A covered pot of rice and water, if left unattended, will boil over. You can imagine the surprise and stress in the room when the rice and water are boiling over the edges of the pan.
Aspergers adults symptoms and signs are like that pot of water and rice on the flame.
The same thing happens to adults with Aspergers. What looks like a full-blown rage or tantrum episode, may actually be the accumulation of a lot of little stressors and anxieties bubbling up as reactions to different events.
It’s important to realize, as well, that meltdowns are often panic attacks disguised as meltdowns.
Sensory overload of the neurological circuits is like the water slowly boiling over the flame.
But meltdowns are only one symptom Aspergers adults experience. Below is a framework that helps explain Aspergers adults symptoms and signs.
Framework for Aspergers Symptoms and Signs Based on Processing Differences
Dr. Valerie Gaus, in her book, Cognitive Behavior Therapy for Adult Asperger Syndrome, outlines a framework to help us better understand why stress, anxiety, and depression build up for adults with Aspergers.
Dr. Gaus reviewed research literature that points out three core processing problems for adults with Aspergers: core problems processing a) information about others; b) information about self ; and c) nonsocial information.
Each person is unique, so core problems may be more or less pronounced for each of these areas.
Core problem processing information about others
An Aspergers person struggles with theory of mind. Theory of mind is the ability to attribute mental states – beliefs, intents, desires, knowledge to oneself and others, and to understand that others have beliefs, intents, and intentions that are different from one’s own. This means that people on the autism spectrum have difficulty formulating ideas about what other people are thinking and feeling. Additionally, an adult with Aspergers struggles with attending to and using social cues. More often than not, someone with Aspergers stuggles with understanding non-verbal expressions and what those expressions mean. Finally, even though his language seems fine on the surface, a person with Aspergers often has difficulty with receptive language pragmatics–this has to do with understanding the communicative purpose of language, including non-literal meaning, as in metaphor, irony, and sarcasm.
Core problem processing information about self
Not only is it difficult to make sense of information from others, but adults with Aspergers may struggle even understanding their own emotional states.
Emotional self-perception and regulation, as per Dr. Gaus, involves abilities to:
- Recognize and interpret one’s own physiological and emotional state.
- Be aware of one’s own emotional reactivity and variable arousal in response to sensory sensitivities or social overstimulation.
- Attend to information in the social situation that is needed to solve problems.
- Grade reactions to coincide with the expectations of the current social situation.
- Use effective behavioral strategies that are socially acceptable to regulate experience.
- Use cognitive strategies to anticipate and cope with dysregulating (upsetting, different, or unpredictable) events
Difficulty reading one’s own emotions leads to meltdowns, for example, because a) the person is not aware of her own different emotions and levels of arousal in the present moment and b) sensory-motor perception and regulation difficulties can overwhelm one’s ability to separate emotion from senses.
Sensory-motor perception and regulation challenges can manifest for different autism spectrum adults in different sensing systems. Adults with autism spectrum may struggle with over or under sensitivity to touch, balance, movement, sight, hearing, taste, or smell. Each person may be either over or under sensitive to these different areas. Someone with touch difficulties might avoid (or seek out) certain experiences, even to the point of ignoring health and safety. If a person struggles with balance, she may have clumsiness, hyperactivity, or difficulty participating in game sports, thus reducing opportunities for positive social experiences. Challenges with movement can result in poor posture, uneven gait, clumsiness, fine motor (like holding a pencil or pen to write) or appearing odd to others in posture or gait. Visual challenges make it hard to look others in the eye, or to coördinate movement. Auditory sensitivities can increase irritation at the sound of seemingly small noises, so that it’s hard to pay attention to conversation. Trouble with taste can lead to a very restricted and rigid diet, due to sensitivity to certain textures of foods. An Aspergers adult may have a hard time with certain smells, so that he may not want to wear deodorant, or may be turned off by a partner’s perfume.
Sensory-motor challenges can lead to stimming behaviors, such as hand flapping, to cope with being “off-balance" in the world. Some Aspergers adults may have learned to “hide" these behaviors, but the movements may come out in moments of severe stress or intense emotion.
Core Problem Processing Information in Nonsocial Domains
Researchers have found that people on the autism spectrum, including adults with Aspergers, can struggle with flexibility, planning, organization, goal setting, and the use of working memory. Central coherence refers to a typical person’s tendency to process pieces of information within a context to formulate the “big picture." Adults with autism and Aspergers tend to focus intently on different pieces, but may have difficulty fitting them into a whole.
Putting It All Together
Here are some challenges that arise out of the core problems with processing information about others and self.
Social Skill Deficits result from difficulty reading social situations and cues; understanding one’s own feeling states; and challenges with picking up social learning at different points of childhood.
Sensory challenges and social blindness challenge adults with Asperger’s, because they often don’t know how to respond to others, nor do they know what’s expected of them.
Odd mannerisms, difficulty understanding and expressing social language, and “rude" behavior [although never intentional, because they don’t know they’re being rude] can lead others to become frustrated and angry, leading to negative social consequences. Imagine being ignored, bullied, and rejected, without ever knowing why! Yet it happens every day across the world.
Executive functioning difficulties, combined with difficulty understanding oneself, can cause problems in self-management and activities of daily living. These can manifest as inefficient task management, procrastination, poor self-direction, and poor problem basic problem-solving. The Aspergers adult may have a genius level IQ, yet still struggle with these different aspects of living. The daily living consequences and frequent daily hassles add up to a lot of stressful events.
It all adds up over time. Social deficits lead to poor social support; and daily living stress translates to chronic stress. Chronic stress coupled with low social support can easily add up to anxiety, panic, rage, and depression.
The Good News
All of these deficits are real. The stress is real. But people are resilient! I read about and meet person after person on the autism spectrum who amazes me with their humor, integrity, capacity for fun, intelligence, fascination with specific subjects, energy, creativity. The list of positive character traits goes on and on.
Also, more and more research is uncovering more and more knowledge and solutions for people on the autism spectrum. Also, society is becoming more aware of the complexity and diversity of people with Aspergers. So much more is known now than was known ten, twenty, thirty years ago.
We have a long, long way to go. But we are slowly getting there.
I hope to get Dr. Gaus’ permission to reproduce her illustration from her book that puts all the above information in a flow chart form. But until then, I hope this article gives you a framework for better understanding some of the symptoms of Adult Aspergers.
What do you think? Is Dr. Gaus’ model helpful to you? Is there anything you’d like to add?
Image credit: wavebreakmediamicro / 123RF Stock Photo