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Hope for Children with Asperger's Syndrome

Asperger's is difficult to diagnose but with proper support and professional assistance, children with Asperger's can lead a good and productive life
By Marina Zietsman

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Asperger’s is an autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) of which the exact cause is not known, although there seems to be a strong genetic component. The disorder also seems to be linked to structural abnormalities in several regions of the brain, though children and adults with Asperger’s syndrome are often of average, or above-average intelligence.
 
Taking Notice
 
Because of the similarities between advanced ASD and Asperger’s syndrome, it’s hard to diagnose these in young children. Melissa Braithwaite, an educational psychologist from Cape Town, says the difficulties associated with Asperger’s syndrome are more subtle than those you would see exhibited by a child found on the more severe end of the autistic spectrum.
 
“There are a set of distinct diagnostic criteria for the diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome,” says Braithwaite. When talking about autistic spectrum disorders, you always look at the “triad of impairment”, she explains, “impairment in language and communication; social interaction; and imagination and flexible thought processes.”
 
Children with Asperger’s syndrome have severe difficulties in reciprocal social interactions. This means they struggle to consider and understand other people’s thoughts and feelings, which makes social interactions confusing.
 
Secondly, as with all children with ASD, but to a lesser degree, children with Asperger’s have all-absorbing and narrow interests, which might include rote or repetitive behaviour (also called stimming), such as lining up toys in a specific order. They are usually obsessive about routine and have a strong resistance to change. If not supported, this can negatively affect a child’s progress and development. They also display an unusual sensitivity to sensory stimuli (they may, for example, be bothered by noises that don’t annoy others.)
 
Children with Asperger’s struggle with speech and language issues. “These children have either delayed, superficial and sometimes good expressive language, which sounds almost formal or rehearsed. But they are confused about the meaning of what is said or cannot comprehend what is said,” says Braithwaite. “Their non-verbal communication skills are a problem. It’s difficult for them to read the facial expressions or body language of others. They themselves can display inappropriate body language or use inappropriate facial expressions.”
 
Though, reiterates Braithwaite, “It is always important to remember that a diagnosis is only important in so far as it guides intervention and should not be used as a box in which to keep children. With support and team work, we are always amazed and surprised by the wonderful progress children can make.”
 
Braithwaite adds that the most important area to assess when looking for signs of Asperger’s is the child’s development – especially your child’s own development as an individual and that of your child as a social being with children of a similar age.
 
Janet Robson’s 13-year-old son James is attending a mainstream high school this year. But this Durban teacher did not always feel confident she would see this day. “James was a very difficult baby. He was fussy and had a weak immune system. He was also exceptionally sensitive to sound. Everyday noises that we didn’t even pick up, would disrupt his routine. He would clasp his little fists over his ears, and wail for hours.”
 
When James was only six months old, Janet was aware that her son could not perform a simple social task like waving goodbye, and at 18 months she realised his speech was behind those of his peers. That’s when the long journey to diagnosis began. First they visited a paediatrician, and then suspecting a hearing difficulty, the audiologist. He was then referred to a speech therapist. But all the tests showed James was fine.
 
Not much was known about Asperger’s syndrome then. Janet and her husband did hours of research and when James turned four, they realised he might have Asperger’s, though it was only officially confirmed when James was seven. “It was a very difficult time, but once we knew what was wrong, it was a relief. We now had a name and could start towards helping our child achieve better health.”
 
Team Work
 
When it comes to continuing support, it is important parents find a school environment that will nurture and develop your child. If your child doesn’t need special schooling, make sure you find a school that will understand and support your child’s needs. “Look for a school that has a passion for inclusivity and is knowledgeable about Asperger’s and the accompanying needs your child will have,” says Braithwaite. “You are looking for a partnership where you are able to communicate openly and work towards solutions for your child.”
 
