Sunday, May 9, 2010

Asperger Syndrome--Social Dyslexia

by Richard Crews
In the modern world kids have to learn to read and write. Some have a lot of trouble doing this even though they appear otherwise normal, even bright--they are cheery and active, they get along well with adults and other children, and they even have good problem-solving skills, good vocabulary, etc. But learning to read and write stumps them.

Confronted with this frustrating puzzle, psychologists and teachers did what clever and responsible humans have always done: they invented a word to cover the problem--"dyslexia," which means (using Greek word roots) "difficulty reading (and writing)."

The word "dyslexia" is rarely used in psychology or education circles today because, it turned out, difficulty learning to read and write can result from one or more of a large number of brain difficulties. A kid might not be able to visualize, remember, and interpret certain symbols (like telling a "d" from a "b" or a "p" from a "q"), or certain visual-auditory links (like "ph" and "f"), or meaning, grammar, or word usage patterns, etc. In fact, learning to read requires successfully stringing together a complicated series of brain steps. Most kids succeed in doing this just fine. Some--because of faulty wiring for a step or two--do not.

This is very understandable considering the complex wiring and programming of a human brain. In fact, it would be surprising if some of the millions of micro-steps in growing a brain didn't go awry from time to time.

The good news is that we humans have a natural inclination to seek out and practice ways around these difficulties. In computer science, these are called "work-arounds"--in a complicated computer program (like a word-processing or spreadsheet application) there are typically several different ways to accomplish the same end result. In addition the brain has a natural "plasticity"--parts of the brain can shift their functions as needed.

In retrospect it appears that the reason learning to read and write emerged as a special challenge from the basket of tasks a child is expected to learn in school is that, of all a child's learning challenges, learning to read and write requires the longest, most inter-dependent series of brain skills. Moreover, this understanding led to development of an array of special education techniques that can help kids learn the steps that are particularly difficult for them.

Similarly, of the various behavioral patterns a child is expected to master--from relating appropriately to the dinner table, the toilet, the dog, the garden, toys, or the backyard--interacting with other people is certainly the most complex and subtle. It is also the set of behavioral patterns that is most likely to come under close scrutiny.

Asperger's Syndrome is soon to be absorbed within the broader diagnostic term Autism Spectrum Disorders. The word "autism" means impairments of social interactions and communications. The word "spectrum" suggests that this is a wide array of clinical difficulties, from mild to severe. The observation that these are often accompanied by repetitious actions, temper outbursts, depression, or other psychological symptoms highlights the struggle the individual is going through. Their occasional accompaniment by extraordinary abilities of memory, calculation, attention, or other cognitive skills indicates that brain wiring has gone awry and compensatory efforts are hard at work.

The analysis of dyslexia, that is, of the difficulties children have learning to read led to an understanding of the many mental steps needed in order to read. Similarly, an analysis of Asperger's Syndrome--the hallmark of which is social disconnection or awkwardness--may lead to a richer understanding of the many mental steps that are required to master the subtle and complex social arts, and to step by step remediation techniques.