Struggle for Understanding Set Apart by Their Odd Habits, People with Asperger Syndrome Have with Vast Amounts of Knowledge but Few Friends. They Just Want Others to Know Why

By Shenfeld, Hilary | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), July 7, 2003 | Go to article overview
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Struggle for Understanding Set Apart by Their Odd Habits, People with Asperger Syndrome Have with Vast Amounts of Knowledge but Few Friends. They Just Want Others to Know Why


Shenfeld, Hilary, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


Byline: Hilary Shenfeld Daily Herald Staff Writer

Adam Holman was 2 years old before he uttered his first word, and 3 before people could understand what he was saying.

He spoke later than many kids, but not terribly late, his parents figured.

In school, Adam didn't have many friends. He missed important social cues, droning on about a subject, for example, even if other kids rolled their eyes or walked away.

Not everyone makes friends easily, his parents told themselves.

At home in Naperville, Adam became extremely agitated if someone sat in his spot at the kitchen table or the family car.

Just stubborn, his parents believed.

"We just thought this was how he was," said his mother, Jill Holman. "We worked around his idiosyncrasies and unusual behavior."

It wasn't until sixth grade that a teacher noticed that Adam's behavior was beyond unusual. He wouldn't make eye contact with other classmates. If math lessons extended past the regular period, he couldn't focus on anything for the rest of the day. His strange behavior alienated other students, who didn't invite him to join in their activities.

A child psychologist evaluated Adam and finally put a name to the boy's collection of odd ways: He had Asperger syndrome.

"I said, 'What's that?'" Jill Holman remembered.

It's a question more people are asking as increasing numbers are given the relatively new diagnosis, which often is considered a high-functioning form of autism.

Asperger also is gaining more recognition with the creation of support groups and books like the newly released "Finding Ben," which details a mother's struggle to understand her son.

Despite the growing awareness, Jill Holman thinks people need to learn more about the so-called "little professor" syndrome so they can understand the odd kid in class.

"I hope people will have a little more empathy that these children are not doing it to get attention or to be difficult," she said. "They simply function differently than the rest of us do."

Few or no friends

What sets people with Asperger apart is their extreme inability to interact socially. Some people might assume that's not so debilitating. After all, what's so bad about a kid who relates better to books and computers than to people?

In fact, social skills are huge.

"Childhood competence with peers and friends is a significant predictor" of how well kids do later on in life, said Willard Hartup, a professor emeritus at the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota.

Researchers aren't the only ones to recognize the value of sociability. In polls, people say social skills and personal character are more important components of career success than academic achievement, according to the opinion research firm Public Agenda.

People with Asperger also are very literal, and don't get it when people are being sarcastic or humorous.

"The first time I called him 'dear,' he looked at me and said, 'Mom, do I have antlers coming out of my head?'" Jill Holman recalled.

Other traits of the disorder include clumsy and uncoordinated movements, limited interests or a preoccupation with one topic and repetitive routines. As a result, a person with the malady will often get wrapped up in his or her own world and talk nonstop about one subject.

They also can have a limited repertoire of facial expressions, be hypersensitive to loud noises, odors or food textures, become extremely agitated in new situations and be exceptionally disorganized.

People with Asperger can be highly intelligent, though, which often can mask the disorder and cause it to be misdiagnosed or not diagnosed at all.

"These kids look normal," Jill Holman said. "But they don't function normally."

Diagnoses increasing

Figures vary widely, but experts estimate as many as 1 in 300 people has traits of Asperger, a syndrome identified in 1944 by a Vienna doctor but recognized in the United States only since 1994.

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