James has always attended a mainstream school and was assisted by a facilitator from Grade 00 to Grade 7. Now he attends school on his own. “He is an exceptionally bright boy and a very pleasant child,” says Janet, “but we are aware that no-one can ever outgrow Asperger’s. The most important thing is that James has grown to know himself. After much intervention, James had accumulated sufficient skills to cope in a mainstream environment on his own and was able to make some real friends to boot! We know there will be more obstacles ahead. He’s a teenager now and it’s a very emotional phase in life. We know and he knows that we have to work on his socialisation skills. He will get anxious and we’ll have to control the angst. But as with anything else, we plan ahead and try to foresee obstacles and give him tools to cope with them.”
 
Psychologists, paediatricians and neurological paediatricians are equipped to assess a child and make a diagnosis. A psychologist can continue the long-term support these children need in developing social awareness, while physiotherapists and occupational therapists play an important role in working on the child’s sensitivity to sensory stimuli.
 
Diet intervention is another route that has given some parents success, while other parents have found an intervention programme useful. Janet strongly believes that the parent-based Relationship Development Intervention (RDI) programme, which helps parents teach their child how to participate in emotional relationships by exposing the child to natural scenarios in a gradual and systematic way, was the turning point in James’s development. Autism South Africa cautions parents about doing proper research and getting first-hand referrals before putting their trust in a specific programme. 
 
Looking Ahead
 
The bottom line is: children with Asperger’s who receive proper support and professional assistance can lead a good and productive life.
 
Lawson who received her PhD last year says, “Today, I connect more readily with life and enjoy both family and friends around me. I am happy alone especially when I can pursue my own interests and I have developed strategies that enable me to more than cope with life’s demands. One of the best tools we can equip our youngsters with is that of teaching them strategies to cope with change. One of those is that it is okay when things don’t go exactly to plan.”  

Comments

Anonymous wrote 14 weeks 4 days ago

I am a 23 year old female. I fit the characteristics and traits for Asperger’s. Where can I find support and a specialist who specialises in adult female treatment. Thank you.

admin wrote 14 weeks 1 day ago

We recommend that you contact Autism South Africa for their recommendations: www.aut2know.co.za/contact-us.php

Zodwa Tshabalala wrote 17 weeks 4 days ago

We stay in Soweto. We need help. I have a granddaughter who is 12 years old. She is sensitive to noise. She can't read and she always fights with friends. We need to find a school in Soweto for her.

admin wrote 17 weeks 1 day ago

Hi Zodwa. If your grandchild needs to be in a special needs school, you can find a comprehensive list here: www.schoolguide.co.za/schools/special-needs-schools.html

We'd also recommend that you take her to an OT for an assessment.

Anonymous wrote 18 weeks 5 hours ago

We have a 12-year-old daughter with Asperger's. We are looking for a tutor to school her 4 to 5 days per week at home in Pretoria East area. Does anyone know of someone out there with good experience?

Anonymous wrote 22 weeks 3 days ago

My brother's child may have Aspergers and he has ADHD. My brother is at his wits end about the news. I would like to find a support group for them in the northern suburbs of Cape Town.

admin wrote 22 weeks 8 hours ago

Hi. We recommend that you contact Autism Western Cape, who should be able to provide you with the details of support groups in the Cape Town area: www.autismwesterncape.org.za

Wilna Andersen wrote 25 weeks 1 day ago

Now I don’t feel alone anymore, but seriously hope that there is someone I can contact in the East Rand area. I have read numerous articles about autism and Asperger’s syndrome. I can’t seem to get anyone that can just give me a straight answer and help us in helping my most treasured possession. He is 6 years old and already giving us grey hairs, but I need someone to come forward and at least give me some advice.

Professional advice is required so if there is anyone that could steer us in the right direction we would be grateful, as I have seen a school, and was referred to a normal physiologist. We also consulted a paediatrician. And now we have been told to see a child psychiatrist.

