What is wrong with my nephew?
November 27, 2011 8:23 PM   Subscribe

I am concerned about my nephew's strange behavior. He paces a lot, is extremely antisocial, and exhibits other odd behavior.

My nephew will soon be 16. He is the youngest of two boys. His brother is "normal"--friendly, outgoing, and so on. They both do fairly well academically. The younger one, however, has behaved oddly for several years. It really bothers me, as well as my parents, the boy's grandparents. I have tried discussing it with my sister, but she basically told me to butt out. I suspected that he had Aspergers and mentioned it to her, and she burst into tears. One of his teachers apparently also suggested he be tested for Aspergers. My sister told me last year that he was tested, and that he was "borderline." I don't know how to deal with him, so for the most part I ignore him, except to say hello and goodbye, usually with a brief hug. He does not hug back. Some of his behavior includes:

Pacing. On Thanksgiving Day, he first watched some football in the family room, but then got up and paced in the formal living room, where no one was. He did this quickly and continually for at least an hour. He has done this several times before.

Not eating. The same day, he sat in front of an empty plate and ate nothing and said nothing. When he was younger, he would eat only bread rolls, and my father would comment on that. I suspect that this may be why he does not eat; he does not want anyone to comment. However, a few weeks ago we had a family meal at a restaurant, and he ordered food and ate it--I think he had a hamburger. No one commented on his eating at all. He is not particularly thin and is not anorexic. Oh, also, he is a slob when he eats--he doesn't cut his meat, just puts it on his fork and chews off pieces, and he chews with his mouth open. I don't even know why his parents allow that. (His father is in his life, but has issues of his own.)

No social skills at all. He appears to be the rudest young man in the world. This isn't typical "teenage" behavior, which would be somewhat expected: rolling eyes, sarcastic comments. I could handle that, because it's fairly normal at his age. But he acts like no one else exists. He does not say hello when someone comes or goodbye when they leave. His mother has to tell him to say goodbye, as if he's a young child. He has few if any friends, and he spends most of his free time watching TV or playing video games. He seems to have no interest in anything. If you ask him a question, he will ignore it most of the time, unless his mother tells him to answer, and then he will mumble. But on rare occasion, I have seen him talk "normally." Those episodes are becoming more and more rare, though.

Ruining events. A few times I have tried accompanying my sister and the boys (she is divorced) to events, and each time he has made all of us miserable. As soon as we get to where we are going, he starts with "When are we leaving?" "Are we leaving yet?" "Can we go now?" He does this continually--about every two minutes. I finally gave up doing things with them, which is a shame, because I enjoy spending time with my sister.

When he was young he exhibited some Asperger symptoms such as wanting his shoes and clothing to be tight, wearing the same clothes for days on end (even sleeping in them and then wearing them the next day, for several days), remembering minute details about seemingly insignificant things and repeating them over and over.

Any ideas what I can do to communicate with him, or should I just keep things the way they are? Right now I pay little attention to him, which seems fine with him, and hope that someday he will discover that he can learn how to function in society. He certainly doesn't know how to do that now. Also, are these symptoms of Aspergers? I still think that's what it is, even though he tested as "borderline."
posted by ElizabethEllis to Human Relations (38 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
You think there's a problem, and you've communicated that to the parents. They're going to do or not do whatever they do or don't decide to do.

I'd tell the parents they can have your help and support if they need it, but I think that's all you can do. You don't own this, and shouldn't try to.
posted by mhoye at 8:30 PM on November 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

"she basically told me to butt out. "

There's your answer...
posted by tomswift at 8:33 PM on November 27, 2011 [32 favorites]

I don't think you need to let his diagnosis or lack thereof shape the way you interact with him. It sounds like the behavior you find objectionable is typical teenage douchebag stuff and that he's not behaving in ways that could result in serious harm to himself or others. Having said that, I think that if you can cut him some slack on correcting him and try to get him to talk about things he's interested in, that you will find that this approach pays dividends later. It may mean the difference between getting and not getting the counseling and medical supervision he needs to function well as an adult, especially if his mother is in denial.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 8:37 PM on November 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you need reassurance before butting out: he will likely learn social skills as he learns that they're necessary to function in the real world (I.e. not living at home). In other words, he might never be nice for its own sake, but he will eventually learn through logical trial and error that being nice makes people treat him better. Cold comfort, perhaps, but yeah, keep ignoring him.

If your sister asks why you never spend time with her/him, tell her. Other than that, stay out of it. She knows he has issues, and I'm guessing she's dealing with it in what she considers the best way for her family.
posted by supercres at 8:38 PM on November 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

Basically, you talk to him when you need to, try to include him, accept when he doesn't want to be included, generally ignore "strange" behaviors (like the pacing and eating issues) and move on with your celebrations with or without him. Unfortunately, if you think of his a "ruining events" then you probably aren't going to get to spend as much time with your sister, as he gets older you will though - especially if you don't alienate her now.

And you listen to your sister when she asks you to butt out. Whether or not he actually has Aspergers is not your concern, labeling him isn't important.
posted by magnetsphere at 8:39 PM on November 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

He's not your child. He doesn't appear (from your description) to be neglected, abused, or in danger, so his diagnosis and life planning is not your business.

As to how to communicate with him? Be an open, loving, supportive aunt. Try to meet him on his own terms, so long as that's not disruptive to yourself or others. Love him for who he is, and be available to him and his parents should they need it, but only if they ask.
posted by xingcat at 8:39 PM on November 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

Hugging a borderline-autistic person who is not hugging you back is not going to make them feel any better.
posted by wayland at 8:52 PM on November 27, 2011 [30 favorites]

Can I be honest? You sound like you are exasperated by your nephew and you are expressing that by being mean to him. You just ignore him? Come on, dude.

