The Boy Who Couldn't Make Friends

Diagnosis Can Be Difficult

and have trouble writing. Some also have a hard time processing and integrating sensory information. For example, they may find it difficult to look at and listen to someone at the same time or be oversensitive to the feel of certain fabrics or the smell of certain foods. And like all autistic children, kids with Asperger's have trouble making transitions and are comforted by routine.

Because Asperger's syndrome manifests itself in so many ways, it's not always easy to diagnose. The major obstacle is that the condition wasn't well-known when most of the doctors who practice today went to medical school, Dr. Volkmar explains. In addition, "these are very verbal kids," he says. "People assume that a person's verbal skills are representative of his general level of functioning, and so they think these kids are behaving badly on purpose."

Children are commonly diagnosed at about age 8 or 9, but some slip through the cracks until adolescence. Part of the problem in di-agnosing Asperger's at a younger age is that all kids can exhibit some of the hallmark signs. "The fact that a 3-year-old doesn't participate in group play or that a 4-year-old is very interested in space travel doesn't mean he has Asperger's," says Michael D. Powers, Psy.D., director of the Center for Children With Special Needs, in Tolland, Connecticut, and editor of Children With Autism: A Parent's Guide (Woodbine House). You should be concerned only if your child has several of the characteristics.

The Vaughns suspected Robert had a problem when his preschool teachers told them that he wasn't interacting with the other kids. Fortunately, because his brothers were already enrolled in Dr. Volkmar's study at Yale, Robert was identified at age 5 as having some form of autistic disorder.

However, in most parts of the country, experts on Asperger's syndrome are few and far between, and parents must embark on their own odyssey to find out what's wrong with their child. It took ten years for Ellie Churchill, of Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, now 16, to be accurately diagnosed. Her parents, Kathy Haley and Rick Churchill, had alternately been told that Ellie had ADD and needed Ritalin, that she was depressed and should take Prozac, and that she had autistic tendencies. "She's been evaluated four or five times by the school system," Haley says. "Had it been left to them, we'd probably never know she has Asperger's. They didn't even know what Asperger's was."

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