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Autism or Asperger's?

Movies like Rain Man or television shows like The Big Bang Theory often portray Asperger syndrome and other autism spectrum disorders as funny. The way they see it, sure, there are awkward moments here and there, but a mere half-hour later, problems are solved, and isn’t Asperger’s a wonderful, life-affirming thing?

The loneliness of Asperger’s is what mom Jennifer McDaniel remembers most—feeling as though she were the only person fighting for her son. She knew James, now 12, was quirky, that he had to have things a certain way or a meltdown would happen. And they happened often, so much so that school was often a “nightmare.”

In kindergarten, it was tackling another child because he was on his mat during naptime. Later, it was throwing tantrums in the classroom. “We had this child that we did the best we could for. Like any parent, we wanted him to be happy and healthy and productive—be able to be on his own. Sometimes it was very overwhelming,” says McDaniel.

For mom Allison Jones, it was a relief when her son Asher, age 6, was diagnosed with Asperger’s last year. There were certain symptoms the family noticed, she says, but it wasn’t until Asher entered school that problems arose. “They painted their hands one day at school, and he basically flipped out,” she remembers. “He had to do a simple thing, put his hands on a shirt, and he had to get the paint off immediately. It was just a sensory overload.” So when their pediatrician sat them down and told them the diagnosis, Jones remembers letting out a breath, then thinking, “Wow, that explains a lot.”

Just as we often say no child is the same, likewise, no child with Asperger’s is the same. Parents of these children often describe them as quirky, regimented, perfectionists or anxious. Others looking from the outside in may call them sullen, uncooperative, antisocial and cranky. At the same time, children with Asperger’s are also loving, extremely bright, compassionate and focused.

“Every child is so different,” says Dr. Caroline DiBattisto, a developmental pediatrician at Georgia Health Sciences Children’s Medical Center. “So the main treatment is an individualized approach, helping the child to be successful in both the school and home environment.”

Asperger’s Vs. Autism

On average, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 in 110 children in the U.S. has an autism spectrum disorder, which includes “classic” autism, Asperger syndrome and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified. While the incidence of Asperger’s alone is not well established, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke suggests that two out of every 10,000 children have the disorder, with boys three to four times more likely than girls to have Asperger’s.

Several marked differences distinguish Asperger’s from autism. Unlike autism, children with Asperger’s have normal language milestones and average to above average IQs. “You can have a normal IQ in autism, but you don’t have to,” says DiBattisto. And while autism can be diagnosed as early as toddlerhood, symptoms of Asperger’s are almost always diagnosed when children enter school. “That’s when you start to have impairment in social interaction,” says DiBattisto. “You notice difficulties in social use of language, eye contact, being able to have a conversation back and forth and picking up on others’ emotions and subtleties of language.”

How to Cope

If your child needs a routine, work with the school to help define that daily routine. And never stop educating. For McDaniel, that meant meeting one on one with teachers during preplanning to explain behaviors they might see, advise specific coping techniques and provide contact information for questions. And if teachers didn’t call, McDaniel made a point of contacting them. “We were very involved parents trying to help James make it through middle school. And we needed that information to know what to reinforce at home.”

At school, very simple changes can assist children with Asperger’s and prevent “acting out” due to sensory overload. These can include making sure children—who are often easily distracted—always write down their homework and bring the correct books home. If children are feeling overstimulated, give them a five- to 10-minute quiet moment to calm down. And, let children know the rules ahead of time.

Antianxiety medication can often help too. “Sometimes children with Asperger’s don’t know what to do with all these emotions they have,” says Jones. “For example, PE, music and art class are hard for Asher because he wants to do things perfectly, and when he can’t do that, there’s frustration and anger and anxiety.”

Children who have difficulty with motor skills and who find social interactions challenging may also benefit from therapy so they can practice these skills in a non-threatening, supportive environment. “It’s a developmental delay, but it’s a tactile thing, too,” says Jones, who uses occupational therapy to help her son adjust to tasks as simple as buttoning his pants or tying his shoes. Speech therapy also helps children practice social use of language, says DiBattisto.

The most important thing to remember, say parents of children with Asperger’s, is to be flexible. “What works with one child might not work with another,” says McDaniel. “And what works today might not work tomorrow, but it might work in six weeks.”

Finally, while living with a diagnosis of Asperger’s can be difficult, overwhelming and sometimes lonely, the best coping mechanism of all might be the easiest—love. “I would not trade this child for the world,” says McDaniel. “I don’t want to fix him…this is who he is, this is how his brain is wired and it was done this way for a reason. We just try to make our world make sense to him as best we can.”

Danielle Wong Moores is an Augusta freelance writer.


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