From the Inside Out
In the past couple of weeks, I have spent more than what could be considered a normal amount of time focused on appearances. Beauty comes from the inside out, or so I’ve been told, right? And yet we all seem to gravitate in one form or another towards what we look like on the outside, and that gravitational pull takes many forms. For example, there seems to be a consensus of sorts that people with ASD have a general lack of concern about how they appear to others. From my own experience, I don’t quite know if I would characterize this as a lack of concern so much as a lack of prioritizing. I know that I get positive feedback on my appearance when I am wearing makeup. I enjoy positive feedback. But more often than not, I don’t wear makeup. It is not a priority for me in the mornings to take the time that could be spent in other productive pursuits—yes, sleep counts—to go through the whole production of putting on makeup. I care about how my appearance affects others’ perceptions of me. That said, I do not quite care enough to concern myself with keeping track of whether or not the mascara in the bathroom is too old for me to use when I dig it out for special occasions. This gravitational pull towards a more natural look does not appear to have hampered me in the workplace setting, and as such I feel comfortable assuming that I am correct when I tell myself that "less is more."
Conversely, there are individuals who will go to great lengths to create an outward appearance that on the surface seems to be for no other reason than to provoke a decidedly negative reaction. This presents problems for the educator in me, not to mention the Aspie in me, on numerous levels. The teacher cannot allow students to present themselves in the workplace in a manner which is likely to prompt an unfavorable reaction. In addition, I am working with young adults who, let’s face it, probably have the deck stacked against them in the first place with or without a disability simply by nature of the economic times in which they are coming of age. Certainly it is in their best interests to present themselves in such a way that those who will undoubtedly make judgments based on outward appearances will have reason to make those judgments favorable ones. But … here’s where the Aspie part gives me pause. What do I want more for my students? For them to “fit in” based on outward appearances if nothing else? Or for them to feel at home in their own skin and be secure enough in their perceptions of themselves to not worry or even care what other people think of the way they look? After all, beauty comes from the inside out, so why should it matter how many earrings someone chooses to wear, or what color or style their hair is? I find it more than a bit challenging to argue the point that the rules are the rules (written or unwritten) and we have to follow them.
Beyond hairstyles and whether or not wearing a particularly garish eye shadow is the best life choice, I would feel remiss at this point if I did not tie all of this together with a mention of the potential consequences of overemphasizing the imporance of physical appearance to our young people with AS: This is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, In 2007, Asperger’s syndrome expert Tony Attwood  reported that between 18 and 23 percent of teenage anorexics meet some or all of the diagnostic criteria for Asperger’s syndrome. That is a staggeringly high statistic, and one more reason we need to be teaching—dare I say, embedding—in our young people the idea that beauty truly comes from the inside out.
If you are concerned that your child or student is struggling with an eating disorder, do not be afraid to act. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any psychological illness. In an individual on the autism spectrum, it may be hard to distinguish food selectivity and rituals that stem from the autistic characteristics from those of an ED. Some of the indicators that your child/student (most ED suffers are female, but the disease is NOT exclusive to girls) may have and eating disorder include:
- Developing rituals around food preparation and/or consumption;
- Becoming socially isolated to a degree not typical for her;
- Looking for reasons not to eat in front of others;
- Wearing uncharacteristically baggy clothes;
- Complaining of excessive tiredness or appearing lethargic;
- Feeling cold when others are comfortable;
- Making trips to the bathroom soon after eating.
There may not be a noticeable change in body weight. Just as there is no “typical” autistic person, there is no typical anorexic, bulimic or compulsive eater, and many individuals with eating disorders demonstrate a variety of symptoms that encompass all of these classifications. If your suspicions are correct, please remember that eating disorders are NOT a choice, but a mental illness that can have dire physical complications if left untreated. Please do not be afraid of alienating your child or student by acting on your concerns, as you could very well be helping to save her life.