Aspergers Syndrome -- the name for the mildest of the autism spectrum of disorders -- may be overdiagnosed these days. (Children with Aspergers are given extra time in school to finish their tests, and some parents will do anything to give their child a leg up.) But that doesn't mean the syndrome doesn't exist. This post will describe some of the symptoms. If you know people who exhibit these symptoms, understanding Aspergers will help you understand them.
The trait mostly widely associated with various sorts of autism is an inability to read other people. I don't know how -- or why -- the brain would get rewired so that someone becomes incapable of interpreting others' actions, but people with Aspergers have little insight into others. If you know someone who seems to have no clue about how others think, this could means Aspergers.
In my experience, people with Aspergers try to compensate by acting as if they know things they don't, especially about people. And they try to act as if they are in on the joke. When they see everyone else laugh, they will laugh along to show that they too are in on the humor.
This is what people with Aspergers generally do: try to pass as normal. But no one can keep such an act up forever, and when you get to really know them, their autism is unmistakable.
An autistic's inability to predict other party's feelings, thoughts, or reactions will result in frequent social faux pas. I knew one guy with Aspergers who worked in an office. When he would make an awkward attempt at a joke, his polite assistants would smile. The others would look away. The word people with Aspergers often get labeled with is lame. This often applies to their senses of humor, their excuses, and their personalities.
People with Aspergers tend to be somewhat asocial. They are uncomfortable at parties, and often become panicky in social situations. They rarely keep in touch with others over the long term. And most of their "friendships" are often institutionally based.
The traits most commonly associated with Aspergers are lack of insight and being asocial, but there are a host of other symptoms that go hand in hand with these. People with Aspergers hate having their routines disrupted. If you ask them something, they will respond by saying things like, "Uh, your timing is off!" or, "I'm doing something!"
They have a hard time dealing with criticism. They are similar to narcissistic personalities in that any criticism immediately fills them with rage. You can give them the gentlest, most constructive criticism, and they might respond by screaming, "Who are you to be telling me that I'm doing it wrong?!" And, as with narcissists, every time an Aspie errs, it's always somebody else's fault.
Or they may simply deny their errors. If an Aspie says something like, "Uh, you know, there was more freedom in the Soviet Union than there is in the US," and you point out why that statement is misguided, they may later simply deny ever having said it. I've seen Aspies deny having said something within a minute of having said it. Most people would be embarrassed to do this; but Aspies simply stonewall, sometimes without even realizing what they're doing.
And because autistics can never admit they're wrong, you will almost never hear them apologize.
People with Aspergers have a hard time identifying with other groups. A woman with Aspergers, for instance, might always stick up for women over men, no matter the circumstance, simply because she is a woman. Ironically, this is often the same type of woman who accuses men of being sexist. This might appear garden variety hypocrisy. But when it's exhibited by an Aspie, it is simply an outgrowth of their complete inability to see things from another point of view. (Which, when you think of it, is also not that dissimilar from ordinary narcissism.)
I knew one such woman with Aspergers who would scathingly refer to men as "pricks," but if anyone ever used the word "bitch," she would huff, "Uh, you know, that's a really gender-loaded word," or alternatively -- and awkwardly -- "You're insulting my sex!"
People with Aspergers are more likely to throw back accusations at the accuser, no matter how ridiculous that makes them sound. For instance, if Mike Tyson were to say, "You're a wimpy little white boy," an Aspie might respond, "No, you're a wimpy little white boy." (That's an exaggeration, but you get the idea.) A better example might be, if they're told they have Aspergers, they then tell the accuser that he has Aspergers, even if he has no symptoms.
People with Aspergers will often develop a reputation for having no common sense. (By definition, they also don't have enough common sense to realize that they have no common sense.)
They tend to have poor fine motor coordination. So they won't be good at things like typing, or dipping a knife into a honey jar and then twirling the knife so that the honey doesn't drip down the side of the jar. They are also more likely to get into minor fender benders.
They are rigid in their thinking, to the point where they must ignore facts. They generally only willingly expose themselves to one viewpoint. If you quote a fact which conflicts with their viewpoint, they may respond by saying something along the lines of, "Uh, what's your source on that?" or "You know, one person's reality is another person's fiction." Sources can certainly err, and some fields do involve perception. But an Aspie will hide behind statements like these all the time, even when a source is unimpeachable and a fact has no subjective element.
It was probably someone with Aspergers who inspired the saying, "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own set of facts."
People with Aspergers tend to be germ phobic, and have other symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder.
They dislike bright lights and loud noises more than most.
They have a tendency to mangle words (e.g., "buxmous" rather than "buxom" and "insiduous" rather than "insidious").
People with Aspergers often have an intense focus on one interest; they may be fascinated by something like trains, or buses. Those people you read about who are fascinated by trains and who will pretend to be conductors just so they can take them for joyrides are usually autistic (They usually have a more serious form of autism than just Aspergers.) Likewise, every now and then you'll read about someone who just takes a city bus out for a spin. These people don't have evil intentions: they don't want to hurt anybody, or actually steal the bus. They are simply completely and utterly fascinated by the big moving vehicles.
