I want to change the way we think about Autism and Asperger’s. And it starts with lemons. Yes. Literally lemons. Lemons add flavor to our food and water.
And I believe the spectrum adds flavor to humanity. Too much lemon can be a little bitter. And not enough won’t get the job done.
The Strengths of the Lemon
We can use lemons to help people better understand Autism, Asperger’s and everything in between. Imagine a glass of water, a glass of lemon flavored water, lemonade, a lemon, and a lemon farm.
This Lemon Continuum allows us to describe where a person is on the spectrum. This as an identity – what is your lemon status?
The lemon status is not a label or a disorder. The lemon status is a portion of an identity, and the therapeutic work begins with self-acceptance and a celebration of one’s unique identity on the spectrum.
The plain glass of water represents general society. We need water for everyday tasks, drinking, bathing, watering our gardens (and the lemon farm!). Water is great: thirst quenching, but perhaps a little boring.
People with “lemon in the water” typically have a specific or obsessive interest such as the weather, dinosaurs, geology, history, stocks, or hundreds of other topics. Their interest in these subjects is hyper-focused in that they can concentrate and focus on something longer than most people.
The Shortcomings of Lemons
Just as with superheroes, with strength comes difficulty which in this case might be socializing. Think about this: if a mind is wired to do one or two things exceptionally well, and that mind is designed to do this for hours on end, why would socialization be emphasized when there are far more interesting things in which to engage?
And yet society (the plain water folks) continues to place social demands which include conformity to the plain water rules. Society values conformity, following a strict developmental timeline, and a need to “blend in.”
As you already know, people on the spectrum will not conform, and honestly, may not wish to blend in – and why should they? Rather than focusing on conformity, let’s celebrate the special interests and help folks find their place in an overwhelming and confusing world.
If we can remember and celebrate strengths, the path forward quickly becomes clear: use the strengths to provide cover for the area of concern. It is what the plain water people are doing, but perhaps needs a bit more structure or encouragement to accomplish.
Is It a Special Interest, or a Strength?
Roughly 90 percent of the lemon water folks have a special interest area (SIAs). A SIA can be almost anything that grabs the person’s attention, and about which they consume all of the available facts, experiences, and skills.
When practiced productively, SIAs are what allow the lemon water folks to excel in their field, making them the best game designer, software engineer, or history professor around. But, without guidance, these areas can be unproductive, restrictive, and pervasive.
One example is the student who struggles to maintain relationships or complete homework because they’re entirely engrossed in their Minecraft server.
One primary focus for these clients is to help them turn these passions into a strength, and eventually, a successful career! Here are a few suggestions on how to help your Lemon Water clients capitalize on their SIA.
How to Capitalize on a Lemon’s Special Interest Area
Children with ASD often define themselves by their SIA. When asked what is most important to them, they rank SIAs second only to family.
By engaging in these areas, rather than dismissing them, or attempting to reprioritize the SIA, folks with ASD feel more positively about themselves, find stability, and find a way to make sense of the world.
By denying these, we are denying them; instead, we should support them and help them feel comfortable in their interests.
For example, imagine a young adult, Jack, with a passionate interest in history, social justice, and some remarkable programming skills. Jack is quick to engage a conversational partner in topics about his interests, sometimes to the point of alienating the listener.
We can steer Jack toward a political campaign team. Folks who are campaigning need Jack’s passion and his programming skills so that they can get the right message to the right audience.
Jack can leverage passion and skill into a successful career. Jack is no longer talking AT people; he is with his political peers making the world a better place.
Social communication improves when people with ASD are engaged in SIAs. In these moments, they demonstrate better fluency, body language, eye contact, attention, and sensitivity to certain social cues.
Because of this, SIAs can be used as a social bridge. I often use video games, LEGOs and board games (Chess, Fluxx, etc.) as a way to improve social skill development and provide my clients with a great environment to practice them and make friends!
