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Posted by margaret on June 21, 2000 at 05:20:30:

NY Times: “The Little Professor Syndrome” – Kids With Asperger’s

[“They talk like adults and often have sky-high I.Q.'s, but their social skills are nonexistent. Can kids with Asperger's
syndrome, a recently diagnosed form of autism, harvest their strange talents in adulthood?” In the Sunday NY Times
Magazine by Lawrence Osborne. Thanks to Monica Moshenko and Arlene Minkoff.]

A round a circular classroom table, five 6-year-old boys are drawing pictures of blue whales with crayons. Mozart's
"Requiem" pipes away on a nearby cassette player; by the window, a group of sunlit bean-bag chairs looks inviting.
One of the children, Asa, is turning out a waxy masterpiece with the meticulous care of a jeweler. The fins and tail of
Asa's whale, who is jumping out of the water, have been drawn with striking precision; a dialogue bubble percolates
from its mouth. "Wow!" the whale is shouting. "Look at him -- he's psyched," the bespectacled Asa says in a curiously
expressionless voice. "He's so happy to be out of the water and turning double somersaults that he can't stop talking."
The teacher, Lauren Cacciabaudo, asks each boy how he has managed his day. "How was your sitting, Henry?" she
says to one boy. "Three," little Henry says, giving himself a grade from 1 to 3. "Nice sitting, Henry! How about focusing,
Jean Paul?" "Three." "Nice focusing, Jean Paul. What about looking in the eye, Asa?" "Three." "Nice eye contact, Asa!"
Glued onto the surface of the classroom table are pairs of cut-out handprints. Frequently, Cacciabaudo asks the boys
to put their hands on these prints and keep them still. For there is a flitting energy of restless birds about these boys,
even though not one of them looks up to inspect the stranger sitting in their midst. Instead, they fixate on a colorful
pencil I have just bought at the Guggenheim gift shop. Bright green, it sports an elephant's head with felt ears on a
mountable spring. The boys are mesmerized. "Where did you get that?" "How old is that elephant?" They bounce the
elephant's head back and forth, sticking their fingers into its grasping mouth. "It's prehensile!" Asa coos. At first glance,
this brightly decorated room is no different from that of any other elementary school. Shelves are filled with storybooks;
on the chalkboard, a vertical line of words reads "prudence," "pretzel," "prairie," "purple." But the nervous agitation of
the boys' hands, punctuated by occasional odd flapping gestures, betrays the fact that something is off kilter. There is
also a curious poster on one of the walls with a circle of human faces annotated with words like "sad," "proud" and
"lonely." When I ask Cacciabaudo about it, she explains that her students do not know how to read the basic
expressions of the human face. Instead, they must learn them by rote. The boys in this Manhattan classroom, part of a
special education school run in association with the New York League for Early Learning, all have a mysterious
condition known as Asperger's syndrome -- a neurological disorder that disproportionately affects males and is often
connected to a striking precosity with language. The Learning Disabilities Association of America defines Asperger's
syndrome as "a severe developmental disorder characterized by major difficulties in social interaction and restricted
and unusual patterns of interest and behavior." Although sufferers display behaviors associated with autism --
monotonic speech, social isolation, a paucity of empathy -- they are not mute or incapacitated. Indeed, the outsize
vocabularies of children with Asperger's often make them seem less disabled than gifted. In the United States, the
syndrome was only made official among psychologists by entry into the D.S.M.-IV, or Diagnostic and Statistical Manual
of Mental Disorders, in 1994. The precise relationship between Asperger's and autism remains to be untangled. Dr.
Richard Perry, a child psychiatrist at N.Y.U. Medical Center, argues that Asperger's syndrome shares a basic triad of
dysfunctions with autism: problems with social interaction, with communication and with play. Both types of children,
he says, have perplexing difficulties in "reading" human social signals like facial expressions and dealing with the
nuanced to-and-fro of ordinary conversations. "For some reason we don't yet fully understand," he explains,
"Asperger's kids cannot decipher basic visual social signals. This leads people to see them as emotionally disturbed."
Or brilliant. For the flip side of this somber picture is a recognition that Asperger's sufferers may also have
extraordinary gifts. Consider Glenn Gould. The eccentric Canadian pianist, who died in 1982 and who retired from the
concert circuit at age 31, was notorious for his bizarre behavior: he had a phobia about shaking hands, ate nothing but