-When you see him, say "Hello, Nephew!" and "Good-bye, Nephew!" Model the behavior you want him to have.
-Respect his coping mechanisms. He got up and paced in an empty room in the middle of a family gathering? Well, fine, lots of people need some damn air. When you do stuff with him, make sure he has a sensory escape route. Plan it our ahead of time. "Nephew, if you need a break from all the hustle-and-bustle during dinner, you can go out on the porch/up to the guest bedroom/outside in the lobby and chill out for a few minutes. I'd like it if you came back and joined us after a while, we like to see you."
-Find the way of communicating that he likes. Email? Texting? The chat in the online game he plays? Communicate with him that way.
-Get him a big heavy blanket to lay over him at your house that is just his, or a big heavy coat. If he likes "tight" clothing he may be looking for that "swaddled" feeling.

I feel like you want everyone to point at your nephew and say, "YES, NEPHEW, YOU ARE WRONG!" But if he got an Asperger's diagnosis, or whatever, that isn't what you would do. You would figure out the coping mechanisms and hacks that would make his life better and more bearable. So, act like he has the diagnosis and start helping his life be easier.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 8:57 PM on November 27, 2011 [60 favorites]

Hugging a borderline-autistic person who is not hugging you back is not going to make them feel any better.

Oh, yes, by modeling I meant verbal behavior. Maybe he wants you to shake his hand, high-five him, or wave at him. You could ask him. "Hey, Nephew, would you rather we just wave at each other when we say hello? Or maybe do a fist-bump or something? I want you to be comfortable."

You might also want to read Temple Grandin's book "Thinking In Pictures". Grandin is an autistic person who explains how she perceives the world and interacts with it.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 9:06 PM on November 27, 2011

Wow, you guys are rough! Just so it's clear: my nephew rarely if ever reacts to anything anyone, including me, says to him. I have tried talking to him, and he just stares at me or pretends he doesn't hear me. He does this with pretty much everyone. I can't talk to him about his interests, because he has no interests--or, if he does, he doesn't communicate them to anyone. I have asked him questions to engage him or show him that I am interested in him, but he does not respond at all. I just did that on Thanksgiving. He did not acknowledge that I said anything. He isn't like that just to me, as I mentioned--he is that way to everyone, including his parents.

I do say hello and goodbye to him, of course. He completely ignores it 98 percent of the time. On rare occasion, he will mumble a "bye" and walk away.

I say nothing to him when he paces. I was just pointing out that he does it. I left out a lot of other odd behaviors that I have observed.

From what I gather I am interfering by being concerned? I have not mentioned anything about his behavior to my sister in years. The thing is, my parents have discussed this with me, and it breaks their heart to see their grandson like this. But I guess we should just accept it and stop trying to communicate with him, because apparently he does not want to be communicated with.

Also, I teach teenagers--well, college students, but many of them are young men in their teens--so I know normal teenage behavior. His is not normal.
posted by ElizabethEllis at 9:17 PM on November 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

If he was diagnosed borderline, you're probably better off assuming he has it than that he's just being rude. You sound like you think he's acting like a brat, even though you're also pretty sure he's got Aspergers. Maybe that's the case, maybe not. But paying him little attention probably won't help if it is. Personally, when my older relatives ignored me, it made me dread spending time in their company, to the point that I was probably rude enough to ask if it was time to go every half hour. Be inviting, maybe it'll help, maybe it won't matter. Won't hurt you any, though.

If it IS Aspergers, try asking them about something that interests them. As long as you're prepared for a long winded reply, that should engage them. If they want to be alone, let them. They're not hurting anyone by pacing, or sitting alone. Ask the parents what kind of food the kid likes, and make it available in some quantity. That might score points with a testy teenager, too. (And who wants to sit alone at dinner with an empty plate?)

Diagnosis or not, aim to be the cool aunt, and try to ignore the lack of manners. The kid probably can't help it, and if he can, it's his mother's job to teach him better, not yours.
posted by metaphorik at 9:29 PM on November 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

Clarification: by "keep ignoring him" I obviously didn't mean cut off all contact with him. I meant ignore his odd behaviors rather than correcting or commenting on them. Keep saying hello and goodbye, but don't force him to do things he obviously doesn't want to do, like outdoor activities or, well, lengthy conversation.

And tell your parents to stop worrying as well. It seems like you're expressing/carrying some of their anxiety as well, and I'm sure your nephew picks up on it. It can't help.
posted by supercres at 9:33 PM on November 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

Some of this behavior is, frankly, normal. Plenty of teen boys don't want to hang out with mom and aunt or want to hug their aunt. It is likely being exacerbated by the Asperger's.

Asperger's in particular can be hard to deal with (and hard to diagnose) because it can present with a variety of different symptoms. One of your nephew's symptoms may be a difficulty in processing verbal information. Very frequently other mental health issues are comorbid to autism-spectrum disorders, such as anxiety and depression. It's possible when he's doing something odd like pacing in another room, he is over-stimulated (a problem many people with Asperger's experience) or panicking.

His parents are responsible for getting him to therapy and dealing with the situation. I would recommend trying to be more understanding of what your nephew is going through (do some research!) and offering support to your sister. If his "odd behaviors" bother you, tell him calmly, plainly, and directly; that may or may not work, but if it doesn't, I would suggest ignoring them or removing yourself from the situation.
posted by asciident at 9:33 PM on November 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you're responding to this kid as though he is being rude or deliberately anti-social -- like a worse version of a normal teenager. And it sounds like you're taking his behaviour personally -- you say it "bothers" you and your parents.

