Autism and Asperger's Syndrome: The 'Little Professors'
Created | Updated Aug 12, 2008
One of the most fascinating facets of some forms of autism and Asperger's Syndrome1 is known as the 'Little Professor Syndrome'. For some strange reason, some of these grow up to become 'Big Professors'. Who could have guessed?
Bring A Notepad, There Will Be A Test
One of the standard quirks exhibited by Aspies2 is the ability to clear a room with lectures on their favourite subjects. If someone mentions, in a casual manner, a word or a concept that vaguely touches on the Aspie's specialisation, then they and anyone near are likely to be inundated with a complete download of the Aspies' mental file on the subject. Many adult Aspies have learned in some measure to withhold this data or at least to attempt to gauge the actual interest of the listener before opening the floodgates. A Little Professor, on the other hand, lacking the necessary experience or ablility to care, will keep talking after the victim has left the room or latch onto the nearest warm body in order to continue the education. This means that a pet is often subject to the rest of the lecture.
Now, Little Professors are not always good at what they know, nor are they always knowledgeable about what they have memorised. Some of them are tinkerers and actually have hands-on experience with their favourite topic, while others merely repeat what they have heard or read. Not every Little Professor engages in research. Some extrapolate or fantasise from disparate elements to form the body of their exposition. The result, though, is not standard childish babble. There is a logic, form and thought process involved, to the point where a child can actually draw a flow chart that not only makes sense but could even half-convince a knowledgeable adult that they have been missing something.
Please Press Pause
It is true that normal children are known to go on and on about a particular fascination, be it the most recent Disney flick or a computer game or just the shoes they got for Christmas. In contrast, a Little Professor functions at a higher level of diction, discernment and reliability, so much so that it has been remarked by researchers that the children often seem to be mimics or robots.
While many hues in the autistic spectrum are marked by delayed verbal skills, Little Professors often speak in complete sentences while still in the pram. Some even sound like recordings in that their rendition of the lecture on the favourite topic often begins with exactly the same words and the entire lecture may be so memorised by the child that they can actually engage in other activities or even conversations without skipping a beat in their recitation. They may also be able to begin their lecture on one day, be separated from the audience for days or even weeks at a time, and resume where they left off when the opportunity to meet occurs again.
Go Ask Alice
Little Professors differ from classic Kanner's3 autism in that they are very interested in sight, sound, texture, colour and patterns. So much so that they can become very irritated by any of these that they find overwhelming or just plain stupid. The insensitivity of many adults and children of the 'neurotypical'4 sort to such stimuli leads to many awkward incidents. Colours can have texture and sound to an Asperger's child. Patterns and clothing can have a taste. Sound can fill their entire consciousness to the point where they feel infinitesimal and about to be crushed. When they feel overwhelmed they may engage in compulsive behaviour or they may 'act out'5, leading such children to often be diagnosed as OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) or ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) instead of or before they receive the almost correct diagnosis.
Where Are My Traction Engine Y-fronts?
Some Little Professors' fascinations are so all-consuming that they must eat on dinnerware associated with the subject, eat food shaped or named similarly to the object of fascination, and sleep clutching a favourite model or book related to the subject.
This intense level of interest in facts, minutiae and paraphernalia is also found in sport fanatics and Harry Potter aficionados, but that is essentially 'normal' behaviour and should not always be construed as a sign of Asperger's Syndrome. 'Normal' or 'neurotypical', as Aspies call them, people have shut-off valves that they can engage when the time or the place is not right for expressing their particular enthusiasm. A Little Professor, on the other hand, can be almost incapacitated when not allowed to engage in activities or exposition on their pet project. Teachers, therapists, and clergy are often amazed at the ability of some of these children to find connections to their specialisations in otherwise normally disparate topics.
A child whose fascination is with railroads and specifically produce transport can be extremely interested in lettuce and its particular requirements for picking, packaging, loading and transport for long distance.
