Inside The Asperger Brain

March 23, 2010

By Dan Coulter

     How does your brain work?

     If you’re like most of us, you haven’t got a clue. Brain scientists have a clue, but that’s about all they have. In the grand scheme of things, we only have the basics figured out. We still have a lot to learn about the more complex aspects of the human brain.

     I’m interested in how Asperger Syndrome, a high functioning form of autism, makes my brain work differently than someone who doesn’t have Asperger Syndrome. I saw a scan of Temple Grandin’s brain in one of her online lectures. Ms. Grandin, who also has Asperger Syndrome, wrote a book called, “Thinking in Pictures and Other Reports from my Life with Autism.” The brain scan she displayed supported the title of that book. It showed that she had dramatically wider pathways in her brain to process graphic images than could be seen in a typical sex and age-matched control brain.

     Here was evidence that Asperger Syndrome and autism are associated with physical differences in brains, but it’s a very coarse glimpse at something I want to see and understand in exquisite detail. I want a “Star Trek” brain scan. One that shows not just how one Asperger brain is different from the norm, but also how Asperger brains differ from each other –- and why. Maybe in ten or 100 years, we’ll be able to see a lot more.

     In the meantime, there’s a lot of observational evidence that our brains work differently. This explains why we can be so good at some things and so “not good” at others. I saw a report on CNN today about intelligence tests. One part of the report said that IQ tests only measure 25 percent of what it takes to be successful. Boy, did that ring a bell.

     It really helped me understand part of my career in corporate America. Early in corporate life, I was confused that managers who were levels above me didn’t see some of the solutions that I saw. I just figured I didn’t really understand the issues. They were my “superiors.” They must know best. Turns out that, frequently, they didn’t. As I look back, I see now that there were meetings at which I could have been the smartest person in the room and didn’t speak up. That’s because, in some of those same meetings, I was probably also the most clueless person in the room.

     It was the way my brain functioned. It didn’t work in my favor to have innovative ideas if I didn’t have the social intelligence to suggest them in politically savvy ways. In hindsight, it was probably best that I kept my mouth shut and observed instead of pointing out what seemed obvious to me. I just applied my ideas to my work. I came to understand that there are different ways to be smart. Three people can be the smartest person in the room in different areas. It usually takes a combination of smarts to be successful.

     After about a year, I’d gained enough corporate social smarts to make suggestions diplomatically to executives with very healthy egos. I found that social skills were as important as good ideas in helping me move up the corporate ladder. I’m not talking about broad social skills. I’m talking about interpreting facial expressions, reading subtle body language and understanding motives and hidden agendas.

     As frustrating as it was to have to take the time to learn these skills, it’s a bit of a relief now to understand there was no short-cut. I had to rewire my brain.

     I saw another online lecture by Harvard-trained neuroanatomist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor. This brain scientist had the good fortune, and rotten luck, to observe a stroke from the inside out. She suffered a brain hemorrhage in 1996. It was fascinating to hear her walk through her recollections step-by-step. She explained that the hemorrhage occurred in the left side of her brain, where, among other things, we plan for the future. So while the right hemisphere of her brain was thinking it was cool for a brain scientist to experience a stroke first hand, messages from the left side of her brain were sporadically getting through and screaming at her to get help. Eventually, she was able to phone a colleague and get rushed to a hospital.

Calling for help just wasn’t a priority for her when her left-brain signals were partially blocked. It made me think of how frustrated we get with our children who have Asperger Syndrome when they don’t show an interest in keeping calendars and planning ahead.

     I am not saying that having Asperger Syndrome is like having a stroke.

     I am saying that if your brain is programmed to focus on what’s in front of you and has fewer “preparing and planning” connections, it’s not a simple thing to reprogram your brain to routinely think ahead. The ability to plan and organize is also known as “executive function.” Not all of us are born executives.

     The good news is, most of us can reprogram our brains to some extent. The CNN story about intelligence noted that, “A mental exercise can help raise your IQ score by about five points in a relatively short amount of time: 30 minutes a day, five times a week, for about a month.” The story went on to say it’s a significant finding that adult brains can change, and that an increase of a few IQ points could change your life.

     If you have Asperger Syndrome, it’s easy to beat yourself up for your deficits in light of your abilities. Understanding that’s the way your brain works is tremendously helpful. It’s also helpful to set realistic goals and work to improve your executive function, social, or other skills. And being open about both your strengths and challenges can help you enlist your teachers, classmates, bosses, and coworkers to be patient, supportive and helpful.

     Afraid they’ll look down on you? In my experience, they’re more likely to respect you for being straight with them. Especially if that gives you the opportunity to use your abilities to excel. I recently interviewed a number of highly productive employees with Asperger Syndrome. Some are even more productive than coworkers with typical brains in the same jobs. Their coworkers accept and respect them.

     Ultimately, succeeding with Asperger Syndrome comes down to doing something parents and teachers have been telling us forever.

     “Use your brain.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR -- Dan Coulter is the producer of ten DVDs about Asperger Syndrome and autism, including "Manners for the Real World: Basic Social Skills" and "Asperger Syndrome at Work.” You can find more articles on his website: coultervideo.com.

Copyright 2010 Dan Coulter    All Rights Reserved.    Used by Permission.

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