She knew the words to every Frank Sinatra song ever recorded, could tell you every place he ever performed and could even tell you what the singer’s favorite ice cream flavor was.
But she struggled to make friends and play with other children. This 10-year-old girl has Asperger Syndrome, a form of autism. People with autism have a complex brain disorder marked by repetitive behaviors such as rocking, difficulty socializing with others and trouble understanding verbal and nonverbal communication such as body language.
Asperger Syndrome, sometimes informally called high functioning autism, is at the top of one umbrella diagnosis of varying levels of autism, according to the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V). Asperger Syndrome used to be listed separately until the publication of the fifth edition of the DSM-V in May 2013.
People with Asperger Syndrome usually don’t have as severe symptoms as people who may be further down on the autism spectrum. They don’t have the language delays seen in most people who have autism and usually have average or above average intelligence, according to Autism Speaks.
People with Asperger Syndrome tend to have narrow, restricted interests which could include trains, cars or a particular singer such as Frank Sinatra. They often pick up so much knowledge about these topics that they become experts. Sometimes, this knowledge, combined with the unique way people with autism see the world, may result in extraordinary talents and contributions to society. In fact, famous people such as Beethoven, Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein may owe their success to undiagnosed Asperger Syndrome.
Use Their Interests
One mistake parents and teachers of children with Asperger Syndrome often make is trying to discourage the child from their so-called “preferred interest.” This technique often backfires because children are so obsessed with their area of interest and take such pleasure in it.
Instead of discouraging the interest, look for ways to use it to motivate the child. Maybe the interest can be used as a reward. For example, a child who successfully does his or her chores can then listen to Frank Sinatra CDs.
Keep in mind that many interests have practical applications. The girl who loves Frank Sinatra may become a knowledgeable, helpful employee of a music store some day. A boy who loves cars may grow up to be a talented car mechanic. Parents and teachers can continually remind the children of their long-term goal. For example, they can tell them that good car mechanics do their homework because they can’t become mechanics without a high school diploma.
Teach Social Skills
Children with Asperger Syndrome may not know how to carry on a conversation or play well with others. They don’t understand that they have to give the other person a chance to talk and respond to them. They often lack a “filter” when conversing with others. Whatever children with Asperger Syndrome think may just come out of their mouths without realizing they may be hurting other people’s feelings. They may not know how to take turns or follow the rules of games when playing with other children.
Parents, teachers and therapists can teach children these skills through modeling and role plays. Show the child how to greet someone, how to listen and respond to other people and how to “play nice.” Role play the part of another child and practice social situations. How would you play with another child? What would you do first? What would you say to them?
Children with Asperger Syndrome may need to learn empathy. They may not realize they are hurting people’s feelings when they blurt out whatever’s on their minds. Ask then how they would feel if someone told them they were too short or too fat.
Look For the Positive
Look for the positive parts of Asperger Syndrome. They often have extraordinary knowledge and talents the rest of us lack. They may be gifted in math, science, music or painting. Reassure them and remind them of their gifts when they feel discouraged. After all, they may grow up to become another Albert Einstein.
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition, published by the American Psychiatric Association, May 2013
My own knowledge and experience of working with children and adults with Asperger Syndrome
More by this contributor:
Four Tips to Help Children Develop Empathy
How to Talk to People Who Have Autism
How to Tell If Your Child Has ADHD