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Is Asperger’s Left- or Right-Brained?

I want to start by telling you about my theater son. He’s diagnosed with pervasive development delays. He’s not autistic. He has many difficulties that may infringe on his ability to be independent. He was born two months premature. Maybe that has something to do with it. There’s also a lower intelligence factor in his family of birth. It may all contribute as well as his rough first couple years with his birth family.

When he came to live with us at 2.5 years old, he didn’t have many words he knew or understood, let alone pronounce where he could be understood. As I got to know him, I realized that he was a strong right-brained learner. But, the clincher was that he had difficulties in right-brained areas! So, he was a right-brained learner without the capacity to express himself well in a right-brained manner.

I worked on language throughout his day incidentally, but I particularly focused on developing right-brained skills: play and imagination, block design and manipulation, drawing and coloring. He had limited skills in these areas. He had limited skills with left-brained things, too. He was a child with seemingly no strengths. Instead of concentrating on building the areas that were in his non-strength area, though, I wanted to start with what was supposed to be his strength area. Somehow, I knew those might develop more quickly with support.

Slowly, he was able to feel some confidence in right-brained things that eventually he fell in love with. For instance, though he needed help learning to play, once he knew how and especially once he knew how to do pretend play, he fell in love with it, thus, why I call him theater son. He’s in a costume every day at minimum. I remember when we first helped him learn to color, craft, and draw. He resisted because of his lack of complete ability. He literally needed hand over hand with it. But, as he grew competent, he fell in love with it.

So, why do I tell this story? My theory is similar with Asperger’s and right-brained learning. First of all, boys are more prone to being right-brained. Girls are more prone to being left-brained. There are more boys than girls who are Asperger’s/autism spectrum. Taking my builder son as an example because he is high functioning autism (not Asperger’s … there is a difference): Whenever he takes the on-line right-brained/left-brained tests, he almost always tests as left-brained. He’s not. He’s very much right-brained. However, the autism features bring in left-brained attributes.

The most notable left-brained attributes for those on the spectrum are predictability, thus schedules and order and timeliness. For instance, though most of my typical right-brained children were oblivious to time, my builder son was very aware of time. But, he was also gifted in spatial strengths … or his place in space … which is what more right-brained people are better at.

Compare this same exception to female right-brained people. The female gender  is linked with several left-brained attributes. My daughter is right-brained, but she has left-brained attributes contributed by her female gender, such as organization skills, word-based abilities, and liking to learn math in a left-brained way. But the majority of how she relates to the world is right-brained.

Though my builder son lacked typical play skills and imaginative skills when he was younger, he had his own version of imaginative play and he often is “lost inside his own world in his head.” His disconnect with the world is often associated with his extreme draw to what is formed inside his mind. Also, I think most think in pictures, like Temple Grandin shared. That’s definitely right-brained.

Another huge element of being right-brained is being emotion based. Some will say that those on the autism spectrum lack emotion. I disagree. It’s released in a different way because of the autism element. So, I’ll use two different sons with autism. One son has always been very “behavioral.” That’s his emotion release representation. When he couldn’t communicate, he would melt down. When others are being behavioral around him, he’d melt down.

What I hear from a lot of highly sensitive right-brained people is that they can feel other people’s emotions. My right-brained daughter (who represented with a lot of autism traits before age 12) doesn’t have that attribute. What she does is when she feels negative emotion, it triggers her emotion house (what I decided to call it), and anxiety appears. That’s what my builder son with autism is like. He didn’t melt down or outburst, he would get anxious. The more emotion around him, the more anxious he would become.

On the flip side, my daughter shared with me that thinking of her stories was a trigger for feel good emotions. At that very same moment, one of my sons with autism was walking around, “stimming,” and thinking in his head and smiling and feeling very happy. He was thinking his autistic thoughts to release feel good emotions. He enjoys his inner life because it’s a reliable and primary source for feel good emotions. My daughter shared how she felt the same way about her inner life stories she thought of throughout the day and throughout most of her childhood and teens years. It was her safe place and the way she could most feel good emotions. I believe my builder son is the same way.

Balancing the emotional needs for someone on the spectrum looks different than other people. Because of the disconnect with understanding the world they live in, this “emotion trigger” of being in the world can trigger the emotion house into anxiety. Many of them may counter that by consistently initiating their feel good emotions by engaging in their autism-based imaginative thinking world  (autism-based or not) or a positive (to them) sensory experience. This helps them handle the times they interact with the world that is often a bit confusing which triggers negative feelings from their emotion house, resulting in a meltdown or explosion (especially when they’re younger), to anxiety and stress (especially when they’re older). But, the core is emotion-based thinking, and that is right-brained. Living with autism and the changes to the brain that entails causes this to look differently.

 

Many of the perseverative interests of those on the spectrum, especially those who have Aspergers and high functioning autism, are in the creative outlet arena. Ceiling fans is electronics, trains and building tracks is spatial, LEGO is building, and even my more affected son’s interest in the alphabet and numbers was because of the patterns, which is right-brained.

 

Let’s recap all the autism-related attributes with those that are also right-brained attributes:

  • Imaginative thinking
  • Thinks in pictures
  • Creative outlets through perseverative interests
  • Sensory-based
  • Emotion-based
Autism-related differences are:
  • Predictability
  • Schedules
  • Time-based

Then there are some traits that are housed in the right side of the brain in typical people that are missing in those with autism. Three of those traits are:

  • Face recognition
  • Identifying the emotional intonation of words
  • Emotional facial expression recognition

Researchers still have no idea the cause of autism. We do know there are brain differences. Like my theater son I described at the beginning of this post, could some kind of  misformation or insult have occurred in the right side of the brain causing a deficit in right-brained functioning for a person meant to be right-brained?

