Paynesville Press - April 28, 2004

Community Perspective

Understanding Asperger's Syndrome

By Paula Geier

Since April is Autism Awareness Month, I'd like to introduce you to Asperger's Syndrome.

It's almost impossible to find a description of this that the average person, like you and me, can understand; all the information I've ever read on it almost requires a Ph. D. to understand, so I'll try to translate as best I can.

Asperger's Syndrome is a form of autism. In essence, it is a slight difference in the construction of the brain that affects the way the child develops. It is not a mental condition. It severely affects the social and emotional aspects of the child's personality; they lack the inborn skills to interpret body language, facial expression and other nonverbal cues, and don't understand emotional feelings.

They have difficulty developing relationships with children their own age. They have difficulty judging personal space and may appear clumsy.

They may have impaired speech and verbal skills, although they tend to have above-average vocabularies. They interpret language literally and can be concrete in their thinking.

They can be inflexible or obsessed with sticking to a routine, along with exhibiting repetitive behaviors. They can become preoccupied with a particular subject to the exclusion of all others. They have high personal standards and good organizational skills, and show creativity in things that interest them.

They have a desire to be helpful, obedient, and accommodating, and tend to have a strong sense of honesty, justice, and fairness, as well as uncompromising principles. They tend to be hypersensitive to loud noises, clothing, food textures and odors. They have strong ties to home and family.

Want to put a face to that description? His name is Jayson, and he's 10 years old. He's a really cute kid with blonde hair, big blue eyes, freckles, and a beautiful smile.

He wants to play with other kids, but has a very hard time because he doesn't know how to interact with them. He has had so many bad experiences on the playground that he makes excuses to stay inside during recess.

He has a very expressive face and voice when reading aloud, but has an extremely hard time expressing his own feelings or understanding other people's. When his Grandma Geier died he had to be taught that when someone dies, people feel sad and cry.

He has difficulty looking anyone in the eye, and doesn't like to be touched unexpectedly. When he's anxious he rubs his fingers together repeatedly or chews on his shirt collar. He bites his nails.

He can watch the same movie over and over again for weeks, and then suddenly that movie will be placed on a shelf and a different movie takes its place. After watching a movie just a few times he knows the dialogue by heart, and can sing along with all the music.

His vocabulary is that of a much older child, yet he has an extremely hard time making simple conversation; it may take him quite a few tries to get a simple sentence out. He has excellent spelling skills, but doesn't like to write because the pencil feels funny in his hand.

As soon as he gets home from school he strips down to his underwear. He loves music, but goes into his room and shuts the door when I play the piano because it's too noisy. At family gatherings he finds the quietest area and stays there.

I have packed him the same basic lunch for school for the past three years: peanut butter and jelly sandwich (cut in a circle), a bag of Cheetos, a slice of cheese, chocolate pudding, and four chocolate chip cookies. He eats mostly finger foods because the silverware feels too strange in his mouth.

He loves to dress up and play parts in the school programs, but he doesn't like people looking at him.

We can't stray from our morning routine or he has a hard time for the rest of the day.

He wants to be the best at everything he tries and gets frustrated when he's not. He loves to look at the moon and talks of being an astronaut.

He has one friend, Eric; most of the other kids just think he's weird, and they tell him so. He looks just like any other kid, but his social and emotional shortcomings often make it appear to others that he is being difficult or mean or rude, when he is only trying to fit in but doesn't have the built-in ability to do so, an ability that we take for granted.

Thankfully, some responses can be taught over time; Jayson has learned to interpret facial expressions through the use of flash cards: for instance, a smiling face means happy, a crying face means sad or hurt. In school they use social stories where they write out how Jayson should act or react in any given social situation. Jayson has made tremendous progress in so many areas since being diagnosed five years ago, but he will never be cured.

Consider what a normal day is for you. How many different social situations are you faced with in the course of that day? Now imagine that every different person you meet speaks a language and uses gestures that you don't understand. You have to page through a translation book looking for some way to communicate. Think it would be frustrating? Scary?

Now you may have some idea of what Asperger's Syndrome is like. If anyone would like to form an autism support group in the area, please contact me at 320-276-8443.

When I think about Asberger's Syndrome, one of my favorite sayings comes to mind...I believe it's of Native American origin and goes something like this: "Don't judge someone until you have walked a mile in their moccasins."

Jayson would interpret this literally and would probably ask, why can't I wear my own shoes?

He's funny and smart. He gives Eskimo kisses and big hugs. He misses his brother. He loves his mom, dad, and chocolate milk. He's normal. He's different. He's Jayson.

Paula Geier's son, Jayson, is a third grader in New London-Spicer.

Would you like to participate as a Community Perspective writer? Call Michael Jacobson at 320-243-3772 to get scheduled as a writer or e-mail him at

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