Social Aspects of Asperger Syndrome and Non-verbal Learning Disorder

Public awareness of autism is on the rise in today’s society. The general public is slowly becoming informed about the global presence of autism, a lifelong developmental disorder 1. But how much do we really know about autism? Those with a shallow understanding deem autistics to be unintelligent, but in reality autistic individuals suffer from a myriad of conditions not all involving lower levels of intelligence. Most people have never heard of high functioning autistic disorders such as Asperger Syndrome (AS) and Non-verbal Learning Disorder (NLD). Due to the obscurity of these disorders in the public sphere, very few people know of the chance an AS or NLD individual has of slipping into depression because of societal rejection.

AS and NLD are two autism spectrum disorders that involve high functioning individuals who experience difficulty communicating and interacting socially 1. Wading through social waters can be stressful for these individuals, as society tends to be very judgmental of those who do not conform to social norms. In society, these individuals can be perceived as outsiders.  If modern society could move toward acceptance of those with social quirks, perhaps more AS or NLD individuals would never encounter depression.

While AS and NLD seem similar upon first glance, discrepancies in behavioral patterns can help differentiate between the two disorders. Asperger Syndrome, the more well known of these rare disorders, characterizes autistic individuals who are socially impaired and who experience difficulty with verbal and nonverbal communication 1,3. AS individuals are often unwilling to accept change and value routine activities. A hallmark of the condition is an all-encompassing obsession with one certain activity 3. Just like within the autism spectrum, Asperger syndrome varies in severity based upon each individual 3. However, Non-verbal Learning Disorder more specifically deals with those autistic individuals who find difficulty interpreting non-language based communication 2.The first to identify NLD as a subdivision of high functioning autism disorders, Doris J. Johnson and Helmer R. Myklebust defined the disorder as the inability to interpret emotions. People with NLD have difficulty perceiving the emotions or predict the image one presents of oneself to others in social situations. A major distinction between the two disorders is that those with NLD do not generally exhibit the preoccupation with one specific interest that is prevalent in Asperger Syndrome 4.

Contrary to what some may believe, individuals with AS or NLD do not lack intelligence. Those with Asperger’s often have a remarkable capability for rote memorization, especially the memorization of facts, figures, dates, and times. Math and science may come naturally to those with Asperger’s 3. According to Johnson and Myklebust, those with Non-verbal Learning Disorder may have above-average abilities in language or the arts; however, they may be unable to express themselves adequately using their language skills 4.  The real problem that individuals with AS and NLD face is a social one, rather than an intelligence-based one.

In general, people with these types of autism outwardly appear to be non-autistic, but in actuality, they lack social skills. They experience difficulty interpreting social cues such as body language, making communicative eye contact, and accurately predicting another’s reaction to a conversation 2. In plain language, AS and NLD individuals are not able to comprehend the nuances of social conversation necessary for connecting with others and making friends 1. In today’s society, people tend to look down upon those who act in a manner that society deems inappropriate. Eye contact is an expected component of any conversation, and many individuals with AS and NLD do not have the same intuitive comprehension of the necessity of eye contact in conversations as many people do. Because these individuals lack what is considered to be a basic understanding of social niceties, they are often ostracized 6. This type of societal rejection can be completely avoidable with more work on the part of those without autism. Sympathy and understanding are key parts of preventing society from being too judgmental of those who appear not to fit in.

A further social difficulty that those with AS and NLD face is a lack of understanding in conversational subtlety. Those with AS often interpret words and sayings literally, and humor, irony, and sarcasm are also often misconstrued5. Many high functioning autistics respond enthusiastically to praise and vocally reject criticism, reactions that are often interpreted by others as inappropriate. In the case of some individuals with AS, they can lack the desire to share information with others equally; in conversations they can appear to talk ‘at’ rather than ‘to’ those around them 3. In addition, Non-verbal Learning Disorder includes such symptoms as the inability to anticipate the outcome of social activity. Take, for example, a conversation between two individuals, one with NLD and one without any form of autism. If the individual with NLD suddenly said something offensive and their companion subtly reacted to the statement by turning away and turning down the corners of his mouth, the person with NLD would most likely not be able to perceive their friend’s discomfort. Subtle nuances such in body language and facial expressions often pass unnoticed by those with NLD 4. This kind of behavior can lead to a distance that prevents those with AS and NLD from connecting and developing relationships.

To an ignorant outsider, AS and NLD individuals appear to lack common sense; in the middle and high school setting, these individuals are often ridiculed for seemingly inappropriate actions such as speaking out of turn or making insensitive comments 4. In fact, these individuals are misunderstood and labeled as shy, socially inept “geeks”5.

Such ridicule can lead to social isolation, possibly causing anxiety and depression 6. Unlike some other individuals on the rest of autism spectrum, people with Asperger Syndrome and Non-verbal Learning Disorder may actively seek social interaction and wish to be involved with others, but they simply do not know how to maneuver themselves in social situations 4,6.

Depression in autistic individuals is difficult to diagnosis because depression is primarily communicated verbally, a skill many high functioning autistics have trouble interpreting. However, high functioning autistics are more capable of expressing their feelings than those who are lower functioning. According to the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, “higher functioning [autistics]… may be more predisposed to depression” because they may suffer from low self-worth. This devaluation of self esteem can stem from heightened awareness of social troubles in comparison to the awareness of lower functioning autistics 6.

Because higher-functioning autistics are able to perceive that they are socially awkward,  this acknowledgement is something that they can mentally and emotionally struggle with their entire lives 6. If those around them could become aware of why high-functioning autistics act the way they do, society would be more understanding of these individuals. We must move forward; acceptance is the key for autistic individuals to form bonds and prevent the onset of depression due to low self-worth.


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  7. Image credit (Creative Commons): Head in hands. Flickr. 2012 Aug 29.

Ria Desai is a high school student at The Harker School. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.