Viva: Guiding Light for the Kids Left Confused by the World; Abigail Hughes Meets a Woman Dedicated to Helping Children Who Have Asperger Syndrome Cope with Life
Byline: Abigail Hughes
IN some ways, 15-year-old Christopher is like plenty of other teenage lads.
He loves sci-fi and Star Trek, reads detective novels, has a much beloved pet rat and plans to go to university. But that's where the similarities end. While typical teenagers are interested in showing off, looking good and underage drinking, maths whizz Christopher is entirely different.
He has few friends and finds people very confusing - struggling to read their body language and facial expressions. He only eats certain coloured food, and how good or bad the day ahead will be is determined by what colour cars he sees on the way to school.
And unlike other teenagers, who are usually more than willing to switch plans at a moment's notice if something more fun comes up, Christopher likes - and needs - to know precisely what will be happening and when. While most teenage lads steer clear of ``childish'' hugs from their parents, Christopher has always hated being touched in any way.
He has Asperger Syndrome - a type of autism. Although his IQ and vocabulary are normal, he has few social skills, is unable to make ``small talk'' and struggles to understand other people have different opinions to his own.
Christopher is not a real boy - he is the narrator in Mark Haddon's award-winning novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time - but he could easily be one of the thousands of people in Wales with Asperger Syndrome. The condition is known as an ``autism spectrum disorder'', because while it displays some of the antisocial characteristics of autism, those with Asperger have average or above average intelligence.
Until recently, many cases were not diagnosed - they were simply regarded as eccentric loners. Now, though, understanding has increased and Wales is particularly well equipped to help Asperger children thanks to specialist centres located in high schools throughout the country.
Janine Jerling works in Llanidloes High School's Autistic Spectrum Disorder Centre, teaching a dozen children from across Powys. And Janine has pioneered an innovative new scheme to prepare her young charges for life in - and far beyond - the classroom.
Called Future Studies, the scheme aims to equip youngsters with Asperger for the future, covering everything from relationships to getting a job.
``The children were always asking why they had to come to school and why they had to do lessons. Future Studies helps them find the answers, '' says Janine, 29. ``As they get older, the natural progression is to teach them about life after school.
``There is no point sheltering them in a school, then throwing them out unprepared for the real world. They need to be taught behaviour like where to stand when talking to someone and how to approach a person you'd like to be friends with. Often Asperger children are teased, so they must be taught how to make friends or they grow into very shy adults. '' Another symptom is sensory over-stimulation. ``They can't differentiate between noises in the background and foreground and hear noises others don't notice, '' says Janine, who moved to Britain from South Africa to specialise in autistic teaching. ``So I teach them what the most important sounds are; in the classroom that's the teacher's voice.
At Llanidloes High School, Janine's pupils have most of their lessons in mainstream classes, apart from PE - ``too unstructured'' - and music - ``overstimulating''. …