This is the second in a series of posts about traits that I experienced as a student with Asperger's Syndrome (AS). If you don't know much about AS, there are lots of great books and websites out there. I'll pull together a resource list at the end of the series.
Lesson #2: My Emotions Undermine Me
Intellectually, I can be a survivor. Emotionally, I am often the first one “voted off the island.” I may present a flat affect most of the time, but that is only an attempt to keep control on the most erratic aspect of my personality. I have learned that emotional control is prized by every teacher in every classroom–the cardinal sin of our school culture is to lose emotional control. My inflexibility and insecurity mean I live in constant fear of catastrophic failure. As Karen Williams observed, “Children with AS rarely seem relaxed and are easily overwhelmed when things are not as their rigid views dictate.” Living with the constant fear of the next embarrassing failure can be incapacitating. This is partly why the incidence of depression and suicide is elevated for individuals with Asperger’s. Given the Hobson’s choice of keeping emotions unexpressed and succumbing to depression and self-injury, many Aspies accept the social stigma of losing composure and social status. This is why so many of us with Asperger’s embody “fragile vulnerability and a pathetic childishness.” Because I am so vulnerable, I need you to assertively protect me from emotional assault, and the consequences of my own emotional frailty.
1. Provide a quick exit. If I feel trapped in a situation where my emotional state is spiraling downward, I must have a safe and guaranteed exit. Give me a code word, a permanent pass, or a “get out of class free” card. No matter how important the academic or social lesson may be, there is absolutely no way I will learn or retain anything if I am frantic to preserve my composure. Robert Sylwester points out that emotional safety must precede learning. Psychologists know it too. If I fear my social/emotional safety, learning is already forfeit. Please don’t sacrifice my emotional identity for a lost cause. Let me retreat and learn another day.
2. Designate a safe haven. Depending on the school environment, I might need a quiet corner of the classroom, a special chair, or removal to a resource room, counseling center or library chair. Pre-determine the acceptable locations, in a cascade order and teach me the order. “Go to the resource room first. If it is empty, go to the library. If Mrs. Grey is not there, wait in the front office.” Assure me that I will not be penalized or punished for going to my safe haven. Protect me from ridicule or stigma by explaining to my classmates that I am permitted and encouraged to manage my learning needs by relocating when necessary.
3. Protect me from emotional injury. In the emotional herd called school, I am the weak and crippled. Other students can sense and see my vulnerability, and at their worst, they act like emotional predators–attacking my weakness. They mock me subtly, to avoid detection, but I’m too literal to get it–so they escalate the insults and sarcasm until I break down or you break in. In most cases, you discern the pattern before I do. If you tolerate the bullying, or worse yet, participate in it yourself, you make it clear that I am fair game. Please do the opposite. I’m the endangered species in your class, deserving and needing your protection. I’m not confident or sophisticated enough to guard myself. I’m counting on you.