Tuesday, March 20, 2007

A few thoughts on Asperger's disorder

I currently work at an elementary school in North as a Special Education Assistant (SEA). This gives me the privilege of working with kids who have a variety of disabilities. Last term, my first, I worked with a child who has Asperser’s disorder, a variation of Autism. Working with him challenged me daily providing times of stress, laughter, joy and anxiety. He moved back to Korea at Christmas time and I have wished on many occasions since that he had stayed so I would be able to continue to work with him, learning more about this remarkable disorder.

Since then, I have heard nothing about Asperser’s. That is until I started reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, by Mark Haddon © 2003, a remarkable story told from the perspective of a boy with Asperser’s. There are two portions of this book that have effected me most because of their frankness and truth about what it is like to have Asperser’s.

Chapter 71 “All the other children at my school are stupid. Except that I am not meant to call them ‘stupid’ even though this is what they are. I’m meant to say that they have ‘learning difficulties’ or that they have ‘special needs.’ But this is stupid because everyone has learning difficulties, because learning to speak French or understanding relativity is difficult, and also everyone has special needs. Like father, who has to carry a little packet of artificial sweetening tablets around with him to put in his coffee to stop him from getting fat. Or Mrs. Peters, who wears beige colored hearing aide. Or Shaven, who has glasses so think that they give you a head ache if you borrow them. And none of these people are ‘special needs,’ even if they have special needs.”

As a person with 'special needs,' I have often wondered what it would be like for me, and for my family, if I were born without special needs. I have lamented over my disabilities many times. Due to my visual impairment, I cannot drive and have had to rely on others to take me places. Because of a stroke I had in 1993, I have difficulty remembering many past events, people's names, or things I need to accomplish.

I have been discouraged over these things. However, through the eyes of a person with disabilities, Mark Haddon reminds me that a large or even small minority does not share disabilities. Whatever they are, everybody has at least one disability, and for the most part, most of them are getting along just fine.

Chapter 73 “I used to think mother and father might get divorced. That was because they had lots of arguments and sometimes, they hated each other. This was because of the stress of looking after someone who has ‘behavioral problems’ like I have. I used to have lots of behavioral problems. But I don’t have so many now because I’m all grown up, and I can make decisions for myself, and do things on my own like going out of the house and buying things at the shop at the en of the road. These are some of my behavioral problems.

a) not talking to people for a long time. Once I didn’t talk to anyone for five weeks.

b) not eating or drinking anything for a long time. When I was six, mother used to get me to drink strawberry flavored slimming meals out of the measuring jug. And we’d have competitions to see how fast I could drink a quarter of a letre.

c) not liking being touched.

d) screaming when I’m angry or confused.

e) not like being in really small places with other people.

f) smashing things when I’m angry or confused.

g) groaning.

h) not liking yellow things or brown things. And refusing to touch yellow things, or brown things.

i) refusing to use my toothbrush if anyone else has touched it.

j) not eating food if different sorts of food are touching each other.

k) not noticing if people are angry with me.

l) not smiling.

m) saying things that other people think are rude. People say that you always have to tell the truth, but they do not mean this. Because you’re not allowed to tell old people that they’re old. And you’re not allowed to tell people if they smell funny, or if a grown up has made a fart. And you’re not allowed to say, ‘I don’t like you’ unless that person has been horrible to you.

n) doing stupid things. Stupid things are like emptying a jar of peanut butter onto the table in the kitchen, and making it level with a knife so that it covers all the table, right to the edges. Or burning things on the gas stove to see what will happen to them. Like my shoes, or silver foil, or sugar.

o) hitting other people.

p) hating France.

q) driving mother’s car. I only did this once by borrowing the keys when she went into town on the bus. And I hadn’t driven a car before, and I was eight years old and five months, so I drove it into the wall. The car isn’t there anymore because mother’s dead.

r) getting cross when someone has moved the furniture. It is permitted to move the chairs and the table in the kitchen because that’s different. But it makes me feel dizzy and sick if somebody moves the chairs and the sofa around in the living room or the dining room. Mother used to do this when she did the hoovering. So, I made a special plan of where all the furnitures mean to be, and did measurements and put everything back in its proper place afterwards, now I felt better. But since mother died, father hasn’t done any hoovering. That’s OK. But Mrs. Sheers did the hoovering once, but I did groaning and she shouted at father and she never did it again."

Do you recognize any of these challenges in yourself? I have seen them in me. As an SEA, I have seen kids with these problems. Some of them have been labeled with Asperser’s, but many others may do these things because they need a way to release their anger or anxiety. You may not be a person who refuses to eat food of other sorts of food are touching, you probably notice if people are angry with you, and you probably drive a car of your own. However, you may choose other things on this list. Like refusing to use your toothbrush if anyone else has touched it, smashing things when you are angry or confused, or even groaning in a proper way and at a proper time.

This list is not exhaustive. You may want to add to this list. You may add: biting nails, singing aloud (but to yourself) in a public place, or cracking your knuckles. To make us feel better, we often refer to these as habits, and reserve the 'disability' label for others who have something a little bit more serious. However, maybe our habits are a little bit more serious, and maybe someone's disability is not so serious.