Meeting the Challenge of Asperger’s Syndrome
BY AWAKE! WRITER IN BRITAIN
YOU want to have friends, but making conversation is not easy. Yet, you can talk for hours on your favorite subject. Your life is governed by routine; change disturbs you. You often feel anxious and frustrated and sometimes depressed.
People misunderstand you. They call you strange, difficult, or even rude. You find it hard to understand others’ thoughts and feelings, especially as you cannot read their facial expressions or body language. Many with Asperger’s syndrome, also called Asperger’s disorder, regularly face such situations.
Those with Asperger’s syndrome look the same as anyone else, and they are often very intelligent. However, they have a neurologically based developmental disorder that affects the way they communicate with and relate to other people. The syndrome comprises a variety of characteristics, and each person is affected in a different way. Yet, it is possible to meet the challenge of living with Asperger’s syndrome. Consider Claire’s story.
At Last, a Diagnosis!
As a child, Claire was very quiet and withdrawn. She avoided eye contact with people and was fearful of crowds. She mastered speech at an early age, but she used as few words as possible and spoke in a monotone. She liked a rigid routine, and she became anxious if it was altered.
At school, teachers were impatient with Claire because they thought she was being willfully difficult, and she was bullied by other children. Her mother suffered too, as others unfairly blamed her for Claire’s behavior. In the end, she taught Claire at home for the last years of her education.
Afterward, Claire had several jobs but lost them all because she could not cope with the changes in routine and with what was expected of her. At her last job, which was in a nursing home, the matron realized that something was seriously wrong. Finally, when Claire was 16, her condition was diagnosed as Asperger’s syndrome.
At last, Claire’s mother knew why her daughter’s behavior was so different from others’. A friend found some information on the syndrome, and when Claire read it, she asked in amazement: “Do I really do that? Is that what I’m like?” The local social services department advised Claire to have occupational therapy. Chris, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses who had experience in helping children with special needs, arranged for Claire, also a Witness, to volunteer and help with the maintenance and upkeep of a building used by the Witnesses for Christian worship.
Learning to “Live in the Real World”
Initially, Claire hardly spoke to her fellow volunteers. When she encountered a problem, she wrote Chris a note, since that was easier than translating her thoughts into speech. Gradually, Chris encouraged her to sit down with him and talk things through. He patiently taught her, as he put it, to “live in the real world.” It was not “the real world,” he explained, to avoid contact with others and to do only what she wanted. With help, Claire began to learn to cooperate with others in accomplishing a task.
Claire’s unhappy past experiences had resulted in a lack of self-confidence, so her immediate response to any task she was given was, “I can’t do that.” How did Chris tackle this problem? He would give her a small task and explain, “This is how it’s done,” adding, “You can do it.” Once she had achieved it, she felt happy. Chris warmly commended her and gave her another job. Remembering a series of spoken instructions was difficult for Claire, but a written list presented no problem. Little by little, she gained confidence.
Because Claire disliked crowds, talking to others at meetings for Christian worship was a big challenge. She used to remain seated by herself at the front of the Kingdom Hall. However, she gave herself the goal of getting up immediately after the meeting, walking toward the back of the hall, and making herself talk to one person.
In time, Claire found herself talking to more people. “But it’s not easy,” she observes. Even though her condition makes conversation very difficult, she regularly gives talks in the Theocratic Ministry School, a program that is designed to help all of Jehovah’s Witnesses express themselves more effectively.
Meeting a Bigger Challenge
As Claire’s confidence increased, Chris suggested that she try to serve as an auxiliary pioneer, a term Jehovah’s Witnesses use for baptized Witnesses who spend 50 hours or more each month sharing their Bible-based beliefs with others. “I can’t do that,” Claire responded.
However, Chris encouraged her by saying that even if she didn’t achieve her goal of 50 hours that month, at least she could be happy that she had tried. So Claire tried, and she really loved the experience. She did it again and again, enjoying it all the more. This built up her confidence, especially when she found many people who wanted to learn more about the Bible.
Claire took to heart the encouragement she heard at Christian meetings to consider whether there was anything stopping her from becoming a regular pioneer, or full-time evangelizer. She decided to become one. The result? In Claire’s words, “It’s the best thing to do!” She has become much closer to those in her congregation and has developed many friendships. Children love being in her company, and she gladly helps them as they preach together.
True, not everyone with Asperger’s syndrome will be able to serve as a full-time minister. Yet, Claire’s experience provides evidence that such ones can accomplish much more than they may realize. Claire’s regular schedule complements her need for a routine, and her conscientiousness and dependability help her to do well in her chosen career.
Claire feels that it is important for people to know she has Asperger’s syndrome so that they will realize why she is different in the way she sees the world and copes with it. She explains, “Because you don’t always express yourself well, people consider you incapable of thinking.” Having someone with whom you can talk things through is helpful.
For people with a condition like this, both Chris and Claire suggest setting little goals, taking one step at a time. It can be important to have help from someone who understands the syndrome. As a result, self-worth can be enhanced and challenges overcome.
Claire’s story shows that with patience and encouragement, much can be done to help those with Asperger’s syndrome. Claire confirms this, saying: “A few years ago, I would never have dreamed that I’d be doing all these things today.”
[Blurb on page 24]
Claire feels that it is important for people to know she has Asperger’s syndrome
[Box on page 22]
The condition is named after Dr. Hans Asperger, who first described it in 1944. However, only in recent years has considerable research been done to understand and help the increasing numbers who are being diagnosed with the syndrome. Medical researchers are undecided as to whether it is a less severe form of autism or a separate disorder. As yet, no one knows what causes Asperger’s syndrome. However, it is not due to emotional deprivation nor to the way a child has been brought up.
[Box on page 24]
HELPING THOSE WITH ASPERGER’S SYNDROME
Take an interest in those with Asperger’s syndrome, and try to get to know them. Although they may find it difficult to initiate a conversation, recognize that such ones do want and need friends. They are not being difficult or awkward on purpose.
Be patient, and try to understand their problems. Also, be aware of your need to explain things precisely and unambiguously, since they may take what you say very literally. If a set routine needs to be changed, explain the details clearly, possibly even demonstrating the new course of action expected of them.
If you find that they are worrying obsessively about something they have seen or heard that has distressed them, encourage them to focus instead on a beautiful picture or listen to soothing music.
[Picture on page 23]
Claire learned to take the initiative to befriend others
[Picture on page 23]
Chris explains to Claire how to cooperate with others to accomplish a task