of interest, they can think of themselves as superior to those who do not possess such skills. Also, some think of their lack of inhibition and sincerity as an advantage over the rest of the population.
Sociopathy. Just because they have difficulty understanding other people's emotional states doesn't mean they don't care. In fact, scientific evidence suggests that autistic people generally have higher than average empathy towards people they notice are in pain. Some people with Asperger's can be the nicest folks you'll ever meet, and either way, they rarely use it as an excuse for plain old Jerk Ass behavior. Quite often, someone with Asperger's may have strong morals and a sense of justice to the point of being a Soapbox Sadie about social justice, animal rights, etcetera, but in a social situation they might be simply absent-minded and forget to pause and think what their friend might be thinking/feeling in a given situation. Thus, you may get a kind-hearted Aspie ranting on about compassion for other human beings for hours but never letting you get a word in, ignoring your schedules and your needs (such as needing food or going to the toilet) and doing everything their way without realising they might be steamrolling you. The difference between a tyrant and an Aspie is that an Aspie just gets so focused and excited they honestly do not realise they're doing this unless they've developed a sense of mindfulness about it or if they aren't called out on it. At which they will be embarrassed and usually apologise profusely.
Back in the days before Asperger's Syndrome and autism were known disorders, those who fell into the autism spectrum were often mistaken for sociopaths due to lack of outward emotions/displaying inappropriate emotions (e.g. John Elder Robison was chided for smiling when he heard of the death of another child when in fact he was relieved that it hadn't been him that died). This can obviously create a bit of a problem; humans are easily put off byweird asocial behavior and may think "sociopath" instead of "Aspergers."
Basically the two disorders are usually polar opposites in this particular respect. People with Asperger's are generally more compassionate and get distressed by other people's pain, but have problems showing it in a natural manner. Most have a strong conscience. The favored popular-culture consummate liar sociopath on the other hand tends to systematically misdirect, manipulate, fake caring mannerisms, etc, without any outward minor twitch/sign that they are doing so, or get intensely sadistic.
As in the case of Dexter Morgan in the original book. People with Asperger's do have emotions, but the way they feel/express them are very different than everyone else. It's as if their feelings are running in Linux (or one of its many, many derivatives) while everyone else is running Windows or Mac OS X. Because of this, things get askew during the translation, sometimes funny, other times, horrible (see the John Elder example above.)
No Sense Of Humour. This one's definitely wrong; while an odd or dark sense of humour is common, plenty of people with Asperger's aren't afraid to make jokes about themselves. This one most likely came about because people with Asperger's may simply not get a joke, especially situational ones, and thus not laugh. As noted, many Aspies have an unusually strong sense of compassion for others, and thus may find humor based on random cruelty or characters' gratuitous sufferingupsetting rather than amusing. Also, while some Aspies may have difficulties understanding sarcasm, and find irony an even tougher beast, others will not only understand it, but range from occasional Deadpan Snarker to The Snark Knight. It very much depends on the person. Often the sense of humour is very dry, or depends on peculiar word-play only understood by the individual—see the Wikipedia article on Duclod Man for some good examples.
Lack of Imagination. Related to No Sense Of Humour above, it is frequently reported that Aspergics have little to no imagination, but this is verging on Critical Research Failure; there's a (fairly popular) theory that Aspergics have excellent imaginations. What they lack is Social Imagination; the ability to grasp that not everybody feels the same way. It requires 'imagining' what another person is feeling, since you can't know for certain. To an Aspergic this is logical because you're not them, and it's rooted in their difficulty to recognise emotions in others. Combined with their literal thinking and tendency to spend time more alone, this makes it tough to play 'Let's Pretend' games like 'Doctor and Nurse' and 'Mum and Dad', games which involve more obvious displays of imagination. This lack of social imagination leads to them making meticulous plans which sadly don't allow for others' difference of opinions, or random events. To pretend the world could be other than you see it as is inconceivable; the bus schedule says it will be there at 12. How can that not be so? And now we need a new plan. Fortunately Aspergics can make up new plans so quickly with their logical thinking that they sometimes seem to be planning on the fly.
Caused by vaccines. Children lucky enough to receive regular vaccinations tend to also be lucky enough to have access to counselors and psychologists who can diagnose autism spectrum disorders. That debunks literally the only 'evidence' for this theory.
