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Understanding Asperger's

Every child is unique - some, more so than others. Perhaps a child – or an adult – seems a little eccentric or quirky. Maybe you can’t understand how they operate, at times. If so, there is a possibility that they might be somewhere on the autistic spectrum – maybe with high functioning autism, known as Asperger’s Syndrome.

Approximately 700,000 people in the UK have an Autistic Spectrum Disorder, and Asperger’s Syndrome is just at one end of the spectrum. However, many people with high IQs and verbal ability go undiagnosed or manage their condition, living perfectly successful lives. Many intelligent famous people like Mozart, Einstein and Jane Austen are said to have had Asperger’s.

You probably know someone with Asperger’s. Indeed, you might have it yourself.

What is Asperger’s?

Hans Asperger, an Austrian paediatrician specialising in children’s mental health, defined Asperger’s in 1944. He studied children who displayed certain characteristics and behaviour (in fact, he was said to display some of the characteristics, himself). The children he studied found it a challenge to handle social situations, and to understand other people.

Asperger’s can be difficult to identify. But some signs include:

  • trouble developing relationships or integrating with others
  • averting eyes or avoiding eye contact
  • taking things very literally – not understanding metaphors, puns or jokes
  • difficulty understanding other people’s feelings – missing subtle facial expressions or saying things without appreciating that they might be hurtful
  • a need for routine
  • emotional when faced with change
  • focused or obsessive interest in certain things – e.g. dinosaurs, fantasy worlds, cars or cartoons
  • heightened senses

The level of Asperger’s varies. Some people are mildly affected – so it is imperceptible. Others are severely affected.

Asperger’s children can feel frustrated by it – or by people’s responses – which can lead to depression, alienation or anger issues.

Some aspects of Asperger’s can be misunderstood as bad behaviour. For example, 17% of children with the condition have been suspended from school at some point.

Diagnosing Asperger’s

Diagnosis is rapidly increasing. 1 in 100 people in 2009 were recorded as being on the Autistic Spectrum, compared to 1 in 1000 in 1999.

Although children can be diagnosed at the age of 2, it often takes longer before it is recognised, and sometimes it never is.

Asperger’s is more frequently recognised in males than in females. It has been suggested that the ratio is 16 boys for every 1 girl with the condition. However, Dr Judith Gould, the Director at the National Autistic Society’s Lorna Wing Centre, believes that the ratio is more like 2.5 to 1 and that there are many girls with Asperger’s undiagnosed. The condition can be missed in females, who are usually better at communicating and socialising with their peers.

There is no simple test to diagnose autism. Talk to your doctor if you are concerned, and request assessment.

Communication

Most people have the ability to read other people’s expressions and body language and to respond accordingly, but many people with Asperger’s cannot do this.

They may have trouble conveying their emotions. Although they are often eloquent in their speech, they might use complicated words without fully knowing their meaning and they can misunderstand the use of metaphors. ‘Pull your socks up!’ can mean exactly that.

Some people with Asperger’s might speak in a monotonous voice.

Talking about unfamiliar topics often fills them with apprehension, so their own interests often dominate conversation.

More information can be found at Autism Speaks.

Social Situations

Maintaining friendships and relationships can be difficult for children with Asperger’s because they don’t always recognise social cues. They might push normal social boundaries or give the impression they are detached from a conversation.

In an attempt to deal with nervousness in tense situations they might make a noise, or fidget with something to try to combat their anxiety.

They may behave inappropriately in certain contexts – for example, speaking loudly in a library.

Living with Asperger’s

Have patience with your child, accept their differences and gather knowledge about Asperger’s. A diagnosis can offer relief for some people.

Children with Asperger’s sometimes need help knowing how they should interact with people or how to make friends – so remind them to give eye contact, to ask how people are and to show an interest in what they say. Remind them to listen, and not to monopolise conversations with their own interests or thoughts.

Since routine reassures them, it may help to plan timetables for day-to-day activities. Where possible, give them plenty of notice and support before trying anything new.

Children with Asperger’s can be extremely sensitive. The realisation that they are different might make them frustrated and angry. Mental health can be affected, making them more prone to depression. Emotions may be intense and they could suffer ‘meltdowns’ in which they lose control, often out of frustration or fear of change.