I don't understand why you're reacting this way, especially since he's been diagnosed as borderline, and since it sounds like you've done some reading about Aspergers.

I know lots of people with Aspergers, and he sounds pretty typical for them. Few friends, hates hugging, pacing, no reciprocity -- all that is normal for them. So why are you taking it personally? It's not a choice he's making, to be rude or unpleasant. He is not doing it to hurt you. Would it bother you if he were visually impaired, or extremely tall?

I would recommend that you read some books about how to interact with people with Aspergers. I also think it would help if you could find a way to not judge him, or his mother.

Good luck!
posted by Susan PG at 9:34 PM on November 27, 2011 [34 favorites]

He spends most of his free time watching TV or playing video games. vs I can't talk to him about his interests, because he has no interests.

Do you hear what you are doing? He does have an interest- he plays video games. That's an interest. There's magazines about it, there's YouTube series about, there's like nine million different consoles and styles and ways of playing. Maybe you want to ask him about video games? (Don't ask, "What video games do you like?" Do a little research so he can choose an option. ie, "Nephew, do you play online multi-player games or single player games?" If he doesn't have "normal" verbal skills, he might need the cue to say, "I play online games.")

I'm not sure what you want from this question, you know? No one said his behavior was normal; I agree that it's outside the realm of regular ole' teenage boyness. Do I think you should stage an intervention with your parents? No. Do I think you can all do better by him? Yes. Definitely. That's where my advice lies.

He might not EVER be a person who interacts the way most of us do. That doesn't mean he can't interact with you in a way that is mutually satisfying to both of you. Just work on interacting with him the way that he is right now.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 9:36 PM on November 27, 2011 [31 favorites]

Maybe also change your expectations about communication. Talk to him if he is near you. Don't wait for him to talk and don't expect the type of response you give people. Maybe if he stays around when you talk maybe that IS him "engaged" in the interaction. See if he looks in your direction when you talk. He might look out of yhe corner of his eye for a super quick moment. There are other cues he might be giving that you just don't see yet.
posted by Swisstine at 9:37 PM on November 27, 2011

Suppose he was a foreign exchange student from... I don't know, somewhere far away -- let's say Papua New Guinea. Would you try to just go up to him and start talking to him like he was from just down the street? Naw, of course not! You'd start out by learning more about his culture, what makes him comfortable interacting with others, what his needs are, what his mode of interaction is. That's all necessary background info when you're dealing with someone with a rather different way of life from yours.

Disorders like the ones your nephew may have aren't cultures, but saying he has a disorder describes a way in which he is different from you. He has different needs from you. He has different desires and issues. He's not strange, but there are clearly differences between how he functions and how other people do.

In short, you've been trying to be helpful and kind and caring, but you've been going into it blind. You don't seem to know what to do. You don't know how to act around him. You don't know what (if anything) you can do to be a good aunt to this kid.

You need information. You need to read everything you can. You need to ask your sister for advice -- make sure your tone is right, that you are asking her for help being an aunt. Find out from good sources what it takes to communicate with him.

One last thing, about how to interact with her sister... No doubt, this is very tough for her and her whole family. It is very likely that she is very sensitive to how people talk to her about her son. Women are so often blamed for the troubles their children have. If you talk to her at all from a standpoint of, "Kid's not right, ya know?" she may very well feel judged, and she may very well resent you for it. You don't know the kid as well as she does, and you really don't want to say anything that makes it sound like she isn't the expert on her own child's needs. I am not saying you actually think you know more about him than she does -- you just need to be careful that you don't present your situation like that at all.
posted by meese at 9:39 PM on November 27, 2011 [6 favorites]

As someone lucky enough to have some neurodiverse people in his life, I am having a hard time biting my tongue with you.

1. Pacing - Harmless, other than it bothers you for no good reason I can fathom. A safe activity that doesn't hurt anyone.

2. Not eating - Except yes, he does eat; you've seen it and while his table manners aren't up to your standards, he's apparently a healthy weight. Another non-issue.

3. No social skills at all - A big benefit of one not caring about social graces is that one doesn't care very much about the opinions of others on same. Once again, only a problem to you and others, not a problem to him. Speaking from experience, sometimes it's all one can do to even acknowledge others, let alone engage in conversation with them. Your nephew has an immediate, caring and responsible family who can coach him as needed.

4. Ruining events - Did you ever stop to consider that maybe he's having a miserable time being drug out to do things with no importance he can see? Do you really think he's asking to leave just to annoy you? Isn't it more likely he's asking to leave because he doesn't want to be there? Why is it automatic to you that he should endure something unpleasant without complaint, while you shouldn't have to even endure the idea that he might be unhappy?

I honestly don't know what you want here. If he was "diagnosed" with Asperger's, what would that change? Would you suddenly accept him for the person he is instead of the person you wish he was? If so, why can't you just accept who he is now? Do you think you can browbeat him or his parents into making him a more "normal" person? Wouldn't it be easier on everyone to change your own thinking on what "normal" is and learn to love and accept people who have a different "normal" than you do? It's really not such a trial to include people in your life whose understanding and experience of the world vary significantly from your own. From your posts, it sounds like you and your parents want to somehow assert your view of normalcy on a young man who doesn't fit your paradigm. Being "normal" isn't assigned by vote and just because you have others on your side with the same closed views of the world doesn't make your viewpoint correct.

