Okay; let’s take a look at the first criterion the DSM-IV uses to diagnose Asperger’s:

Qualitative impairment in social interaction, as manifested by at least two of the following:

Does it surprise you that the wording uses this sort of multiple choice, where you can fit some but not all of the traits?  It surprised me, but it actually makes sense when you consider that the same thinking can be expressed by different people in different ways, depending on their personality.

1.  Marked impairment in the use of multiple nonverbal behaviors such as eye-to-eye gaze, facial expression, body postures, and gestures to regulate social interaction.

This was certainly true of me when I was at the usual age of diagnosis for Asperger’s (6-11).  How do people usually pick up these sorts of things?  When I was young, I was oblivious to things like eye contact or body language.  I gradually became aware of them, but at a later age than most of my classmates.

One thing that really helped me was practice– my Dad would practice shaking hands with me and stress the importance of looking him in the eye while we were shaking hands.  Then I could get more practice when I met new people at church.  Formal practice really helped me, because it fit my learning style– I would have a very hard time picking up something like that just by being around other people.  I was really flattered when a little while ago someone at church told me I was good at giving handshakes!

I still try to remind myself to make eye contact with people– for instance, when I am ordering at a restaurant, I try to remember to make eye contact with the waiter or waitress at least once while I’m placing my order, and I try to make eye contact with a speaker in church every once in a while to show I am paying attention.  It’s harder to keep this procedure in mind if I am nervous about other things, as happens at a job interview, and I wonder if I become mechanical in my pattern of looking up and looking down.  Obviously, it’s possible to overdo eye contact– people don’t like unannounced staring contests, so learning proper eye contact is a matter of balance.

Sometimes the fact that I was conscious about things like body language and facial expressions made my movements seem more mechanical or strange.  When I was in elementary school, another child told me that I was sitting “like a girl.”  I couldn’t figure out what they meant– I think it may have been because of the way I crossed my legs– but it was part of becoming self-conscious about my posture.  Nervousness and self-consciousness also made me more likely to give people a “stay away– I’m hiding” signal with my body language even if that wasn’t really the message I wanted to send.

2.  Failure to develop peer relationships appropriate to development level.

I’m not sure how apparent this trait would have been when I was a young child.  I found it was easy to make friends as a child– I would simply walk up to someone, ask “Will you be my friend?” and if they said “Yes,” I had a friend!  The first week or so in first grade, a boy named Ryan chose me to come up to the front of the class with him, either to help him with show-and-tell, or to help him with something the teacher had asked him to do.  We remained close friends all the way to graduation.  (It was really nice going to the same small school from 1st grade to 12th grade!)  I would usually eat lunch with him, and we’d stay over at each other’s houses from time to time.  It was at his house that I first saw a video game, Super Mario Bros., and was amazed.  But now I’m getting off the subject!

Even though I was on a first-name basis with everyone in my class simply from being around them daily for several years, once we reached junior and senior high, I gradually began to realize that many of their friendships with each other seemed to take on a depth outside of school that simply wasn’t there for me.  They would “hang out” together and go places, but I was usually happy to stay home.  In conversations at school, I usually found myself a silent observer, not sure how to relate to the things they liked to talk about.  (This is silly, but at the time I actually had the idea that this made me “less worldly” and that I was somehow pleasing God more by being socially “out of it.”  Some of the things that I heard preached logically led me to that conclusion, but that was both silly and unbiblical.)

I never felt lonely or unwelcome, though, because my classmates were always kind to me and were even quite protective of me.  I am really thankful for every one of the classmates I had at that Christian school– I was never bullied, even though I’m sure I seemed odd at times.  Sadly, a lot of the other people with Asperger’s that I’ve encountered online had to deal with bullying at school– some of them constantly– and I can’t imagine how hard that would be.  Being different is tough enough.  And you know what?  Everyone feels like they are “different” and “strange” at that age, no matter how together others might think they are.  During my senior year of high school, which was a really neat time when my whole class got closer to each other, I remember classmates sharing that they looked back on junior high as an “awful” time, and that feeling was pretty much unanimous.  Actually, while I certainly don’t want to relive junior high, I don’t think I even thought of it as all that bad at the time, so I know I’ve been blessed to have had the people in my class that I did. I still think of every one of them as a friend.

