Monday, February 15, 2010

Asperger's: Standing Face and Zero Order Skills

Soft signs is a term used to refer to "soft neurological symptoms", or differences in skills involving coordination.

The symptoms are observable when tested for (usually by a neurologist), and are often evaluated with diagnostic activities such as "touch your finger to your nose". The child with difficulties with such tasks exhibits "soft signs", behaviors which are expected to mature with age.

Back in 2006, researchers at the University of Helsinki and the Hospital for Children and Adolescents in Finland looked at soft signs in adults with Asperger's, and found that they persisted through adolescence and adulthood.

As typical children age, these soft signs often diminish, and evolve into Zero Order Skills. This set of skills is described by Richard Lavoie, M.A. as "skills that are only significant when they fail to exist". He describes a common soft sign as a child's inability to track with his eyes without moving his head. Seems like no big deal, right?

But imagine the behavior of the adult who does not possess this Zero Order Skill. Out with a group at a bar, he does not make eye contact with each person he speaks with. Instead of moving his head slightly and moving his eyes to meet the gaze of his conversation partners, he keeps his eyes in a fixed position, and moves his head in order to maintain eye contact. How does it come off? Robotic.

The ability to track during a conversation, then, is an example of a Zero Order Skill. This skill is not a social asset - no one wins praise for this skill - rather, it is an expected skill, necessary for others' comfort during conversation.

The adult with a deficit in Zero Order Skills will suffer resulting social effects. Yet Zero Order Skills can be taught, learned and mastered.

One Zero Order Skill which may be missing in the skill set of the adult with Asperger Syndrome is his or her STANDING FACE. The standing face is our most basic, relaxed and frequently adopted facial expression - the neutral expression we use when reading or watching TV. It may be worth your time to look in the mirror and taking a look at what yours looks like. You may also want to ask a trusted loved one or professional for their feedback.

Often adults with Asperger's find their "game face" is slack, open-mouthed, stern-looking or comes across as aloof. This is just fine if you're intending to send messages of boredom, superiority or anger (and who isn't, from time to time?). But if you'd like to come across as open and interested, these expressions can be obstacles.

The goal may not be to adopt an artificial wardrobe of empty smiles (see cartoon above), but to master the facial posture of someone who comes across as engaged and relaxed. This can involve "cocking" the head to the side to convey interest, making 8-second interval eye contact, changing physical position (such as leaning slightly forward), gestures of approval such as sporadic smiles, nods, and "aha" looks, and non-verbal cues ("hmmmm", "uh-huh" and "ah").

With practice, your standing face can communicate warmth and openness, and your demeanor can give others clear indications of how you feel. These skills can be mastered with practice, practice, practice. And I encourage you to do just that.