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BOOK SMART: Novels that offer a window on Asperger syndrome

Plymouth Guide - 9/2/2017

As the wonders of a new school year approach, most parents and children look forward to colorful new classrooms, new teachers, new friends, and new routines. But for families of children with Asperger's Syndrome, September can be an extremely anxiety filled month.

Asperger syndrome is a developmental disorder characterized by significant deficits in social and communication skills. Asperger used to be considered a standalone condition until 2013, when it was officially reclassified along with other pervasive developmental disorders under a single diagnosis: autism spectrum disorder. While autism and Asperger do share many similarities, in Asperger there is no general delay or retardation of language and cognitive development.

The syndrome was first described in 1944 by Hans Asperger, an Austrian pediatrician, who described boys who were intelligent, with no history of language delay, but who were socially isolated and had difficulty engaging with their peers. He described them as "little professors" who learned to talk before they could walk. They were frequently verbose, possessed extensive knowledge of narrow topics, and demonstrated poor motor skills.

Asperger's is a developmental disorder that usually manifests between the ages of 3 and 5 years, is more often diagnosed in boys than girls, and is characterized by the following traits:

* Significant and qualitative impairment in social interaction: While children with Asperger may want to fit in, and have friends, they have significant difficulty in making effective social connections. This difficulty is created in part by impairment in multiple nonverbal behaviors such as eye contact, body posture, spatial boundaries, and lack of emotional reciprocity. Additionally their communication is impaired by problems with voice modulation, inflection, taking turns speaking, and a strong tendency to engage in one-sided conversations typically about an unusually narrow topic. Such children have extreme difficulty reading social cues, understanding facial expressions and tend to take things very literally. As result, children with Asperger often lack the basic skills necessary for real social reciprocity.

* Highly circumscribed interests and activities: Children with Asperger often demonstrate an intense preoccupation with narrow, circumscribed areas of interest (eg. snakes, state capitals, maps) and tend to acquire extraordinary amounts of factual information without a genuine understanding of broader phenomenon. Their preoccupation with such topics does not necessarily coincide with a desire to share these interests, and may be grossly out of sync with those held by same age peers. Individuals with Asperger may have specific outstanding cognitive abilities including a prominent talent in art, music and calculation leading some to call them "little geniuses."

* Rigid patterns of repetitive behavior and adherence to routines and rituals: Children with Asperger often engage in stereotyped and repetitive motor behaviors. Some children with Asperger may have a heightened sensitivity to noise, light, and sound which can generate significant anxiety. To calm themselves, they may engage in repetitive motor behaviors or tics such as hand or finger flapping, body twisting etc. Similarly, behavioral rituals and routines are highly comforting to children with Asperger and any degree of change or variation can stimulate overwhelming anxiety and result in emotional outbursts., Finally, children with Asperger may exhibit poor fine motor coordination, lack of fluency in locomotion and uncoordinated movements. As such, they may be delayed in acquiring skills such as pedaling a bike, catching a ball, and climbing outdoor play equipment.

With their heightened sensitivity to sensory stimuli, deficits in communication and socialization skills and motor limitations, it is easy to understand why the start of a new school year generates great anxiety for Asperger students and their families. Yet, it is important to note that while Aspergers is a lifelong condition, symptoms and skill deficits can be addressed and it tends to improve over time.

In recent years Asperger's syndrome has exploded into popular culture in both film and books with plot lines that tend to depict these children as either sleuthing geniuses who have witnessed a crime they feel compelled to solve, or as potential suspects. As a psychologist, I can't help but wonder if this is the result of our collective anxiety about all that we still don't know and understand about autism spectrum disorder. Yet, for better or worse, popular culture novels will hopefully stimulate more dialogue and more needed research.

This month's novels follow the trend, but do a very fine job of not only conveying the challenges and triumphs of children with Asperger's, but also give powerful voice to their inner thoughts and perspectives amidst compelling storylines.

"The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," Mark Haddon's colorful, captivating, funny, and heartfelt story of a 15-year-old boy in Swindon, England who discovers a murdered poodle on his neighbor's front lawn late one evening. While solving the crime might be a challenge for any child, this task becomes herculean for a boy with Asperger's syndrome.

While he is a whiz at math and science, the nuances and complexity of human emotion and communication are beyond complex for the story's protagonist, Christopher John Francis Boone. He can't read between the lines of adult communication, doesn't like going to unfamiliar places, and can't tolerate excessive noise or touch. Yet, Christopher cares about animals and is determined to find out who would possibly have wanted to kill his neighbor's dog. While Christopher sets out to solve the murder, along the way he is forced to confront hidden family secrets, and the mystery behind his mother's absence.

Told through the voice of Christopher himself, this unique journey for answers is fraught with an undeniably difficult set of challenges as he tries to navigate the adult world of emotion, lies, and intrigue. Despite Christopher's courage and intellect, will this challenge exceed his ability to cope or allow him to expand the boundaries of his carefully constructed world?

"Colin Fischer," by Ashley Edward Miller and Zach Stent, will touch your heart, make you think, and make you laugh. Colin Fischer, 14, becomes an unlikely hero when he sets out to exonerate a classmate he believes has been wrongly accused of bringing a gun to school.

Colin knows bullies because he has been their frequent target. The stiff, robotic, and often blunt communications which characterize his Asperger's syndrome have made him a bit of an outcast in his freshman class. But solving this case may change all that. What is most surprising is that the boy who has been accused has been one of Colin's strongest tormentors —the very boy who dunked him in a toilet on the first day of school.

While Colin's bluntness and unending reliance on flashcards to help him identify others' emotion set him apart, so to do his strengths. Colin has unparalleled powers of observation, recall, and deduction as well as a heightened sense of fair play. But most of all, Colin is authentic. By the end of this story, he will make you not merely sympathetic to his struggles but cheering his logic, honesty, and passion for truth.

"There's More Than One Way Home," Donna Levin's newest novel, is a well written, fast paced story that will keep you captivated and an intelligent, thought provoking social commentary on intolerance.

Anna Kagen is a beautiful woman, mother of a 10 year old son, married to a smart, handsome, district attorney But her life is still something of a struggle and is about to get even harder.

Anna's husband is critical and controlling, and her son Jack's Asperger's syndrome sometimes leaves her lonely and overwhelmed as she helps him navigate his social world. When Anna chaperones Jack's class trip to an island preserve in San Francisco Bay, she relaxes for one moment and lets him go off to the bathroom alone. Jack fails to return, and Anna discovers that not only is her son missing but so are three other boys. When they are finally located in a frantic search, one child is found dead at the bottom of a ditch.

Jack is accused of angrily pushing the student to his death by the two classmates who claim to have witnessed his crime, and an angry parent-fueled witch hunt ensues. Will Anna's love and determination prove enough to clear her son's name and save her fragile marriage amidst spiraling public intolerance and ignorance?

Tweets by NancyHBookSmart

 
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