Your Mileage May Vary
Little Professors score highly in IQ tests, with those whose speciality is test-taking simply blowing the results with a perfect score or refusing to take the test because it was poorly formatted or badly phrased. They also have the exact opposite ability with social skills. Some can seem almost comatose when they are exposed to conversation or materials not related to their specialisation. Even when they are talking to you, they may not make eye contact with you or anyone. They may engage in repetitive hand motions or rock back and forth in their seat or on their heels. When they come across a word that they really like the taste of, they may repeat it several times. They may also begin to disrobe while talking, waiting until the penultimate moment to mention that they have to go pee.
Others at a higher functioning level on the autistic scale may appear normal, but have an extremely naive view of the world. Asperger's has also been called the 'OOPS! Wrong planet!' syndrome. While the Little Professor may have a fascination with leather goods and shoemaking, he may also be incapable of realising that it is not a good idea to scoot to the floor and begin to remove a stranger's footwear in order to examine the leather.
Their disconnection from reality contrasts with their hyperconnection to their subject. A Little Professor might be able to tell you exactly how to get to the moon, as one mother put it, but be unable to find his bedroom without a map.
Dear, What Is That In Our Nursery?
Parents and teachers faced with one of these seeming prodigies often believe that if the child can be skilfully diverted to other topics, then the inherent intelligence can be more fully put to use. What they don't often realise is that the child's intelligence may be entirely ensconced in their topic, with few resources available to be put to use in other, possibly more necessary avenues of life.
It is not unusual for the Little Professor to be disdainful or even scornful of people and other children who do not care about the chosen topic or do not appreciate the value of the information provided. They can seem very rude to those who do not share their fascination or at least pretend to listen with interest. A tantrum may even be in the offing if the wrong question is asked or the listener seems patronising or to be merely humouring the lecturer. The resulting explosion may be physical, overbearing and extremely uncalled for in the given situation.
All of this makes the normal processes of raising a child or educating them seem almost impossible. A roomful of Little Professors makes for a daunting day for a teacher or a therapist.
Give The Little Darlings To Me At Seven And They Will Be Mine For Life
Pedagogic rote instructors, trained to lead young minds down the path to 'A'-levels, have been known to run tear-stricken out of the classroom and down the corridor after encountering a five-year-old who began by telling them that their brassiere was ill-fitting and then proceeded to detail the necessary shopping procedure in order to avoid this, recommending a specific shop and brandname of garment. This apparently is not conducive to the proper learning environment for the other children. Punishment or banishment often ensues, with the child bewildered, the parents irritated and the school administration wondering where to foist the little apparition of disorder.
Training or retraining a Little Professor is made difficult by the fact that education is a poorly understood, culturally specific habit in itself. It is a given within the educational cult that they 'know' to a certain extent what should work, what has worked, and what apparently doesn't. Education relies on the willingness of the pupils to imitate the behaviour of the teacher, who, it must be assumed, is the product of education also. This imitation is also predicated on the assumption that the pupils have been trained to be assimilated into a corps of similar individuals who have learned to sit still, listen attentively and perform various tricks or tasks on command. Little Professors have to be taught, at an advanced age, how to perform simple tasks such as sitting still, staying in their chair, not removing their clothing or disassembling the desk. The average teacher is not prepared for this. They do not have time for the individual attention the Little Professor requires, nor do they, often, have the necessary training to deal with the inquiring mind of the child. Training Aspergers children to pretend to be 'normal' has become a specialisation of its own, with adult Aspies often being intimately involved in the process of forming the curriculum and developing the necessary skills that the teachers of Little Professors require.
We Don't Know What We Don't Need to Know
Traditional school systems have a programme of social normalisation, in which children of the same age, regardless of condition or mental ability, are thrown together in the hope that the abnormal can learn to get along with their chronological peers simply through the process of 'rubbing off' or imitation. This programme usually bites the dirt along with the child, who is subject to bullying, ostracism and isolation. Parents who are essentially normal, who survived the school system themselves, are often at a loss to deal with the fact that not only is their child dysfunctional but the school itself seems to be out of whack.
