By Jennifer Cook O’Toole, social worker, teacher, “Aspie Mommy” and author of Asperkids.

Long before my first baby could read, she knew her logos. Mommy would always stop to answer the siren call of that little green coffee mermaid. As her brothers came along, they too learned the power of the logo – the hypnotic beckoning of the big red bullseye or the promise of new entertainment when a little bitty apple was spotted. Recently, I even discovered that the toy store with the giraffe and backwards “R” sells a Logo Board Game. Let’s face it. Marketing execs the world over pay big bucks to ensure that from our beginnings, we all understand the superpower of branding. And they’re good at what they do.

It all begins with a label – or “logo”, an ancient Greek word meaning, well, “word.” But soon, “logos” took on a lot more philosophical weight. It connoted “opinion” or “expectation.” “Logos” alluded to “reputation” in the same way that, today, we have one expectation for a gift arriving in a little blue box, and a very different one for dining experiences held underneath the golden arches. Logos. Labels. Associated expectations. Branding is powerful stuff.

Now, the truth is that few among us would ever admit to being “label ho’s” (yes, it’s an actual entry in Urban Dictionary). Really, does anyone actually believe an “LV” on a handbag will make her more fabulous? No. But we still buy a whole lot of ’em. Like it or not, we are all consumers and bearers of label mania.

“OK,” you’re asking right about now, “I thought this was an article about Asperger Syndrome. What in the heck does a Tiffany’s gift box or Mickey D’s drive-thru have to do with Aspie?” A lot. We may not want to admit it, but as we’ve just seen, labels do carry a lot of social influence. And we wield them savvily…because although we say others’ opinions don’t matter to us – they do. We do care what others think of us and, because we love them, we care what others think of our mini-me’s (a.k.a., our kiddos), too. We plaster our minivans with public labels of love – displaying their school logos, sports mascots and stick figure caricatures for the world to see.

But sometimes, benevolence betrays us. Sometimes, shame and fear of a label does more harm to our families, our students, our kids than we realize.

You see, many parents, doctors and teachers don’t have a good understanding of what Asperger Syndrome is. Without solid information, they are intimidated by the “label,” and without really understanding it, reject it entirely. When adults are scared or embarrassed by a label they don’t want (for whatever reasons), children are denied the social, academic, and emotional support they need.

I have heard other parents and educators complain that a child is “academically brilliant but socially very immature, and awfully particular about everything.” They may see kids struggling and hurting, and they want guidance. But when answers to their inquiries include the possible label “Aspie,” conversations often end. Fast.

“You don’t want a kid to have to walk around with THAT label,” I have heard well-meaning folks say. They couldn’t be more wrong.

When it fits, the diagnosis – or “label” – “Aspie” is a gift, not a curse. I know – I have three Asperkids and was diagnosed myself as an adult. More than my “Ivy League” diplomas, size I-can-still-fit-into-my-prom-dress jeans, or any professional accolade I’ve won, “Aspie” is my “label” of authentic self-awareness, acceptance and true empowerment. I understand now that I may be different, but I am not deficient.

Why? What does “Aspie” actually mean? In general, “Aspie” describes bright folks who are a lot better with facts than with people; we have a very hard time understanding or anticipating others’ points of view, and therefore find great comfort in anything logical or precise. When the world seems big and unpredictable, it’s only natural to seek anything that will organize the chaos.

Aspies are, by definition, of average to above-average intelligence. In fact, it’s not uncommon for extremely gifted children (especially girls) to be hugely under-diagnosed, simply by chalking particular behaviors up to being “really smart.” Being “really smart” does not make someone hold fast to rules or routines, become overwhelmingly absorbed with a particular topic, be rigid in thought or behavior patterns and generally a bit immature socially. It just makes them smart. Asperger’s accounts for the other stuff.

You’ll see our “Aspie-ness” in interactions with other kids (sounding like “little professors,” being bossy, the “playground policeman,” or just retreating if it’s all too hard); often they’ll do better with children who are younger (they’re more controllable) or older (they’ll take the Asperkid under-wing), or with adults who find the “mini-grown-up” entertaining. Asperkids usually have a “special interest,” which can be all-encompassing and provides a mental respite from the confusing nuances of social situations. Also common are sensory sensitivities (to noises, crowds, textures) and attention troubles.

By nature, Asperkids tend to get a bit fixated on part of a thing, an idea or a situation rather than grasping the whole shebang (psychologists call this missing the “gestalt”). I tell my kiddos that it’s like seeing only the mashed potatoes, but not noticing the entire Thanksgiving meal. We also call it “getting right to the toenail of the matter” or missing the big picture.

Fine, fine. Maybe “Aspie” isn’t a bad thing, then. But is it a necessary label? Why pigeonhole a kid with one more (big) descriptor? Let me answer that question with a question. What do you do at a STOP sign? You stop, right? And what do you do if the sign on the door says, “Push”? You wouldn’t get very far by pulling on it.

Labels tell us how to react to a particular situation. Don’t floor it when you see “STOP” and don’t tell an Asperkid to “just go make friends.” Neither one will have very good consequences.

If/then. If it says “push,” don’t pull. And when a teacher or parent has the courage to worry less about impressions and more about the child involved, great things can happen.

Bottom line: if you think that you may be raising or teaching an Asperkid, then you have a choice to make. How will you react to the label? How will you teach the child, his friends, her school, your family to react? As a mom, a teacher, and an Aspie, I ask you to please – be the child’s champion, and find out more.

To us, “Aspie” is no label to fear or soldier through. It’s real life. It’s relief. It’s potential and promise and game-changing honesty. We are a society in love with labels and logos. Don’t be afraid of this one. Don’t get me wrong – my minivan still breaks for the green mermaid and my handbag is covered in some fancy C’s. But for me and children like mine, “Aspie” may be the most important label we’ll ever get to wear.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2012.

One thought

  1. Wow! I just got 2 major light bulb moments while reading this. My 11 year old son has just been officially diagnosed with Aspereger’s. Many of the teacher’s and couselors at school told me to not label him with that condition. But you know what-it is part of who he is and why would I not want it known he has this condition? If something happens at school that they deem inappropriate behavior, knowing he has Asperger’s would sure be helpful for all involved to know. I am proud of my son just as God has made him and if other people have a hard time accepting who he is then we don’t need you in our corner anyhow.

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