These days it seems like every time we turn around we hear about someone else’s child or nephew or granddaughter who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s or High Functioning Autism. In fact, in May of 2013 the American Psychiatric Association (APA) released the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). In this manual there is a category called Autism Spectrum Disorders that is used to describe 1 in 8 children, teens or adults who have some features of this neurological condition.
As a child psychologist I am often the first one to provide a diagnosis and suggest interventions to families with children on the Autism Spectrum. I have found that the most beneficial information for parents and spouses (when I evaluate an adult) is to have a better perspective of the world through the eyes of someone on the Autism Spectrum. There are two features that are hallmark to this neurological condition; difficulty accurately interpreting social information and sensory integration problems. More specifically individuals with an Autism Spectrum Disorder may have difficulty making and/or maintain relationships at school or work, feel that other children don’t like them or get into situations in which they are socially rejected or teased by peers and they do not know why. This is due to a deficit in the number of certain types of brain cells that affect the ability to accurately interpret and respond to social information. These individuals typically have some type of sensory sensitivity to noise, crowded situations or smells. Some may seem very hyperactive and need to move or touch things and people. Others can’t tolerate certain foods or clothing textures and hate to be touched. These latter behaviors are related to sensory integration problems.
A book that expertly captures these elements that describe an individual on the Autism Spectrum is “Inside Asperger’s Looking Out” by Kathy Hoopman. It is written as a children’s book, with beautiful photographs and brief descriptions on each page that illustrate both the differences and strengths of children on the Autism Spectrum with sensory integration challenges. For example, “Our sense of smell can be so strong that during everyday activities such as art class… we can’t focus because of the fumes” (pages 12-13). This book also projects a very positive message of acceptance and understanding. The last page of the book reads, “So, if people with and without Asperger’s can learn to accept and value each other imagine what we can achieve together. “
I have recommended this book to a number of parents whose children have been diagnosed and are receiving services for an Autism Spectrum Disorder. They have shared that the information is eye opening and “now it makes sense why….” For example, it makes sense why he covers his ears and complains when someone coughs, but loves banging on our drum set as loud as he can. This book has given these parents a better understanding of the world through their child’s eyes. As a result of this new found understanding, the parents’ expectations and reactions to their child’s “behavior” takes a shift in a more empathic and positive direction.
Finally, a few years ago I had the opportunity to work with a very bright young woman who I diagnosed with Asperger’s Disorder when she was 21 years old. (She has been misdiagnosed by many doctors and therapists since early childhood). She also clearly had severe sensory integration problems related to smell, sound, taste and touch. This young woman had researched everything she could about these conditions to help herself and educate her family and friends. When I showed her this book and ask her impressions as an individual with Asperger’s Disorder and sensory challenges she was both shocked and pleased. She informed me that this was the best description of what she has dealt with all her life, and she planned to buy a copy for her parents to read. That endorsement made it clear to me that the message in this book is worth sharing.