I opened the paper this morning, chanting, “Please don’t let it be Asperger’s. Please don’t let it be Asperger’s.” I scanned the articles quickly about the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, dreading that I would find out the gunman had Asperger’s Syndrome. And he did, of course.
The same disorder my son has. My heart twists. I am afraid, in a deep, wary, sickened way, and grieved, in a deep, weary, sickened way. Will everyone avoid my son now? Treat him with caution? Label him as a threat? Watch for signs of violence?
(As I do. I will admit it, for if I don’t today, I will do a disservice to every child who died, and every parent who is afraid to send their child to school on Monday.)
Let me tell you what it is. You think you know, but you don’t. You only know the extreme cases, the worst cases, the way that we only know about the worst cases of schizophrenia, or Tourette’s. Asperger’s Syndrome is a type of autism. It is often called “high-functioning” autism because those who have it usually have very high IQ’s. Like over 100 IQ’s. Like over 125, like over 150. Children with Asperger’s go to school, some even go to college. Parents, like me, often like to brag, or almost brag, that Bill Gates, Madame Curie, and Thomas Jefferson probably had Asperger’s.
Asperger’s often simply means that the child is socially awkward. He or she is unable to interact with the peers in regular ways. They are immature, shy, and fearful. They do not know how to read others’ emotions, and they have trouble handling their own.
It does not mean that they are head-bangers. It does not mean that they are smearing feces. It does not mean that they are violent.
Or maybe it does. Some children with Asperger’s do, indeed, become violent. Unable to express their intense, chaotic, cramped up emotions, they often lash out. But it most often at the people that they are closest to.
To be honest, again for those babies in Sandy Hook Elementary School, I will tell you that it wasn’t a surprise to me that the gunman killed his own mother. My son has hit me twice. He has screamed at me innumerable times.
He often has tantrums, roaring, raging tantrums, that sometimes last an hour. I close the windows so the neighbors don’t hear. I cancel my plans for the evening, I go get his “coping mechanisms,” – his soft blanket, his earphones, his Legoes. And I get tissues for me.
For it hurts. It’s hard. And yes, it’s sometimes scary. I look for signs that he might become violent. I drive, every month, an hour away to the closest child psychiatrist, who meets with us for ten minutes, typing away on her computer the entire time, only to “up” a dosage of his expensive medicine again, which means another prescription, another trip to the pharmacy, and another copay.
I drive him weekly to the psychologist. I hear her ask questions that he doesn’t know how to answer. I hear her tell me that it’s not my fault. I hear him make promises that he won’t keep for more than two days. I cry on the way home, while he reads a 400 page science fiction book. I reach for another tissue, and another, and another, another….
I read on Facebook about this sixth grade party, the local soccer team’s celebration, this family’s joyful visit to Santa. I have never done anything like that with my son. He is afraid of Santa. He has no real friends. He hasn’t had an invitation to a birthday party in years. He hasn’t had a “play-date” in, well, ever. Shit, I’d be happy if someone just played with him when he was outside in the yard.
For most people sense the difference in my son, and when they try to look him in the eyes, and he can’t return their gaze, they turn away. Then snickering, or grimacing, or smiling a fake, condescending smile, they draw back, they go away, they leave us alone.
Do you want to help protect your children from senseless violence? Do you want to help the nation avert more crises like the shooting in Newtown? Then talk to a child with Asperger’s. They often have a “special interest” – like trains, dinosaurs, Legoes, or Star Wars. Have a conversation with them. It may take a little longer than the five second encounters with your friends’ kids that you’re used to, but it may be surprisingly interesting.
And while you’re at it, talk to the mom. Ask her how she is, and mean it. And when she says, “Not so good,” ask a follow up question. Ask what is wrong. Give her a hug. She doesn’t get many. Not from her son, anyway.
You want to help our nation heal? Iinvite a child with Asperger’s to your son’s birthday party. Invite him over to play. Invite him to watch your son’s soccer game. You will be surprised at how earnestly he will cheer your son on, and how grown-up he is when he talks to you.
You want to stop violence at elementary schools? Then stop avoiding us, stop ignoring us, stop isolating us, the people you are most afraid of. Do it now, do it for my son, while he is still full of feeling, still malleable, still hopeful, and present.
For they are present. If one in 88 children are now on the autism spectrum, as the Center for Disease Control states, then these children are everywhere, on the playground, in your daughter’s Brownie troop, in your son’s Church group, and yes, at your child’s elementary school.
Hear me again. Most people with Asperger’s are not violent. Most of them are quirky, delightful, compassionate, beautiful children who just need an extra few seconds of your time to get to know them. Teach your child to befriend them. Teach your child to talk to them, to not expect eye contact, to listen, to maybe learn something new about the Titanic that they never knew, didn’t really want to know, but nevertheless, really is quite interesting.
And teachers, instead of resenting the extra time, the extra paperwork of the IEP’s, the extra meetings with the parents, and the extra accommodations, perhaps you could welcome the child with Asperger’s, into your classroom. Perhaps you could let him give a presentation on rocks instead of on his future goals, or his family, or his feelings about a book, which he can’t fathom, he can’t explain, and he surely can’t put into words.
And teachers, please, make everyone clap at the end. For he is doing the best he can. He really is. He is trying to fit in, he wants to fit in, he is desperate to fit in. He just needs you to widen that definition of what it is to fit in.
I cry while I write this. I type, and I hope, and I fear. And then I sign my name, which is a pseudonym, and I reach for another tissue. And another, and another, and another.