The Boy Who Couldn't Make Friends

Learning Social Skills

Some children with Asperger's breeze through their first few years of school because of their advanced verbal skills. But about the time they get to third grade, other kids start noticing that they're different and often target them for teasing. Because kids with Asperger's don't always understand the implied meaning behind teachers' words (they take everything very literally), they may also be branded as defiant. One school psychologist recalls an incident in which a teacher told her class to sit down: Most of the students knew to return to their desks first, but the child with Asperger's just plopped down on the floor right where he was standing.

Despite their neurological deficits, kids with Asperger's syndrome can be taught the social nuances that others learn intuitively. "They need social skills as a major part of their school curriculum," says Jeanne Angus, director of LearningSpring Academy, in New York City, one of the few schools created for kids with Asperger's. The classrooms have pictures of facial expressions on the walls, which are labeled with the emotions they represent, and teachers use mirrors to make students more aware of their own expressions.

However, there are only a handful of these specialized schools, and most kids with Asperger's are too high-functioning to fit into traditional special-ed programs. Robert attends a public elementary school and, thanks to his mother's advocacy, works with various specialists to help him function in this mainstream setting. Slowly, as awareness of the disorder grows, parents are demanding that schools provide appropriate services for their children, and experts are training educators in how to best handle kids with the condition.

A Brighter Future

Considering that today's young Asperger's sufferers are the first generation of kids who are being diagnosed and treated from an early age, doctors are optimistic. There are, after all, adults with Asperger's who have had successful careers, often in computer or science-related fields. "I feel like we have one foot in the dark and one in the light," Laurajean says. "When we got our oldest son's diagnosis ten years ago, they wished us good luck but didn't know where to send us. With Robert, we were able to intervene early, and he is doing so much better socially." Like other parents of Asperger's children, Laurajean can only hope that she and the schools are giving her kids the tools, the confidence, and the support they'll need to face a future in a world they're struggling to understand.

Copyright © 2001 Lori Miller Kase. Reprinted with permission from the October 2001 issue of Parents Magazine.

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