Stereotypes, success and stepping out – the Asperger way

How do people with Asperger’s Syndrome beat the labels and succeed in life? With the help of Laurie Morgen, former University Support Mentor, Grace Liu explores the issues.

Unemotional. Lacking in empathy. Cannot manage independently. Having Asperger’s Syndrome often means accumulating a whole variety of labels. And no, that doesn’t mean obsessively collecting those of the paper variety, and carefully arranging them in alphabetical order. But over the years, increasing Asperger/autism awareness has made life easier for those on the autistic spectrum. So what social struggles do we on the spectrum still have, and how do we overcome them?

The first and most obvious step is telling people. Naturally, this can be both a problem and a way of overcoming other problems. An opportunity for people to patronise you? Sad, but possible. A chance for people to understand you better? Definitely. For Laurie Morgen, Team Leader for non-profit disability charity Affinity Trust, the best approach was to accept her condition herself – one of the hardest steps to take.

“I think it’s a little bit like coming to terms with it,” she said. “Learning who I am and unlearning old habits.”

She went on to explain that she preferred telling people about her Asperger’s “on a need-to-know basis.”

“If I’m having difficulties, or am doing something really well. Some things are obvious to people with Asperger’s but not neurotypicals [non-autistic people],” she added.

Laurie, aged 53, was diagnosed relatively late in life, when she was 44. Until summer 2014, she worked as a university support mentor at De Montfort University. She also ran a weekly social group called Socialeyes, where students on the autistic spectrum could meet and participate in social activities in the Students’ Union Lounge.

For her, the hardest stereotypes to overcome have been gender based. The main one was the concept of women being able to multitask. People with Asperger’s often find multitasking difficult, and prefer to work on a step-by-step basis, with plenty of space, time and structure. “I need space and time to step back and look at a decision,” Laurie explained.

Other common stereotypes are those surrounding IQ. Poor social – and often physical – skills, can misleadingly come across as lack of intelligence. Then again, thanks to Asperger portrayals in the media, e.g. Rain Man and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, we are sometimes thought of as being modern-day Einsteins. In short, we are mathematically gifted, emotionally challenged robots. 

We are also thought to lack empathy. However, studies have shown that, on the contrary, many people on the spectrum feel empathy too strongly. We might feel someone else’s unhappiness very sharply but have no idea how to react to it. Again, the key here is to explain – let them know you think they are not happy, explain that you have trouble knowing how to react to other people and gently ask what you can do.

Anyone can find some social situations tricky, but for people with Asperger’s, most social situations are tricky. While it is good to learn how to integrate with other people, sometimes it is genuinely necessary for Asperger people to “recharge” by isolating themselves from their surroundings.

“I just take myself off and hide,” said Laurie. “I don’t really know what else to do. Sometimes I find just one person to talk to.”

According to Laurie, a common problem is that people are always looking for hidden agendas in what other people say. However, Asperger people tend to lack these, due to a literal interpretation of communication. As a result, not only is it confusing when neurotypicals do not mean exactly what they say, but also when they expect the same from us.

“We don’t have hidden agendas, and people don’t get that,” she pointed out. “People look for hidden meanings.”

She went on to explain that, for her, the best way of managing life with Asperger’s in a neurotypical world was by standing out.

“I don’t try to fit in. I spent years trying to do what other people wanted before I was diagnosed.

Despite her struggles while growing up, Laurie is satisfied with where she is in life. When asked how she managed to achieve as much as she has, she replied, “Because I was diagnosed later, and because nobody told me I couldn’t. For example, I passed my driving test. If I’d known people with Asperger’s have trouble driving, I’d have believed that.”

So it seems that, to succeed in a neurotypical world, there are balances to strike. Be aware of Asperger-related shortcomings, but don’t let them hold you back. Learn social skills, but don’t give into pressure to be “normal” Mix with people but don’t let them overwhelm you. But how do we strike those balances?

“Learn to be comfy with who you are,” concluded Laurie. “We have to realise as we mature that there is more than one way of looking at life. I promise you, it does get easier as we get older.”

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