Saturday, May 13, 2006

How Aspergery are You?

It's my favorite new adjective. Aspergery. I came across it while reading Time Magazine's series of autism articles. In one of the articles, The Geek Syndrome, reporter J. Madeleine Nash writes, "There is no question that many successful people — not just scientists and engineers but writers and lawyers as well — possess a suite of traits that seem to be, for lack of a better word, Aspergery."

I'm currently making a career move from teaching kids with a range of disabilities to exclusively teaching kids with autism. Why? While other teachers seem to get exasperated by their students with Asperger's and autism, I get along with them easily. I really don't get the problem. These kids are amazing. Who wouldn't want to teach them? At the beginning of the semester, I was warned by several teachers about Jeremy, a 9th grade "troublemaker." Teachers apparently couldn't control him. One teacher said, "I just don't know what his problem is." This is why EVERY teacher needs special ed training. I realized within two minutes of meeting Jeremy that he has a classic case of Asperger's. As yet another example of the stellar special ed services in the South Bronx, Jeremy, despite having a very clear IEP indicating that he should be in small classes, had been placed in large high school classes with no special ed support. According to a guidance counselor, Jeremy's IEP had been "lost in the shuffle." He wasn't placed in my class until spring semester.

Jeremy is wonderful. I hang out with him during lunch. He fixes the classroom computers and shares his unique life insights. One of his more colorful insights came during a fixation on breakfast cereals: "Apple Jacks make sense. I realized that this morning. They make sense. They just do." (He went on for about 15 minutes.) Jeremy also easily passed the Living Environment Regents exam on his first try. Although I try not to show favorites, the other kids are obviously becoming jealous of my relationship with Jeremy. One day, hyperactive Christopher began banging on my classroom door during lunch. Jeremy was absent that day. When I ignored Christopher's banging, he shouted, "If I was Jeremy Stevens you would let me in!!!" (Christopher actually banged out each syllable of the sentence on the door as he yelled this - we'd had a grammar lesson earlier that day.) What can I say? He was right. I love kids with autism, and I know that teaching them is what I want to do with my life.

As I've begun to interact more with my students with autism, I've also begun to realize that there is a reason I understand and get along so well with them. I'm a bit Aspergery myself. I would certainly never claim to have any form of autism, because I don't, but mild Obsessive Compulsive Disorder does seem to run in my family, and I believe OCD and Asperger's are neurologically linked. In his brilliant portrayal of an OCD-inflicted detective on the hit USA show Monk, Tony Shalhoub shows us just how quirky, exhausting and lovable people with severe OCD can be. Some Monk fans believe Shalhoub's performance more closely resembles a person with Asperger's or high functioning autism. In any case, Detective Adrian Monk reminds me of Jeremy. A lot. He also reminds me, to a lesser extent, of my sister, several friends, and - oh crap! - myself.

I suspect there are many people out there who have more Aspergery minds than they're willing to admit. Taking a look at my own mind helps me better understand my students with autism. I recently began working with Pre-K kids in their homes. One four-year old girl lines up all her stuffed animals on her bed in a particular order, and she has a tantrum when they're out of order. (We're working on this.) Another student fixates on symbols. On the playground, while his non-autistic classmates naturally socialize and play together, this boy naturally gravitates toward every letter or number to be found on the playground - usually on signs. This is in some ways great because he's learning to read at an unusually early age. But it's not so great when he socially isolates himself. Like Adrian Monk says, "It's a blessing. And a curse."

Hanging out with these kids has helped me recall some of my own childhood 'quirks.' Like many of my students, I have hypersensitive hearing, and I've always been easily overwhelmed by certain noises. I used to get unusually upset by seemingly minor sounds around the house. I also remember fixating on symbols, creating patterns, and repeating them in my head when I was a kid. I used to sit in my childhood living room, stare at the digital clock on the VCR, and repeat in my head, "Eight flash flash ten. Eight flash flash ten." The "flash flash" came from the blinking colon on the digital clock. Who even notices that? I also remember fixating on street signs while sitting in the back of the family car and having to repeat, "Stop ahead, stop ahead, stop line, stop" eight times before reaching a stop sign. (There was a "Stop Ahead" sign, then "Stop Ahead" was also written on the road, then "Stop" was written on the road, then there was a white line on the road, and then, finally, there was the stop sign. Thus, "Stop ahead, stop ahead, stop line, stop.") I'm not sure what I thought would happen to me if I didn't repeat this phrase eight times, but I just had to do it. I think it started when I was eight.

As many girls do, I kept these things hidden, and no one knew what was going on in my mind. (I believe both autism and OCD are under-diagnosed in girls.) I still occasionally catch myself memorizing a license plate for no apparent reason or washing my hands far too many times. I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night to check the alarm clock that I already checked ten times before falling asleep. Of course, my apartment locks can never be checked too often. Sound familiar? I think we all, to some extent, have minds that cause us to do seemingly bizarre, repetitive things from time to time. We all have our neuroses. (And I'm willing to bet that those who spend time in the blogosphere have them even more so than others.)

