April is Autism Awareness Month. As some of you may be aware, my oldest son was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome about a year ago, shortly before he turned nine years old. Asperger’s Syndrome is on the Autism Spectrum. It is sometimes referred to as “High Functioning Autism.”
Autism is well-known. Like most parents, I knew to look for the signs when my children were young. Did they respond to other people? Did they have appropriate verbal skills? Were they affectionate? My answer was “yes” on all counts. I therefore never considered autism as a possible diagnosis for my “different” child. I read every parenting book I could get my hands on trying to understand and help him. I came up empty. His diagnosis came as a surprise, but it has been wonderful to be able to learn and understand why he is the way he is. I love my son. Asperger’s is not a definition of who he is – simply part of the package.
It is important to note that Asperger’s is not a disease to be cured. It is a brain difference. People with Asperger’s are simply wired differently. Various therapies and educational modifications can help them learn to function as “normally” as possible in the world at large and to manage their stress.
I am not an expert in Asperger’s Syndrome. Only a mental health professional can make a diagnosis. Over the course of the past year, however, I have done a great deal of reading on the subject. I write from my personal experience in the hopes of educating other parents to the signs of Asperger’s Syndrome, both so they might recognize the signs in their own children and be understanding of other parents whose children may be on the spectrum.
As with all levels of Autism, no two children with Asperger’s are alike. Many appear totally normal and will simply seem a bit “odd” in their behavior until they are faced with a stressful situation. Yet, most will exhibit some of the following characteristics:
Difficulty in social situations – they have a hard time “reading” other people. They may seek other people out, but they tend to stay focused on what they want to talk about as opposed to the reciprocal give and take of a normal conversation. Many have difficulty with eye contact. Some have a robot-like tone to their speech.
Repetitive routines – enjoyment of doing the same things over and over.
Odd body movements – clumsiness and/or repetitive body movements, especially when experiencing stress.
Resistance to new situations – new situations can be terrifying. They prefer the familiar. They frequently experience high anxiety.
Rigid thinking – there is one way to do things. Any deviance from that causes stress.
Catastrophic thinking – there is no bright-side. The worse-case scenario is this first (and often the only) one thought of.
Emotional melt-downs – stress causes complete emotional melt-downs which may feature crying, screaming, and lashing out.
Sensory sensitivity – picky eaters, dislike of certain clothing, noises, etc. Extreme sensitivity to physical discomfort.
Fixated interests – often have one area of interest that they will engage in/talk about for long periods of times.
If you recognize several of the above symptoms in your own child, I would encourage you to speak with your pediatrician or seek a mental health evaluation.