As a result of their narrow focus, Aspies frequently use non sequiturs. No matter the subject being discussed, they will just start talking about whatever their interest is.
People with Aspergers tend to be very literal. For instance, they may think that sailfish just swim around on the surface of the ocean, getting propulsion from their giant dorsal fins via the wind. Because, after all, they are sailfish. When someone uses a metaphor, they may take it literally. (This is partly why they tend not to get jokes.)
Because all of these traits can obviously result in an inability to get along with others, people with Aspergers often prefer the company of animals to humans. (Pets never disagree with them, or criticize them, or laugh at them. And their pets need them, and give them uncritical love.)
John Lucas and Scott Moore, who wrote the script for The Hangover, understood autistics perfectly. The Zach Galafianakis character is the brother of the girl that the Justin Bartha character is going to marry. At the beginning of the movie she thanks Justin for bringing her brother to Las Vegas with him for his bachelor party, and he reflexively replies, no problem, Zach is cool. The girl says no, Zach is not cool. We see little hints of Zach's personality early on. He says things that don't quite make sense. At one point, as they check into Caesar's Palace, he asks if Caesar slept there. The others look at each other, then ignore the comment and move on. Zach gradually grows more and more annoying with his malapropisms and inappropriate reactions and insistence that he is right, to the point of being infuriating. In the movie, he eventually he redeems himself by counting cards, the type of thing an autistic is more likely to be able to do, and after their adventure everybody ends up friends. (In real life, the other three would have put some distance between themselves and Zach as soon as it was decently possible to do so.)
Lucas and Moore had to have known someone who was autistic in their lives; the Galafianakis character was just too well drawn to for them not to have personal familiarity with the syndrome. Bear in mind, not all people with Aspergers look like Zach Galafianakis. Some can be beautiful women, whose beauty may initially blind you to their lameness. The interesting thing, as with any syndrome, is to see all the little behaviors that betray that syndrome.
Galafianakis pretty much reprised that role in Due Date, a buddy movie he made with Robert Downey. There he showed the same exasperating inappropriate behavior, lack of common sense, and all-around cluelessness, this time employed in the service of driving Downey to distraction.
Autistics are far more likely to join a cult, or become immersed in a system of thinking which becomes a substitute for any personal sense of judgment. They feel far more comfortable when they can view everything from the perspective of a rigid ideology. They are more likely to join the military, with its rigid hierarchy and rules. Or they may become immersed in an all-consuming religion, perhaps one with rigid and restrictive rules regarding every aspect of personal behavior -- and which disapproves strongly of nonbelievers. Or they subscribe with an almost religious zeal to a particular school of thought like Marxism. All of these ideologies, or systems, or structures, are a substitute for having to think on their own.
Aspies are not bad people; they're not sociopaths. We should never hold anyone responsible for anything beyond their control; and nobody chose to have Aspergers. But if you have constant exposure to them, or are responsible for them in any way, they are inevitably infuriating. If you've been around one for any length of time, the phrase "willfully obtuse" will undoubtedly come to mind. Most people you can talk some sense into, but people with Aspergers are so rigid in their thinking there's never any budging them.
In any loosely knit social group, you'll see that people tend to gravitate away from those with the syndrome. People with Aspergers may be stiffly polite (what they think of as "social skills"), since the give and take of normal banter is beyond them. If you know someone who seems to make a great effort to remember all the social niceties, but does so in somewhat robotic fashion, think Aspergers. If that person seems lost if he has to go off-script, you can be surer of that diagnosis.
One of the problems with Aspergers is that it is impossible to self-diagnose. Sociopaths, when they get older, generally come to the realization that they're sociopaths. Neurotics certainly know they're neurotic, depressives know they're depressed, and everybody is aware of their own sexual peculiarities. But if you're clueless about human nature, how can you possibly realize that others are not equally so?
One thing people with Aspergers do have in common with normal people is that the accusations they level most frequently often reflect their own weaknesses. They'll say things along the lines of, "You're so far out of it you don't even realize you're out of it." Or, "You just don't get it, do you?" Or they'll call someone a jackass.
All perfect descriptions of Aspergers Syndrome.
Addendum, 3/11/13: If you found this post via Google, you might find this post on whether or not Aspies are responsible for their own behavior interesting. Or this one, on whether Aspies span the full range of morality.
Addendum, 1/7/14: As you can see below, this post has attracted a slew of comments. A few are from people who've dealt with Aspies and who agree with me, but most are from outraged Aspies -- or their relatives -- who can't believe how insensitive I am. They are welcome to use this forum the same way I sometimes do -- to vent. I will post their comments. But I don't have the energy or inclination to respond to all of them, especially since I've long since found myself saying the same things over and over. So please feel free to tell me what a horrible person I am; just don't expect a response.