Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Different doesn't mean bad

kw: book reviews, asperger's syndrome, asperger syndrome, autism, references

Tony Attwood is a clinical psychologist, who works with many persons who have Asperger's syndrome. His book The Complete Guide to Asperger's Syndrome is both a text and a reference, written for a more general audience than his earlier book Asperger's Syndrome: A Guide for Parents and Professionals.

I found the book of interest because I am closely associated with four such persons, one at work, two students, and a fellow church member. I also have had some contact with autistic persons, and two characteristics are easy to spot: someone with Asperger's syndrome can maintain eye contact, at least for a short while, but an autistic person will very rarely glance at your face; and it is usually possible to hold a conversation with the one, but almost never with the other. Also, when stressed sufficiently, almost anyone will rock back and forth or from side to side; this is much more frequent for someone with Asperger's, and is often constant for an autistic person. It is often called "autistic rocking", and is the symptom that most directly leads one to conclude that autism may be largely a phenomenon of over-sensitivity to stressors. I recall reading that many autistic people recover more control of themselves after they have been trained to block out or ignore noise, or given dark glasses that they then wear almost constantly.

There was a time that I was working as an operating systems analyst. The top practitioners of OS programming in assembly codes are truly wizards of the craft. Typically, they are also either autistic or have Asperger's, or at least social anxiety disorder (which I have to some extent). We used to joke that certain programmers were "kept in the forest and fed raw meat." Actually, some of them are maintained in luxurious isolation of their choice, and work by telecommuting. It takes a special sort of manager to supervise their work. On occasion, when they desire human contact, I've met one or another. They are clearly weird, yet relish human contact in measured doses. I've learned to modulate things by working with my door closed as needed.

Note that I haven't used the word "disorder" with Asperger's syndrome (AS hereafter). While some put it on the "autistic disorder spectrum", I think it more useful to maintain, as did Hans Asperger, and also Tony Attwood, that AS is a phenomenon in which several traits seen in everyone are present in more extreme form. In that regard, AS is no "worse" than being seven feet tall (particularly if you have B-ball skills!) or four feet six (like "Mini-Me", Verne Troyer). There are about as many AS individuals as there are 7-footers and 4.5-footers combined...

My contact with AS folks in the working world shows that they can be very valuable employees, particularly because they are exceptionally able (sometimes boringly so) able to maintain focus.

Dr. Attwood's book begins with a general "What is it" chapter, followed by one that details the diagnostic criteria. The following twelve chapters each focus on a clinical (e.g. cognitive ability) or environmental (e.g. teasing) dimension of the live of someone with AS, particularly as a child. It ends with a FAQ chapter, and a full apparatus of references and resources.

The question can be asked, "Is it OK for someone with AS to know it?" I think it is. The ones I've talked to, who know they display AS, can talk about it frankly, and then go on about any subject of mutual I have many interests, it isn't hard for me to enjoy talking about their interest.

This isn't a book you just read, it is a reference book in itself. I read parts that interested me, and found them quite valuable.

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