Autism & Sensory Processing

“What were they thinking?!”: A Tween with Asperger

Jonah, a twelve-year-old, lanky tween, who has grown about eight inches during the last year, was again suspended from school for fighting with his peers during recess and after school.

As he sprawls out on a large bean bag in my office, he tries to describe the incidents that got him into trouble: “So, as I walk past the guard in the lobby at school, I see my friends Joe and Nick getting out of school. They look back towards me and start laughing. I got really mad, approached Nick, who was not looking at me, and punched him in the arm and told him to stop making fun of me.” A fight ensued, and the principal suspended Jonah for a week for instigating the fight. Jonah was ready to move on to another topic of conversation, as if the issue had been clarified. I did not understand what really took place between him and these two boys, whom I found out, he considers his best friends. Jonah, who is an otherwise very polite and friendly kid, did not mind indulging me and explaining what had happened. He said that earlier in the day, he sat with Joseph and Nick at the lunch table, and they were discussing the relative merit of Jordan versus Converse sneakers. Jonah was wearing his brand new Jordans, and with some pride he showed off how bouncy they are and how much higher he can jump with them.

Joseph and Nick commented “Well, with these Jordans you will for sure get your starter position on the junior varsity team!!!” Jonah turned around to the assistant coach who sat nearby and told him that he wanted to be a starter on the team showing him how well he can jump. So far, he has only been on the bench and has never gotten any play time. The coach looked at him surprised, and Jonah noticed that Joseph and Nick were rolling on the floor with laughter, sporadically imitating his jump. Only at this moment did it dawn on him that they were pulling his leg. How is he supposed to make sense of this moment? Here are his best friends – obviously setting him up for a public humiliation. He ran out of the lunch room burning with shame and rage, and hid in the bathroom until classes resumed.

It took about three sessions to piece together the situation that preceded Jonah’s fight with these boys. When he saw them looking back at him and laughing, he had no doubt in his mind that they were again trying to humiliate him. The lunchroom incident instantly flashed in his mind. Later on, when Nick and Joseph were questioned by the principal, they said that they were inviting Jonah to join them for after school snack, and that their smiles were friendly and inviting. For them the lunchroom incident was long gone, yet it remained in the forefront of Jonah’s mind.

It is evident that Jonah is completely out of the loop when it comes to “Teenagerese,” that particular dialect or vernacular typical of young teens when they practice sarcasm, irony, and flex their newly acquired capacities for hyperbole and pretense. Children who have had struggles with Asperger’s disorder as Jonah had for many years have a difficult time picking up the subtle cues, often meta-cues, that indicate the nature of the message being communicated. So that the message “Your sneakers are hot and will get you on the varsity team!” is accompanied by a more subtle meta message, like further decoding instructions, “This is meant in jest, do not take it literally!” which Jonah, of course, missed completely. He had much to catch up on. Our best training ground was our real-time interactions during our sessions

In my office, where he felt relatively safe from humiliation by peers, he could better identify times when I was ironic, sarcastic, or when I did not mean what I said. At some point we were discussing politics, and I communicated to him that next elections I will vote for the Republicans, as I was disappointed with some environmental policy of this administration. Jonah looked at me and for the first time on his own, said “No you are not!” I confirmed that I meant it only in jest, and asked him how he knew that I would not vote Republican. He said “because you care about poor kids and people who have problems, and you are a psychologist, and no real psychologist votes Republican!” Jonah has shown us that he is now able to hold two concepts in mind, “Ron is sensitive to social policy” and “Ron says he will vote Republican.” He is now able to identify apparent contradictions and resolve them by properly recognizing that the more stable and broader traits carry more weight than the transient one. More importantly, he could begin to “read minds” which is a capacity that is often compromised in youth with Asperger’s. Also he could tell me that sometimes I say things that I don’t really mean, quite spontaneously and naturally. When I told him that I had a terrible time with a rude cab driver on the way to the office and I fired him he said, “Ron, I can tell that you are making it up because it does not make any sense; he does not work for you, you were just mad!

Jonah has clearly come a long way. At our initial consultation, when I told Jonah that his parents know him like the back of their hands, he stared at me blankly and proceeded to intensely examine his own hands trying to make sense of the metaphor I had just used. He is now better prepared to meet his peers and begin to read their intentions.

IMPORTANT: In order to preserve clients’ privacy, case material is based on composites with biographical information altered.