Saturday, June 4, 2011

Asperger Kid

NOTE: This is an essay I've written as an example of a rough draft for my English 100 students. It's far from complete, but an example of a start.

There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.

- From Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol

He is, above all, an ordinary kid.

His bedroom, which he shares with his six-year-old brother, is always a bit of a shambles. Legos spill out of their boxes in the corner. The stacks of newspaper comics we confiscated after he filled three drawers with them. He still has several years’ worth of Friend magazines and the propaganda – he calls it such – he gets in the mail from Lego. Tucked in various corners of the room, the rolled-up maps he’s drawn of the various states, copied meticulously out of the tattered atlas on the bookshelf. In the closet hangs his new Boy Scouts of America shirt. On the wall, a shadow box filled with his Cub Scout awards, including his Arrow of Light.

He played a chef in a class play based on nursery rhymes and fairy tales, and really hammed it up. He ad libbed a lot in practice, his teacher said. “He really had the class laughing.”

He draws comic strips and cartoons, drawing inspiration from everyone from Scott Adams to Jeff Kinney. He’s become known at school as the kid who draws the funny comics.

He is, above all, an ordinary kid.

But the knowing eye finds the tells that betray the ordinary as patina.

But, like Dickens, I still have a wonderful story to relate which transcends the accepted definition of ordinary.

Here are some of the tells:

There are several maps of Idaho in varying stages of completion. He can’t render his home state in a way that satisfies him. But he won’t throw the less-than-perfect attempts away.

In his CD player, a copy of a soundtrack to one of the Indiana Jones movies. It’s played every night. It hasn’t been changed in more than a month.

Then on his birthday, Mom brought him a bouquet of balloons and a small Lego kit at school, bearing gifts like many other mothers have done to many other kids in the same cafeteria that year. His classmates congratulated him on the gift, and wished him a happy birthday.

His reaction to their congratulations: Nothing.

“Liam, can you say thank you,” Mom asked. He cast his eyes down to the table, as the classmate awaited, cheerfully.

“Thank you,” he muttered, still staring at the table. Hunched over. Blue eyes darkened as if he’d been punished.

With each birthday wish, the same reminder.

With each reminder, the same reaction. The same downcast shoulders, the same clouded, fearful, downcast eyes.

For a thank you. A simple thank you.

This is an ordinary kid. “This must be distinctly understood,” Dickens wrote of the dead Marley before he revealed the wonders of A Christmas Carol, “or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.”

The Mayo Clinic defines Asperger Syndrome thus: “a developmental disorder that affects a person's ability to socialize and communicate effectively with others. Children with Asperger's syndrome typically exhibit social awkwardness and an all-absorbing interest in specific topics.”
I can define it when I see the fear in Liam’s eyes when he’s in a situation where he might possibly have to – help! – talk with someone.

But that’s not the only way.

I can define it this way:

I’m in a bathroom stall at work. I’ve completed my business but I’m still in the stall. Hiding. Literally. There are others in the bathroom. They’re washing their hands or using the towel dispenser or talking with one another, as easy as breathing. I’m not breathing. I’m hiding in the stall, waiting for them to leave so that when I emerge, I don’t have to – help! – say hello.

Liam, as a fifth-grader, has an official diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome, that condition named for Hans Asperger, who during World War II studied children who had difficulty recognizing and using nonverbal communication skills – the eye contact, the smiles, the winks, the nods, the gestures others take for granted when they communicate with others. My diagnosis is unofficial, but the more we learn about Aspergers, the more I realize he “got it” – if that’s the proper description – from me.

Bob Butterfield, psychologist for elementary students in our district, tells us we have to help Liam develop coping strategies to help him through this disorder. We have to help him figure out, in advance, how to react when, for example, a classmate sees a book he’s reading and wants to know more about it. To most the natural reaction would be to simply talk about the book. “ I like that Henry Huggins rescued Ribsy and took care of him, and that they have fun together,” he could say. And the conversation would go on from there.

For most people, that’s easy.

Not for us.

I can only define it this way – and it’s nothing clinical, nothing you’ll find in a medical book. We all have that primitive bit of our brains that physiologists call the “fight or flight” mechanism. It’s what tells a squirrel to fight a rival, but flee a ferociously barking dog. In human beings, the brain develops the ability to reason, to figure out that most situations – having to talk with a co-worker or classmate – doesn’t fall into the realm of fight or flight. But in the Asperger brain, that filter is, I think, weak. A chance encounter in a small bathroom with a co-worker becomes not a passing occasion to say “Hey, howya doin? Workin’ hard or hardly workin?” to that primitive fight or flight.

The reasoning part of the brain says, hey, that guy’s not going to jump us if we say hello, or acknowledge that birthday wish.

The Asperger part of the brain says, it could happen.

Sometimes the reasoning part wins. Sometimes the Asperger part wins.

When the reasoning part wins, the coping strategy works. That strategy might be to form on the tongue a routine greeting, a joke, or a simple “Hey” before the bathroom stall door opens, or a “Thanks. I’m having a fun birthday,” as the situation calls for.

When the Asperger part wins, the coping strategy flies out the window. The birthday greeting goes unacknowledged, the stall door unopened.

It’s not pleasant, hiding there in the stall, or sitting there at the cafeteria table, eyes down, as the classmate waits for the acknowledgement, then wanders off thinking, “He’s a weird kid.”

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