It wasn’t until around the year 2000, that I learned of the term “Aspergers” on a documentary program, but when I did, it explained so much. It was about that time that many people heard of the autistic spectrum, which encompasses an enormous range of behaviors, including Aspergers. But I am writing now of my family and our experience with my brother, Russell. He was never diagnosed. He took his own life in 1990, ten years before this was a familiar term. Recently, I heard that one in one hundred children are now diagnosed along this autistic spectrum. What causes this? How should those who have it be treated? The answers aren’t just an interesting topic, they could be life-saving.
There are a few characteristics that children with Aspergers seem to share, though there are always baffling exceptions. One is a history of traumatic birth – especially oxygen deprivation or acute illness at birth or at least during the first few months. My brother was completely blue with the umbilical cord wrapped twice around his neck. If this is in fact a cause, we may never know and are generally helpless in preventing such happenings.
The babies appear to physically develop normally, but it is what captures their attention and how they respond to human interaction in the later months which sets them apart from others. Their interest seems inordinately absorbed by certain objects. Repetition of certain actions is noticeable. They could literally do the same thing all day, like put-a-lid-on, take-a-lid-off. Take away what they like and you might be in trouble. This tends to develop into what seems like an obsession as they grow older. My brother was interested in Legos and dinosaurs. The fascinating thing is that they truly become experts with these topics of interest. When language develops, they will talk incessantly about what interests them. The way they talk has been dubbed by some as “the little professor”. It is obvious that they are highly intelligent, because they use extremely accurate words to describe what they are talking about, but their intonation may sound odd, flat, mechanical, or cartoon-character-like.
Trying to steer the conversation into a topic other than their main interest can be met with a blank look, or just yes and no answers. This hints at the main challenge of Aspergers – interpersonal relations and communication. Ask a child with Aspergers to draw a person, and many times it will have no face. Doctors have guessed that this is because the enormous amount of information that is generally communicated via facial expressions and body language just doesn’t register. Their faces tend not to be really expressive either. The hardest thing my brother had to do was smile for a camera. It was generally a grimace at best. Doctors ask children with Aspergers to look into a mirror and practice making different looks and learn to identify what each look means, because they don’t automatically get what information is given that way.
So, knowing what is going on in the mind and heart of a child with Aspergers can be enormously difficult. Their intelligence is generally above average, so they are acutely aware that they are different, but they will not be able to give voice to this. Frustrations have to be vented somehow. In my brother’s case, we just didn’t know how inadequate or separated from others he felt. He himself may not have understood. My only comfort is that I believe he now knows how much he was loved.
One other thing that is generally a characteristic is a more sensitive that normal gag reflex. I personally believe it is connected to the difficulty in accepting and processing what is strange or unfamiliar.
All information and diagnosis aside, basically you just have to love these children and accept them. I think being open about the topic with everyone is the best approach. Turn liabilities into assets and go with the interests and gifts the child has. Be aware that this is a whole family issue and even an extended family issue. In the end, this child could turn out to be your greatest joy.