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Social Skills and Asperger's Syndrome - A Personal Account

It's Not Like Riding a Bike!

By Steve Gregorich

(Note from Dr. Moore: Steve consulted with me earlier this year. He is in the process of writing several articles about his experiences with Asperger's Syndrome. His purpose in writing is to help clarify his own thoughts and feelings, and also to educate his family, friends, and others. He has given permission to share his articles with you and has asked that his real name be used.)

The hallmark characteristic for people with Asperger's Syndrome is "marked deficiencies in social skills." They tend to talk way too much. They often switch the subject of conversation back to themselves or topics for which they have a fanatical interest. They may blurt out something insensitive with no indication that they are aware of the social injury they may have caused. They may lose connection with a conversation right in the middle and stare out across the room. They often look at the floor and walls rather than the eyes of the person to whom they are conversing. They have little or no sense of the rules for give-and-take conversation that are naturally acquired by normal people as they grow up.

When a person with Asperger's Syndrome acts the way they do, you are not likely to hear whispered comments like: "Oh my, I believe Marvin may be afflicted with a neurological condition." Of course not. What you will hear whispered is something more like: "Jerk!"

As an example, I may display an intensity I do not "feel." The volume of my speech will gradually rise to a level very uncomfortable for others. I will make sharp hand motions, pointing in their face while bombarding them with a torrent of words. I usually accompany all those expository pyrotechnics with an intense stare that can leave the listener confused, speechless, angry or intimidated. It sounds contradictory, but I usually do not "feel" all that strongly about the issues and "feel" that I am remaining open to the expression of opposing views.

Because my brain does not "filter" my behavior through an intuitive set of rules for social interaction, as occurs with most normal people, I tend to state what I think quickly, bluntly, thoughtlessly. Examples can sound bizarre: A person had died aboard one of the boats in the harbor where I kept my boat. I had helped get him into an ambulance and helped to clean up the boat afterward.

Later, at a get-together on the dock in honor of the deceased, I was having a glass of wine with other boaters. I felt confusion and loss for he was a close and relatively young friend. His death brought home to me my own sense of mortality and I felt the great empty space left behind his powerful and humorous personality. In other words, I had appropriate "feelings" for the social occasion, but, as you will see, I was not able to match them to my expression.

Another boating acquaintance was standing next to me. His wet eyes showed that his sense of loss was strong also. I looked down at the dock with my typical stare and said, "I cleaned the blood off the rug."

My friend, who was much taller, glared down at me. I felt like a bug under a microscope. In a few seconds, he turned and walked away. See? Jerk!

With all that as background, I will describe my attempts to make substitutions into my plagued repertoire of negative social skills. I began to view my compulsions as serious personal faults when I was around 9 years old. I attempted to find "right ways" of behaving by observing what other kids did. But kids 9 years old do all sorts of things and I most often was not able to distinguish a comparatively "good" thing from a "bad" one.

My analytical mind could come up with all sorts of rationales for why even the most outrageous behaviors might be viewed positively by others or serve some useful social function. I simply had no natural ability to sort them out. Throughout childhood, high school and college, I seemed not to be able to improve and that led to depression and self-recrimination.

Having no other explanation, by college I was convinced that I was simply a "bad person" and that it was understandable for other people to reject me. In truth, if I ever met other persons who acted similarly to me, I often rejected them as well, and that lowered my self-estimation further. In this way, the effects of Asperger's Syndrome can be insidious and destructive, creating new levels of emotional complications.

A few years after I got a doctorate and was teaching at a well-known, Eastern university, I came upon a program of clinical exercises entitled "Interpersonal Communication Skills." I was extremely excited about the exercises because, for the first time, I could read specific descriptions of interpersonal skills that I had been unable to define on my own. The proscriptive nature of the instructional package sorted out the useful, positive skills from all the other possible behaviors that I might observe in others and it described clinical activities for raising skill levels

I used the package continuously for years to set targets for myself, inserting and practicing a specific interactive skill for weeks or months on end until I understood better when and where it fit. After a number of years, I was gradually able to bring some of the skills effectively into my own interactions. That is, so long as I remembered to employ them in a timely fashion.

As examples: I practiced using paraphrasing to assure that I understood what others meant before giving my own point of view. I practiced asking people questions to get them to expand on their ideas. I practiced using their ideas in what I said next. I practiced being aware of where my eyes were. I practiced showing positive feelings with facial expressions, etc. The student evaluations of my courses soared. Encouraged thus, I continued to work on those skills throughout my career and still continue to do so in my retirement.