I'm one of the lucky ones. My life has not been held hostage by OCD, Asperger's, or any form of autism. I believe fewer lives would be if, rather than judging and fearing children with neurological disorders, more people - especially more educators - were willing to take a look at their own minds and see how much they have in common with these kids. Often, when I tell people I teach kids with autism, they'll say things like, "Oh I could never do that. It would be too sad." Sad?! I don't find it the least bit sad. Kids with autism are amazing. Frankly, there's something sad about people who don't get that.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Liz from I Speak of Dreams. Your students are lucky to have a teacher like you. Hey, have you read Perri Klass's Quirky Kids? Written for parents, but useful for teachers.

11:00 AM  
Blogger Chaz said...

My wife teaches autistic kids in district 75 and my younger son, who now is ready to go to college with a 3.75 grade point average, flapped his arms during elementary school and had social problems. Was it autisum? Maybe. He did outgrow it and we worked on it and it disappeared by 6th grade. I can only hope that one day autisum can be quickly diagnosed and treated with a real cure.

7:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's great! It sounds like you've really found your calling in life--something you are particularly talented at doing, and that there is a real need for. I hope you are appreciated for that. I only know one boy with autism, but I agree that they can be really bright kids, but you have to do different things to connect with them, and to help them be successful.

12:01 PM  
Anonymous Dick Dalton said...

There's a real need for people willing to work with this population, and liking them is half the battle.

I wouldn't necessarily equate OCD with Asperger's although the two can seem similar because of the perseverative nature of the two. Aspergers is about a preservation of sameness, while OCD is more about ritualizing things. Again, there is a bit of a fine line there. A person can actually have BOTH autism and OCD at the same time, and it was that experience that showed me the difference. Still, there might be some sort of neurological link between the two.


9:30 PM  
Blogger Miss Dennis said...

Many of my students with autism definitely have ritualistic behaviors - i.e. obsessively lining things up, tantruming when their toys aren't in the right order or right place, etc. I HAVE in fact wondered if one of my Pre-K students has autism coupled with OCD. It's amazing how her 4 year old mind works, but I really wish I could help her to not stress herself out so much. I think exercise really helps, and I think people with autism and/or OCD need more exercise than the average person in order to stay balanced and stop ritualizing/sequencing everything.

11:23 PM  
Anonymous Prudence said...

How Aspergery am I? A mere fraction of a percent, I believe. So how'd I get diagnosed with it, again?

IM me @ DoynesWhiteWings.

5:31 PM  
Anonymous Brenda said...

I'm mild AS. So is my older son. And I don't want a cure. I don't think there should be a cure.

One study found that people on the autistic spectrum have fewer of the "mirroring" brain cells that help people copy the behavior of others. Why would I want to be like everyone else? The greatest minds in history universally show behaviors on the autistic spectrum. And I believe it's because they didn't fall lock-step into the behaviors of their families and neighbors.

Albert Einstein, Thomas Jefferson, Isaac Newton, Susan B. Anthony, etc., all became something more and pushed the world toward more because they didn't see why things should stay they way they were, that society could be improved, that science could mean more.

And I like hanging out with other Aspies, although I've had little contact with the autistic.

I'm planning to read "Send in the Idiots," which was written by a man who was the member of a special class for autistics, and is about his following up years later to see where his classmates ended up.

I work in a large law firm, and I love working with all the smart, logical, funny Aspies here.

And Willow Rosenberg was always my favorite character on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

1:45 PM  
Anonymous Brenda said...

Forgot: And I don't think that more boys than girls are on the autistic spectrum. I believe, because girls are more aural than boys in their learning and behaviors, that the extreme visuality of AS is muted by girls.

I always slayed on the visualizing testing and spelling. Very AS.

1:48 PM  
Anonymous Mary T. Mills said...

Your site is a keeper. I am e-mailing it to my daughter and grandaughter who respectively have an Asperger son and an autistic son. keep up the good work.

2:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tourettes Syndrom

Sounds very much like someone I know with Tourettes.

4:36 PM  
Anonymous Jeanette said...

I know we special ed teachers aren't supposed to play favorites, but I love my Aspergery kids too! As adults, they will never have to spend $$ on management courses to learn how to think outside of the box, because they are simply born that way.

FYI, I also believe that autism is under-diagnosed in girls. I suspect that from an early age girls are exposed to a different model of socialization ("play nicely!" "can't you tell mama is sad now?") and so learn to compensate for their social ineptitude earlier and more effectively.

Special education is all about appreciating the wonder and value of diversity. There is indeed something sad about folks who don't get that.

9:18 AM  
Blogger Stitchin-Liz said...

Wow - I thought I was the only one who sometimes memorizes license plates for no reason. I also have found myself doing things in a specific order or counting things. Nice to know that there are other people who do that and that it's not "abnormal".

3:52 PM  
Blogger UltraCrepidarian said...

Hooray for you Liz! As an aspergers kids of the 1970s, who went through all that undiagnosed, it meant the world to me when a few teachers connected intuitively with me, and understood my behaviour.

