Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Autism and Aspberger's Syndrome and How to Nurture Difference

There's a spiritual counseling session Paul and I did awhile ago that has always stayed with me because what we heard shocked me. (Some aspects of this account have been changed to protect confidentiality.) This was a free initial consultation that turned into a full hour session but the person involved didn't like what he heard. You see, his child had a form of autism called Aspberger's Syndrome in which some very specific brain functions may be extremely heightened but there is a distinct lack of development in many other areas. In particular this parent was upset because his child could not function in a social group. He and his wife were embarrassed by him and, because his wife was desperately searching for a "healer" who could take the condition away, he decided to play watchdog by meeting with us before a paid session would happen to test our services out.

At one point in the session he described how brilliant his child was. He taught himself to read by the age of 3 and spent hours at a time deeply focused on things adults do in the field of engineering. But on the playground he was lost. He would stand by the side and not know how to join in, he said completely inappropriate things, made strange body movements in an obsessive manner, and was very uncoordinated on the playing field. We made the "mistake" of expressing our belief that what his child was capable of doing was amazing and the father disagreed: "What good is knowing how to read at the age of three if you can't function socially?!!!"

I taught myself to read at the age of three. I spent hours each day doing my own thing with incredible focus and devotion that is rare for a child to display. I did not speak very much at home and almost never at school unless called on. When I did speak I pronounced things in a such an unusual way I was put for a short while in the "special class" for speech therapy. I spent my early childhood at the edge of the playground not knowing how to join in.

Now on the spectrum of Aspberger's Syndrome I wouldn't rate. I learned to speak, I learned how to relate to lots of different people. I wasn't narrowly focused in my interest. My curiosity actually covers a fairly wide range and my brain is capable of multiple types of thinking. I once had a photographic memory -- that's visual thinking. But I also could play music and compose songs and was also extremely "verbal" in the sense of reading and writing skills. This is not a true Aspberger's picture by any stretch of the imagination. More like shyness, in my case, and a lack of understanding about why I would care about some of the social games I saw people play instead of the immensely fascinating things I could be doing instead (the Aspberger's tendency with which I do tend to relate).

Luckily for me and my current profession, what makes people tick and how to help them is one of the biggest things that fascinates me. That's why I wound up working in the field of Alzheimer's Disease and family caregiving for awhile. It's why I took classes in both psychology and neurophysiology for the fun of it. And it's why I loved this TED video with Temple Grandin!

Temple Grandin is a woman who was diagnosed with autism as a child. Yet she grew up and overcame enough of the handicaps she was challenged with to become an expert in the very narrow but useful field she focused on. She went on to write a book about how her mind functions differently as a person with Aspberger's and to become a true hero in the Autism community for her accomplishments in helping to teach people how important it is to nurture people with a wide spectrum of abilities.

In our session with the parent I mentioned above Paul and I tried to tell him what a beautiful gem he had for a child, how he should be protected from overstimulation while providing lots of opportunity for him to meet other people (of any age) who would value the gifts he already was exhibiting. We thought that it was great that they had family who lived in the Bay area -- certainly there are many people providing great service to the world with the very same differences he complained of, as Temple Grandin says, in Silicon Valley. Not only that, when these engineer/Aspberger folks get together they do speak, they do provide each other with a social system that supports them. We thought it was essential to nurture the child's strengths and provide a loving way for him to express himself along with the necessary skills to get by in the world we share together.

This parent didn't pay us for that session because we said we couldn't "cure" his child. We even said that his child's Aspberger's could help him contribute to making the world a better place. But dad couldn't accept it and it's bothered me ever since.

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