Author's Note: This is the second installment in an occasional series of articles meant to separate Asperger's Syndrome myths from facts. Although this is the second report, it is the first one on "lack of friendships" which begins a series within a series of reports on AS.
The Newtown, Conn., school massacre thrust Asperger's syndrome, also known as Asperger's Disorder, into the public eye. After the shooting, the news media dispersed word of a diagnosis of Asperger's for Adam Lanza, the school shooter, which has not been verified. (Click here for the first installment in this series, a definition and overview of Asperger's.)
Asperger's is a form of autism, and although individuals with the condition have average or above average intelligence, they are autistic. They display symptoms of autistic behavior, although it may not be to the same degree as a person who has classic autism, less commonly known as Kanner's autism. For this reason, clinicians refer to Asperger's as an invisible disability, meaning although it profoundly affects the one who has it, others don't see the autism and assume the individual has an emotional-behavioral disorder.
Because Asperger's is a neurobiological, with a physiological basis in the nervous system/brain, developmental disorder, it affects behavior. Individuals who have Asperger's are not mentally ill, but from the perspective of a typical (formerly called "normal") person, it may appear that they are -- because they do not conform to a standard their brains do not register or understand. This is where it becomes difficult, and sometimes unbearable, for an Asperger's-affected child in a school environment.
In the early stages of childhood, it is expected that children will mature in their relationships. Adults teach children how to "play nice" and reward them for doing so. As children mature, they are expected to form friendships with others, and many of these friendships are initiated at school.
On-time language development and intelligence often mask the autism of Asperger's-affected individuals, but as they get older their developmental delays become apparent -- hence the teasing, bullying, and shunning by peers. According to Tony Atwood, children who have Asperger's are three to five years behind their peers, both socially and emotionally.
Statistics bear out that children with Asperger's are virtually always bullied, and often severely. Other kids zone in on the AS-affected child's developmental differences and immature demeanor.
However, these children often want friendships, unlike many of their more severely autism-affected counterparts, yet they have no idea how to form or keep them. This leads to a lack of friendships, usually by the time the child reaches upper elementary (fourth and fifth) and middle school (sixth to eighth) grades.
Children must be taught from an early age that different does not mean inferior. Usually Asperger's-affected children are not in special education classrooms but are mainstreamed into general ed and, sometimes, gifted classrooms. Yet without needed support, they rarely succeed.
Support can be as simple as helping a child maintain an assignment calendar, as children who have Asperger's often lack executive-functioning skills. However, a much higher level of support is often needed, like a paraprofessional to shadow an older child at times when he is vulnerable to peer attack. These times include lunch, physical education and school assemblies.
Unfortunately, many professionals do not recognize the potential of kids who have Asperger's, nor do they understand the basis for their behavior, and they, along with the child's peers, reject them. It's time for educators to educate themselves.
Another way to help young people who have an Asperger's diagnosis form friendships is encouraging them to join a club based on their special interests, i.e., chess, science, art, music, etc. When their peers see they are extremely well-versed on a topic, they may recognize them as an expert and respect them for their knowledge. This will also boost the Asperger's-affected child's self-esteem and help him relate to peers.
The writer served as an expert witness on Asperger's syndrome.
"Understanding Asperger's Syndrome," Emily L. Burrows and Shelia J. Wagner, Future Horizons, Inc., 2004.