Tina Jenner wrote 25 weeks 4 days ago

Hi, my 15-year-old daughter has Aspergers Syndrome. Even though she has a very mild form of Aspergers, she has problems making friends and keeping friends. She has always had problems with friends, starting from when she was four. She enjoys her studies at school but hates going to school because of the friends issue. She is often misunderstood. She sits with a group of girls, but she cannot handle large groups and crowds. In the beginning of a new school she makes friends ok but then after a month or two she comes home very upset and says no one likes her. She is trying to fit into her school but takes things very personally when she is not included or has not been invited to a disco (even though she hates anything like that), I think it's just the need to feel included. She told me she has to change to fit into the group at school. As we all know kids grow up too quickly and end up smoking and drinking at an early stage. My daughter can't get her head around this! My daughter says she has to pretend to be someone she isn't! This upsets me. I have noticed she is becoming depressed and withdrawn. How can I help? Is there a group of Aspergers children in the Cape Town area that get together socially? At 15 we all need a friend or two, but for our Aspergers children it's not that simple! Please can someone help...thanks.

admin wrote 25 weeks 4 days ago

Hi Tina, there are several links to support goups in the comment thread below.

Anonymous wrote 30 weeks 1 day ago

My son was diagnosed with Aspergers. He is 13 years old and is in Grade 8. I'm looking for a psychologist familiar with this condition who can assess him and assist with subject choice and carrier guidance. We are in the Pretoria East area.

admin wrote 30 weeks 6 hours ago

Hi there. Try Faerie Glen Practice, Therapy Factory or Psychology Worx.

Ask me, I'm autistic wrote 1 year 12 weeks ago

Visit this South African group on Facebook to have your questions about Asperger-type autism answered by autistics: https://www.facebook.com/groups/askautistics

See also http://aspie.co.za/ for two other South African groups run by autistics.

Gill wrote 1 year 17 weeks ago

I have a 10 year old nephew who I think has Asperger’s. He is in mainstream schooling and obtains an 88% aggregate, but has been reported as been extremely disruptive in class. He lacks social skills and complains of having no friends. He was sensitive to noises from a young age. He can focus on computer games for hours, but cannot eat with a knife and fork and is uncoordinated and clumsy when he walks and has poor abdominal tone. He has poor judgement when it comes to reading facial expressions. He has been seen by psychiatrists and psychologists. His parents are at their wits ends about how to help their child. Is there a place/person that specializes in this field?

admin wrote 1 year 17 weeks ago

Hi Gill. If you are from South Africa, we recommend you get in touch with Autism South Africa, as Asperger's now falls in the same spectrum of disorders. They should be able to advise you. Visit www.aut2know.co.za

Anonymous wrote 1 year 25 weeks ago

Autism Western Cape is based in Plumstead. The psychologist who looks after place is phenomenal. She is a social skills trainer too. Because of her practical therapy and compassion my child had a remarkable turnaround. She mainly deals with teens now, but she will direct you to the right person should she not be able to assist. She also started a meet-up for aspy kids, where they can just be themselves and get support from other Aspies. Visit www.autismwesterncape.org.za

Anonymous wrote 2 years 5 days ago

A doctor has advised me that my 4 year old might have Asperger’s syndrome and that I should seek counselling with a specialist, but I am struggling to find one here in Cape Town.

admin wrote 2 years 4 days ago

Hi there. You could contact the Asperger's Syndrome support group in Cape Town for their advice: 021 715 5255 or 084 513 1333.

admin wrote 2 years 5 weeks ago

We are so sorry to hear of your son's challenges. Please see our directory of conditions and disorders for support groups - http://www.childmag.co.za/content/3d-guide

Anonymous wrote 2 years 5 weeks ago

I need help desperately for my 20-year-old son. He attends a skills school for young adults and teenagers with learning disorders. My son has all the characteristics of a person with Aspergers: he cannot take loud noise, bright lights, scratchy clothes, avoids eye contact, has no friends… the list goes on. He is also dyslexic and refuses to write or learn anything. Sometimes he gets so angry and depressed. My heart breaks in a thousand pieces for him. How can I help my son to improve his social skills and not be so lonely?

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