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The best way to understand Asperger syndrome is to think of it as a form of autism in smart kids.
But the distinction between the two disorders is complicated. First of all, both autism and Asperger’s are classified as Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDD) which encompass disorders of development with abnormalities in three areas: social skills, communicative language, and behaviors–both a restricted range of activities and interests and the exhibiting of unusual behaviors like repetitive motions. These disorders are characterized by a range of severity and some consider them all part of the “autistic spectrum.”
Autism is characterized by impaired social interaction, severe language difficulties, and restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior as well as serious learning disabilities although some autistic persons may be quite bright.
Asperger syndrome children have no significant delay in cognitive development and have average to above average IQ. These children are usually bright and do well at school. The part of the brain that deals with cognitive function and learning is working just fine.
Unfortunately the part of the brain that deals with social skills and empathy does not work well in Asperger syndrome because of the severe developmental delay in this area.
Normally developing young children quickly learn how to interpret and use body language like facial expressions and eye contact. They learn how to interact with peers and develop empathy.
Children who have a PDD are unable to develop socially so they have difficulty interacting with other children, avoid eye contact, laugh inappropriately, and often have a standoffish or defiant manner. Although autistic children have little interest in interacting with others, those with Asperger syndrome both want and like to interact but the way they interact can be very inappropriate. For example they may hug a child who is trying to squirm away. Or keep repeating a phrase after the other child has responded. Or gather all the toys in a heap so the other children can’t play with them. Or spin around or rock constantly.
When we miss a social cue we get embarrassed and vow never to repeat our mistake. But if you can’t “read” a social cue and you lack empathy you will neither be embarrassed nor learn how to avoid such social mistakes in the future.
Communicative language difficulties are a big part of this syndrome. Children with Asperger generally learn to speak on schedule and may even have an impressive vocabulary but it takes them extra time to interpret and understand what they have heard. They tend to interpret what is said very literally, often talk incessantly even when others are trying to get a word in edgewise, talk about themselves a lot, and may laugh or giggle inappropriately. This behavior causes these kids to be described as “weird” by their peers who usually avoid them adding to their social isolation.
What do we know about Asperger’s? We know that, although this is a “new” disorder only recently described, many families can identify ancestors with similar symptoms and preliminary evidence points to a genetic defect. Boys are affected more than girls. Asperger syndrome is not “curable.” Although behaviors may change through the years, the problem will not go away. But there are strategies that can improve functioning and help families cope. Early diagnosis, behavior training programs, and careful educational management to help the children reach their maximum potential are well worth the effort. It should be stressed that some people with Asperger’s learn how to cope with their disability and grow up to lead productive lives.
Parents of any child with a disability which affects every aspect of the child’s life and will not go away need two things: KNOWLEDGE and SUPPORT. Family members must truly understand that this is a developmental disorder, not a behavioral one. Yes there are “weird behaviors” but they result from a problem in the child’s brain, not because the child is “bad” or the parenting was “bad.”
Resources include the child’s pediatrician, the library, and the internet (www.asperger.org will provide much valuable information including how to find support groups). Parents should work closely with the schools to foster good grades, encourage the child to do his or her best, and minimize any reluctance to go to school because of social problems.
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