If you value your nephew as the person he is rather than the person you want him to be, you are going to have to make some changes in your way of interacting with him because what you are doing now isn't working and probably bothers him as much as it bothers you.
posted by Sternmeyer at 9:46 PM on November 27, 2011 [73 favorites]

ElizabethEllis: "From what I gather I am interfering by being concerned?"

Whenever my family crosses the line and starts interfering with my life in a way that is personally offensive to me (or conspire to do so behind my back), they always say something to the effect of "I'm not interfering; I'm concerned."

By posting this here and discussing it with family members, you are interfering, albeit indirectly. Whether or not you should interfere is another question entirely, but don't act like you're an outside observer who has played no role thus far.

You could have phrased this question as "How can I improve my interactions with my shy, introverted teenage nephew, who may be on the autism spectrum, but has not been diagnosed?" Instead, you gave us an essay about how you don't particularly care for your nephew, or for your sister's parenting choices. I know this has got to be terribly difficult for you, and I'm afraid that my comment may be coming off as too judgmental -- however, you need to step back, and re-read what you posted. About 2/3 of the context you provided to us has absolutely nothing to do with the primary question being asked, and seems to be rolling all of your family issues together into this one topic. "My nephew has Aspergers, amirite?" is not a good question for Ask Metafilter – at least, not in the way that you framed it.

Also, on the "none of your business" topic, consider that your nephew may very well have been diagnosed with Autism, and that your sister considers it a private matter that she does not want to discuss with anybody outside of the immediate family. If I had a sensitive/stigmatized medical condition (no matter how obvious), I wouldn't want my immediate family sharing the details with relatives, and possibly to make up some kind of mitigating excuse if the nosy relatives tried to pry for details (ie. "borderline," which is kind of odd, because Asperger's itself is more or less defined as "borderline autism;" I'm not sure that doctors actually give a diagnosis of "borderline asperger's").

We have no idea what your relationship is like with your sister, or where personal/private lines are drawn in your family, so we can only speculate on whether or not this might be the case, or if you should butt in, or butt out.
posted by schmod at 10:01 PM on November 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

Okay, thanks everyone. I guess my question wasn't very clear, but thank you for your responses. I have been doing everything most of you suggested already, and I guess I will continue that. I am more concerned that he isn't getting any kind of help and he seems to be in hell, very depressed and unhappy and confused and uncomfortable with everything and everyone, but I guess that's none of my business. That's what's bothering me, and I feel like I'm getting beat up for being concerned about that. I do NOT take his behavior personally. If I indicated that, I must have not worded my question correctly.

He does not respond to questions about anything that seems to be an "interest" to him. Yes, he plays video games a lot, but he will not talk about playing video games. He will not talk about anything. Trust me, plenty of people have tried to engage him and everyone (except perhaps his brother, in private, and occasionally his mother) runs up against a brick wall.

I am sincerely concerned. I have not interfered in their family at all. This is not something I have discussed with my sister, her husband, or either of my nephews. I have not berated him for his behavior. I have simply observed it and brought my observations here hoping someone had a similar experience and could share how they handled it. Instead, I apparently came off as a giant asshole. Thank you, and goodbye.
posted by ElizabethEllis at 10:12 PM on November 27, 2011 [4 favorites]

Whoah. I think everyone is being way too hard on you. I believe you were trying to describe the worst of it, and though it didn't come across very sympathetic, you do actually care. I am married to someone who has mostly grown out of being like that boy, though he still paces like a madman, and that is okay. You could always ask what he's thinking about when he's pacing. It's probably something important. Anyway, I am one of those blunt people who believes it's worthwhile telling people what you really think sometimes, and that it can be valuable to them, especially if you manage to find really the right moment when they are relatively receptive. Since he's still a kid, I'd say encourage him in any interests that turn up, when you can but unfortunately you have to let his family take the lead on outings/discipline, really. He's always going to be "abnormal" to the "normal" probably and may never figure out on his own what it is to be nice to people, even if he tries, but you can always be there to give what help you can if he ever asks for it. He is young and only time will tell how it all plays out. Be accepting, and model some behaviour that you think is appropriate if you want to.
posted by Listener at 11:17 PM on November 27, 2011 [4 favorites]

You seem to think that we're completely misreading and mischaracterizing your question. But we're reading between the lines, and many of us have seen the same lines of thinking, and we know what kinds of emotions and judgements are behind them.

Ruining events. A few times I have tried accompanying my sister and the boys (she is divorced) to events, and each time he has made all of us miserable.

Have you thought to figure out which kinds of events wouldn't make him miserable? Does he have to come to them all? Can you see your sister at another time, without her son? Frustration is one thing, "miserable" seems rather strong. There are other options for continuing a relationship with her, you don't get to blame her son for the deterioration of a relationship between adult siblings. Given his issues, how might you be able to keep on with your sister?

I have simply observed it and brought my observations here hoping someone had a similar experience and could share how they handled it.

But there is a difference between "Oh, also, he is a slob when he eats--he doesn't cut his meat, just puts it on his fork and chews off pieces, and he chews with his mouth open. I don't even know why his parents allow that." VS "I know that many folks with Aspergers have really strong food preferences, and are not that interested in social graces, and I've seen this with him." OR "I feel badly that people stare at him when eating, when I know he can't help it. Should I say anything to them, to keep their stares to themselves?"

I don't even know why his parents allow that.

This comment is fairly telling. His parents want to pick their battles, and pick their moments of intervention. He is eating something? Great. Meat with protein? Even better. Behaviors which directly impact the health or safety of himself or others? Then they might intervene, and it sounds like they have, if he's in a regular school and fairly functional!

I have tried talking to him, and he just stares at me or pretends he doesn't hear me.

