Asperger’s Syndrome, A Part of the Autism Spectrum

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Asperger's Syndrome is one of the three classifications that make up the Autism Spectrum.

The first study was done by Dr. Hans Asperger, in 1944, when he wrote about individuals who displayed "odd-like" behaviors. He categorized these behaviors into three groups: Language, Cognition, and Behavior. Dr. Asperger also noted that these individuals had average (or higher) intelligence. While we do not have any prescribed treatment regimen for people with this condition many people pass into adulthood leading productive lives working at a good job and raising a family.

Asperger's is generally diagnosed later in life than autism. Many children are diagnosed after the age of three while others are diagnosed between the ages of five and nine. Often time's parents or teachers do not recognize some odd behavior and simply accept it as that -odd or being different. This prolongs the diagnosis. This can then lead to a delay in services to help the child. If a child receives intervention services (the earlier the better) s/he has a better opportunity to have more direct services aimed at educational and social education while the brain is still developing.

If a parent has doubts about their child's overall development, at an early age, it is important to have him/her diagnosed by a professional. The doctor can refer the family to a specialist. This person will conduct an evaluation which includes such things as the history of symptoms, the development of such skills as motor and language as well as areas the parent has seen differences (such as personality and behavior).

This is not an all-inclusive list of what should or should not be included during an evaluation. Every professional has their own way of evaluating a child. However, if you are not satisfied with your child's evaluation then ask for a second opinion, just like you would if a family member is diagnosed with cancer or some other dreaded sickness.
Some professionals see AS as a difference in a person, and not a disability.

Asperger's Syndrome generally causes children to have few facial expressions. They have difficulties reading the body language of others. They often have great sensitivity to such things as light and sound. This sometimes affects the clothes they wear (certain textures bother them to the point they want to rip the clothes off their body). It also causes a child to react to a screaming child, with pain, covering his/her ears, stomping about, or whatever behavior the child displays to let someone know the noise is very painful for him/her.

Children having Asperger's often show signs of inappropriate social interactions. They may not understand the actions and reactions of another child. They often display odd mannerisms. This may include repetitive behavior, such as continually closing an open door or continually opening a closed door. Or, the child may not be able to stand next to an adult without moving back and forth, first on one foot, then the other.

Another symptom is the obsession this child displays toward complex areas such as patterns, building blocks, or a difficult puzzle. An Asperger's child may have awkward movements. S/he may have difficulties catching a ball. The child may have great difficulties learning to ride a tricycle or bicycle. Another may find it impossible to open a bottle of peanut butter. Or, the child may develop set patterns in his/her life such as arriving home and walking in a certain path to the front door; learning to shower in a certain way, whereby this must always be followed (washing the hair first or scrubbing the face). The child may develop a fondness for a specific object, such as a book related to trains. Parents sometimes become disgruntled when they buy an expensive book, on horses for example, present it to their child, only to have their child throw it down and pick up his/her book on trains. Often times, if these patterns are not allowed to be followed it confuses the child to the extent that s/he may display a behavior (yelling, throwing a tantrum).

As a matter of emphasis, I believe it is important to understand that children with AS focus on one single idea, object, or topic. They have a compulsion to learn anything and everything they can about their special focus. Their conversations center mostly on their special interest. They gain an expertise to the point that they can teach the object of their focus. This is a part of their behavior. Sometimes parents, teachers, and others have their own obsession of wanting to change this behavior. For example: if the child has a favorite dinosaur toy s/he has become obsessed with one of the care providers may want to hide it, throw it away, or get rid of it in some manner. This certainly is not a solution. As much as one may be tempted to try to redirect a child, or an adult, for that matter, to focus on something else, these people need to realize this would be like taking something precious away from you that you depend on, such as your car, your wedding ring, or your daily cups of coffee.

Like other autism related disorders, the degree of these behaviors can range from very mild to severe. This often causes those with the disorder to see the world much differently than you or I. Often the behaviors that we see, and interpret as odd, strange, or different are due to neurological differences. Others sometimes interpret this behavior as rudeness, improper, inappropriate - but, in the world of the child with Asperger's, the behavior is what s/he sees and considers as "normal." Others may see people with this disorder, as they grow older, as odd or eccentric. During their younger years they can easily become the victim of bullying and teasing. In their adult years they can often feel isolated or have few friends because others see them as "odd." A person disabled by Asperger's, however, can grow up to live a full, happy life if assisted in earlier years with education that has addressed his/her issues.

Once the child attends pre-school (some programs offer services even earlier than this) it is important to make good friends with the speech therapist. This person can open a whole new world to your child. I know as I had the privilege of working with a therapist, who also became my personal friend, during my years of teaching Special Education at Palos Verde School, Mrs. Jackie Andersen.

