The Characteristics of Asperger Syndrome (page 3)
Not everything that steps out of line, and thus “abnormal,” must necessarily be “inferior.” Hans Asperger (1938)
The doorbell rang, heralding the arrival of another guest for Alicia’s birthday party. Her mother opened the door and looked down to see Jack, the last guest to arrive. It was her daughter’s ninth birthday and the invitation list had been for 10 girls and one boy. Alicia’s mother had been surprised at this inclusion, thinking that girls her daughter’s age usually consider boys to be smelly and stupid, and not worthy of an invitation to a girl’s birthday party. But Alicia had said that Jack was different. His family had recently moved to Birmingham and Jack had been in her class for only a few weeks. Although he tried to join in with the other children, he hadn’t made any friends. The other boys teased him and wouldn’t let him join in any of their games. Last week he had sat next to Alicia while she was eating her lunch, and as she listened to him, she thought he was a kind and lonely boy who seemed bewildered by the noise and hectic activity of the playground. He looked cute, like a young Harry Potter, and he knew so much about so many things. Her heart went out to him, and despite the perplexed looks of her friends when she said he was invited to her party, she was determined he should come.
This fictitious scene is typical of an encounter with a child with Asperger Syndrome (AS). A lack of social understanding, limited ability to have a reciprocal conversation and an intense interest in a particular subject are the core features of this syndrome. Perhaps the simplest way to understand AS is to think of it as describing someone who perceives and thinks about the world differently than other people.
Children with AS can also have signs of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). They may seem hyperactive, but this is not necessarily due to having ADHD. The hyperactivity can be a response to a high level of stress and anxiety, particularly in new social situations, making the child unable to sit still and relax.
A young child who has AS may first be recognized as having a delay in the development of speech. He or she may exhibit a delay in language development and specific characteristics that are not typical of any of the stages in language development. For example, children with AS may have relatively good language skills in the areas of syntax, vocabulary and phonology, but poor use of language in a social context (i.e., the art of conversation or the pragmatic aspects of language).
Motor problems may also be prevalent. A young child may be identified by parents and teachers as being clumsy, having problems with coordination and dexterity. The child may have challenges with tying shoelaces, learning to ride a bicycle, handwriting or catching a ball, and an unusual or immature gait when running or walking. Some children with AS can develop involuntary, rapid and sudden body movements and uncontrollable vocalizations that resemble Tourette Syndrome.
One of the problems faced by children with AS who often use their intellect rather than intuition in social situations is that they may be in an almost constant state of alertness and anxiety, leading to a risk of mental and physical exhaustion. Some children with AS can become clinically depressed as a reaction to their realization of having considerable difficulties with social integration. Blame may be directed inward: “I am stupid,” or toward others: “It’s your fault.”
Eating disorders for children and youth with AS can include refusal to eat foods of a specified texture, smell or taste due to a sensory hypersensitivity. There can also be unusual food preferences, and routines regarding meals and food presentation. Serious eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa can also be associated with AS. Approximately 18 to 23 percent of adolescent girls with anorexia also have signs of AS.
An individual may be recognized as having an unusual profile of intellectual and academic abilities. Challenges may exist adapting to novel situations, time perception and comprehension. There are relative assets in auditory perception, word recognition, rote verbal learning and spelling.
As a child with AS matures into adolescence, the social and academic worlds become more complex, and there is an expectation that the child should become more independent and self-reliant. In the early school years, social play tends to be more action than conversation, with friendships being transitory and social games relatively simple with clear rules. In adolescence, friendships are based on more complex interpersonal rather than practical needs—someone to confide in rather than someone with whom to play ball.
During adolescence, a teenager with AS is likely to have increasingly conspicuous difficulties with planning and organizational skills, and completing assignments on time. This can lead to a decline in school grades. Though the teenager’s intellectual abilities have not deteriorated, the methods of assessment used by teachers have changed. Knowledge of history is no longer remembering dates and facts, but organizing a coherent essay. The study of English requires abilities with characterization and to “read between the lines.” A group of students may be expected to submit a science project, which may prove difficult for the teenager with AS who is not easily assimilated into a working group of students.
The signs of AS are more conspicuous at times of stress and change, and during the teenage years there are major changes in expectations and circumstances. The child may have coped well during his or her pre-adolescent years, but changes in the nature of friendship, body shape, school routines and support may become challenges for teens with AS.
We know that the child with AS has difficulty socializing with his or her peers. If that child also has superior intellectual ability, difficulties in social integration may be compounded. Those children with exceptionally high IQs may compensate by becoming arrogant and egocentric, and have considerable difficulty acknowledging that they have made a mistake or compromising with others. Such children can be hypersensitive to any suggestion of criticism, yet overly critical of others, including teachers, parents or authority figures.
It is essential that the individual with AS have an understanding of the many and complex challenges and assets that comprise this exceptionality. While it is necessary that they learn new skills and coping mechanisms, it is essential that individuals with AS understand that they are inherently good and valued, as is communicated by the following self-affirmation pledge of those with AS written by Liane Holliday Willey (Willey 2001, p.164).
I am not defective. I am different.
I will not sacrifice my self-worth for peer acceptance.
I am a good and interesting person.
I will take pride in myself.
I am capable of getting along with society.
I will ask for help when I need it.
I am a person who is worthy of others’ respect and acceptance.
I will find a career interest that is well suited to my abilities and interests.
I will be patient with those who need time to understand me.
I am never going to give up on myself.
I will accept myself for who I am.
I consider the last pledge, “I will accept myself for who I am,” as a major goal for individuals with AS.
Attwood, T. (1998). Asperger’s Syndrome: A Guide for Parents and Professionals. London: Jessica Kingsley.
Attwood, T. (2003). Frameworks for behavioural interventions. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics, 12, 65-86.
Willey, L.H. (2001). Asperger Syndrome in the Family: Redefining Normal. London: Jessica Kingsley.
Reprinted with the permission of the Autism Society.
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