As discussed in the previous articles, Autism Spectrum Disorder is the umbrella term for classical autism, Asperger’s Syndrome and Pervasive Developmental Disorder — Not Otherwise Specified.
While classical autism is usually identified by kindergarten, the average age for diagnosis with Asperger’s Syndrome is 11.
This means that there will be students in high school who have unidentified Asperger’s Syndrome.
The typical high school student with unidentified Asperger’s Syndrome is usually bright and gets by academically.
But socially and emotionally they do not fit in. By the time they are teenagers they have usually got a reputation, at least with their peers, for being a bit odd or geeky.
Continuing difficulties with communication
The communication difficulties of the earlier years, a pedantic style of speaking and intense focus on a few areas of interests continue.
Conversations are still monologues rather than dialogues.
They do not easily learn the language of teens and are frequently mystified by what their peers say and do. Their sense of humour can be off-key or absent.
Some of them get under the teacher’s skin by calling out in class, making smart-alec remarks or attempts at humour, which usually fall flat.
These behaviours make them seem much younger than their chronological age.
They are usually unaware of the social inappropriateness of these behaviours.
Teachers wonder why a kid who seems intelligent and who can be knowledgeable, has a hard time completing assignments and handing them in by the due date.
Both procrastination and perfectionism are characteristics of Asperger’s Syndrome and are related to anxiety — which is a concomitant of this condition. More on anxiety later.
The hidden curriculum
The unidentified Asperger’s Syndrome student may be making it academically, even though teachers may wonder about their apparent underachievement, but it’s the hidden curriculum of high school where they fail.
They have a hard time making sense of the rules of social interaction and are frequently off-key in how they talk and in what they talk about.
They are socially awkward.
Some students with Asperger’s Syndrome will persist in making social overtures because they have a strong desire for connection with their peers.
They are frequently on the fringe of activities, usually as an observer rather than as a participant.
Others can seem aloof and retire to the library or to a computer. Too many solitary hours at computer games or surfing the web removes the young person from human contact and reduces the opportunity to acquire the social skills necessary for survival in high school.
While other teens are socializing on the phone or making plans to spend time with friends, the phone rarely rings for the Asperger’s Syndrome student.
This is often heartbreaking for parents who worry about their child’s apparent lack of acceptance by others.
Students with unidentified Asperger’s Syndrome are prime targets for bullying because they seem different and lack the social skills to keep any nastiness at bay.
Bullying can be both physical and emotional.
The Asperger’s Syndrome student may be subjected to teasing and sarcasm and not understand what is going on. They may get frustrated when taunted and lose their cool, dissolving into anger or tears. Both responses further alienate them from their peers.
They may also have a hard time telling their side of the story because they frequently misinterpret social situations. They also have difficulty taking the perspective of others. They are unable to appreciate the situation from another’s point of view. They often appear self-righteous or stubborn.
Anxiety and depression
The dreadful twins, anxiety and depression, are frequent companions for the Asperger’s Syndrome student.
Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder are worriers. Anxiety is an underlying condition from quite a young age and, if untreated, in adolescence may reveal itself as panic attacks, refusal in the face of unfamiliar activities, and emotional shutdown, especially in tests and examinations.
Anxiety can be heightened by their unsuccessful attempts to connect with peers and depression may result.
Both anxiety and depression can be successfully treated with a combination of medication and cognitive behaviour therapy.
So, why does it take so long for Autism Spectrum Disorder to be recognized?
In adolescence, similarly with younger children, it may take an expert set of eyes to see the difference between a typical variation in development and the atypical.
By adolescence, the student with unidentified Asperger’s Syndrome will have developed a host of secondary symptoms — strategies they’ve acquired in order to cope. These secondary symptoms are usually seen as personality problems.
The young person with Asperger’s Syndrome will likely graduate from high school and take their difficult personality and their undiagnosed anxiety and/or depression on to the next social niche — post-secondary education or work.
Teachers will breathe a sigh of relief as another “problem” goes out the door and the rest of us, when we meet them as adults, will either try to avoid them or mutter to ourselves about Yukon’s famed colourful five per cent.
But it need not be this way.
Interventions focusing on teaching social skills and how to understand the emotional responses of others can do much to help students with Asperger’s Syndrome learn more appropriate ways of interacting.
Medication as well as alternative therapies such as relaxation training and meditation have much to offer to help them deal with anxiety.
Even adults, who may have been diagnosed later in life at their own request, are signing up for interventions to help them with relationships and work-related issues.
Naturally, intervention in the earlier years is best.
But individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder can be supported to optimize their growth and development at any age.
Dr. Webster is an educational psychologist who consults locally and internationally on children and youth with special educational needs.