Even this seems to be loaded with assumptions: (a) He's totally capable of responding in another way, and chooses not to, (b) He wants me to know he won't respond, so he just pretends he doesn't hear me and stares at me until I leave. This is really different than many alternatives, including: "I don't know how to interact with him. Should I keep talking if he doesn't respond? I've asked him how I might be able to talk with him, and gave him a number of options including email, text, paper, or just hanging out together. But he didn't respond. What should I do, in order to be in his life?"

"I have simply observed it and brought my observations here hoping someone had a similar experience and could share how they handled it."

GREAT! That is a good question. Let me rephrase your question, so folks can help respond to that instead.
My nephew has been diagnosed with borderline Aspergers. I've done some reading and he does seem to demonstrate many of the traits. Here are a few situations that I don't know how to address. Can you help me think through these points?

(1) He can't really engage in conversations. Even when I ask him about his video game hobbies, he just looks at me and doesn't respond. I've asked him how we might communicate (text? email? chat? just play a game?" but he hasn't really responded to that either.
- should I keep trying, or is this annoying? How do I know if he wants me to keep him company if he doesn't respond one way or the other?
- Should I try just sending him an email sometime, and ask him how it's going, and whether he has advice on which video game I might like?

(2) He has food issues in terms of manners at the table and a few restricted choices, but he seems at a healthy enough weight and does eat in social situations.
- People stare sometimes, and call him a slob, and it makes me so angry. Just eating can be a big deal and I'm glad that this isn't a source of ongoing trouble. What can I do, in public situations, when others at the table are being rude and publicly judging his manners?

(3) Pacing and other unusual physical traits. When he wants to leave a restaurant or the table and pace, should I walk over and tell him he's welcome back at any time? Should I provide a chair in a quiet place for him? How can I let him know that if he needs a break, he can do XYZ in a situation? Or how can he tell me that it's urgent and he needs to get out of there ASAP? Do people use code words?

(4) My sister doesn't really want to go any further in terms of diagnoses and services. What else can I do as an aunt, for HIM? What sources do you recommend on how to better interact or support folks with Aspergers, or traits like his? Are there good books or blogs by people with this diagnosis?

(5) It's been difficult to carry on a 'normal' relationship with my sister, because he can't be left alone and doesn't want to go places. How can I sustain a specific relationship with her, given these obstacles?

posted by barnone at 11:29 PM on November 27, 2011 [24 favorites]

I am slightly surprised to see the large body of harsh criticism here. I completely understand your concerns, and I think it does sound like you genuinely care about him (even if you're unclear on how to best support him). Still, there is a lot of good advice in the above comments. I can't offer much advice, but I wanted to let you know that you're not alone in struggling with understanding a family member who exhibits some of the anti-social qualities you describe. First and foremost, I suggest you look for books on interacting with loved-ones who have Aspergers. Whether he has the disorder or not, he is interacting with you with Aspberger-like behavior, and it sounds like you're looking for guidance on how to better interact with him. There's a lot of other good advice on AskMe under the Aspergers tag.

My younger brother behaved in largely the same way as your nephew through most of his life, through his college years (including eating etiquette, FWIW). He has not been diagnosed with Aspergers, but I often suspected it based on his behavior.

For me, the biggest breakthrough in thinking about how to communicate with him was when I decided, once and for all, that I had to accept him as healthy but different from me. My mantra: "He sees the world differently from me, and that is OK." (You may be more mature than I was, but seriously, this was a big step-- he is my little brother, and I had allowed myself too much liberty to project on him what I thought he should be.) He was (and often is) very hard for me to understand. By nature, I am a very touchy-feely empathetic person; I often exhibit pushover-type behavior to accommodate the feelings of others. My brother is the complete opposite of me-- he would seem to ignore others' interests, decline invitations or actively not participate at family events, and often make comments that would have seemed very rude coming from me. But... he's not me. He's different. I love him. And he is OK.

I also want to acknowledge your desire to help him. It's hard to see someone who you want to protect behaving in a way that (to you) indicates sadness, or in ways that could limit what you might see as their "potential," or perhaps even showing signs of serious disorder. It's also really hard to spend time with someone whose actions imply that he doesn't give a crap about you. I remember one evening, driving to my apartment after spending Christmas with my family, that I stopped at a gas station and just sobbed. I felt so disconnected from him, unable to help him through what appeared to be a severe unhappiness, and simultaneously extremely hurt and angered by his seeming lack of empathy for some family members in trouble. I had to remind myself that I know how much he loves our family-- he's just different. Getting angry won't help, and telling him to change won't help.

My last piece of advice is to always give him an out. He keeps asking when he can leave? That's a pretty clear sign that he's sincerely struggling with attending the event. It's probably rude coming from someone else, but not from him. It sucks, as I'm sure you'd love to get to know him better, but the events are not the right venue to spend time with him. So, whenever you can, let him choose not to participate-- and don't shame him for making that choice. I used to give my brother a lot of crap for choosing to eating dinner in front of the computer instead of with the family. Now, I ask him, "Hey, you want to eat with us tonight?" and then accept his answer for what it is. It's an acknowledgment that I understand that his computer task is really important to him. Although I may see "Eating with Family" as important bonding time, he doesn't. That's OK. And the more I acknowledged what he saw as important, the more he felt at ease to recognize what I saw as important. He now joins us at the table much more often, and I don't feel stressed out/upset when he chooses not to.