But it was not until 2004 that I learned the true nature of my problems when I was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome. Finally, I was able to understand so many things that had happened to me. As I learned about the wealth of information and services available today I felt a great joy. In contrast, when I came upon something that was contradicted by my own experience, I was very surprised.

I read an online article claiming that persons with Asperger's Syndrome could acquire social skills "…much like you or I would learn to play the piano." And another that stated it was ". . . like learning to ride a bike." I think these statements correctly make the point that people with Asperger's Syndrome do not develop social skills naturally and intuitively as most people do and that the skills needed to be consciously learned. But I believe the analogies they use are, at least, nieve trivializations of what actually takes place, and, at most, fundamentally wrong.

I learned to ride a bike in about a week when I was 7 years old. I became very skillful at it in a couple of years cycling around the neighborhood. It was fun. I learned without thinking about it much. Before long, my mind and body seemed to become part of the bike as I careened around corners and over jumps performing harrowing stunts with split second timing. I did not have to think about what I was going to do next or review in my mind how I would do it -- I just did it as naturally as a bird would fly.

Conversely, I have spent decades working in a clinical fashion to put basic interactive skills into my social interaction. It has been possible for me to have some success, but progress has been slow and frustrating. It is like pounding a square peg into a round hole. Imagine my hands tied behind my back while I am holding the hammer between my teeth.

After all this time and effort, my brain still seems to have a powerful bias to distort rather than employ those skills. I must stay very attentive to what I am doing or the old Syndrome-specific traits will pop out. I have come to the conclusion that my Asperger's Syndrome brain provides a hostile environment for the social skills I want. I think that normal people tend to vastly underestimate the effort required.

Here is an example: A comparatively simple skill I have worked on for years is not to walk among people with a cadaverous look on my face and my eyes on the ground in front of me. When I walk into a hardware store, for instance, I hold my head up, smile from ear to ear, and make direct eye contact with the staff and shoppers. It makes an incredible difference in how people respond to me. But, after so many years, it is still a difficult thing for me to do because the old behaviors are self-maintaining while the new ones are not.

Here is how it works: As I am on my way to the hardware store, I am relaxed. For me, that means that my face naturally slumps into a mean-looking stare. As I get out of my car in the parking lot, my eyes are focused on my keys, the lock, the blacktop as I walk toward the storefront. Upon entering, I go through my mental checklist: lift shoulders, head up, smile, look at people. Voila, the metamorphosis! However, if I did not remember to go through the list, my brain would not have brought up the appropriate body language autonomously. And as soon as my mind is distracted, my eyes will drop, my face sag, and my shoulders slump.

I do not mean to paint too glum a picture. My acquired communication skills have gradually become easier to maintain the more I have used them. But when I ride a bike, there is a special brain/body system of memory that takes over the bike-riding skills and directs their employment automatically. I don't have to remember to think about it.

In one of the 2004 issues of Science News, a special brain/body system of interactive ganglion was described. Through recent research, it was discovered that ganglion appear, not only in the brain, but in other parts of the body as well. In this way, there is a total mind/body system involved in the learning, memory and coordination of psychomotor skills. The system is special to interactive mind and muscle functions and is tailored to facilitate those kinds of tasks efficiently and often autonomously. When I am doing well-rehearsed stunts on my bike, I don't have to direct every little move -- the mind/body system takes over repetitive functions and directs them with little or no conscious thought required.

Our brains also have a special system for dealing with social interaction and we theorize that intuitive thinking lies at its heart. However, when the intuitive thinking functions of our brains are damaged, malformed, or totally dysfunctional, then we theorize that other areas of the brain take on the task. But, I believe it is an error to say that people with Asperger's Syndrome can still learn social skills as they might learn to ride a bike.

In Asperger's Syndrome, the special system in the brain designed to handle social interaction efficiently does not work. Substitute systems, such as the special mind/body system for learning psychomotor skills or the analytical system for learning about things by breaking them into their component parts, are not likely to handle the task nearly as well.

I suggest that we should correct our explanations of how people with Asperger's Syndrome learn social skills. They can "learn" terms and definitions of those skills just as easily as anyone else. They can practice inserting the skills into interactions with others. But, unlike others, they are not likely to develop a very fine, efficient, intuitive sense for coordinating all the forms of verbal and nonverbal communication in a way that is as natural, confident and relaxed as normal people. Though an observer might feel that I am employing some social skills with ease, they are being deceived. Secondly, unlike normal people, I believe those with Asperger's Syndrome will need to do more maintenance of those skills over longer time periods to gain reasonable facility.

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