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Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome

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PHOTO: Time.com

Imeh, an Aspergian, logged on to a social media platform and saw a disturbing photograph of a body part eaten up by bacterial infection. He instantly experienced a cold sensation, body itching and a headache. He found it difficult to go back to work for the rest of the day. In the days that followed, he would recall the pictures and experience it all over again. By the time this went on for nearly a week, he had developed rashes on his body and his headaches had come back. He contrived a situation to deal with it. He sought out a girl he had developed feelings for on social media and asked her out. She turned him down as he had expected. This gave him something new to fixate about and he forgot about the photograph. “Strange” reactions to certain situations or stimuli is part of the life of an autistic, and it is often the most difficult part to get NTs to understand.

A common reaction around here is: “What is wrong with this one?” Extreme reaction to loud sounds appear to be the commonest. Sensitivity to touch, called “tactile hypersensitivity”, is a major cause of meltdowns, stress and headaches for many autistic persons. (It is said that one of the famous persons now widely speculated to have had Asperger’s syndrome, Albert Einstein, had tactile hypersensitivity.) ASD typically goes with a lot of phobias—height, water, dogs, worms, strangers, crowd; it could be anything. An autistic person might jump on stepping on a wire or on a cat rubbing its body against him.

Other associated problems, which vary from one autistic individual to another, could be anything from problem with face recognition (called “prosopagnosia”) to picky eating. Some of the more quirky ones like obsession with patterns, screaming when upset, refusing to eat food or use cutlery of certain colours, or refusing to take his bathe will likely go away with age. Self-sabotage, like giving away all his money and leaving nothing for himself, and inability to handle delays may go with age. Social interaction difficulties typically persist for life for autistic people, especially those who did not have early intervention. The fear of unusual things never goes away but his responses will improve.

Even though autistics are most comfortable in solitary jobs, working with people, at least, for a while, can be good for them. Many Aspergians try to compensate for what they lack. Some spend their entire life trying to be like NTs and will achieve considerable mastery of small talk, norms and body language reading by adulthood. Some may even master guile, even if to a limited degree. Others take the opposite route of ignoring everyone and walking around with their eyes seemingly closed, trying hard to build self-confidence on their own, and ending up with what others see as a huge ego. (Some autistic kids do literally walk along the road with their eyes closed or palms clasped over their ears.)

If you fall in love with an Aspie, putting up with him can present its challenges, particularly at the beginning, but there would be nothing you cannot easily handle. Love and trust are key. If he senses your love and you gain his trust you will have his loyalty. Since autistics are diverse, just like neurotypicals, it will be fruitless trying to typecast him until you actually relate with him. Like anyone, he may be a nice person or a narcissist. That said, there are a few generalities to bear in mind and some of them are likely to manifest, depending on his age or relationship experience.

A relationship with a woman could well be the most difficult thing a male Aspergian has ever done because he cannot appreciate any subtle differences between the thought processes of men and women and may find the intricacies of relating with a woman incomprehensible, especially if he has not been in a few relationships and had the opportunity to make and learn from his blunders. His age will be a factor because the older he is the more of his “issues” he has under control. Mixed signals will be extremely difficult for him to process. If you do not return his call, he will conclude you are no longer interested in him, and if he is already into you he may delete your contact and go into a major depression. This kind of thing will happen until you gain his trust.

Like everyone else, he wants to be loved as a person, not in spite of his Asperger’s. And his autism is not an excuse for bad behaviour. There is no need to be careful around him—at adulthood, he has the ability to deal with conflicts, even if he can’t prevent them. Since he does not know how his words or actions will be received by others, if he tells you two or three things and you get angry he may not be able to figure out which of them made you angry, unless you tell him. Remember, too, that autism may be mild or acute, so how much “quirkiness” he exhibits or how quickly he catches up is something you have to find out. There are, in fact, many Aspies who have dealt with their “issues” so much that you wouldn’t easily find out about their autism unless they tell you. There are tonnes of interesting posts on Quora and Reddit by people in a relationship with Aspies and HFAs and most testify to great relationships. If he loves you, an autistic will typically make the effort to understand you. If you are not naturally patient and prepared to put in some effort to understand him, you should not go into a relationship with him. Aspies-do-not-work-with-touchy-people. If you do go with him, he will reward you with his wit, candour, loyalty and a stress-free time. And won’t many of the things I have outlined above help in NT relationships as well?

Depression is particularly severe in the Aspergian community because pills have limited effectiveness and many autistics have no one to talk to.

Yet, many autistics thrive. Many have leveraged the talents and abilities that seem to come with their autism to become successful in their endeavours in all fields. But talent is not what does the trick. The world is not neurosensitive—you deal with this or die. As an autistic, half the people you cross paths with either bully you, take advantage of your tendency to take things at face value, or rub in your inadequacies just to hurt you from sadistic motives—I understand these are common in human nature—enough to kill your spirit along with any talent, and many autistics recoil into their shell when this happens. Now, everyone—NT, autistic or other neurodiverse individuals including those with bi-polar disorders, ADHD, schizophrenia, Taurettes, PDD—faces problems and may occasionally succumb to self-pity.

What helps anyone overcome, what stands between an autistic and frustration or suicide, what created the Temple Grandins of this world, what has helped many an autistic to succeed in a neurotypical world, whether he has special talents or not, is willpower—what some call the “can do” attitude. Sadly, though, there are some who are unable to beat it and remain trapped inside their own head, shrinking their mind and aggravating depression. They will not take a move towards anything—not self-improvement, not social media, nothing—unless they are prompted. This is called “autistic inertia”. And many have no one to talk to, to prompt them.

These articles are far from an exhaustive treatment of autism. They don’t even scratch the surface of what I have to say. Your paediatrician or child psychologist will give you tips on how to manage your autistic child. There are also countless forums and support groups on the Internet that you will find helpful. If you think your child may be autistic, talk to your doctor who will arrange for you to see a specialist. If your doctor dismisses your concerns about your child, find another one, preferably a paediatrician. It is hoped that more Nigerian psychiatrists and paediatricians will specialise in this area in future. If you are an autistic adult or if you suspect you are one, specific questions should be referred to your psychiatrist. A diagnosis brings relief to an adult autistic by helping him understand the source of his lifelong difficulties.

It also opens up opportunities to therapeutic interventions and possible assistive technology. A diagnosis is made in a clinical setting by a team of specialists or by a psychiatrist who works with ASD. But a non-diagnostic assessment can be done with online questionnaires. Whatever you do, know that there are ways out and it does get better at two worlds, same planet. I live it, so I know. You are an Aspergian, but that does not define you.
Ekozilen works as a copy editor in Lagos


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