Monday, December 16, 2013

On "Asperger Syndrome" by Brenda Smith Myles and Richard L. Simpson **

The subtitle of this book is "A Guide for Educators and Parents," and indeed that's what it is. Basic and fairly clear, it lays out what Asperger is and how it can best be managed in the context of education and of home. But it's vary utility and scope is also it's downfall, at least for me. Academic in its approach, I found my senses largely dulled, and wide as it was in scope, I found myself less interested in vast sections written specifically to educators. Still, it was a useful introduction to the phenomenon and one that I hope I can take with me as I read further into the topic.

What exactly Asperger is is, of course, part of the difficulty. It's easy to denote that it is high-functioning autism and that it involves more often an inability to read social cues than an inability to engage with the outside world at all (there's even some experts now who claim--though not in this book--that Asperger is in fact not even an aspect of autism but a wholly separate condition involving problems in another section of the brain). But diagnosing a person with the disability is a much more difficult thing, as every person is unique, and while many symptoms are shared by those who have Asperger, not all of them always are--or are to the same degree.

The child with Asperger can be very intelligent in some ways. The difficulty is generally in being able to filter his or her social interaction with others. Most are fairly withdrawn, preferring their own world to shared activities (my girlfriend's son, however, is an extrovert and so doesn't really fit many of these tendencies). Often, they have issues with stress and an inability to cope with such stress. They prefer structure and routine to disorder and can act in negative manners when such structure is interrupted. They can think and recall in very concrete manners but have difficulty interpreting actions or applying them to everyday life. So, for example, they might be able to read a book and tell you everything that happened in it, but drawing conclusions about what the events actually mean would be a struggle. Or they might learn that it's wrong to hit someone on the playground but then fail to be able to realize that such a rule applies also in the kitchen. (I'm reminded of Temple Grandin's book Thinking in Pictures, which does a much better job of explaining how such people might think. Memory is often very strong, but unable to group things into abstract concepts, such people often have trouble processing thoughts in at timely fashion and understanding how one specific item relates to another.)

While the education sections provide many tables and practical tips with regard to how to help Asperger children understand verbal and mathematical concepts, keep schedules, and interact with students (assign helpers, use visual cues along with written ones, etc.), the most interesting chapters to me where those closer to the book's end. Chapter 4, for instance, talks of transition to adulthood, which as the book unfortunately shows is a difficult process that many such children never manage to bridge, as evidenced by the unemployment rate among those with Asperger. Not only is the stress of major change difficult for such people to handle, but also, lacking often the ability to self-regulate, such people find it difficult to place themselves into situations that require independent living.

Chapter 5 proved to me the most interesting of the chapters. It essentially was a set of case studies--stories from families with children who have been diagnosed with Asperger. What is clear is that all of these children were very loved but that the disability definitely drained the resources of the parents and siblings and teachers. Many times this was because the diagnosis was arrived at only later in life. The first tale seemed especially tragic. It involve a girl who was fine living in her own world until she began to come to a better understanding around ages 6-8 of herself identity. At that point, unable to properly deal with others and friendless as a result, she began to act out in self-destructive ways that brought her attention and concern, which set up a repeating cycle of more and more dangerous acts and claims. The next three stories were luckily not quite as dour. In each, the family forged a plan and had a certain degree of outside help in terms of therapy for the child. The biggest challenge, it seemed, for one of these families was balancing the needs of their Asperger kid with those of the other children. In this case, they had to specifically set out time for the other children so that the one child didn't completely hog every bit of that time. Furthermore, having a person with Asperger syndrome in the family sometimes meant that even the siblings had trouble making friends, since other children didn't want to deal with the child with the disability. In each case, the degree of difficulty seemed to vary as well, with some children making seeming progress and others likely to continue on a course similar to that which they are on for the rest of their life.

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