Welcome to planet Asperger

6th April 2001 at 01:00
THE SELF-HELP GUIDE FOR SPECIAL KIDS AND THEIR PARENTS. By Joan Matthews and James Williams. Jessica Kingsley pound;12.95

AUTISM IN THE EARLY YEARS: A Practical Guide. By Val Cumine, Julia Leach and Gill Stevenson. David Fulton pound;14

INTRODUCING REAL PEOPLE: Understanding Asperger Syndrome. By Essex County Council Learning Services pound;50. Tel: 01245 436308


An articulate teenager who appears streetwise but is unable to make friends, never goes anywhere without her Mum in tow, and needs walking between lessons because she misreads facial expressions and imagines everyone hates her. A 10-year-old expert on washing machine programmes who does not know how to play with peers and cannot understand sarcasm, jokes or non-literal language. A family that has to plan life around an adolescent's obsessional eating of spaghetti to the exclusion of everything else or risk dramatic tantrums. Welcome to planet Asperger.

These resources tackle the practicalities of growing up with Asperger's syndrome and related conditions: how individuals view the world and how they can be helped. Hans Asperger, a Viennese paediatrician, first identified a unique cluster of characteristics as a distinct form of autism in 1944. The profile includes rigid adherence to routines, special interests, sometimes high ability, good language and achievement, coupled with incapacitating interpersonal problems, high anxiety, clumsiness, non-existent play, and poor creative or imaginative skills.

A common thread for carers and educators is the need to make the implicit explicit: training children to read other people's non-verbal signals, tones of voice, humour or irony.

The Self-Help Guide presents 84 problems and solutions for "Special People" (autistic spectrum disorder) and "Normal People". As a special person, James's perception of everyday events reveals a confusing and threatening world: another person's eyes seem like "giant bolts of lightning" slicing through him. Solution? Practise eye contact at home where there is less anxiety and teach the "SP" to look first at an "NP's" nose, which is much less scary.

The "final frontier" is social interaction based o real social interest. But this is some way down the developmental journey. A fascinating account that gives voice to the terrors and coping strategies of a person with autistic spectrum disorder, based on scenarios originally distributed over the internet, full of ideas for families and educators.

Autism in the Early Years: a Practical Guide is based on a three-year research project in Lancashire with 200 children across the autistic spectrum. I can highly recommend this text because of its clarity and practical know-how, including very useful sections on "what to look out for" and "how to extend".

There is a refreshing avoidance of jargon and labels and a pragmatism about intervention that most practitioners applaud: "There is no single approach which is effective with all children." Those who persist in linking specific methods to "recovery" are not introducing families to the range of best practice described here and would learn much from this book.

Introducing Real People: Understanding Asperger Syndrome, a video produced by Essex County Council's Learning Services, aims to raise school staff's awareness of the condition and gives a rich picture of Asperger's syndrome in middle childhood and adolescence. The accompanying support materials could have been more probing, but there are some good tips on promoting social awareness and lifeskills (such as"walking away from peers when they wind you up").

Survival Strategies for Parenting Children with Bipolar Disorder, written by an American psychotherapist, also sets out to equip parents and teachers with innovative techniques. Bipolar disorder refers to "a predilection for emotional excess" that frequently accompanies Asperger's syndrome. Parents who have to deal with extreme behaviour, such as self-harming, screaming bouts or rage reactions, will find interventions such as pre-rehearsed "scripts" for guiding children through difficult social situations.

They might also like to know that many highly focused, obsessive figures, such as Glen Gould (the pianist who hummed while playing Bach) had Asperger's syndrome, which seems a steep price to pay for brilliance.

Alec Webster is professor of educational psychology, Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol

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