The Experts Speak – Episode 215: Just Go Home
Asperger’s syndrome and keeping secrets – isn’t this an oxymoron? In this episode, Max quite naturally (and without malice) reveals a secret that his sister, Haddie, would rather he didn’t. She’s still seeing Alex against her parents’ wishes and has been hiding it, but as Haddie is reminded in this episode, if there’s an individual with Asperger’s syndrome in the family, secrets are non-existent.
This can cause great difficulty, uncomfortable situations and family disputes. When Max lets her secret slip, Haddie is put into a painful situation as Adam and Kristina become surprised and upset with her. Adam and Kristina had already grounded her in a previous episode for keeping secrets, and now Max has let her cat out of the bag. This doesn’t endear Max to Haddie, a problem that siblings of Asperger’s kids struggle with on a daily basis.
Having the ability to hold secrets for any length of time requires trust between individuals and an understanding of others’ needs. This is very difficult for someone on the spectrum. A core feature of autism spectrum disorder is impairment in understanding the social needs of other people, since ASD entails a lack of underlying social understanding and perspective taking.
In order to keep a secret, one needs to know who can be told the information in question and who cannot. This type of problem solving requires abstract reasoning and sorting through a myriad of information bytes at lightning speed, and finally coming to a reasonable solution that works out for all. Those with autism spectrum are concrete thinkers and exceptionally honest – if asked a question, they will respond with the truth, without taking the time to analyze and reflect what should be said and not said. Thus, secrets are hard for them to keep for any length of time.
ASD or not, some secrets should be kept – such as answers to test questions and personal family information. But other secrets are best told, such as those involving criminal activity or anything entailing the exploitation or manipulation of the person with ASD. But how is a person with autism spectrum to know the difference? Some secrets are tiny and have no real consequences; some are major and can endanger life. As siblings grow up, they tell each other many secrets (parents, this should not be a surprise) and as a result, they learn by doing: when to keep secrets, when to reveal them, and what should never be told. But when you add a child with autism spectrum disorder to the mix, typically developing siblings may end up feeling that they can’t trust their own flesh and blood, and the sibling with the disorder is placed in social situations he can’t figured out and that continually get him or her in trouble.
When faced with the type of situation Max finds himself in in this episode, those with ASD will usually tell it like it is – revealing to parents, siblings, their friends, acquaintances and perfect strangers things that shouldn’t be told. This can be either a positive or a negative; how others handle the completely honest statements made by the child with ASD will determine how much trouble will follow. If a very young child, most adults will laugh over the blunder; if an older adolescent or adult, grave consequences can result.
For the child with autism spectrum, this whole business of keeping secrets can be very confusing. Appropriate instruction on secret keeping is both difficult and delicate and should be tackled carefully by parents and teachers. Even after intensive instruction however, making this type of judgment requires split-second analysis of multiple factors, both concrete and humanistic. So don’t be surprised when the kid spills the beans.
Written by Sheila Wagner, M.Ed.