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Autism and Asperger’s syndrome

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If there is one thing Ose knows for a fact, it is that human beings are extremely tough to be around. But this great truth is not known to everyone, including Ehi, his older cousin. So Ehi would observe that his teenage cousin keeps to himself and has no friends – male or female. Ose avoids parties and events. If he finds himself at one, he would go and sit all by himself and press away at his phone rather than mingle with people. In the rare event that he gets chummy or plays with anyone, it would be someone outside of his age group. Ehi tells Ose to be “more friendly.” Ose wants to be more friendly. He tries but fails. In fact, on the few occasions he gets around to trying, the response is bad; he concludes it’s not working and gives up. Trust is huge with him for any form of relationship to take place. If he gets a bad response – whether it was actually bad or he imagined it so-he would become distrustful and not try again. Ose is unable to explain all this to Ehi because he does not know how to explain it and when he tries Ehi does not understand. All Ehi can do is advise Ose to “snap out of it” and “go out there” and “go talk to the girls.”

Another thing Ehi does not understand is that behind Ose’s fixed facial expression is a restless mind and that Ose lacks the ability to functionally prioritise the things on his mind and multi-task – this is called “executive dysfunction.” Becoming friendly, while on his list of priorities, is around number 34 on it. It is for the same reason that when he was a kid he would not take his bath, brush he teeth, comb his hair or do his homework – he has other things on his mind. Even now in his teens, Ose still struggles with some of these things and never remembers, on his own, to cut his hair. Ose knows the name of every country in the world with its capital city and currency and has a sophisticated vocabulary among other abilities.

People think he is “intelligent”. But he struggled to pass some key subjects at school and his mind is sometimes a roiling pit of confusion due to his inability to interact with people or make sense of “simple” things around him, his tendency to “catastrophise” over “nothing”, and the constant self-regulating that takes a toll on his mental resources. The people who describe him as intelligent also sometimes call him “dumb” and remark on his physical clumsiness. Lately, he has started to experience frequent headaches and to throw up from GERD-related complications which, unknown to him, have both been brought on by his high levels of stress and anxiety, all exacerbated by the sleeping difficulties he had experienced since he was a toddler. Ehi likes Ose but he thinks Ose is a bit “weird.” Ose has autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Ehi is neurotypical. Welcome to the world of autistic persons.

Autism is a neurological defect which manifests as behavioural difficulties, delayed social maturity and a tendency towards fixation with narrow interests. Autism is a medical condition. It is not an illness, a derangement or a fragility. April is Autism Awareness Month and today is World Autism Day. Autism is a lonely path since autistics do not typically make friends or talk about their challenges. This article will, hopefully, provide some insight into a recondite subject and the life and experiences of adults on the autistic spectrum. A one-sentence definition of an autistic would be someone who sees the world differently from the way everyone does. And autistics and psychiatrists call “everyone” neurotypicals or NTs. Being wired differently often comes with certain mental advantages for Aspergians but the trade-off is communication difficulties. (Some insist ASD is not a disability but an alternative perception – this is the theory of “neurodiversity”.) You can see this in action in fiction or movies featuring autistics as major characters, although you should not let them shape your opinion of autistics too much since many of them tend to be too stereotypical.

People on the autism spectrum are commonly classified into three. There is classical autism, which involves difficulty in communication and limited social awareness. This is the case of Raymond in the movie Rain Man (1988). Classical autistics are unable to hold your gaze and may repeat what is on their mind instead of answering your question. Early detection and special education are crucial for a child with classical autism. There is high-functioning autism (HFA), which does not impair much day-to-day life. A high-functioning autistic can communicate well and live a “normal” life, especially with the right education. Then there is Asperger’s syndrome. Aspergians are high-functioning autistics who do well in IQ, but for all their “intelligence” they have a problem figuring how others think and how their own actions are perceived, and this has implications for all types of social relationships. An Aspergian does not experience language impairment and may, in fact, be called “professor” as a kid because of his vocabulary. But Aspies tend to display communication “abnormalities” like verbosity, excessive formality, use of imagery in a manner incomprehensible to their hearers, and idiosyncrasies like speaking too fast or too loud. Most of the autistics you will come across in social settings will fall into the two latter groups since most classical autistics are minded, either at home or an institution.

Reclusiveness, an uncanny ability to concentrate, a tendency to repudiate dogma and groupthink, and a scant regard for such NT niceties as leisure probably account for the ability of some Aspergians to achieve near-savant-level proficiencies and why they are popularly thought to be well-represented among inventors, computer programmers, writers, composers and scientists. An Aspie might ask you for something in an “inappropriate” manner because he does not understand such concepts as norms, respect and decorum or why they are so important to NTs. This is why Aspergians live by what they call “observe, memorise, repeat”. Watching how others handle social situations is the autistic’s only way to master norms. Aspergians face the other challenges autistic people face and may manifest some of the “signs” of autism such as “funny” facial expressions, awkward or repetitive body movements and even mental shutdowns. AS is actually autism without the communication and awareness limitations – you just need a higher nominal IQ to meet the criteria for AS diagnosis. So while an Aspergian who is sensitive to sound might not scream on hearing a siren the way a classical autistic might, he feels the pain just the same. Aspergians improve with age and live “normal” lives, and many hold down “normal” jobs in various professions, including management jobs. The Accountant (2016) is a good movie depiction of someone with AS.
Ekozilen works as a copy editor in Lagos

Note that the classification outlined above can be misleading because autism is a spectrum and no two autistics are the same. For example, some autistics can drive cars as good as any person, while many can’t. Some can use metaphors, contrive to tell jokes and use sarcasm but others cannot. Many autistic persons go through considerable difficulties, as the small tasks of life – physical or mental – can be the most difficult for them, and some are unable to hold down any job. Panic attacks, anxiety, depression, paranoia and stress are common among autistics but these are not the worst mind problems they have to deal with. That cup will go to extreme reaction to stimuli, such as sound, touch, light or the sight of graphic images. The suicide rate is higher among autistics than among the NT population. And the kind of “whole person” care available to autistics elsewhere are not yet available in Nigerian hospitals. Learning about autism is important because it may help you to help a family member and better understand people you come across during work and play.

Autism is thought to be more common in boys but it is more likely to go undiagnosed in girls. Even in developed countries, autism in children is still quite commonly missed because parents, teachers and doctors remain poorly informed about it. In Nigeria, autistic children do not have the kind of support systems and special public schools available elsewhere, and being born to poor parents may mean a particularly difficult life since such children may not have access to the kind of special education they require.

A strong family support in extremely helpful in easing the challenges of living with ASD. For example, it can help guide him towards a qualitative and purposive education. It may even help ensure proper relationship coaching and that he gets married “on time” – if he does want to get married – as many Aspergians have a problem dating, often marrying late if they marry at all.

Ekozilen works as a copy editor in Lagos


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