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    Asperger's Syndrome
     
     Is There Reason to Worry?

     

Due to the tragic death of a 15-year-old freshman at the Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School, the diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome has been unfortunately linked to violent behavior in the media. The syndrome was named for Hans Asperger’s, a Viennese pediatrician, who in 1944 published his doctoral thesis describing a childhood condition that was characterized by unusual social, linguistic and cognitive abilities. He went on to describe this childhood condition as having minimal social interaction, failure of communication and the development of special interests.

 

Today the diagnostic criteria for Asperger’s Syndrome is more clearly defined and includes some combination of the following characteristics:

 

  • social impairment/extreme egocentricity (at least two of the following: inability to interact with peers, no close friends, avoids others, no interest in making friends, a loner, difficulty sensing others feelings, detached from feelings of others, approaches others to have own needs met, one-sided responses to peers)
     

  • narrow interest (at least one of the following: exclusion of other activities, repetitive adherence, more rote than meaning)
     

  • repetitive routines
     

  • speech and language peculiarities (at least two of the following: abnormalities in inflection, talks too much, talks too little, lack of cohesion to conversation, idiosyncratic use of words, repetitive patterns of speech)

     

  • non-verbal communication problems (at least one of the following: limited or inappropriate facial expression, unable to read emotion from facial expression, unable to give message with eyes, peculiar stiff gaze, does not look at others, does not use hands to express oneself, gestures are large and clumsy, comes too close to others)

     

  • motor clumsiness

Compilation from Gillberg and Gillberg (1989) and Bremner and Nagy (1989)

 

Children who meet the criteria for Asperger’s Syndrome are usually identified in the first years of their schooling if not during their preschool years. Most public schools have specialized programming to meet the specific needs of this student population. Specialized settings are protective of these children for they experience varying degrees of social impairment, an inability to correctly read social cues or respond appropriately to social situations. They can easily become targets of bullying and ridicule if mainstreamed without supportive services.

 

Because of their difficulty in reading social cues and/or difficulty identifying and communicating their needs, they do experience varying degrees of frustration. Ripping papers, breaking pencils and throwing books might be behaviors witnessed as a student struggles to contain his frustration. Aggressive acts directed at others may occur due to the student’s frustration or due to provocation by his peers. These aggressive acts are an immediate and impulsive reaction to a negative situation. Unprovoked aggressive acts are considered rare and warrant diagnostic assessment for neurological factors. A purposeful, pre-meditated violent act directed at another person is not an expected or even rare behavior within the Asperger’s Syndrome.

 

The 16-year-old sophomore accused of this fatal stabbing has an extensive history of behavioral and mental health issues that include “explosive episodes.” He had been previously diagnosed as having met the criteria for ADHD, Bipolar Disorder and Depression as well as Asperger’s Syndrome. It does appear that both the school and specialized settings he had attended in the past two years (four different placements) agreed that this student meets the clinical criteria for Asperger’s Syndrome.

 

However, communities should understand that this violent act is not a typical, common or expected behavior associated with this disorder. Hopefully individuals will gain a better understanding of this complex condition and also gain a heightened sensitivity to children who are diagnosed with Asperger’s as the media coverage continues to follow this tragic story.

 

    By Margaret Baird
    January 2007

 

 

 

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