Autism—and its milder cousin Asperger’s—affects 1 in 150 children across the US. Speculation goes that people like Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Leonardo da Vinci, William Shakespeare and Ibn al-Haytham had this so-called “little professors” syndrome.
Our hearts are broken today” said the President Obama after the school shooting in Connecticut on December 14, 2012. These words reflected most concisely the emotions all of us felt that tragic day, as our minds and hearts failed to grasp how possibly this could have happened, how come a seemingly human being could go this much lower than the wildest beasts. One of the ideas that was proposed to explain this murky situation was that the gunman had an Asperger’s syndrome, which was immediately refused by experts. "First and foremost, our thoughts go out to the families," says Lisa Goring, vice president of family services for Autism Speaks. "We are all searching for answers, but it can be so irresponsible to label autism as the cause of this because we endanger totally innocent kids" (1). This article aims to explain what the Asperger’s Syndrome is about in an effort to save especially kids with this syndrome from another stigma that they have to deal with on top of so many other things.
Thirty years ago, only 4 or 5 Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) cases were reported per 10,000 people. Today, however, approximately 1 in 150 children across the U.S. is diagnosed with it; so chances are, you know someone affected either directly or indirectly by these disorders (2). This being the case, the debates, advocacy, and awareness activities are on the rise. Individuals with ASD show abnormal social interactions, language difficulties, repetitive or restrictive behaviors, and special interests. ASD includes Autism, Pervasive Developmental Disorder and Asperger’s Syndrome (3).
Asperger’s syndrome was first recognized by Hans Asperger in 1944 and the term was popularized by English psychiatrist, Lorna Wing, in 1981. The incidence of this syndrome is not well established, but experts in population studies estimate that two out of every 10,000 children have the disorder. It is more common in boys. They are three to four times more likely than girls to have Asperger’s syndrome (ninds.nih.gov). However, the prevalence in females might be lower because of the fundamental lack of awareness of what Asperger’s Syndrome looks like in females. A female with Asperger’s Syndrome might be considered as shy, quiet, perfect at school, tomboyish, moody, overly competitive, aloof, Gothic, depressed, anxious, or a perfectionist (disabled-world.com).
It is always challenging for people with Asperger’s to lead a normal life in spite of it because this disorder makes it hard to develop social and conversational skills. Affected people display socially and emotionally inappropriate behavior, limited facial expressions, body gestures and inability to recognize nonverbal signals. They lack interest in other people; however, they are obsessively interested in unusual and specific subjects. In addition, they prefer to follow repetitive routines or rituals because they cannot cope with unexpected changes.
A child with Asperger’s syndrome may have the listed signs and symptoms (kidshealth.org):
Parents usually sense there is something abnormal about a child with Asperger’s by the time of his or her third birthday, and some children may exhibit symptoms as early as infancy. Their early language skills retain but motor development delays (for example, crawling or walking late, clumsiness) are sometimes the first indicator of the disorder (ninds.nih.gov).
Hans Asperger called the children with these behaviors “little professors” because they could talk continuously and in great detail about their favorite subjects. These little professors may have an amazing ability to recall dates, names, and events. One parent laughs about how her ten-year-old knew the scientific name of everyday things—from the sugar in the kitchen to the trees in the backyard. He would keep discussing things using the scientific classification (yourlittleprofessor.com).
Most children with Asperger’s syndrome have difficulty interacting with their peers due to the problems in understanding figurative language and tendency to use language literally. Children with this syndrome do not recognize non-literal language that includes humor, irony, and teasing. They struggle just to understand common social cues so they are mostly loners and may display odd behaviors. A child with Asperger’s, for example, may spend hours each day preoccupied with counting cars passing on the street or watching only the weather channel on television. Children with Asperger’s syndrome are also at risk for other psychiatric problems including depression, attention deficit disorder, schizophrenia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (aacap.org).
While the more obvious symptoms of autism are usually at their most florid in early childhood, the symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome may only become noticeable with the social and functional demands of adolescence (autism.net.au). Luke Jackson, a thirteen-year-old boy with Asperger’s Syndrome from England, wrote a book named Freaks, Geeks and Asperger’s Syndrome: A User Guide to Adolescence. He wrote this informative, sincere and entertaining book about complicated topics such as bullying, friendships, when and how to tell others about Asperger’s syndrome, school problems, dating, relationships and morality (4).
The idea that every child with Asperger’s syndrome is a potential genius can put excessive pressure on a child with Asperger’s syndrome (yourlittleprofessor.com). Luke Jackson, for example, complains that he is always watching television about high functioning autistic people who can do things like play the piano brilliantly without taking lessons, draw detailed renditions of buildings they had only seen once or add numbers in their heads like Rain Man. “I find these television programs depressing,” he says. “I got all the nerdiness and freakishness but none of the genius.”
Seeing a child struggle socially and emotionally can be particularly heartbreaking for parents. Children who had seemed to be developing in normal and delightful ways suddenly retreat into their own world, excluding their loving moms and dads in the process after being diagnosed with ASDs. Learning more about ASDs can help parents take charge of their child again and find treatments and therapies that work (specialchildren.about.com). In some states, expanded services are available through public school programs. The most valuable service might be “parent in-home training” with a behavior specialist sponsored by the school. Moreover, parent education and skill building groups organized by some hospitals or health centers can be helpful for parents of youth with ASDs.
There are many famous people for whom there is a lot of speculation that they had Asperger’s Syndrome (5 and 6), such as Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Leonardo da Vinci, William Shakespeare and Ibn al-Haytham. We may never know for sure if all these people have been affected by Asperger’s syndrome. However, most of the listed geniuses focused on something which interested them and their works were not disrupted by the everyday interactions that take up so much time for the rest of us. This might be the key factor behind all their great inventions. Then we can think of their Asperger’s syndrome as a blessing for humanity, because it does give certain strengths and brilliance to these scientists or pioneers that others do not have. In brief, Asperger’s syndrome is not a handicap, but rather a collection of strengths and challenges. If Asperger’s individuals are supported as they explore their capabilities, they can build on their strengths; they can even be the most successful people in history.