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Looking Asperger’s Syndrome in the Eye


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“Look me in the eye, young man!”

I cannot tell you how many times I heard that shrill, whining refrain. It started about the time I got to first grade. I heard it from parents, relatives, teachers, principals, and all manner of other people. I heard it so often I began to expect to hear it.

Sometimes it would be punctuated by a jab from a ruler or one of those rubber tipped pointers teachers used in those days. The teachers would say, “Look at me when I’m speaking to you!” I would squirm and continue looking at the floor, which would just make them madder. I would glance up at their hostile faces and feel squirmier and more uncomfortable and unable to form words, and I would quickly look away.

My father would say, “Look at me! What are you hiding?”

“Nothing…”

Everyone thought they understood my behavior. They thought it was simple: I was just no good.

“Nobody trusts a man who won’t look them in the eye.” “You look like a criminal.” “You’re up to something. I know it!”

Most of the time, I wasn’t. I didn’t know why they were getting agitated. I didn’t even understand what looking someone in the eye meant. And yet I felt ashamed, because people expected me to do it, and I knew it, and yet I didn’t. So what was wrong with me?

The above excerpt comes from the prologue of John Elder Robinson’s memoir, Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s. Robinson describes the painful experience of growing up in a time before Asperger’s Syndrome was widely recognized. Instead of his parents and teachers understanding his limitations (and strengths), they regarded him as a “problem child,” one who would never make it in the real world.

Fortunately, a lot has changed since Robinson was a child. Scientists, educators and psychologists have done extensive research on Asperger’s Syndrome, often identified as a mild form of autism. Perhaps the best way to help those with Asperger’s to succeed is to gain a better understanding of the workings of the syndrome.

What is Asperger’s Syndrome?

Asperger’s Syndrome was first described in the 1940s by an Austrian pediatrician, Hans Asperger, who noticed that he had many patients who were deficient in social and communicative skills even though they had normal language development and cognitive abilities. While many children on the autistic scale have trouble functioning socially, they also tend to develop language skills later; therefore, Dr. Asperger felt these children stood in a class of their own.

Professionals still debate as to whether Asperger’s Syndrome is “high-functioning autism” or whether it is its own disorder completely. Regardless, in 1994, Asperger’s Syndrome was added to The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) as a separate disorder from autism. The main distinction between autism and Asperger’s Syndrome is that with Asperger’s there is no speech delay. In fact, children with Asperger’s 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 – they usually want to fit in and interact with others – but simply do not know how to. 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 will seem uninterested in a conversation, not understand the use of gestures, and like John Elder Robinson, avoid eye contact.

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 children with Asperger’s have excellent memory skills for statistics and rote memorization, they have trouble with abstract concepts.

Because of the many strengths children with Asperger’s Syndrome manifest, parents can become frustrated easily. We know that the child is cognitively capable, so we ask ourselves, “Why can’t they 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.

As autistic adult writer Jim Sinclair wrote to parents of children with autism or Asperger’s Syndrome:

You didn’t lose a child to autism. You lost a child because the child you waited for never came into existence. That isn’t the fault of the autistic child who does exist, and it shouldn’t be our burden. We need and deserve families who can see us and value us for ourselves, not families whose vision of us is obscured by the ghosts of children who never lived. Grieve if you must, for your own lost dreams. But don’t mourn for us. We are alive. We are real. And we’re here waiting for you.

Diagnosis

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 in childhood, studies show that Asperger’s Syndrome is best when diagnosed and treated early.

Help At Home

Using Visuals: Children with Asperger’s are visual learners and visual thinkers. Therefore, visuals serve to enhance comprehension when new information is presented. Some examples of visuals to aid comprehension are:

cartoon bubbles · checklists · color coding · cue cards · drawings · hand signals · highlighting · lists of rules · photographs/pictures · planning sheets · problem wheels · schedules · signs with key words and phrases · timers

These visuals focus attention, provide back-up information, create organization and structure, and make concepts more concrete (rather than abstract). Therefore, backing up traditional verbal learning with these different visual cues can help children with Asperger’s better learn all concepts – from math to social skills.

Prevent Problems Rather Than React: Many times, children with Asperger’s will engage in repetitive behavior. Instead of reacting to the problem when it occurs, it is extremely helpful to anticipate the problem and take steps to prevent it from occurring to begin with.

Environmental Controls: 1. Keep the physical environment consistent. Certain places should be designated for certain activities. For instance, the bedroom or kitchen table can be allocated for “calm sitting” for homework, whereas the backyard or park can be designated for “active play.” 2. Maintain a consistent relationship with your child in both word and action. Your child should know that the same behavior will elicit the same response from you – regardless of your mood. This will decrease their anxiety and provide them with structure in their relationship.

Daily Routine: Create a visual of a daily routine that you review with your child. Posting this schedule and reviewing it in the event of your child getting “stuck” can prompt your child to move out of his or her rut.

Reframing: If your child misinterprets a situation, using language to “reframe” the situation can provide your child with necessary tools to interpret it correctly in the future. Using “key words” can help the child reframe multiple situations. Some samples of key words that children with Asperger’s might find helpful are:

“Off the topic” – if a child’s response is not relevant to the discussion. “Say one thing” – if a child is giving much more information than required for the question asked. “In your head” – if a child says a statement that could be hurtful to others and is better kept to himself. “Use your words” – encourages a child to use language rather than a physical reaction to frustration. “Looking and listening” – promotes eye contact and attention.

With repetition, these key words can help children with Asperger’s react positively even to new situations.

Support For Parents

Raising a child with autism or Asperger’s is not a simple task. Fortunately, there are a lot of resources available for parents in order to make the process a bit easier and less lonely. There are multiple support groups and educational classes for parents – ask an educator or health professional about the classes available or access the information through MAAP Services for Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome.

In addition, there are several books available that assist parents in their quest for better care for their children: Tony Attwood and Lorna Wing’s Asperger’s Syndrome: A Guide for Parents and Professional and Stephan Silverman and Rich Weinfeld’s School Success for Kids with Asperger’s Syndrome: A Practical Guide for Parents and Teachers. These books also provide information on support groups and other print resources. With a team of familial and friendly support, extensive knowledge, and a great deal of effort, it is possible for you and your family to live a happier and more fruitful life.

Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld has served the Jewish community for close to thirty years. She founded and directs SOS, which services all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. She can be reached at 718-382-5437, at rifkaschonfeld@verizon.net or www.rifkaschonfeldsos.com

About the Author: An acclaimed educator and education consultant, 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@verizon.net. Visit her on the web at rifkaschonfeldsos.com.


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