A parent caught in this quandary is faced with either isolation themselves or a panoply of 'experts' who will recommend special education, gifted education, a severely altered diet, or, in some extreme cases, an investigation of the child's home situation to see what kind of monster could produce such a poor neglected waif.
When a parent ventures out onto the uncharted seas of the educational, medical, governmental or QANGO social service systems, all kinds of questions are asked, solutions proposed and answers almost but not quite provided. Thus, the situation with Little Professors affects not only the child, but the parents and the extended family, if they are still around. A self-assured adult who thought they knew themselves and half understood the way the world works can find their attitude toward reality brought very close to that of their odd child. The 'Us and Them' mentality is not hard to acquire. On the other hand, some parents take sides with the 'professionals' against the child. That's when the real fun begins. In the professional arena, the idea that Aspies might have a sense of community or make decisions for themselves as a group has led to a backlash against the very sensibilities that the professionals are supposed to be sensitive to. While the parents get to go to their little meetings and attend seminars, and the autistic caregivers have their conventions and societies, the Asperger's 'sufferers' themselves are supposed to remain quiescent and convinced of their 'patient' status. When Aspies get together, in person or online, and try to make decisions about how they wanted to be treated, 'cured' or viewed within the professional and support communities, they are seen as a threat to their own 'wellbeing'. Since there is something wrong with them, the 'wrongness' is compounded by their comparing notes. Little Professors are often aware of this controversy, but unable to participate or even react because the big people who attempt to control their lives won't let them have access to the very people who have grown up with the same experiences that they have. Adults who survived their Little Professorhood rarely gain access to Little Professors unless they have one in their family or they have become part of the professional social or educational services.
Trust Us! We Know Better Than You Think We Do
There are support groups, but the parent is not always qualified to determine who is on her side and which is just an excuse to further an agenda. One of the magnificent hobbies that we can get caught up in is the debate about the causes of autism and the reason why there is no cure. This particular facet of the world of adults being probably worse off than their children is of little use to a parent who needs information, of which there is little, intelligent discussion, a shot in the dark, and possibly medication, of which there is plenty, but it is situation-specific and the Little Professor probably doesn't need a stoned parent, since in their own little minds, people are a bit goofy anyway. As with the professionals, when dealing with unofficial 'support', the parent has to be careful to keep their best interests at heart in the face of sometimes brutal criticism of their child, their family and their own mental state.
C'mere, C'mere. Oh, Get Away, GET AWAY!
Little Professors are often very affectionate, and very often inappropriately so. Other human beings are part of the world of sight, sound, texture and noise and the Aspie child considers them something to explore just as they would a toy, a pet or a newly-mown lawn. The natural rebuffing behaviour of parents, siblings and strangers leads to a level of confusion in the child, who can even develop an aversion to new people because each situation can provide fresh embarrassment. This embarrassment can last hours or days and even be relived at any time when presented with a similar situation, clothing, person, or even time of day. The anxiety level of an Aspergers child can be at a constant high or function in spikes, sometimes for no apparent reason.
When someone, say a new teacher, hugs them and greets them effusively and then never repeats the behaviour and thereafter consistently rebuffs the child when he attempts to re-experience the sensation of comfort, closeness and the attractive smell, this can have an off-putting effect on any future hugs and greetings. The child will withdraw from the offered physical contact because the anticipation of the future humiliation overrides the need for the physical contact.
Or, a child who will suffer being hugged might refuse to kiss or be kissed. As confusing as this is to the hugger, to the child there is a whole world of difference between warm comforting contact, and being wetly smooched by someone who is unaware of just how many colours there are in the spectrum of their breath. The child may refuse to kiss in return because of a bad experience with getting cosmetics in her mouth while responding to the command 'Give Aunt Martha a kiss, darling,' at some time in the past.