Good luck. You sound very caring and kind, but it also sounds like you're looking for guidance and advice so that you don't push him away or get too annoyed or let him down while he seems to be struggling. He may be struggling, but there's not much you can do to help besides respecting him, even if he's different. While he's learning how to understand social rules, you can start learning how to understand him.
posted by samthemander at 11:57 PM on November 27, 2011 [14 favorites]

"she basically told me to butt out. "

I am not your nephew or your sister, but at his age and older absolutely HATED anytime my mother shared my medical details with other (to her) close friends and family. As long as your sister indicated that she has heard your comments and perhaps that the situation is being dealt with, that is all you can ask for. It is with few exceptions none of your business how this is being dealt with or the details of what the exact diagnosis may turn out to be.
posted by whatzit at 2:52 AM on November 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Trust me, plenty of people have tried to engage him and everyone (except perhaps his brother, in private, and occasionally his mother) runs up against a brick wall

If you find it important, and are that concerned, do read up on how to engage with people who have Aspergers, so you understand better how your way of engaging with him may not be effective, perhaps even counter-productive.

The only thing to be really concerned about in this context is that he likely gets too much confrontation and accusation thrown his way already, by people who perhaps understand that he has some sort of 'condition', but don't actively work on collecting the tools to handle this condition to his full benefit (which is the only thing that really works).
posted by Namlit at 3:14 AM on November 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seconding Samthemander. I know a guy, son of a friend, since he was about 16, and displayed very similar behaviour. We had common interests (video games, weird movies) so we could maintain a semblance of conversation. Now he's in his early thirties, and the best thing that happened was his mother moving away, leaving him on his own. He almost failed at life, but I kept contact, and he learnt the basics of what was necessary.

He now has a great job (he learns VERY fast) and sounds a lot more positive than he ever did. I'd say he's still the same old borderline sociopath, but he survived by rewiring his social skills at his own pace, and doesn't have to give credit to anyone else.

In short, be available, just not responsible. When he falls out of the nest, he'll be smart enough to figure out what to do.
posted by arzakh at 3:37 AM on November 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Instead, I apparently came off as a giant asshole.

Okay. So you've now experienced directly a tiny, vaccinating dose of what crossed wires due to misperception of social cues feel like. Don't feel bad about that; writing (especially electronic writing, which tends to be dashed off at high speed with less reflection time than paper writing) is very poor at communicating emotional stance, because it's missing all the side channels (tone of voice, facial behaviour) that neurotypicals generally use to gauge that stuff.

If your nephew's a bit auty or aspie, it's highly likely that this is rather like what happens to him all the time in situations where you or I would just be having normal face to face conversation. There is an enormous collection of interpersonal emotional cues that neurotypicals have all been processing subconsciously, and by and large compatibly, since we first learn to speak; auty people process that stuff differently. Given a lifetime's worth of experience that says that conversation most often leads to upset and misunderstanding, it should be no real surprise to find that a frequent reaction to that is

Thank you, and goodbye.

...and the rest is silence.

Another way to get a glimmering of this is to watch movie footage of a talking-heads interview, but adjust your media player to insert about two seconds of delay between video and sound. You'll find that even though you can still understand all the words, the fact that the facial movements don't match up to them renders the process of paying attention amazingly tiring and draining.

Your nephew has a hard row to hoe, and it seems to me the best thing you can offer him is empathy.

A few times I have tried accompanying my sister and the boys (she is divorced) to events, and each time he has made all of us miserable. As soon as we get to where we are going, he starts with "When are we leaving?" "Are we leaving yet?" "Can we go now?" He does this continually--about every two minutes.

Why would he do that, unless he were already intensely miserable? He may well be experiencing these events less as occasions for social enjoyment than as opportunities to get hammered into the ground by sensory and/or social overload.

I finally gave up doing things with them, which is a shame, because I enjoy spending time with my sister.

Have you tried offering to hang out with him while your sister and her other boy go off somewhere to have fun? If you could get to a place where he is able to see you as somebody who will just be there and not try to fix him or adjust him or poke him or jolly him along, you might eventually find one or two words directed your way.

And that could be the start of something good.
posted by flabdablet at 4:17 AM on November 28, 2011 [7 favorites]

Trust me, plenty of people have tried to engage him and everyone

I guess I'm wondering about why you have such a strong personal stake in needing to engage him, when he clearly doesn't want to be engaged with on your terms.

Would it help if "events" just involved the adults and if you left him well enough alone during the holidays?

I do think people are being overly harsh to your question. But I think it might be helpful to put aside the vision of the relationship you clearly had hoped to have with your nephew and deal with him as he is-- he's clearly not the sort of person who you will engage with at family outing or holidays while you both share your experiences and interests. As someone said, "be available", but spare yourselves the hope/expectation that he is going to be at "events."
posted by deanc at 4:20 AM on November 28, 2011

I'm going to look at this as a non-Aspergers issue because what if it's not?

If he doesn't have Aspergers, then he's a victim of bad parenting. I'm sorry -- I know that's your sister and she's probably doing the best she can, but at his age, nobody has successfully taught him basic social skills and table manners?

Right now I pay little attention to him

It sounds like he's gotten lots of that at home already, and you can see the results. The kid can't or won't use a knife to cut his own food.

hope that someday he will discover that he can learn how to function in society

Yes, that's true. After becoming an adult, the real world will force him into some social graces, or shun him if he refuses, affecting his personal relationships and professional goals.

I think paying little attention to him is exactly the opposite of what he needs. He needs adults to express interest and care, and to help mold him into the successful adult you want him to be. Let the blunt force of ignoring him come when he's out in the cold world as an adult, not in the relative safety of his childhood. Because he's a child you love, you don't give up on him, even if he's frustrating and even if it's the easier path for you.
posted by Houstonian at 4:48 AM on November 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

"I have tried talking to him, and he just stares at me or pretends he doesn't hear me."

