Is Asperger’s a Learning Disability?

Currently many services for both children and adults diagnosed with the Asperger's Difference fall under the umbrella of learning disabilities. Indeed some professionals seem eager to broaden the definition of learning disabilities to encompass a whole host of individuals whose learning patterns may diverge somewhat from the norm. To confuse matters more the term is often interchanged freely with learning difficulties. Why should we take offence at these sweeping generalisations? After all in the spirit of official initiatives such the Same As You report in Scotland we should all embrace diversity and simultaneously be lulled into a false sense of equality.

What is a Learning Disability?

In practice it replaces the older terms mental handicap and mental retardation. However offensive this category may seem, it does specifically refer to individuals with a significant intellectual deficit, usually defined as 70 or below in crude IQ terms. To avoid confusion with learning difficulty, the term intellectual disability is preferred in scientific literature. Learning disabilities cover a very wide spectrum with diverse causes and aetiologies. Many individuals with learning disabilities do live fulfilling lives, have accomplished major feats in arts and sports, some work and a few have had families. Although people with learning disabilities may lack the intellect to analyse society methodically, many have excellent social skills and crave company when left alone for brief periods. Intelligence is indeed multifaceted and clearly in many learning disabled individuals the faculties of instinctive socialisation, so lacking in AS individuals, are very much intact.

And what about Learning Difficulties?

As we all learn new skills in slightly different ways, we all have relative learning difficulties. Some children may learn to read later and still flourish at university. Cultural comparisons prove instructive, e.g. in the UK children start formal education at the age of 5, but in most other European children do not begin to learn to read or write at school before they turn 6 or 7, yet often overtake their UK counterparts in key literacy and numeracy benchmarks by school leaving age. Asperger's is often considered a pervasive developmental disorder, but delay would more accurately describe the phenomenon. Although many aspies are hyperlexic at a young age and excel at maths, we tend to have a longer learning curve when it comes to coalescing different strands of knowledge and excellence or applying specialised skills to new more fruitful purposes. This is largely because of the different way we process information focusing on one task and on one aspect at time and then matching all the pieces in a puzzle before moving on. We can learn to approximate, but usually in a characteristically methodical way.

Aspies are not alone in having a learning pattern that doesn't fit in well with mainstream schooling, but certainly belong to the group of students who benefit most from more personalised attention, something that is hard with class sizes of 20 or more. Currently the main options available for children on the spectrum are either learning support in a mainstream setting or so-called special needs education.

The latter option often means mixing a diverse group of students with radically different needs and sensitivities. Most aspies have considerable academic potential in marked contrast with the intellectually disabled. However, if we interpret learning difficulty in its more literal sense, this may well apply to aspies as we don't respond to teamwork and group teaching methods as positively as other kids. Ironically many talented aspies thrive in more traditional or formal teaching environments, but may still encounter problems coping with socialising patterns outwith the classroom. Even if more resources were available for special schools for ASD children, this would not be the best way to prepare teenagers and young adults for their integration into the real world of university and work.

In practice with tight spending restrictions and large class sizes, auxiliary learning support staff is the commonest option today to help students with AS. While this approach may be preferable to special needs education, it suffers three drawbacks. The learning support worker is unlikely to have the same academic and pedagogic expertise as a trained teacher. With a plethora of other developmental conditions and social problems, the learning support worker may not empathise sufficiently with the predicament of an aspie to help him or her flourish academically. Third students requiring learning support staff are singled out as weirdoes or thickos, and thus excluded from much socialising essential to a balanced childhood.

More important we need to take a more critical look at current social trends in the UK and how they impact socially vulnerable children and young adults. Successive governments have failed miserably in bringing down class sizes to continental European levels. Much of a child's day is dedicated to groupwork, in which aspies are at a natural disadvantage. More disturbingly children and young adults have never been so engrossed in a virtual world of 24 hour TV, video games, action heroes and pop music with role models with whom few can realistically hope to compete. In previous eras social rules, while more formal and rigid, were easier to follow for individuals who lack a predisposition for learning through social immersion and interpretation of subtle body language. Increasing emphasis is placed on presentation, networking and soft skills. Never has the gap between rhetoric, with platitudes about embracing diversity and delivering equal opportunities, and action been so wide, i.e. people are learning to lie convincingly and conform to a hive mentality at younger and younger ages.

Some aspies cope by overcompensating their conformity with the expectations of mainstream society, but in the process suppress so much of their real selves that they are forced to live a very sheltered life. Others simply adopt an isolated counterculture (although usually controlled by the same corporate forces responsible for the more social aspects of our hedonistic culture) often spending hours or days on end watching TV or engrossed in video games. A small minority grow paranoid of mainstream society and develop misanthropic tendencies.

With a growing number of adults being diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome and more considering themselves borderline AS, many psychologists and neurologists (e.g. Simon Baron-Cohen) feel we should reappraise our assessment of AS as a marginal disorder affecting fewer than 1% of people. Rather it should be viewed as one end of a continuum that extends across the general population. There have always been people with more introvert or extrovert, conformist or rebellious, independent or gregarious, focused or versatile tendencies. Minor genetic or epigenetic differences (encoding within genes that may be influenced by environmental factors) responsible for our neurological wiring interact with the social environment to form our characters.

If education and social services are serious about helping AS individuals thrive at college and work, then why not change the overall environment to reach out to a wider section of the community who feel marginalised, experience prejudice and bullying and are vulnerable to mental health problems. Smaller class sizes, less social competition at work, less noise and loud music in public places and less emphasis on presentation make sense for everyone but the coolest dudes in town.

A recent EU directive seeks to address discrimination against workers because of their advanced age as more and more companies feel the younger generation are more culturally attuned with the needs of their customers. We should extend this principle to make it equally unfair to discriminate against people because of their perceived lack of social skills or aloof expressions. Eye contact and body language should not be issues that employers may consider.

As most AS individuals have endured personal ordeals, it comes as little surprise that many lack either the experience or qualifications they need to access the kind of jobs for which they are best suited. Employers should be encouraged to relax requirements for people on the spectrum and extra financial help should be given to enable full or part-time study to let AS individuals catch up with their neurotypical peers and find their niche in society.

It is society as a whole and not just those labelled different, who should embrace people with disabilities. Our disabilities are very subjective, more a handicap in a world obsessed with social conformity and self-image.

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