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Monday, July 6, 2009

Ruminations of an Old Goat

If you're like me, no amount of money in the world could make you live through your middle school years again. It's during middle school when being the smart kid starts to be bad and being the athletic or good looking kid starts becoming paramount. I was not the most socially adept kid in my grade, which made those years the worst ones in my life. I can only imagine how much worse it is for a child who cannot detect, much less decode, the subtle social clues most of us pick up naturally long before reaching middle school. I can only imagine what it's like to have someone say to you, "Hi, I'm new in this school!" and have no idea what the proper response should be.

But that is the world for those with Asperger's Syndrome. That is the world for my son.

Social skills are unfathomable mysteries to a child with Asperger's, something most middle schoolers consider unforgivable. Add in the fact that most Aspergians tend to be both considerably smarter and considerably less athletic than other kids their age and you've got the recipe for three years of Hell for a child with Asperger's. As a parent, I can't tell you how much it hurts not to be able to protect your child from that Hell.

Asperger's Syndrome is, for want of a better word for it, autism lite. Most Aspies, as they have been known to call themselves, are very high functioning. They're generally quite bright and have strong communications skills for their age. I should qualify that; they have strong communications skills when communicating with adults (children are generally a different story). There's a fairly long list of symptoms of Asperger's, but one most people will notice is the child can easily filter out anything that's not part of his current focus. I know every parent reading this is thinking, "All kids are like that." And they're right, to an extent. A child with Asperger's, though, makes other children look wonderfully attentive in comparison.

All of this makes life that much more difficult for my son. Other adults can sometimes be as big a problem as children his own age. Those who do not know he has Asperger's and can get quite irritated at the way he acts. Worse are the adults who know he has Asperger's but who refuse to grant him even some minor consideration because of it. They generally claim he could act normally if he would simply try harder, as if he was choosing to be a social outsider.

Do these people walk up to blind kids and tell them to "choose" to see? Of course not. It would be cruel to tell a child something like that. These same people, though, feel it is entirely reasonable for them to expect my son to "choose" to act normally. Of course, I know the rationale. Blindness is an obvious physical problem. It's even easy to understand; close your eyes and try walking around for a bit and you can get a feel for what it's like to be blind. Asperger's Syndrome isn't obvious nor can you simply turn off the part of your brain that picks up on all those social subtleties. Asperger's is hard to diagnose and impossible for us to experience without completely rewiring our brains.

Looking back, there were clues to my son's condition that seem blindingly obvious now, such as his tendency to start spinning in place when the world overwhelmed him. I knew that was an "autism thing" but my son was obviously not autistic in the traditional meaning of the word. In school, we got reports of poor behavior right from the beginning. His kindergarten teacher was one of those who seemed to assume he could choose to behave. It was in first grade that we had the first suggested diagnosis. You can guess what it was -- ADHD.

I wasn't surprised when this was offered as an explanation for his behavior. After all, isn't ADHD the fallback position in the schools when a child isn't behaving as expected? I'd read plenty on this and was not going to be one of those parents who rushed right out and put his child on some kind of ADHD medication just because the school said to do it. I balked when his second grade teacher, a truly wonderful teacher with twenty-five years of experience, hinted that medication was something we should consider. I finally gave in when he was in the third grade, though not because of anything his lackluster third grade teacher said. It was something my son said to me.

After a particularly poor week at school, Brandt came up to me at home and said, "Daddy, I'm sorry I'm not as good a kid as you want me to be."

Ouch. Talk about a verbal cut to the heart. The next day we made an appointment to discuss medication with our pediatrician. When we finally found the right medication and the right dosage, his fourth grade teacher (his only male teacher through elementary school and another one we liked a lot) told us the difference was like night and day. Of course, that only lasted until he grew some more because then the old dosage wasn't sufficient any more. That's been an ongoing quest and will be until he stops growing.

It was shortly after he started middle school that one of Brandt's teachers suggested Asperger's Syndrome. She had a son who had been diagnosed with it and saw all the same indications in Brandt that she had seen in her son. We followed her advice and had Brandt evaluated. It wasn't cheap, but we're glad we did it.

Finally getting an accurate diagnosis has helped us immeasurably. My wife and I better understand my son's issues and try hard to take them into consideration. We've found social skills counselling with a group of kids who have his same issues. We've learned which battles to fight and which ones to back off and deal with another day. We've learned what we can reasonably expect from him and what he will have to work extra hard to master.

Now, if I could just get this across to the kids in middle school... Of course, if the kids in middle school were non-judgemental it wouldn't really be middle school, would it?
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