Is it possible for someone with Asperger’s syndrome to change? My answer is: Yes.
This may surprise you given the common belief that one is born with Asperger’s. After all, if Asperger’s is the product of brain abnormalities, and there is strong evidence that people with Asperger’s are neurologically different, how would it be possible for someone with Asperger’s to change? Inherited conditions such as Huntington’s disease or cystic fibrosis cannot be cured, why would one assume Asperger’s could be? Wouldn’t it make more sense to focus on treating Asperger’s rather than changing it?
I believe the model of change we associate with neurological conditions, that there is no possibility of changing brain structure and function, is flawed when it comes to Asperger’s.
For one thing, there is no known cause of Asperger’s. Evidence of neurological differences in people with Asperger’s does not mean the cause of it is neurological. We often think of depression as part of the makeup of some people but many “normal” people get depressed.
Just as importantly, although a condition may be associated with differences in brain development and functioning that condition may be responsive to change. A stroke causes immediate and distinctive effects on someone’s physical functioning but in many instances, through rehabilitation and therapy, these effects can be lessened and in some cases reversed entirely.
This is not to say that people with Asperger’s can change their entire personality and behavior, certainly not in every instance. Rather, there is every reason to assume, given the right circumstances and with enough help and support, much of what is characteristic about Asperger’s can be altered, even eliminated.
For this to happen, however, three things must occur.
People with Asperger’s can’t change how they act, think and feel unless they want to. Without the desire to change and the willingness to make it happen, change is impossible.
Think of Asperger’s as a set of skills that are undeveloped, and in a few cases absent altogether. By skills, I mean the competencies needed to relate to people successfully, to be attuned to others, and have greater, deeper connections with others. These competencies, or skills, can be learned just like most other skills if the person wants to learn them.
Again, the common view of Asperger’s is that it’s “hard-wired” from birth and can’t change. Yet it’s true that numerous examples exist of the brain changing in response to training and experience. Neuroscientists tell us that one’s brain can rejuvenate and improve itself. Our brain forms new neurons throughout our lives, and the connections and functions in the brain change as well. What we do day-to-day influences our brain’s functions, and we can participate actively and consciously in the rewiring of our brain.
Although Asperger’s may be a genetically based, neurologically influenced condition, with enough motivation and sufficient willingness to put in the work to make it happen, change is entirely possible.
Problems can be solved only if we understand them. One has to acquire knowledge of what drives Asperger’s in order to do something about it. Knowing why someone with Asperger’s acts the way they do makes all the difference in creating change.
What I’m referring to by “what drives Asperger’s” is the problem of grasping what other people are thinking and why they think the way they do. This problem is not inherent or embedded in someone’s genetic make-up. It is an outcome of the focus on one’s inner world rather than the world of other people, and this is the fundamental problem of Asperger’s.
Understanding this foundational cause of Asperger’s together with the motivation to be different, provides two of the essential conditions for successful change. That is, knowing why I do what I do and wanting to do it differently make change possible.
No one can change who they are without the help and assistance of others. We need encouragement to support us through the difficult work of change. We need perspectives on how to change that are different from the ones that keep us where we are. For those in a partnership, we need to know that we alone are not the cause of problems in our relationship and that the true problem lies in the blending of two different relationship styles. We need a foundation of empathy, caring, and nurturing from others to make change safe and desirable.
Help is what drives change. It is what makes change happen. Without help from others, solving the challenges of Asperger’s is difficult, to say the least.
With the support of others, an understanding of the essential problem of Asperger’s and a strong and clear motivation to be different, changing Asperger’s is entirely possible.
Dr. Kenneth Roberson is an Asperger’s psychologist in San Francisco with over 30 years of experience. To ask a question or schedule an appointment, please call 415-922-1122.