It was really only after I graduated and started going to Cedarville University that I began to notice I was a bit lonely.  Now I was at a college that had 2,500 students instead of a K-12 school with 300, so I would not automatically become friends with everyone there.  Also, they were people who were entirely new to me.  I did become friends with a lot of the guys who lived in the same dorm as me, and with other students who had a lot of classes with me.  It helped that we all shared our faith in Christ, so we could talk to each other about the Bible or what a speaker had said in chapel.

However, I found that in most conversations and group activities, I assumed a similar role to what I had in high school– standing near the back, uncomfortable or unsure how to interact on a deeper level.

It’s even more challenging trying to make friends as an adult now that I’m out of college.  Forming relationships really requires intention, because people’s lives are busy and they don’t usually spend time together unless they decide to.  It’s a bit tricky because I’ve been realizing that I may finally be at the point socially that most of my classmates were at early in high school– except that now I’m an adult, and I feel like I don’t know a lot about how adults act or how they make friends.

So that’s one of the things I’m still working on today.

3.  A lack of spontaneous seeking to share enjoyment with other people (e.g., by a lack of showing, bringing, or pointing out objects of interest to other people).

This criterion really surprised me when I read it.  I don’t think this has ever been true of me.  I love to share something I enjoy with others, whether it’s a song, a television series, a game, a website, something I’ve made…  And that was the case when I was a young child, too.

Maybe this trait simply doesn’t apply to me– are there Aspies out there for whom it does?  I’ve been thinking that it might possibly appear to others that children with Asperger’s are uninterested in sharing their interests for a couple of reasons.

Maybe they find their interests so enjoyable, so engrossing that they’re content to keep a singular focus on them all day– they’d share it with you, but that would mean they’d have to stop doing what they enjoy so much!  If I found a book I really liked as a child, I could sit in a corner and read it all day, and I’d be annoyed if someone tried to interrupt me to play a game.

It’s also possible that some children with Asperger’s have decided not to try to share their interests because they tried it once and got a negative reaction.  Areas of interest for Aspies are often very specific, and they might be dismissed as “weird” by others.  I don’t recall this ever happening to me, but I know that I used to be very self-conscious about asking to play a song I liked for my parents.  I always felt like I was bothering them even though I wasn’t, so it sometimes took quite an effort to work up the courage to ask them if they’d like to listen to a new album.  My desire to show them something I liked was always strong enough to compel me to ask them eventually, and they always listened.

4.  Lack of social or emotional reciprocity.

This trait goes right along with 1 and 2.  Awkwardness or self-consciousness about eye contact or body language can make it seem to others that you aren’t listening to them or don’t care about what they’re saying.  Some theories about Asperger’s have said that people with Asperger’s have difficulty with empathy.

However, I think it’s important to stress that I believe this is due to difficulty either recognizing the emotions of others or of expressing emotions in a way that others will recognize.  It is not because people with Asperger’s don’t care about what others are feeling.  I actually have a lot of trouble with being oversensitive– if a teacher scolded students in my class for acting up, I would feel as if I was being scolded even when I wasn’t.  I still feel nervous when I see someone get up to publicly sing or speak, even if they are a professional recording artist or the President of the United States– I’m afraid they will make a mistake and be embarrassed.

However, I can easily see how it might appear to others that a person with Asperger’s lacks empathy.  An Aspie might say something that seems inappropriate or insensitive to say in a given situation– like making an observation about some trivial thing during a discussion about the death of a loved one.  But that’s because they are unaware of the unspoken social rules about what you should say in that circumstance and what you should not say.  It can be difficult for a logical, rule-oriented mind to understand that the social rules are more complicated than “don’t say something inherently harmful”– that a statement that is not a lie and is not unkind still has understood restrictions about when it may be said.

Well, thanks for reading another one of my long posts– it helps me to think things through thoroughly.  Opinions and questions are welcome!

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