scrambled eggs and arrowroot biscuits and rocked incessantly at the keyboard. At the same time, Gould's obsessive
focus and prodigious memory helped give his legendary renderings of Bach their burning intensity. Might Gould have
been an Asperger's sufferer? Timothy Maloney, a musicologist who manages the Gould archives, suggested precisely
that at a recent academic conference. Others scholars have retroactively applied the Asperger's label to oddball
intellectuals ranging from Vladimir Nabokov to Béla Bartok to Ludwig Wittgenstein. Nabokov's hypertrophied vocabulary
and obsession with butterflies, some say, may qualify him for the disorder (though an equally focused obsession with
nymphs seems somewhat less incriminating). Such claims may be dubious, and probably infuriating to lepidopterists,
but the argument is seductive to many: could the very qualities that make Asperger's people so strange lie at the root of
their peculiar talents? This sense of potential explains why kids with Asperger's are being grouped together in
special-ed classrooms. "If you look at these children, you can see at once that they don't have classical autism," says
Jeanne Angus, director of the New York League school, who stops by Cacciabaudo's class for a visit. "They're normal
in so many ways. They're often very sweet. And they're often amazingly precocious, with sky-high I.Q.'s. But look
closer and you'll see cracks. Many of them have had appalling difficulties in the regular school system." Those
difficulties include temper tantrums and erratic behavior that can unnerve the most strong-willed teacher. Angus nods
toward Asa. "When he first came here, he would roll around the floor all the time, just to get a feel for its texture." The
boy had no idea that this was inappropriate. "The thing is," she goes on, "everything has to be taught to them --
everything. When you ask them at first, 'How do you do?' they will say something like, 'Why do you want to know?'
They simply don't understand social games." It is an impression of anarchic solitude that is often reinforced by the
tendency of Asperger's children to have obsessional interests. Angus tells me that Michael, one of the boys in the
class, had a fixation with tornados when he first arrived at the school. "He knew everything about them. The statistics,
the G forces, the wind velocities. He was like a videocassette about tornados, which he could rewind and play over and
over. He was using technical terms I've never even heard of. And he was 5!" Michael also behaved like a tornado,
whirling round the room and tearing everything up. Other children have sometimes bizarre fixations. They will
memorize entire TV shows and recite them over and over (an ability known as perseverative scripting). Other times,
they specialize in memorizing everything there is to know about the oddest things: deep-fat fryers, telephone cable
insulating companies, the passengers on the Titanic, exotic species of cicadas, the provincial capitals of Brazil. In one
documented case, a child memorized the birthdays of every member of Congress. Needless to say, these obsessions
are deeply unsettling to parents. "Just imagine," says Fred Volkmar, a child psychiatrist at the Yale Child Study Center,
which is conducting the nation's largest research project on Asperger's syndrome. "You walk into a hamburger joint
and your 5-year-old suddenly points at the fryer machine and cries, 'That's a Sigma Model 3000!' What do you say?" It
is a confusion that is compounded by the linguistic precosity of Asperger's children. "Up to the age of 3," Richard Perry
says, "Asperger's syndrome and autism are very similar. But then the former begin to talk. And how!" Unlike the
linguistically impaired autistics of the type depicted in the movie "Rain Man," Asperger's children talk like little
professors. "They seem brilliant because they have this language," Volkmar says. "But in reality, it's fact-obsessed,
fact-oriented. It's rigid and insular. It's not a social brilliance. Usually, their social interactions are a disaster." And
according to Perry, this has been precisely the predicament of Asperger's children in the past. "Frequently," he says,
"they have been misdiagnosed because they're almost normal. They almost blend in, but not quite. That's their
tragedy." "They are," says one parent at the Manhattan school, "perfect counterfeit bills." This baffling syndrome was
originally diagnosed a half-century ago by the Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger. In 1944, Asperger published his
postgraduate thesis, "Autistic Psychopathy' in Childhood," which described many of the symptoms of the syndrome
and ascribed a genetic basis for them. But Asperger refused to label children with a heavy psychiatric hand. Autism, he
argued, was not a straightforward fate; the condition could be ameliorated through "pedagogical methods." [Continued

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