Monday, August 08, 2005

My Son The Asparagus

My son has diagnosed himself as suffering from a mild (?) form of autism called Asperger Syndrome, by comparing his behaviour to a checklist of symptoms. I jokingly changed the name to Asparagus, but it is no joking matter. Here is a description of the symptoms from the website

«Asperger Syndrome or (Asperger's Disorder) is a neurobiological disorder named for a Viennese physician, Hans Asperger, who in 1944 published a paper which described a pattern of behaviors in several young boys who had normal intelligence and language development, but who also exhibited autistic-like behaviors and marked deficiencies in social and communication skills. In spite of the publication of his paper in the 1940's, it wasn't until 1994 that Asperger Syndrome was added to the DSM IV and only in the past few years has AS been recognized by professionals and parents.

Individuals with AS can exhibit a variety of characteristics and the disorder can range from mild to severe. Persons with AS show marked deficiencies in social skills, have difficulties with transitions or changes and prefer sameness. They often have obsessive routines and may be preoccupied with a particular subject of interest. They have a great deal of difficulty reading nonverbal cues (body language) and very often the individual with AS has difficulty determining proper body space. Often overly sensitive to sounds, tastes, smells, and sights, the person with AS may prefer soft clothing, certain foods, and be bothered by sounds or lights no one else seems to hear or see. It's important to remember that the person with AS perceives the world very differently. Therefore, many behaviours that seem odd or unusual are due to those neurological differences and not the result of intentional rudeness or bad behaviour, and most certainly not the result of "improper parenting"»

When he announced the news to me, I readily believed him, precisely because I have been worrying about his behaviour. When he was much younger, he was the cutest, sweetest child I’ve ever known, happy and bright, delighting our family with his sunny disposition and his clever jokes. As soon as he reached his teens years though, he went overnight from Dr Jekill to Mr Hyde. Our family outings would systematically degenerate into fights and quarrels, usually with him stomping away in fury. His little brother and I started tiptoeing around him, because we never knew what to say or do that would not provoke an outpouring of rage. I of course attributed all that emotional turmoil to teenagers’ hormones, but I couldn’t help being shocked by the cruelty and thoughtlessness of the comments he sometimes casually shot at people. Now I know that people with AS often have trouble showing affection or have little desire to show affection, and can be very literal and hard to communicate with in an emotional way.

On the other hand, my son is a demonstrably brilliant computer geek. This is what Wikipedia has to say about this aspect of AS : []

«Recently, some researchers have speculated that well-known people, such as including Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton (cf. BBC News, Einstein and Newton "had autism", 30 April 2003), have or had AS, as they showed some Asperger's related tendencies, such as intense interest in one subject, and social problems…[snip].

The obvious social contributions of such individuals has led to a shift in the perception of Asperger's and autism away from the simple view of a disease needing to be cured towards a more complex view of a syndrome with advantages and disadvantages. There is a semi-jocular theory within science fiction fandom, for example, which argues that many of the distinctive traits of that subculture may be explained by the speculation that a significant portion thereof is composed of people with Asperger's. A Wired Magazine article called The Geek Syndrome suggested that Asperger's syndrome is more common in the Silicon Valley, a haven for computer scientists and mathematicians. It created an enduring myth popularized in the media and self-help books that "Geek Syndrome" equals Asperger's syndrome, and precipitated a rash of self-diagnoses. Though these conditions do share traits, there is a consensus that most geeks are arguably "variant normal" and do not exhibit autistic-spectrum behaviors. "Geeks" may exhibit an extreme professional or casual interest in computers, science, engineering and related fields, and may be introverted; however, they do not suffer from impairments per se. This does not imply that there is no overlap between "geeks" and Asperger's patients, but it should be noted that self-diagnosis is a dangerous practice, and one prone to error.»

Because he thinks that Asperger's syndrome is the source of his superior intelligence, my son is not interested in seeking treatment for his disorder. People who love him and know about his «sickness» are trying to read as much as possible about it and to educate themselves in order to better understand him and avoid being distressed by his apparent coldness or his failure to demonstrate love and empathy.

According to the Wikipedia article, "aspy" or "aspie" is an affectionate term used by some with Asperger's syndrome to describe themselves. Others prefer "Aspergian", "Asperger's Autistic" or no name at all. I call him my Asparagus.

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