The idea that the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine causes autism is particularly tragic, as women contracting rubella while pregnant is one of the few known causes of autism, yet that is entirely preventable through inoculation. The guy who did the MMR study, Andrew Wakefield, was struck off the British medical register for ethics violations. Some people still believe he's an honest man punished by Big Pharma for dissenting against them, despite the fact that it's been discovered he was looking for a way to make a vaccine (which he would benefit from selling) for just the measles, that did not include the ingredient he claims was causing autism in the MMR vaccine, and his famous study was financed by a firm of medical malpractice lawyers so make of that what you will.
A lot of people on the autistic spectrum are deeply offended by those who suggest that vaccines might cause autism, as their logical and literal manner of thinking concludes that those who choose to not have their children vaccinated would rather the child die of preventable disease than survive while autistic - and that's if the thoroughly disproven claim had any veracity at all (which it does not have).
Caused by _____. While research continues (see below) and some of it is beginning to suggest several very plausible explanations for what causes Asperger's Syndrome, nothing has conclusively been shown to be the cause of every case of it. It's also possible that each genuine case of it has a completely different cause, or a different combination of multiple causes. People with Asperger's syndrome are not only different from other kinds of people, but often from each other as well. Research also continues into whether people have Asperger's Syndrome from birth, develop it at some time later in their early childhood, or both.
Defines one's entire identity/explains all quirks. In fact, Asperger's Syndrome is rarely the only unusual psychological condition individuals have, and being socially awkward may exacerbate other psychological conditions such as Borderline Personality Disorder or Social Anxiety. Aspies also vary as widely in regards to sexuality as anyone else. They are also just as likely to have fetishes as anyone else. Needless to say, having atypical sexual interests and neurological functioning can be extremely difficult. Some also suffer from alcoholism and drug addictions. Furthermore, the interaction between these conditions can be quite complex, leaving open questions of cause and effect, and whether one condition causes the other or is merely aggravating it. One should never assume everything about an Aspie necessarily arises from the condition alone.
Treatment of Asperger's in Culture and Society
Treatment of AS varies throughout Hollywood. The most common portrayal seems to be that of the awkward "little professor." Other possible portrayals of adults with Asperger's include Matthew from NewsRadio and Reverend Jim from Taxi. AS will often be stereotyped, with anyone who has it being shown as a textbook case. AS is unfortunately still in the Hollywood stage where, when a character has it, it will be his defining characteristic or even his full personality. There probably never will be a Hollywood film with a "100 %" accurate depiction of AS - because it really does vary from person to person. There are certain films that attempt to depict how a person with Asperger's Syndrome would go about finding love: Mozart And The Whale is about a male and female Aspergic who meet each other, and Adam has an orphaned Aspergic young man find himself falling for the new tenant in his apartment. More recently, a 2010 remake of the TV series Parenthood features a child with Asperger's, luckily presented in a stereotypical yet kind portrayal (tics, need for schedule structure, and a particular enhanced/hyperfocused hearing ability).
The severity of Asperger's and autism varies, hence the "autistic spectrum" (some refer to Asperger's as "autism-lite"). Some people are lucky enough to have a mild enough case that, although it affects how they live and interact, they can also deal with society as a whole while others may have severe enough cases that they require close and near-constant supervision and won't interact much at all with anyone. It can be hard to tell: someone's upbringing and education can make a huge difference, and being aware of the condition and how to deal with it often helps a lot.
Something Awful has actually made a running joke out of both self-misdiagnosis and the attempts of actual people with Asperger's to learn to function with others and build supportive communities for themselves, with catchphrases like "Ass Burgers," and "'spergin out". This has since spread to the Internet in general, leading to a lot of people with the condition being reluctant to "out" themselves for fear of being similarly mocked. Sadly, over-diagnosing in Real Life is not uncommon either, resulting in specialist schools for students with autism containing many mere badly behaved brats alongside the children with neurological problems. This is very much comparable to the overdiagnosis of Attention Deficit... Ooh, Shiny! in the past few years. Conversely, Asperger's was very commonly diagnosed as everything from ADHD to schizophrenia to mental retardation before the condition became well known. This has resulted in a Hype Backlash due to this and may be at least partially responsible for the joking and piss-talking that has since occurred.
