Photo Credit: Rifka Schonfeld

Dear Journal,

How is possible to be so smart and so clueless at the exact same time? It seems like everyone else speaks a language that I don’t. I watch them. I listen. I imitate. I act a lot. Have you heard my newest nickname? The tennis team has taken to calling me “Happy Head.” They actually mean it to be nice…the cute little [kid] with the smile plastered on her face – it’s plastered, all right. And plastic. I’m completely petrified of feeling left out. Again, It’s probably just a matter of time, though. We both know that I always manage to blow it somehow. Just give me long enough and I’ll screw up any friendship. Seriously, I wish someone would give me some rules on how to be “normal” … let me know when THAT book comes out. It seems to be the only one I haven’t read.

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Love,
Jenny

 

 

Jennifer Cook O’Toole, the author of the passage above, wrote the book The Asperkid’s (Secret) Book of Social Rules: the Not-so-obvious Guidelines for Tweens and Teens with Asperger Syndrome when she was thirty-four years old. Only as an adult was O’Toole diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome. That is when things fell into place for her. Rather than feeling alone and at fault for her social blunders, O’Toole realized that her brain was simply different than the brains of those around her. With her diagnosis she understood, “Turned out, I wasn’t defective, I was different.” She wrote her book in order to teach children with Asperger’s Syndrome about the “secret rules” or manners that other people automatically understand.

There is a lot of talk about Asperger Syndrome and whether it belongs on the autistic spectrum. Asperger Syndrome was first described in the 1940s by an Austrian pediatrician, Hans Asperger, who noticed that he had many patients with deficient social and communicative skills even though they had normal language development and cognitive abilities. Many children on the autistic scale have trouble functioning socially, they also tend to develop language skills later. Dr. Asperger felt these children stood in a class of their own.

Professionals still debate if Asperger’s Syndrome is “high-functioning autism” or whether it is its own disorder completely. Regardless, in 1994, Asperger’s Syndrome was added to American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) as a separate disorder.

The main distinction between autism and Asperger’s Syndrome is that with Asperger’s there is no speech delay. In fact, those with the syndrome generally have good language skills – even though their speech patterns might be unusual or their inflections inconsistent.

Children with autism often seem aloof and uninterested in others. This is not the case with children with Asperger’s Syndrome – they usually want to fit in and interact with others – but simply do not know how to do that. They may be socially awkward, not pick up on social cues, or show a lack of empathy. In terms of non-verbal communication, children with Asperger’s Syndrome will seem uninterested in a conversation, not understand the use of gestures, and like Jenny above, feel in constant fear of making a mistake.

In their free time, children with Asperger’s often have particular interests that can border on obsession. They often like to collect categories of objects: baseball cards, rocks, cars, or clips. While many have excellent memory skills for statistics and rote memorization, they have trouble with abstract concepts.

Parent’s of an affected child can find the syndrome especially frustrating. We know that the child is cognitively capable, so we ask ourselves, “Why can’t he or she just act like everyone else?” While this frustration is a common phenomenon, it is important to understand that children with Asperger’s would love to function the way their siblings and family do. They simply cannot figure out how to act “normally.” It’s our job as parents and educators to give them the tools to better adapt to society.

O’Toole’s book is a great way to give teenagers the tools to rules that they can follow because as O’Toole puts it, “Rules aren’t about telling us what NOT to do, as much as they tell us what we SHOULD do. They prevent chaos and confusion and stress. They create calm when the world feels messy and unpredictable. Rules, you might say, can be an Aspie’s best friend.” If your child is too young to read on his own, therapists and specialists can help provide him with the tools to live in a calm and less stressful way.

If you aren’t sure if your child has Asperger’s Syndrome, the first step towards diagnosis is an assessment along with a developmental history and observation. Once the diagnosis has been established by a professional, different forms of treatment are available. As with most disorders that manifest themselves in childhood, studies show that those with Asperger’s Syndrome do best when diagnosed and treated early.

 

Register now for an anger management workshop by Dr. Ross Greene on November 14, 2017. Please call Mrs. Schonfeld at 718-382-5437 for more information.

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An acclaimed educator and social skills ​specialist​, Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld has served the Jewish community for close to thirty years. She founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. A kriah and reading specialist, she has given dynamic workshops and has set up reading labs in many schools. In addition, she offers evaluations G.E.D. preparation, social skills training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 or at rifkaschonfeld@gmail.com.