What does an Aspie look like?

It is hard to tell Asperger’s kids from their peers by just looking at them – they don’t necessary look any different then their NT (neurotypical) friends. They might move a bit awkwardly or fiddle with something, they might not participate in school yard games or sit alone on the bus, but when you come into a controlled classroom setting, they don’t usually draw attention to them, unless they are hyperactive, too.

This is why Asperger’s often does not get diagnosed until the age of 8 or 9 (average age is 11), when the small coping mechanisms developed in early school years do not work anymore. Aspie kids often excel at math and have sometimes taught themselves to read or at least are good a memorizing letters, so that in the primary school years, academics is seldom a problem. Social studies, music or sports are a better indicators of problems – lacking creativity, noise sensitivity and gross motor problems come to light here – but these are often ignored or dismissed (but parents as well as teachers), since the child seems academically on target. When school work gets beyond the pure mechanics of reading or calculating – comprehension of chapter books, creative story telling, text problems in math – the deficits of “theory of mind” are more obvious and performance often take a dramatic drop, resulting in aggressive/frustrated behavior or anxiety to go to school.

But back to how Asperger’s is often invisible at first glance. In contrast to a physically impaired or non-verbal autistic child, our children are usually not recognized in the first 15 min of observation. To the untrained eye, it might even take longer, especially in a society that accepts quirky behavior and has a greater tolerance for deviation from the norm (like the UK versus the US). After a while, however, certain patterns become apparent. Often a child with Asperger’s will have a routine it follows on a playground (always up the same ladder and down the same slide), they might be overly chatty with other children, asking the same question over and over again or persistently telling them about their favorite topic even though the other child has lost interest a while ago. Certain hand motions or repetitive movements, muttering to themselves or sensory issues (not going into the sand or insisting on keeping on a coat) are a little more obvious.

Unfortunately these seemingly normal children often have a propensity to explode into screaming or crying fits or even aggressive behavior – be that for not getting a turn soon enough, getting no or the wrong snack or simply having to leave. While these behaviors are generally accepted for children under 5 and parents give each other a smiling “Been there” nod or chuckle, reactions change dramatically, if your child is older. Once they crossed into school age, your child’s behavior starts turn heads, causes disbelieving whispers and disapproving stares. “Bad mom” – “Can’t control her kid” – “Spoilt brat” – “A good spanking would solve this” – “I would never allow my kid to behave like this in public”. The humiliation you feel and the contempt you see in their eyes, is hard to describe and you leave as soon as possible. But when another person feels righteous and entitled enough to actually tell you, what they think of you, your child and your parenting style – those are moments you never forget. They eat you from the inside, they make you stay up at night and even the snappiest come-back (“Well, he is actually autistic and if you know the secret how to make autistics behave, why don’t you write a book about it!”) will never erase the pain and humiliation you felt at the line in the supermarket. Most likely you will cry in the car on the way home, tell your husband and maybe your best friend, come up with an even snappier comeback for the next time and then go back to life the best you can after a horrible night.

I have avoided certain play grounds at certain times of the day, because of the mothers I would meet there, I have left many birthday parties early and hosted most playdates at my house in order to avoid the stares. But sometimes, there is no way around them: You still have to face the bus stop moms the next day after you child threw a fit a pick-up, you still have to see the same moms again at music group or mini gym (at least until the course is over) – and in those cases, there has often come a time (probably after the second or third ‘incident’) where I told people about the diagnosis and life gets a bit better. After “the talk” it is only the kids that still make comments or stare, while their parents are embarrassed and tell them to be quiet.

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