There's Something Wrong With That Boy
Puberty and beyond is a challenge to Little Professors that makes the normal experience seem like a mere blip on the human radar. Because of their intense need for contact but their equally intense need to avoid embarrassment or humiliation, Aspie pre-teens are often very isolated from the pubertarian rites of passage by their own problems and by their parents or social guardians wish to 'keep them out of trouble'. The mating rituals of pre-adult humans are a mystery to the Little Professor because they involve unwritten rules, non-verbal communication and intricate dances of words, clothing, behaviour and timing. They also irritate the Aspie with their seemingly unique purpose of just plain getting in the way of nature taking its course. If the Little Professor is interested in the opposite sex, then he is very interested in the prospect of mating. Or if the Little Professor is interested in talking to a member of the opposite sex, then he is very interested in being able to converse without the prospect of sex intruding. Confusingly, he may want to get the whole awkwardness of sex out of the way so that he can progress to being mentally intimate without being distracted.
The fact that every pre-teen is feeling their way through the obstacle course of human intimacy and social intercourse and is confused, pursued and misconstrued may be known to the Little Professor, but only as an anthropological observation. When an Aspie becomes physically and emotionally interested in someone and has to deal with the fact that that someone has to be interested in them also for the prospective collusion to become socially permissable, then the real trouble begins. Little Professors are aware of the physical changes in their bodies and others to the point of painful obsession. If they do find a willing subject for their curiosity, the recipient of their attention may be horrified by the level of that curiosity. Aspie teens who find each other may also find each other repulsive because nothing intensifies self-loathing like finding that you are not alone. This is obviously paradoxical behaviour.
Why Does She Do That?
The Little Professor Syndrome is predominant among boys. Female Aspies who exhibit Little Professor tendencies are not unknown, but the majority of Female Aspies are more socially adaptable and more capable of restricting their pedantic abilities to socially acceptable venues. Having mentioned the paradoxical mating ideas among Aspies with regard to their own kind, it seems strange to relate that statistically speaking, Aspies are more likely to marry other Aspies if they are to marry at all. Marriages between 'neurotypicals' and Aspies are very interesting experiences for both parties. Marriages between Aspies can take more work than either imagined necessary in any endeavour. The Aspie difficulties with 'unwritten' rules leads to a fascination with written rules, detailed lists, rigid schedules and ritual behaviour that would make a Masonic initiate quiver.
Chapter Eight In The Meaning Of Life - The World of Work
Another paradox in the life of Little Professors is the contrast, given their consistently high IQs, between those who find a niche to excel in and profit from their abilities and those who wander the world rootlessly from minimum wage job to homelessness. As mentioned in the earliest paragraph of this entry, some Little Professors grow up to become Big Professors. Some become quite famous and even others actually create a field of endeavour that didn't exist before, allowing them to shine most greatly where they function most uniquely. Others spend their lives living from payday to payday or act of charity to act of charity while becoming the World's Foremost Expert on Brass Door Knockers, their history, manufacture and value.
It can take decades for an unhelped or untutored Little Professor to learn to imitate socially useful behaviour to the point where they can 'pass' in normal everyday life. Even the helped ones are often stuck needing help for the rest of their lives, the parents and professionals facing decades of protecting the unadaptable creature. While it is true that the 'school of hard knocks' can give an Aspie enough experience to learn to tune down the embarrassment enough so that they don't run screaming out of the workplace, very little can be done to erase the residual anxiousness that accompanies change, unusual circumstances and the general tendency of 'normal' people to feel uncomfortable around others that they cannot understand. Some Little Professors develop a hard shell defensive behaviour to get the unpleasantness out of the way immediately. Others are continually apologetic and will trip over themselves to try to avoid conflict and embarrassment, often contradictorily embarrassing the 'neurotypical' who wonders what all the fuss is about.