For example, Jill has quite a passion for Pokémon Go. Her parents are somewhat embarrassed by this passion and have quite clearly and repeatedly discouraged her from talking about Pokémon Go.
Jill is now somewhat reluctant to talk about it, but when invited to discuss that topic, she lights up! She has better posture, is clearly engaged in the topic, and she is quite articulate on the topic, helping me understand how she processes information and codes (what she perceives to be) relevant data.
Jill is encouraged to go the park to engage in a Pokémon Go raid at the local park, where she sees some folks she recognizes. They strike up a conversation. While they don’t make any further plans or exchange contact information, Jill considers this a very successful outing as she feels less lonely and marginalized.
(Of note, don’t be the plain water person asserting your goals in lieu of Jill’s goals! She did what you wanted: she left the house and talked to someone! Don’t make her conform to your newly revealed goals that she needs to also make a friend on that first outing!!)
Emotions and Coping
The more your clients positively engage in SIAs, the more likely they will have positive emotions. Additionally, SIAs can help your clients cope with negative emotions, reduce anxiety and disrupt unwanted behaviors.
Lemon water, Pokémoning Jill is a good example of this. When she can get outside, walk around, get some sunshine and fresh air, and engage in Pokémon Go, she observes that on the whole, she is less anxious.
Sure, the first couple of times she was asked to try a new park she felt anxious, but she was able to try new things because she was also engaged in her passions.
When people, all people, engage in their passions, they are happier, less stressed, and healthier. You may need to be direct in coaching this skill to your clients, but it is truly worth it!
Folks with ASD often have trouble with fine-motor and sensory skills (e.g., handwriting, tying shoes); however, SIAs have been shown to increase perseverance and task achievement. [DRB2] [FG3]
Similarly, SIAs help Aspies persist through tasks that challenge the sensitivity of senses (e.g., sticky glue and bad smells when building a model plane).
Imagine that Jack did indeed land a job in a political campaign programming information. It is brilliant fun. Unfortunately, he is asked to make some phone calls, a task that is remarkably distasteful for him.
If forced to make these phone calls, he will consider quitting the job. (You already know what Fictional Jack will be saying in your Actual Office: “I wasn’t hired for this! I could just send an email instead of making the phone call! Come on people, get with the program!”)
We can use Jack’s passion to increase his motivation to learn skills around anxiety management, practicing some phone skills, and then practicing some negotiation skills at work!
Generalizing School Performance into Job Performance
Integrating SIAs into schoolwork can improve motivation, behavior, and academic skill development. Many of us (plain water and lemon water alike) use our passions to foster the development of a successful career path. Like Temple Grandin and her interest in livestock, many folks with ASD pursue successful careers related to their SIA.
Because our clients can be so literal and can struggle to generalize, you can identify a clear path from a person’s passion to job opportunities.
You can help your clients identify their strengths (strengths that they may take for granted, like memory, visual-spatial skills, or innate poetry) and help them see how those strengths may be used in areas other than their passion.
Imagine that Jack gets frustrated with the politician’s inability to grasp the data set that Jack provides. Jack churns out amazing data but fails to recognize that his skills are far and above what the general public possesses.
Jack may think that his skills can only be used with a political campaign. But actually, his skills are great with Emergency Services organization, including estimating response times and rerouting responders to open roads. Jack could have a career almost anywhere but instead may limit himself to campaigns.
You, the creative, bold therapist that you are, can help Jack generalize his skills, recognize his strengths, and use his innate talents to realize whatever goals he is brave enough to share in your office.
Highlight Your Lemon’s Strengths!
In a nutshell, strengths-based programming is imperative when working with folks with ASD. These lemon water folks have unlimited creative problem skills, though they have sometimes been asked to not tap into their strengths, may have been shamed or embarrassed about their interests, and may be shy to share their strengths.
It is your job to tease out the strengths, highlight them, and put the strengths to good use. Who knows, if you do your job properly, Jack and Jill can use their strengths, and then can you even imagine the possibilities?!