Note that there is no known prevention or cure for Asperger's; it's neither a disease nor ailment, but a fundamental difference in the way the brain is wired. Treatment only exists in isolating problematic symptoms and making an effort to overcome or work around them. There is a lot of misinformation going around about the nature of Asperger's, often thanks to the above misdiagnoses and the following backlash, and you really should do the research before you end up making the wrong assumptions in front of the genuinely diagnosed.
Generally, depending on the person and group, it can range from being considered a "badge of honor" to the diagnosed not particularly caring about it one way or another. Genuine Aspies rarely see it as a problem, and even more rarely use it as an 'excuse' for bad behavior.
It is open to debate whether Asperger's is simply a collection of traits that every human being has to some degree or another. It has been said that Asperger's is contagious; their logical thinking and open-voiced approach to telling you what they think makes them good at bringing you around to their point of veiw. The irony here is that AS is characterized by an absence of social empathy and that copying others' behavior unconsciously is socially empathetic.
It's important to note that while Aspies can be very nice, open people, that doesn't mean they're all nice all the time, or that they're naive. They may not have the same empathic connection to the world as you do, but they sure are good at working out how other people think (partly because they had to put so much more effort into working it out in their youth; talent is cheap). Try to upset them deliberately and you'll rarely get the reaction you expected, because the two most confusing emotions for Aspies are sorrow and anger. And while it depends on the individual, they may have a very unexpected Berserk Button.
In professional fields, those with Asperger's are sometimes Bunny Ears Lawyers (or The Wonka if they're the one in charge). Some, however, will just come across as either oversensitive or as unpopular Jerkasses. Many of the outward symptoms also share at least some similarities to Japan's Hikikomori especially with regard to socialization; Aspergers has been described as one of the traits according to some Japanese commentators.
A large number of psychologists, mental health groups and people with Asperger's have started referring to people with the condition as "aspies", though some have mixed feelings about the term, even if it does make talking about them much more convenient. There is still a lot unknown about Asperger's Syndrome, as with most mental conditions, and research into the condition continues today. Likewise, the term "Neurotypical" is sometimes used as an in joke by people diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders to refer to people who aren't diagnosed with one, and some use it as an insult or slur. Allistic is another term used to refer to non-autistic people, as neurotypical or neurodivergent can also refer to people with, say, bipolar disorder or depression. Alternatively, some consider it more polite to refer to someone with Asperger's as someone who has Asperger's. For example, saying "I talked with John who has Asperger's" rather than "I talked to John the Aspie". Putting the person first, before the disorder, is important to many people who either see it as just another trait such as hair or eye color or don't want to define the person by what they see as a disease that h or she has. Of course, like every other issue as to how to treat autistic people, not everyone agrees on this, as some may see it as patronizing. Most of the people who push for people-first language are, in fact, parents, rather than people who actually have Asperger's. Often, people who actually have autism spectrum disorders prefer to be referred to as "an autistic person" or "an autistic" rather than "someone with autism", because their autism is such an integral part of their identity. They know that any negative aspects of it could not be gotten rid of without also getting rid of the positive aspects, such as an amazing memory, or visual thinking.
One more important thing to remember: People with AS are capable of overcoming several of the signs mentioned above and learning the socially acceptable behaviors, just like anyone else, especially with the help of therapy; just because someone with autism starts out lacking understanding of social cues doesn't necessarily mean that they'll never be able to immensely improve it. Speech issues can be corrected with speech therapy, and given time, some can develop a broader range of interests. Therefore, it should never be assumed that someone is not autistic simply because they don't overtly display any signs. It is fairly normal to encounter people with Asperger's who are surface-level indistinguishable from neurotypical people until you spend a great deal of time with them. Or until they come right out and tell you.
Resources for People with Asperger's
If you have Asperger's (or suspect you might), don't fear! Although people with Asperger's have more social challenges than the average person, these challenges can be overcome. Plus, there are a lot of resources out there to help you.
Counseling. If you have not been formally diagnosed with Asperger's, a diagnosis is your first step. See a psychologist who specializes in Asperger's or High Functioning Autism. This is the person who is best qualified to diagnose you and then help you after the diagnosis. If you have been diagnosed but are not currently seeing a counselor, consider signing up for an appointment. Weekly meetings with someone who understands the way you are wired can be an invaluable resource to improving yourself.