Students with Asperger’s face challenges

Josh Goodman

“When people talk about autism . . . they think of the person doing their own thing in the back of the room,” said Randall, a first-year. “But you don’t think of the kid who approaches people but doesn’t know how to do it.”

Randall has Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism characterized by intense interests and by difficulties understanding nonverbal expressions and showing empathy. Individuals with Asperger’s are often highly intelligent and, unlike people with certain severe forms of autism, can communicate with verbal language.

There are no official numbers on Whitman students with Asperger’s, though Director of Academic Resources Juli Dunn said she works with “a small handful.” For Whitman students with Asperger’s, their differences affect their experiences both in the classroom and in Whitman’s broader social sphere. The Pioneer talked with two Whitties with Asperger’s, both of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not out publicly as individuals with Asperger’s. Both students are identified by pseudonyms of their choice.

Understanding facial gestures and body language is something most people take for granted. Individuals with Asperger’s, however, often do not pick up on these cues.

“Occasionally I miss a social cue or I miss something someone is trying to tell me,” said Randall. “Having the trait of Asperger’s means I can intensely focus on something while screening everything else out, which can seem insensitive.”

Mary, a sophomore with Asperger’s, agreed, noting that she often does not pick up on sarcasm.

“A lot of times I’ll interpret it as real and it’ll take a few extra moments to figure out what they’re trying to say,” she said.

Mary said that not understanding sarcasm had led her to make some inappropriate comments in classes. More generally, she said this difficulty with social cues also makes discussion-based classes uncomfortable.

“You’re in small class sizes . . . and it’s really intimidating to feel the pressure to speak up in class, or feel like you’re going to say something wrong, or you don’t know what people are talking about. It’s a really stressful situation,” she said, noting that Encounters was especially intimidating.

This difficulty reading social cues also makes it hard for individuals with Asperger’s to understand relationship cues.

“I found times where I’ll have accidentally misread a relationship or a guy and been like, ‘Oh, you don’t like me? You weren’t flirting with me?’ and I’ll have thought that this guy was flirting with me for three weeks,” Mary said.

Randall expressed similar sentiments, saying he found it difficult to tell whether a woman was interested in him or just being friendly. Still, he said that he’s improved at social interactions in general by approaching social situations as professional at first.

“Usually, I approach people with a common topic of school or classes they have as a starting point,” he said. “I usually can relate to the work or professional part of a life first as a way to get to know a person. And as we discuss other aspects of our lives, we get to know each other in a more personal manner.”

While Asperger’s presents some challenges to social interactions, Dunn said it also has benefits, such as the ability to focus deeply on one’s work.

“There are folks who have a good attention to detail, sometimes to their own detriment but often to where they have a particular interest [which] ends up becoming a passion,” she said. “If they’re just intrigued by numbers or constantly thinking about numbers, working with numbers, math and econ are great fits. If they have a high aptitude for sciences, those are areas where they can be successful because they are detail-oriented.”

Randall agreed, saying that Asperger’s helped him focus closely, while Mary said that it helps her with study skills.

“I’m really obsessive about how I take notes,” she said. “I write my notes and type them out again to make sure they’re organized.”

The Academic Resource Center also offers services for students with Asperger’s, such as one-on-one advising to help them with their varied experiences and needs.

“[We’re] a place for a student with Asperger’s to come and talk through different things they may be facing,” Dunn said. “Our goal for our office is to meet students where they’re at to help them meet their objectives or goals for being at Whitman, however those might be.”

Still, there is a stigma associated with Asperger’s, in part because it is not a visible difference.

“I feel like people aren’t really aware of what Asperger’s is,” Mary said, explaining why she doesn’t tell people that she has Asperger’s. “If you would say ‘Asperger’s’ and describe it as what it actually is: a form of high-functioning autism: they’d be like, ‘What?’ and I’d be like, ‘You still know me; nothing actually changed.'”

Senior Ashley Davies, who spent the summer of 2009 working at a camp for kids with Asperger’s, said treating students with the syndrome as individuals is key.

“My biggest thing when I work with anybody with a developmental disability is I approach them as an individual. I try not to see them in terms of their disability,” she said.

Associate Dean of Students Clare Carson also had suggestions for Whitman students hoping to be sensitive to fellow students with Asperger’s.

“Continue to be inclusive and accepting of your classmates who may seem a bit different,” she said in an email. “Get to know people for who they are. Engage in a conversation with someone who seems to struggle in social situations.”

Randall said he appreciates when students make that extra effort.

“If you try to reach out to us, we do eventually try to reach out to you,” he said. “We really appreciate it if someone puts even a little bit of effort or friendliness in reaching out to somebody.”

Ultimately, Dunn said Whitman does provide a friendly atmosphere, especially compared to the brutal environments many individuals with Asperger’s face in high school. That, she said, makes progress possible.

“Knowing that there are students with Asperger’s who are able to come to Whitman and function, do well in our classes, graduate and go on to be successful is progress down the road of recognizing that we all have differences and that difference isn’t bad.”