Jackie worked diligently with our students. Through her gentle touch, love, and patience, she taught many of my students to make sounds; others learned to say words; and others actually learned to string words together to make short sentences. Just like Jackie, any speech therapist working with these children is like finding a pot of gold. Parents should take advantage of every minute their child is assigned to a speech therapist. It is also up to the parent to gently demand more time, during the IEP process, if the parent believes this will be productive for the child.

Other areas parents may want to investigate is training in social skills; educational interventions; and behavioral therapy. People working with children with AS need to keep in mind that a child can, and will, make great gains if the treatment and education meet the child's particular, specific needs.

In California, for example, we have Regional Centers located throughout the state. Any child diagnosed on the spectrum should be registered with the center in their area at the earliest possible time. They offer everything from paid respite care, to trainers to come to the home to offer ABA services as well as train the child in areas of concern. Other services are available and are very valuable to the family as well as the child. Some parents do not believe they need these services. This is unfortunate because they are losing and missing out on very valuable services. Too, if a child is not enrolled in a center by the time s/he turns 18 years of age then the young adult has missed out on a great number of services that could have helped him/her along with the fact that there will be many difficulties attempting to enroll a young adult after s/he reaches the age of 18.

Parents need to understand that they are the child's teacher. This is true with all children, but, maybe even more important to understand with a child having AS. The parent will be able to teach the child everything from self-help skills, to learning to eat properly, to learning to dress. A parent knows and understands the child better than anyone else. The parent will be a great asset when the child begins school as the teacher will be meeting a new stranger and you can assist to make the introduction a little warmer as well as be a bit brighter.

Education for a child with Asperger's will depend a great deal on the school system where s/he lives. There are very few schools that specialize in this difficulty and, those that do are mostly boarding schools. So, there is the local school, a special education classroom, or, possibly a private school specializing in children with special needs. These schools are generally very expensive. Sometimes the school district will pay for the school expense if the team (teacher, psychologist, and so forth) can determine there is a need. Often, however, a child with Asperger's is mainstreamed into a regular classroom.

A regular classroom, in a regular school, is where most children with Asperger's will receive their education. This, of course, has positive and negative potential. The degree of the positive and negative depends on many variables: the extent of the child's Asperger's, the oddities or differences in his/her behavior and how the other children react, the teacher and how well prepared and knowledgeable s/he is in the area of special needs, particularly those with Asperger's, specialists available to provide services, how supportive the school staff is, overall, of a child with Asperger's, along with many other variables.

Despite where the child attends school, it is imperative that there is always an advocate to watch out to make certain his/her needs are being met. This support generally comes from the parent. If the advocate is not always on top of what is happening at school then, most likely, the child will lose valuable services that can aid him/her in his future years. This is so valuable because these are the years that build the foundation for where s/he will head as an adult.

Sometimes a teacher will recommend the child be evaluated by a doctor and put on some type of medication in order to control the hyperactivity. The parent needs to realize the only contact your doctor has with your child is the ten minutes s/he spends with him/her during the office visit. How can the doctor possibly determine the type or the amount of medication - it boils down to the doctor experimenting on what type and how much medication. I would strongly recommend that no child is placed on medication without first providing detailed data from the teacher explaining the types and frequency of behaviors. This should be accompanied with data from parents detailing the same information. I saw one young boy, 12 years of age; switch from a loving, energetic boy who was placed on medication and then turned into a zombie - to the point he could barely keep his eyes open during the school day. In this situation the parents resorted to medication because they were both afraid he would physically abuse them. This becomes a very difficult decision to make.

As studies continue in trying to understand what causes autism, the same is true with Asperger's Syndrome. There are few documented determinations. Some believe heredity plays a role. In some cases it is believed that it is associated with other mental disorders. These include such difficulties as depression and bipolar disorder. As in autism, the research continues to try to understand if there is a relationship with Asperger's Syndrome and environmental factors that affect brain development. Once a child has been diagnosed with AS, their parents want to know what they can do to help their child. This is the first step and it is an important step. However, I recommend that parents be aware that the patterns of behaviors are very different in one child compared to another. There is not a "typical" child with AS. Therefore, there isn't a specific treatment that can be followed for each child. A parent knows his/her child best; so, the parent needs to be the leader in this arena.

Parents, just like educators, might consider attending training sessions available (but not feel guilty if they do not).Through these trainings you not only learn new ideas to help the child you also learn from the other participants how they deal with certain situations. Training is available through school districts, community groups, autism groups, and, sometimes from teachers who offer workshops periodically. Another powerful resource is the internet. You will never be able to read every article written on autism that is on the internet. It offers an abundance of information.

The best suggestion I can offer a parent, teacher, care provider, or anyone working with a child with AS is this: take one day at a time and try to develop an abundance of patience.

Jack E. George is the author of two books (The Rise and Fall of the Jewish Educational Center and Call Me Pete). He has taught regular education and most recently, special education classes, specializing in autism, in California. Jack has a Master's Degree in Special Education. His third book: The Autism Hand Book scheduled for release in 2009. www.jackegeorge.com

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