Asperger’s is a developmental disorder that is almost impossible to self-identify because central to the dysfunction is very poor social skills. But poor social skills means that you are missing social cues which means that you don’t know you’re missing social cues. Everyone in the room wants you to shut up and you don’t know it.
I didn’t know I have Asperger’s until I was 35, when my son was diagnosed. I mentioned to the psychologist, that I would answer yes to all those questions for myself as well.
People can identify boys with Asperger’s because it’s a stereotype: Albert Einstein, the guy on Big Bang Theory, the crazy genius who looks like a dork. Ninety percent of Asperger’s diagnoses are for boys. Girls go largely undiagnosed.
Asperger’s is much harder to identify in girls because girls with terrible social skills are still better than most men. A telltale sign of a girl with Asperger’s is that her hair is always a mess. It seems too complicated to comb hair. (That’s me in the photo—undiagnosed with messy hair.) But of course there are girls who don’t have Asperger’s who have messy hair.
So diagnosis of Asperger’s in girls often focuses on executive function. Executive function is the ability to stay organized, to know that all details are not of equal importance and ignore unimportant details.
For example, there is five minutes at any given time when your bank balance might not perfectly reflect your expenditures. There might be lag time. Most people ignore this, and keep track of their finances. Someone with Asperger’s would declare that keeping track of their bank account is impossible because the reporting system is so unorganized. If you argued with the person with Asperger’s, that person would think you are a moron for not understanding the shortcomings of banking technology.
Another person with Asperger’s would be amazing at balancing a checkbook because they like the rules, but they would have no understanding about why someone would spend their last dime to buy clothes for a job interview.
The pattern is not a particular thing that is off-key, it’s that the person is always off-key and indignant that other people think she’s off-key.
Poor executive function in kids is maybe not remembering what you are doing second to second. Not bringing the right books home from school. Forgetting to brush teeth. (I didn’t brush my teeth consistently until I was 22. That’s when I figured out how to remember on a daily basis.)
I have very poor executive function. Sometimes I have complete disasters. But mostly, I have a lot of people around me—paid and unpaid—to help me. Also, I have therapists who help my son who has Asperger’s and, if I watch closely enough, they help me, too.
A lot of executive function is about transitions. For example, there are two things you like to do, but moving between them is hard, so you don’t. You just never change. This looks like procrastination, or laziness, or irresponsibility in kids.
I’m writing this for homeschoolers because I think the logistics of homeschool can easily mask poor executive function, so it could be a real disservice to girls, who will grow up with off-putting social skills and not realize it and have no idea why success is so elusive. So much of what we put up with in quirky kids is completely unacceptable in the adult world.
Also, poor executive function is genetic, which makes it even harder for parents to recognize it in a daughter (they are used to it in their family). And the genetic component makes it more likely that homeschool for that girl is unstructured, because people with poor executive function have so much trouble with transitions that they don’t do them, and transitions are the backbone of structure.
So take a good look at your daughter. If she looks scatterbrained, with no follow through, if she is a little weird socially, with no attention to typical girl concerns (like her appearance), then she might have Asperger’s. So many girls go undiagnosed. I was one of them. And I see all the help the boys are getting as kids. I would have liked some of that.