He probably doesn't hear you.

If he hears you, he may not understand you, or not understand you until some time later when it's too late to respond.

He may hear and understand you but be unable to respond in any useful way.
posted by tel3path at 5:34 AM on November 28, 2011

OP: Also, I teach teenagers--well, college students, but many of them are young men in their teens--so I know normal teenage behavior. His is not normal.

As a teacher, it is your training and your job to help kids find and establish normative behavior, and integrate smoothly into society. As these "non-normative" behaviors are more widely recognized and understood, they too will need to be assimilated into society, but at a fundamentally different pace and level from what you are accustomed.

You now have an emotional stake in increasing both your professional and personal knowledge of a new frontier. Other students will benefit from what you learn now, and I think that your understanding, caring and nurturing capabilities will be recognized as assets. Good luck.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 6:36 AM on November 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

OP, I see that you've disabled your account, but I hope that you continue to come back to check on this thread. One of my nephews has autism. I agree that many of your nephew's symptoms seem to point to him being on the spectrum, but I'm not his doctor.

You have to adjust your expectations of his behavior. He is never going to meet your expectations for his behavior, and so it will only lead to disappointment on your part. I know how hard it is to butt out when there are people you love involved, but your sister is clearly not interested in your input.

I'm sorry, I know it's hard.
posted by crankylex at 6:45 AM on November 28, 2011 [3 favorites]

"His is not normal." = His is not neurotypical, in your opinion and possibly by a borderline diagnosis. Really, it's his normal.

Many responses have been unsympathetic, perhaps because it's close to home for some, or they're just more educated or experienced with those on the spectrum. Your tone, as much as one can garner, is a bit critical, probably inadvertently - words like "ruining" and "slob".

I don't think you meant it this way. I understand you meant to give clear examples of how this doesn't sit well with you and how it affects your family, and how you think he needs more help than he's getting. I'd like to say that your sister is probably pretty aware of every single thing, and probably needs comfort and friendship and a soft place to land when she's feeling frustrated with him, and that's where you're going to learn how you can help. I'm not sure if you're close with her or not, but she's probably not up for any campaigns to fix him, but she might benefit from easing up on the concern and accelerating the acceptance. It is exhausting to have a kid that frustrates other people. It is hard not just to manage your child, it is hard to manage the environment and others' expectations around him too. I would bet she'd love a break from all this sometimes, but hasn't had many because kids that are hard to be around are hard to find sitters for too. It's been years of this daily difficulty for her, when it seems like for some time, it's only been difficult on occasions for you.

Any ideas what I can do to communicate with him, or should I just keep things the way they are? Right now I pay little attention to him, which seems fine with him, and hope that someday he will discover that he can learn how to function in society. He certainly doesn't know how to do that now. Also, are these symptoms of Aspergers? I still think that's what it is, even though he tested as "borderline."

Try re-framing how you think about what he's doing when you're in his presence, so you don't take it so personally, which might improve your communication. He might not like the attention, as it can be uncomfortable to even look people in the eye. Try talking when you're next to him instead. Model, as was suggested. Instead of hoping that someday he can "function in society", think instead that "He's doing the best he can, right now, in this environment." Whether or not they're symptoms of an Aspie, he's obviously a kid who's having difficulty. But also, more re-framing:

Pacing becomes self-soothing. Sympathetic response: What else will help? (Turn down music; is lighting an issue?)

Not Eating becomes sensory issues/motor skills. Sympathetic response: What does he eat, and how does he prefer to? (Some kids can't stand to hear or watch others eat - move his seat?)

No Social Skills becomes a "Theory of Mind" disconnect. Sympathetic response: What is the best meaningful interaction we can have from this?

Ruining Events becomes "he's experiencing stress and anxiety". Sympathetic response: He's experiencing obsessive anxiety - how can we soothe it? (Give him a timer, and stick to it? Give him breaks?)

In our school, the ASD classes have kids whose spectrum disorders present themselves in myriad ways - nobody's the same as anybody else there. That's why it's not helpful to have labels, only the extra help and good attitude and flexibility in your approach. Some are grumpy, some are cheerful. Most certainly, the cheerful kids are "easier" in some ways - but the grumpy ones can be an interesting challenge. Some are verbal, some not. One only eats packaged food as obsessive thoughts make unknown foods difficult to bear, and can't deal with certain textures at all. One is so noise-sensitive that noise-cancelling headphones are needed in crowd situations. One finds climbing up and down the slide soothing. Some make brilliant videos, know a thousand obscure jokes and can tell you the time and date of every interaction you've had with them. Others would happily do nothing but eat twenty bowls of cereal all day long because it feels so good in their mouths, and it's one of their few good sensations in a world that's very uncomfortable for them.

From what I gather I am interfering by being concerned? I have not mentioned anything about his behavior to my sister in years. The thing is, my parents have discussed this with me, and it breaks their heart to see their grandson like this. But I guess we should just accept it and stop trying to communicate with him, because apparently he does not want to be communicated with.

You're not interfering by being concerned - your concern is lovely, it's just not being expressed in a way that's helpful to your sister or nephew. Your parents concern is understandable too - nobody wants this for anyone. Stopping communication is not the answer - it's not that he doesn't want to be communicated with, it's just that he might not want it in the way that you want it. As others suggested - try emails, photos, drawings, offering things he does like, or whatever - just keep trying. It's understandable to be frustrated, but you all have a long life together as a family and pacing yourself for the long haul means sitting back sometimes more than it means forging ahead. Good luck, because it is hard.
posted by peagood at 7:10 AM on November 28, 2011 [10 favorites]

I'm just gonna throw this out there---because all any of us are doing is throwing answers out there because we simply don't have enough information to give you THE answer, rather just a bunch of GOOD answers:

All your interactions with him have a common thread: You. (and your family.)

