What It Is
Asperger's Syndrome is a neurological disorder that, like others on the spectrum, is marked by difficulties in communication and social interaction. The set of characteristics easily identified with the condition was first identified by Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger.
How it's similar to classic autism
According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, children with Asperger's Syndrome find it difficult to identify and express their feelings, just like those with classic autism. They find it challenging, even impossible, to connect with others, often don't hold eye contact and have trouble reading other people's faces and gestures. Many kids flap their hands, a behavior often associated with classic autism; speak without much emotion (or have otherwise unusual speech patterns); need to follow schedules rigidly or else the world feels out of control, and are intensely, even obsessively, interested in one specific subject, so much that they become veritable experts in that field. They also exhibit sensitivities to various stimuli, from sounds to clothing to food items.
How diagnosis differs
Compared with classic autism, children with Asperger's Syndrome usually don't show any signs of major cognitive difficulties — their IQ falls in the normal or even superior range—and they exhibit few, if any, delays in speaking. They also generally hit most of their milestones within reasonable time periods. Because of this, some describe children with this condition as “high-functioning” or as having a “mild” form of autism, at least compared to others on the spectrum. To many, they may seem just like other children but not quite — socially awkward in a manner that's not easily understood. (Click here to read an essay on friendships by an 11th grader with Asperger's).
This explains why healthcare providers may miss seeing it in their young patients, or may misdiagnose it completely. Or why some parents don't seek help until much later than those whose kids display a more profound or more obvious set of symptoms.
What To Do About It
Fashioning an approach to manage the condition is a highly personal one that requires the input of everyone on your child's healthcare team, including doctors, psychologists, teachers, therapists and parents. Many parents wind up with a multi-pronged approach to treating Asperger's Syndrome, choosing regimens and strategies that address their children's main challenge: inability to connect with others. To this end, they may combine such varied modes of treatment as:
-- Various behavioral regimens, including Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), Floortime, sensory integration therapy, and more
-- Social skills training, which, as the name suggests, teaches children the how-tos of social interaction that come naturally to other kids but not to them. In some cases, pictures are used to explore various events and scenarios so children know how to react when they happen
-- Alternative therapies, which could run the gamut from hippotherapy,which has kids riding horses to improve their coordination, to martial arts therapy, which also targets their mobility
-- Medications (which may include anti-depressants)
How to Cope
You'll need the love and support of friends and family to be able to take on the daily challenges of raising a child with Asperger's Syndrome, which will be many. Life for you may mean hopping aboard a rollercoaster that will give you bright hopeful peaks followed by dreary, even stomach-churning, lows. Know that the whole of it — the joys and strains — are part of the journey, and that it's okay to seek help. That may come in the form of extra household help, additional doctors or, even, a vacation to get away from it all. Know that Asperger's does not have to defeat your child. Look to his other successes: Is he a graceful swimmer? An impressive musician? A hardworking student? All of these gifts define him, too.
Structure is important to children on the spectrum, and even more so for those with Asperger's Syndrome, as it makes them feel secure and grounded. Unfamiliar social situations unnerve them, as they test their ability to adapt, so it's best to allow for time so they can prepare for what lies ahead of them. Talk to your child about what to expect and give him the help he needs so he learns how best to handle the circumstances before him.
As children grow older and become more aware of the limitations that their condition has placed upon them, it may be helpful for them to receive counseling with a therapist trained in dealing with pervasive developmental disorders. As difficult as it is for parents to go through this journey, it's even harder for the children themselves who have to work through their own personal challenges and other people's ignorance as they make their way in the world.
How to Grow With It
Teens & Adults
As with many others on the spectrum, those with Asperger's Syndrome often find the adolescent years to be a thicket of emotions that becomes unnavigable in ways they just don't understand. Unable to relate to other teenagers and their befuddling social rules, not to mention their emotions that yo-yo up and down, they may wind up isolated and overwhelmed and most certainly misunderstood. As they grow older, they'll encounter more challenges romantically, though they may be able to relay their expertise and intellectual abilities into success in the workplace. Nevertheless, with the right mix of therapies and constant support from their friends and families, teens and adults with Asperger's Syndrome are able to forge relationships with others on their own terms and carve a place of their own in the world.
First, the good news: Your child will likely be able to live independently, earning a living and taking care of their needs. That said, social relationships may always be minefields, and as such, will continue to be a source of frustration and, for some, despair. With this in mind, it may be beneficial to have a therapist or counselor familiar with the condition be available to help your child as he ages and encounters increasingly complex relationships that give way to equally complex emotions and situations.
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