You so totally rock. Keep it up.


2:26 PM  
Anonymous David John Allan said...

"I can only hope that one day autisum can be quickly diagnosed and treated with a real cure."

By my fifth year of life, I was reading - and comprehending - Asimov, Dick, Van Vogt, Brown, Anderson, and pretty much every other major science-fiction writer of the "Golden Age" era... as well as technical materials, such as the Encyclopaedia Britannica and the ARRL Radio Amateur's Handbook (1951 edition). During the "space race", I cheered for the Russians - and still do. I have never found any sport interesting, in any way whatsoever - to me, all sports are utterly incomprehensible and pointless. Am I autistic?

If so, then with regard towards the above quote I have this to say: you've got it backwards. Autistics do not need to be cured at all - it is rather more the case that the rest of the species needs to evolve, and catch up.

11:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really liked this post alot. You left me wanting to hear more about Jeremy.

12:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I do wish there was a cure. Or at least, a more effective treatment. Because, while I would rather retain the personality quirks I have that may emerge from Asperger's, there are other symptoms that are debilitating to me in several areas of my life. I would give almost anything to be rid of those symptoms.

4:41 AM  
Blogger Miss Dennis said...

I think the above comment is well-stated. Those who say they don't want a cure or treatment for autism tend to be people with mild or high-functioning Asperger's (if they really have Asperger's at all). Autism can be extremely debilitating. I've never met a parent of a child with severe autism who did not think a treatment would be in their child's best interest.

I focused on some of the positive aspects of high-functioning autism in this post, but there is also the difficult reality of severe tantrums, nonverbal communication, lack of fine and gross motor skills, and social isolation. People who have never spent time around autistic children with these symptoms really shouldn't judge parents who say they want a cure.

6:24 AM  
Blogger Bob Calder said...

My favorite is "Everything in its Place" by Mark Sommers because he is from Nikolodeon and the kids know him and his gak.

But being Aspergery isn't great when it comes to being a social animal. I constantly wonder about why people actually care about calling their relatives to find out how they are. I can't seem to do it. Of course it may not be Aspergers.

11:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

'This is why EVERY teacher needs special ed training.' I agree with this statement very strongly. I have a 'typical' child in one class, and two autistic boys in different spec ed classes in the same school. I think the benefits are many, for both the children involved, both neurotypical and special needs, as well as the teachers themselves, who will have a more productive classroom if they tune in to these children.
Everyone's a winner
Best wishes

2:03 PM  
Anonymous David Truss said...

What a wonderful post.
I think I am a little Aspergery myself(-: :-)
Your story reminded me of a student, Wayne that I had a few years ago. He was a challenge to have in my class... and a joy to have in my class too! The fact is that I didn't have any training or knowledge of Asperger's before having him in my homeroom (Grade 8). Although we had a great year together, you are so right about the need for more special needs training!!!
I wrote a post in my blog about square pegs that we try to fit into round holes in schools... here is the gist of it: "it is about creating an environment where every child can thrive... Not making the misfits fit, but rather helping them create a space that fits them."
Anyway, I'm commenting to suggest a book: 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time'by Mark Haddon really gets inside the head of an autistic boy. My wife found the structure of the book unbearable, and I found it, for lack of a better word, soothing.

I'm so glad I found my way to this post- thanks again,

5:45 AM  
Anonymous Bob said...

The word is "Aspie", not "Aspergery." You'll see a lot of Aspie stuff via Google.

By the way, I'm an autistic person. I'm not a "person with autism." The latter designation bugs the hell out of me.

8:35 AM  
Anonymous Amy said...

Great article, thanks!

While we're in book-recommending mode: Miss Dennis, if you haven't read "Devil in the Details: Scenes from an Obsessive Girlhood" by Jennifer Traig, you will love it. I picked it up at the bookstore probably because I was 'soothed' by the cover art, which was of a hand pushing a bead into place, one of rows and rows of carefully arranged beads, organized by color (perfect!). By the 2nd page of the book, I had tears of unbridled laughter streaming down my face as the author outlined her childhood OCD and related stories.

I didn't realize until reading that book that apparently I too had/have OCD - as a child in the 1970s, I neurotically counted everything (steps, floor tiles, window panes) and memorized license plates, phone numbers, etc. I somehow 'cured' myself of it during my teen years by singing songs loudly to get the numbers out of my head, but now I secretly wish I still had my number-memorizing/counting skill back and it's gone. Oh well. Anyway, if you have time to read the book, you will definitely enjoy it.

9:19 AM  
Anonymous Kristin said...

I'm pretty "Aspergy" (sp?) myself, esp. hypersensitive hearing, overwhelmed by a lot of external stimulation, touch, and counting. Also obsessed with different things at different times. I took the online asperger's test. I got a 30. Usually "Aspies" score 32 or higher. I relate really well with children on the spectrum. It's like we speak the same language.

10:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

@Bob--both aspie and aspergery are valid words with virtually the same definition and usage. Language is fluid and one word or the other May be left I the dust as time goes on, but as of now both words are 'the word.'

8:02 PM  

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