Maybe he just really, really doesn't like you. (or your family.)

While I don't think this is the case, my point here is that your unprofessional, unsolicited observations are subject to Observer-effect in the extreme. I'm not saying you shouldn't care, I'm saying you did your part and, at 16, there's no real reason why you can't hang out with your sister without him.
posted by TomMelee at 10:19 AM on November 28, 2011

Wow, OP, I'm sorry that you shut your account down and do come back. I think there was just a bit of miscommunication, which is easy if all you have are words on a screen.

One of the reasons is to suggest another way to try to communicate with your nephew. To be honest, some (not all) of the behaviors that you describe are things that I did as a teenager. I definitely did the "rarely say hi/bye", even late into adulthood. Few friends and I acted as if other people did not exist. In fact, I know that there were at least a few adults (an aunt, a teacher or two) who would be bothered if I acted like it was a wall talking to me rather than a person.

At that age, I really didn't see the value in most people (why interact?).There were a few people that I did respect, and with those people, I interacted normally (I wonder if your nephew is the same in this regard since you mention that you have seen him talk normally).The few that I did grow to respect (adults) were people that I could exchange ideas with; I've noticed quite a few people stated that you should ask questions such as "what games do you play?" and for me, this would not have worked. Why? Because I would have felt that someone was trying to patronize me. So instead, do the activity with him or do research on it and come back. So had videogames been my passion, I would have preferred that you challenged me to the game or played it alongside me and talked about it ---or go do reading about different aspects of the game and come back and talk to me. But an honest communication with something novel would have won me over...and then I would try a bit harder with the other obligatory social stuff. If a person was respected, then I let them in and talked about other interests.

The other thing that I would like to mention is how to find out more about Asperger or borderline or whatever name you want to put here. First, I do want to stress that even if you find stuff with your research, ultimately, it should be a clinician that gives a diagnosis (don't go back to his mother, although it sounds like you would not do that). I'd see if you could find a copy of the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders-IV-TR (just make sure V isn't out yet). For each disorder, there are list of criteria and read the requirements that need to be met (so for example, 1 or2 symptoms mean nothing, usually the number that needs to be met is listed). I'd also remember that each symptom listed should be an extreme end (so spending spree under bipolar is not likely to be spent 10 dollars over the weekend ,but spending30000 on a weekend with no memory would be likely to fit). Anyway, if you see a given number of criteria that fit--it is a start for other research, now, but at least you have a possible name and you could then look for journal articles on communication and disorder, etc.

Are you asking this question with the assumption that an actual diagnosis will then = treatment? In the DSM-IV-TR used for diagnosing individuals, there are additional criteria to be met: the so-called disorder is supposed to impair the person's social, home, or work life. From what you imply, it sounds like he has some friends (you did not say no friends) and he does well academically (work for a younger person).So I'm not entirely sure if he would meet this criteria. In other words, he would have to want treatment. So just reassess your motivations when you are doing research, although I think reading about how to communicate from your side may be helpful.

Finally, the other reason that I am writing is just to help you understand why there was a hostile undertone. Ever looked into the lifetime prevalence of psychiatric disorders (it is really high, somewhere between 25% to 50% of people). So most people either has had a psychiatric disorder (current and/or past) or has a loved on that has had a psychiatric disorder. Sometimes other people will come in with labels, misinformation, and can be very disruptive ...there may be accusations of "bad parenting", "bad genes", "this is all your fault" and if you have seen this enough times, you react negatively to people who appear to be doing this or about to do it to someone else. Now it doesn't mean that you did this or that you will (your follow-up answers implied that you would not), but the language initially implied that it could happen.
posted by Dances with sock puppets at 12:11 PM on November 28, 2011 [3 favorites]

flabdablet and peagood, you are totally right about us non-neurotypicals.

We really don't grow OUT of some of these things, but more learn to work around them and often avoid the intolerable.
posted by Listener at 1:40 PM on November 28, 2011

When I was 16, I thought saying hello and goodbye was "false," a sheepish custom that communicated nothing meaningful. I strived to pave a new, efficient way for humanity and just bust out with whatever was important or stay silent.

I also had plenty of interests, but I hated explaining them because it's exhausting to not be understood. (Or to think you're not understood.) When some well-meaning adult-type wanted to "help me out," I felt patronized. (I viewed almost every older person doing this like Van Driessen from Beavis and Butt-head.)

I don't have Asperger's Syndrome. I don't even score high on the online tests. Eventually, I came around to smiling and being nice to people. Still, to this day, I pace when I'm thinking hard about something.

So, I doubt there's anything really wrong with your nephew that he won't work out for himself. There could be, but it's just as likely as the chance that some young charmer has a serious problem that requires intervention.

I think the best you can do is give him his space. When he is rude to you, either ignore him or call him out on it as you would an equal. Don't treat him as if you are Very Concerned. If he's getting through school, he probably has what it takes to function in society, Asperger's or no.
posted by ignignokt at 3:51 PM on November 28, 2011 [4 favorites]

Wow, OP, I'm really sorry about the reaction you got here. I know you were acting out of love and concern for your sister and nephew, but apparently a lot of people saw it differently. All the best to you and I hope you decide to come back to Metafilter some day.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 1:59 PM on November 29, 2011

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