Laurie MonsebraatenThe Toronto Star
Date Published: Friday, October 26, 2012
View printable version
Puberty is when the brain is closed for renovations, a Toronto conference on autism was reminded Friday.
That light-hearted truism from renowned clinical psychologist and author Tony Attwood drew chuckles from the audience of more than 200 parents, teachers and clinicians at the international gathering sponsored by the Geneva Centre for Autism.
But the serious truth for children with Asperger’s syndrome, a neurological disorder on the milder end of the autism spectrum, is that puberty and the teen years can be a minefield.
Attwood, who has made a career of translating the world of Asperger’s to so-called “neuro-typicals,” describes people with the disorder as a “minority in a world of social zealots.”
“And the worst time for social zealots are the teenage years,” he said. “It is often the bleakest time for people with Asperger’s.”
Friendship changes, sexuality and vulnerability to bullying are heightened in the teen years, he said.
“In elementary school, generally, it is cool to be kind. Now it’s cool to be cruel. And who do you target? The ‘Aspie,’” Attwood noted.
Typical teens have friends and peers they can talk to about the physical and emotional changes they are experiencing. They learn important social codes and cues from each other.
But a key marker of people with Asperger’s is difficulty with social communication, and they have trouble reading the social landscape. As a result, these teens often don’t have any friends to share the often rocky road of adolescence.
Attwood gave the example of Peter, a 19-year-old who spoke in a funny high-pitched voice. When Attwood questioned him about his speaking style, he discovered the teen was reacting to the expression that his voice was “breaking.”
“He interpreted his deep voice as broken,” Attwood noted.
Sensory sensitivity — to light, sound, smell and touch — also impacts teen experiences, he said.
When he asks teens with Asperger’s about their teachers, they often say they hate teachers who shout.
“But when they shout, it’s also sensitivity to negativity,” he noted. “So sometimes social withdrawal may not be due to confusion, it’s because of sensitivity to the negative atmosphere and emotions of others.”
It all comes down to managing emotions, he said, adding that people with Asperger’s worry to the point of anxiety.
But special interests, which are often intense fascinations for teens with Asperger’s, are a life-saver because they provide deep pleasure and can offer an escape from the anxiety and isolation, he said.
Therefore, withholding a special interest as a punishment can be devastating, and Attwood strongly recommends against it.
In an interview after his presentation, Attwood said a typical high school student can do a lot to ease the journey for a schoolmate with Asperger’s, starting with stepping in when they are bullied and trying to cheer them when they are sad.
“When you see them, don’t walk past them, say hi . . . It’s really just to check with that person, to see if they are okay,” he said.
“Take some responsibility. In return, you will have one of the loyal-est friends you could possibly ever want.”
(Please note that CMHO staff does not reply to comments that are posted on news stories.)