Sadly, some children are intolerant of difference, and children with Asperger’s are more likely to be a target of bullying. 34% admit that bullying is the worst factor in living with Asperger’s.

Due to their frank, upfront nature, people with Asperger’s are often extremely trustworthy and dependable.

Getting Support

There is a wide network of support and information available for individuals with Asperger’s and their families.

If your child is struggling, programmes to develop their social skills and behaviour can be useful and will help them integrate into society.

Talk to the school and ensure that your child’s needs are met.

Some websites also give guidance on supporting your child at home.

And finally…

Understanding your own child will help them to feel supported and secure.

Help them to understand themselves and others, and how to act in the world.

You might find that your child has a high IQ, incredible focus and is good at absorbing information. They could have a particular talent, or acquire expert knowledge in their area of interest - or they could have average IQ and an obsession with soap operas. Everyone is different.

Embrace your child’s uniqueness. But help them to connect in the world, too.

  1. Asperger's Syndrome has been known by many names over the years. Which of the following has NOT been used to describe the condition?
    The different names are a result of the different methods used to diagnose the condition. The most common name used today is 'autism spectrum disorder' or ASD
  2. A 2009 survey of English households found that 1.8% of males had some form of autism. What percentage of females were affected?
    This gives a ratio of 9 autistic males for every 1 autistic female. Other studies have shown ratios as different as 16:1 and 2:1, but all agree that males are more likely than females to have the condition
  3. Exceptionally high IQs are often associated with Asperger's Syndrome. Three of the four names listed below are thought to have had the condition. Which one is NOT?
    Many sufferers are able to manage their condition and live successful lives. Other famous names with Asperger's include the writers Jane Austen and George Orwell, the musicians Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven, and the naturalists Charles Darwin and Chris Packham
  4. When Hans Asperger discovered the condition he observed 'autistic psychopathy'. What does this term mean?
    The term is not as frightening as it sounds! Asperger studied four boys who found it hard to make friends, seemed self-absorbed and whose behaviour showed a lack of empathy with others, They also showed extreme interest in certain subjects leading to a knowledge of them so extensive that he named them his 'little professors'
  5. Some signs of autism can be seen in children as young as 18 months, though it cannot be reliably diagnosed in anyone younger than 2 years. What is the average age of diagnosis?
    A study by P. Howlin and A. Asgharian, which surveyed 770 families found that the average age at which children were diagnosed with autism was just over 5 years old. For every child in which the condition is spotted early, there is another in which it is not discovered until years later. In many sufferers their condition is never diagnosed - even in adulthood
  6. Communication is about more than just language, and this can be a problem for those with Asperger's. Which of the following might they struggle with?
    In addition, those with Asperger's might encroach unknowingly on another's personal space or be unaware that the clothes they wear can affect people's opinion of them. Even common courtesies, such as knowing when to say 'please', 'thank you' or 'excuse me' might be a struggle for sufferers to understand. Be patient if your child seems rude - and don't take it personally!
  7. People with autism may suffer 'meltdowns' caused by certain triggers and resembling tantrums. What is usually the best way to help a child who is having a meltdown?
    Meltdowns are caused when someone with autism becomes overwhelmed by too many triggers. Though they look like tantrums, they are different and there is no specific way to deal with them. Most sufferers say that being left alone in a 'safe' place helps them to calm down. Others like to listen to music, take a relaxing bath or have a snooze
  8. What is the cause of autism and Asperger's syndrome?
    While there is some evidence that autism may be inherited (it can run in families) there are also some indications that toxins, childhood infections and problems during pregnancy and birth could also have an effect. The truth is, we just don't know
  9. There are many myths about autism. Only one of the following statements is true - which one?
    Those with autism may have difficulties with social interactions others take for granted, such as knowing when to make eye contact, but most can and do show affection. Despite the hardships they face, many autistic children can form firm friendships, though they are unlikely to be social butterflies
  10. Education can sometimes be a problem for children with autism. According to a 2013 survey by the charity, Ambitious About Autism, what percentage of teachers in England felt unqualified to teach children with the condition?
    The majority of teachers felt that they had not had adequate training and 35% felt that it was not possible to access the necessary support. If you are not satisfied with your child's experience at school then talk to their teacher and, if that fails, contact the head teacher. 71% of autistic children attend mainstream schools and they are entitled by law to a good education

Author: Linda Innes

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