As right-brained people, they are meant to view the world holistically, but because something is missing there that they try to access, they are left with the left-brained version of looking at the parts. However, children with autism aren’t very good at picking up information naturally that way, right? My son with autism couldn’t make any sense of the world around him. Was he trying to view it holistically, but it couldn’t be accessed? Once I broke it down into its smallest parts, and then taught it to him in a very visual way, with lots of support, he finally started to learn how to use the left-brained function that was accessible to him.

My son with autism who was most affected still had a strong trait of patterns. That’s a right-brained trait. He is also highly visual, also right-brained. Once he know how to use the left-brained function of learning by parts, he was able to use  his pattern and visual skills to learn to read at a young age. He also used his strong long-term memory abilities, another right-brained trait. But, learning big global concepts was difficult for him. Something was missing or such in the right side of his brain.

See how autism can be sifted out, and the natural bent to be right-brained dominant is still evident? My theory is that autism is on the right-brained side of the continuum. And whatever causes autism to exist interfered with the right side of the brain in certain ways to result in a deficit of right-brained skills in a natural right-brained person.

Just like my theater son, but because he doesn’t live with autism, he could develop his underdeveloped right brain to be able to enjoy those attributes to some level.

Question: Do you feel those living with Asperger’s and Autism Spectrum Disorders are more left-brained or right-brained? Why?

7 responses to “Is Asperger’s Left- or Right-Brained?

  1. As parents of two right-brained learners and Directors at 3D Learner, an education practice for right-brained learners, we have found a vast majority of the autistic, Aspergers and Learning disabilities community to be right-brained learners. Right-brained learners tend to have excellent memories for places visited, visual memory for details from movies they have seen, and learn best when they see and experience information – and this described most of the students we see who have an autism or Aspergers label

    • Hey Mark!

      Yes, those three are also traits that go along with autism spectrum and right-brained learning. Thanks for adding to the list!

      I checked out your website and what you offer, and it’s great that you’re helping the cause of appropriate right-brained learning along. My mission is to change the way schools operate so that you don’t have to get them as “struggling learners” anymore, but that they can learn in the way that makes most sense to them from the beginning!

      I would love to see what you think of my book when it comes out!

    • Thanks for your kind words! The best way to find out if you have an ASD is to go to a psychiatrist or other thaispret, but I wouldn’t recommend doing that unless you are having trouble coping with symptoms, or if it is interfering with your ability to live a regular lifestyle. If you’re starting to have trouble at work or something like that, that would be a reason to see a doctor. If you are not having trouble, though, the best way to know whether you would fall into the autistic spectrum is to do research. Major symptoms besides social impairment and odd fixations include hypersensitivity, especially to loud noises, and, in the case of mild autism, language delays. If you never had language delays, you probably do not have autism, but Asperger’s Syndrome could be an option.I learned all my instruments because of my obsession with musical instruments. Most kids liked to play with dolls and things like that, but I liked to play music. I am also able to learn instruments very fast because I have synesthesia, which lets me see notes and instruments as colors and shapes. I hope that helped!

  2. This helps me with some of the conundrums I have felt when dealing with an Aspie who also had some RB processing impairments, particularly in visual processing and memory, yet learned to read and spell in holistic, Gestaltish kinds of ways and was wildly creative in early childhood. She also has the LB love of structure, predictability, and rules, yet the deficits in facial recognition. She used to have flat intonation, but her voice is now extremely expressive due to years of audiobooks and read-alouds. I just couldn’t figure out how all this worked together, unless she was a brain/learning version of ambidextrous. It even made me wonder if the ASD diagnosis was valid or accurate.

    I still don’t totally get it, but I feel as though it’s starting to untangle a bit, after reading this post. I almost had a physical sense of things falling into place and beginning to make more coherent sense.

    • Yes, Karen, I also find the intermixture of right-brained traits within the autism spectrum area quite complex. I’m not sure how it all came to pass that their brains ended up the way they did, but it’s fascinating to see what they offer. In the end, once we have a base of understanding about autism, right-brained learning, and sensory and emotional needs, we don’t have to fit them precisely anywhere. We can take each individual and give them what they say they need by the strengths they show us. By doing this, maybe we’ll learn a bit more through them!

      For instance, I loved how your daughter grew to understand intonation through her love of audio books and read alouds. What a great benefit! I actually discuss several times in my book the benefits of read alouds/audios. Here’s another long-term benefit that your daughter gained because you trusted in her interest in audios/read alouds. Cool 🙂

  3. Cindy-
    This article reminds me of a temperament test I took about 18 years ago … Here is a blurb (this is a test called the FIRO-B):

    “You tend to have high intellectual energies. Thinking causes you to be very moody. Your mood swings always follow your thinking process. If you are thinking upward (positive) your mood swings up and you feel happy. If you are thinking downward (negative) your mood swings down and you become depressed. You are able to see pictures and images in your mind. This causes you to relive the past over and over.”

    This was a huge turning point for me. At the point in my life where I took this test I was suicidal. Not bc of my life … my life was awesome! I was morbidly depressed bc of the world around me. The suffering, the poverty, the choices of pure evil that people made … I read a lot of non-fiction: true crime, third reich, apartheid … the weight of it all burdened me to the point that I wanted to die. I learned to turn my mind toward the positive … in a way, homeschooling has been that outlet for me, to focus on building something positive.

  4. Asperger’s syndrome, in the strict sense in which Hans Asperger meant it, is by definition right brain dominance. Every Aspergian Autist or Kannerian Autist should know himself or herself.

    So please read:
    https://www.academia.edu/3876719/On_Aspergers_Syndrome_extreme_right_brain_dominance_

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