I’ve been wanting to continue posting about what I was like growing up, hopefully to help people understand Asperger’s syndrome better. But I’ve been a little nervous about writing this part, because it feels a bit like bragging. It’s honestly not my purpose to boast, though, and I hope it will make sense once you’ve read the rest.
Hans Asperger described the children he studied during the 1940s as “little professors,” because they tended to study a specific interest in great detail, and then repeat the facts they had learned to anyone who would listen. They would use formal language as if they were delivering a lecture, an effect that can seem comical coming from a young child.
I definitely had the “little professor” trait. I learned to read when I was quite young– I honestly can’t remember not being able to. My favorite sort of books to read were reference books that used pictures and symbols to communicate information along with words. I would spend hours reading these books over and over again.
What sorts of things captured my interest?
- Road maps. A long while ago, I posted a funny story about how one year I said my favorite Christmas gift was a Philadelphia road map. I was fascinated by the symbols used on maps for different types of roads and the names of the roads themselves. I could watch for the road names on signs when I was riding in the car and figure out where all of the places we visited were. At home, I would spread the map out on the floor and use highlighters to trace paths on it. When my youngest brother Andrew was born, I told my grandparents how to get to the hospital when I went with them to visit my Mom for the first time. I was four years old.
- The states in the U.S.A. and the countries of the world. I had an old atlas in my room that I turned through until the pages were falling out. I liked how each country was marked by a change in color and had its own flag. Finding all of the countries on each map was like a game, especially in the case of tiny ones like Liechtenstein. Before long, I could draw a map of state or country borders from memory.
- The bones and organs of the body. Another of my favorite books was a human anatomy book; it was like a map of the inside of the body. I liked learning all of the strange names for bones– vertebrae, phalanges, scapula, femur– and I could feel where they were inside me. I read about the path that food takes through the body after you eat it. I learned about the circulatory system (heart and blood vessels) and respiratory system (lungs). I liked how I could ask my Dad, the doctor, any question, and he would know the answer to it.
- Astronomy. I loved learning facts about the planets. Each one has its own day (Jupiter’s is 10 hours; Venus’s is 243 days) and its own year (Mercury’s is 88 days; Pluto’s is almost 250 years). On some planets, I would weigh just a couple of pounds; on others, I would weigh a ton. Then there were the constellations– 88 of them, just as many as there are keys on a piano. I had a wonderful book by children’s author H.A. Rey that taught me how to recognize the brightest constellations in the sky, but I wanted to learn about all of them, even the ones without any bright stars, like Lacerta the lizard and Camelopardalis the giraffe.
- Math. Before I was old enough to start school, I did math workbooks for fun. Really! I enjoyed books that taught arithmetic by lining up rows of circles or squares so I could see what 9 + 5 or 3 x 10 looked like. I would spend hours drawing squares so I could see what a hundred looked like– then a thousand. (It didn’t occur to me until just now that I seem to have been a very visual learner. Strange, because I’m actually diagnosed as having a non-verbal learning disability. Are diagrams and maps considered verbal or non-verbal information?)
I’ve been thinking about why children with Asperger’s display the “little professor” behavior. Some of the writing I’ve seen on the subject argues that these children are merely “parroting” information they’ve heard or read and don’t really understand the complicated subjects they are talking about.
I suppose that could be the case for some children, but it certainly wasn’t true of me. I wouldn’t have spent so much time reading if I couldn’t understand what I was learning. I think it could have appeared that way to an adult listener who didn’t know me well, though, and I think the reason may be that children with Asperger’s tend to repeat the wording of the original book very closely instead of rephrasing it in their own words. This might include using phrases and words that they don’t fully understand, and perhaps using them incorrectly at first.
For me, at least, this “unnatural” way of speaking was actually an attempt to be as accurate as possible. What could be more correct than using the wording of the book itself? I later learned how to sound more like a child when I spoke, but that often seemed like an intentional decision on my part, as if I were playing a role. The idea of having my own voice didn’t seem to come very naturally to me. I have always tended to take on the mannerisms and speech patterns of the people I am around if I’m not careful. (I’ve seen other Aspies post about how this has gotten them in trouble at times, because the other person thought they were being mocked!)
There was an additional reason I did the “little professor” routine as a child. I quickly learned that I could get an impressed reaction out of adults by rattling off a bunch of the information I had read about, so I looked for opportunities to do so any time my parents had friends over. They would compliment me on being so smart, or just laugh and say that I was cute. It didn’t seem to work so well if I tried it with other children, though. Naturally, I began to prefer being around adults to being around children my own age.
Looking back at this today, the reason for this is obvious. Adults in general try to be polite to children and encourage them– I didn’t know it at the time, but they probably didn’t find my “lectures” as fascinating as I thought they did. When I tried to do the same with other children, I got an unvarnished response to what I was doing: I was being a know-it-all, which is pretty annoying. In both cases, I was more focused on myself than on others. Perhaps that’s part of not having a good “theory of mind,” or perhaps it’s just selfish human nature.
As it turned out, I had a lot more to learn from my peers than they had to learn from me– and that’s one of the reasons I’m so thankful for the kids God placed around me in school.
P.S. According to an article I read recently, this is another area in which girls with Asperger’s are sometimes overlooked because they often display this trait differently: Instead of the “little professor” trait, some girls could better be described as “little philosophers,” focusing inward and thinking with great depth about social situations and emotions while seeming to be silent and detached.