By Dan Coulter
Poor neurotypicals. Sometimes they just don’t have a clue.
What’s a neurotypical? It’s a label for someone who doesn’t have Asperger Syndrome (AS), autism spectrum disorder, or another condition that makes you think differently. (I don’t know who coined the term, but I first heard it used by Dr. Peter Gerhardt.) We can call neurotypicals “NTs” for short.
When an NT first encounters someone with Asperger Syndrome, he or she often sees quirky AS behaviors as a warning. “Oops, something wrong with this one. Better stay clear.”
Many NT’s routinely erect mental barriers between themselves and people with AS, without realizing they’re walling themselves off from some really bright, interesting people. “Barrier behaviors” can range – especially in kids -- from avoiding or ignoring people with AS to taunting, harassing or taking advantage of them.
Let’s call this Barrier Behavior Disorder (BBD). Unfortunately, BBD doesn’t tend to fix itself. So who’s going to break down these barriers and free the neurotypicals?
Um, that would be you and me. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably either got AS, have someone in your family with AS and/or know a lot about AS. There’s nobody more qualified to enlist in the NT-BBD liberation movement.
While I’m sympathetic to anyone with AS who doesn’t want to widely disclose the fact, I also know of plenty of instances where neurotypical behavior changed for the better after someone took the trouble to help an NT understand Asperger Syndrome and what it does and doesn’t mean.
It’s natural to feel awkward when you’re confronted with something new and don’t know how to react. So let’s tell neurotypicals a bit about Asperger Syndrome and explain how to react when a person talks obsessively about one subject -- or makes blunt observations -- or can’t seem to ever find quite the right words to say. They’ll be much more likely to interact long enough to see some of the strengths a person with AS has.
What I’m talking about goes beyond disclosure. I’m talking about an education campaign that can make life a lot better for all concerned.
You can start on a small scale. Are you concerned about what would happen if the police stopped your daughter who gets very upset with authority figures? My wife got a very positive reception when she held a seminar on Asperger Syndrome for local police. Most police want to have good relations with the community and appreciate having accurate information when they deal with a person who has special needs.
Does your son shop at a local store? Maybe you could offer to do a quick talk on AS to a gathering of the store’s cashiers just before or after store hours.
It helps if you keep your presentation short (you can do a lot in 5 or 10 minutes if you prepare properly) and if you describe specific behaviors and make suggestions about dealing with them. For example:
* If a customer is nervous and has a hard time finding the right words, it helps to be patient and friendly and don’t rush the customer.
* If a customer doesn’t seem to understand a part of the checkout procedure (for example, gives a checkout clerk his money before the item he is buying) just explain in a friendly way that you need to see the item he’s buying so you’ll know how much to charge him.
* Be careful not to talk to an adult or teenager having difficulties like you would talk to a small child. Just explain things clearly in the same friendly tone of voice you’d use to give directions to an adult who didn’t know where in the store to find the hardware department.
Of course, the idea for this education initiative didn’t start with me. There are plenty of folks already out there helping neurotypicals learn about AS. But if you’re new to the campaign, here’s a tip: it helps to stress the benefits for both people with AS and for your intended audience when you’re proposing presentations.
Most store managers, for example, should see the benefits of having their employees know how to deal with a situation calmly and avoid possible incidents where shopping is disrupted. You’re not telling people how to do their jobs; you’re giving them information that will help them make good decisions in situations they’re likely to encounter.
A father once told me that his teenage son with Asperger Syndrome got upset anytime they were driving together and saw a police car. The father said he planned not only to talk with the local police about AS, but that he’d ask if an officer would be willing to do a practice traffic stop. After some preparation and discussion, the son could drive across a parking lot and an officer could “pull him over” and help him practice the right way to respond to a police officer in that situation.
What a good idea!
Which brings up another point. Asperger Syndrome support groups are great places to go for resources and ideas. (The ASPEN organization, based in New Jersey, is an excellent example of an AS support and education organization. You can find out more information about ASPEN atwww.aspennj.org.) If you’re not the best public speaker in the world, maybe you can enlist another parent to help you make presentations. And maybe you can help the other parent in some other way.
There are also times when it helps to turn to a professional.
A mother wrote me about dramatic changes in classmate attitudes after a psychologist gave a presentation about Asperger Syndrome to a school assembly. The presentation helped the students understand what having AS was like and how kids with AS just wanted to be treated like everyone else. The mother said that kids who had routinely shunned and teased her son came up to him after the assembly to apologize. In the days the followed, classmates began including him in activities and sitting with him at lunch.
As our son (who has Asperger Syndrome) was growing up, my wife and I spent a lot of time helping him with his social skills and preparing him to interact with people in a variety of real-world situations. As an adult, he does a good job coping, but he still has some Asperger behaviors that can take people aback. But anything he, and we, can do to help people understand what AS means and meet him halfway tends to level the playing field -- so he’s not fighting barriers that shouldn’t be there in the first place.
It’s sometimes amazing how great people can be if you just let them know what’s going on and give them a chance.
So let’s all work to eradicate NT-BBD.
Our neurotypical friends deserve nothing less.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dan Coulter is the author of the videos, “INTRICATE MINDS: Understanding Classmates with Asperger Syndrome,” and "The Puberty Video for Boys with Asperger Syndrome." You can find more information and articles on his website at: coultervideo.com.
Copyright 2014 Dan Coulter Used by Permission All Rights Reserved