By Dan Coulter
Sometimes they just don't have a clue.
What's a neurotypical? It's a label for someone who doesn't have
Asperger Syndrome or "AS." (I don't know who coined the term, but I
first heard it used by Dr. Peter Gerhardt.) We can call
neurotypicals "NT's" for short.
When an NT first encounters someone with Asperger Syndrome, he or
she often sees quirky AS behaviors as a warning. "Opps, something
wrong with this one. Better stay clear."
Many NT's routinely erect mental barriers between themselves and
people with AS, without realizing they're walling themselves off
from some really bright, interesting people. "Barrier behavior" can
range - especially in kids -- from avoiding or ignoring people with
AS to taunting, harassing or taking advantage of them.
Let's call this Barrier Behavior Disorder (BBD). Unfortunately, BBD
doesn't tend to fix itself. So who's going to break down these
barriers and free the neurotypicals?
Um, that would be you and me. If you're reading this, you've
probably either got AS, have someone in your family with AS and/or
know a lot about AS. There's nobody more qualified to enlist in the
NT-BBD liberation movement.
While I'm sympathetic to anyone with AS who doesn't want to widely
disclose the fact, I also know of plenty of instances where
neurotypical behavior changed for the better after someone took the
trouble to help an NT understand Asperger Syndrome and what it does
and doesn't mean.
It's natural to feel awkward when you're confronted with something
new and don't know how to react. So let's tell neurotypicals a bit
about Asperger Syndrome and explain how to react when a person talks
obsessively about one subject -- or makes blunt observations -- or
can't seem to ever find quite the right words to say. They'll be
much more likely to interact long enough to see some of the
strengths a person with AS has.
What I'm talking about goes beyond disclosure. I'm talking about an
education campaign that can make life a lot better for all
You can start on a small scale. Are you concerned about what would
happen if the police stopped your daughter who gets very upset with
authority figures? My wife got a very positive reception when she
held a seminar on Asperger Syndrome for local police.
Does your son shop at a local store? Maybe you could offer to do a
quick talk on AS to a gathering of the store's cashiers just before
or after store hours.
It helps if you keep your presentation short (you can do a lot in 5
or 10 minutes if you prepare properly) and if you describe specific
behaviors and make suggestions about dealing with them. For
If a customer is
nervous and has a hard time finding the right words, it helps to be
patient and friendly and don't rush the customer.
If a customer doesn't
seem to understand a part of the checkout procedure (for example,
gives a checkout clerk his money before the item he is buying) just
explain in a friendly way that you need to see the item he's buying
so you'll know how much to charge him.
Be careful not to talk
to an adult or teenager having difficulties like you would talk to a
small child, just explain things clearly in the same friendly tone
of voice you'd use to give directions to an adult who didn't know
where in the store to find the hardware department.
Of course, the idea
for this education initiative didn't start with me. There are plenty
of folks already out there helping neurotypicals learn about AS.
But if you're new to the campaign, here's a tip: it helps to stress
the benefits for both people with AS and for your intended audience
when you're proposing presentations.
Most store managers, for example, should see the benefits of having
their employees know how to deal with a situation calmly and avoid
possible incidents where shopping is disrupted. Most police want to
have good relations with the.orgmunity and appreciate having
accurate information when they deal with a person who has special
needs. You're not telling people how to do their jobs; you're
giving them information that will help them
make good decisions in situations they're likely to encounter.
A father recently told me that his teenage son with Asperger
Syndrome got upset anytime they were driving together and saw a
police car. The father said he planned not only to talk with the
local police about AS, but that he'd ask if an officer would be
willing to do a practice traffic stop. After some preparation and
discussion, the son could drive across a parking lot and an officer
could "pull him over" and help him practice the right way to
respond to a police officer in that situation.
What a good idea!
Which brings up another point. Asperger Syndrome support groups are
great places to go for resources and ideas. (The ASPEN organization
in New Jersey is an excellent example of an AS support and education
organization. You can find out more information about ASPEN at
www.aspennj.org.) If you're not
the best public speaker in the world, maybe you can enlist another
parent to help you make presentations. And maybe you can help the
other parent in some other way.
There are also times when it helps to turn to a professional.
A mother recently wrote me about dramatic changes in classmate
attitudes after a psychologist gave a presentation about Asperger
Syndrome to a school assembly. The presentation helped the students
understand what having AS was like and how kids with AS just wanted
to be treated like everyone else. The mother said that kids who had
routinely shunned and teased her son came up to him after the
assembly to apologize. In the days the followed, classmates began
including him in activities and sitting with him at lunch.
My wife and I have spent a lot of time with our son who has AS,
helping him with his social skills and preparing him to interact
with people in a variety of real-world situations. There are plenty
of times where he's going to be out there and just have to cope.
But anything he, and we, can do to help people understand what AS
means and meet him halfway tends to level the playing field -- so
he's not fighting barriers that shouldn't be
there in the first place.
It's sometimes amazing how great people can be if you just let them
know what's going on and give them a chance.
So let's all work to eradicate NT-BBD.
Our neurotypical friends deserve nothing less.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dan Coulter is the writer/producer of the video,
"INTRICATE MINDS: Understanding Classmates with Asperger Syndrome."
You can find more articles on his website at:
Copyright 2005 Dan Coulter Used by permission. All rights