Asperger’s Syndrome May Have It’s Benefits
Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) includes a range of developmental disabilities that vary in three critical areas: social, language, and cognitive abilities. The children at the “higher end” of the autism spectrum continuum may have average intelligence and strong skills in grammar, vocabulary and speech. In contrast to these skills, they also present with an inability to socialize, communicate and read social cues such as changes in facial expression. Children with Asperger’s Syndrome are often identified by their significant delays in peer relationships, social reciprocity and emotional relatedness.
These children may also have some areas of development that are highly advanced. Brian, for example, who is four years old has acquired an extraordinary amount of information about dinosaurs. His information retention is so exceptional that at times he sounds like “an encyclopedia.” As a four-year-old, Brian can talk about some topics with a great deal of information, but these topics are few in number and often difficult to integrate into ongoing conversations unless the other child or adult happens to be interested in Brian’s selected topics.
On a playground, Brian cannot socialize with other children. He has difficulty initiating play interactions and often stands on the sidelines either playing by himself or talking about his topics of interest to no one in particular. This clinical deficit is referred to as a pragmatic disorder. It is the inability to use language for social purposes. Often Brian is not engaged with his peers in typical activities because he sings, engages in self talk, makes noises and/or is socially inappropriate. He does not follow the other children on the playground, and initially peers may be either frightened or surprised by some of Brian’s behaviors.
As Brian grows older and enters elementary school, he may still have difficulty having a conversation, telling a story, talking about his feelings and/or understanding the subtle nonverbal behaviors that occur between children. One of the things that is intriguing about Brian is that his interest in dinosaurs expands to include many different areas of Science, Geography and Mathematics. In subjects requiring the memorization of information, Brian is at the top of the class. However, in subjects such as Language Arts, Brian cannot write a story or answer specific questions about the stories that he has read. He still does not have friends who invite him to after-school parties and events, but he is in a social skills program on weekends with other children who have Autism Spectrum Disorders.
When Brian enters fourth grade, he seems to be very attracted to music, particularly the piano. In a very short period of time, Brian is able to play complex pieces of music that he recalls from memory. Brian’s talent in the musical area progresses to the point that he can play several other instruments as well as the piano. His parents sign him up for after-school music classes, and here too he advances rapidly and excels in all of his lessons. As Brian enters middle school, he is competing nationally in musical competitions. Brian continues to excel in Social Studies, Science and Math and continues to have significant problems in Language Arts, during conversational exchanges and in the development of friendships. Despite all of his difficulties, Brian is graduating from high school.
When asked about his educational journey, Brian indicates that he has a great deal of anxiety about going to school and socializing with peers in classrooms. He indicates that he is able to compensate by either getting to class before everybody else or arriving to class late in order to avoid physical contact and crowds. Brian also comments that he is aware that he does not have any friends and that at times he feels that he wants to talk to a peer but does not know how to “make friends.” Children with Asperger’s Syndrome have extraordinary strengths and social weaknesses that put them on the sidelines of a group.
However, their skills may turn into talents that ultimately lead to interesting job opportunities and choices in life. The moral to the story is that Brian has a great deal to offer society just as other children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. There is a space and a place for all children if we take the time to identify their strengths rather than focusing on their weaknesses.