It is unusual for a very young child to be given a diagnosis of Asperger’s Disorder. More often, a child will be of primary school age before such a diagnosis is made.
The signs of Asperger’s Disorder are characteristics exhibited by many young children and it is the level of intensity, and the combination of characteristics and the persistence of characteristics over time that may eventually lead to a conclusion that a child has this Disorder. So even if your toddler exhibits many of the following signs, one cannot presume that the child has Asperger’s Disorder. The young child may instead have an anxious temperament, or simply be struggling with normal developmental milestones or external stressors. Children with Asperger’s Disorder show difficulty with social interactions. They may be less expressive and engaging with their face and gestures when communicating. They may be less likely to point out an item that interests them, not thinking to share their interest with others. They may demonstrate less empathy and reciprocity of emotions. As they grow, they tend to miss social cues and misinterpret other’s reactions. Children with Asperger’s Disorder show restricted or repetitive play, interests or movements. For example, the child might engage in hand flapping, or have an interest in parts of toys more than the whole toy, or be intensely preoccupied with the detail on a particular topic. Children with Asperger’s Disorder typically do better with a strict routine, and struggle with any changes to it. They can have very rigid expectations in each situation. They can be hypersensitive to stimuli, fussy eaters and temperamental sleepers. Unanticipated or unfamiliar situations with additional stimuli and/or social demands can cause them intense frustration, distress and anxiety. Angry outbursts, with seemingly little thought of consequences, can result. Understanding that their child’s mind works differently to others can help parents respond in meaningful and constructive ways. Calmly taking the child with Asperger’s Disorder to a familiar “time out” space can be the most productive behaviour management technique for these angry outbursts, thus providing the child with the opportunity to re-group. Asperger’s Disorder is considered to be related to autism, although milder in impact. A key identifiable difference between Asperger’s Disorder and autism is that of acquisition and use of speech. Speech development is usually within the normal range for the child with Asperger’s Disorder, whereas the child with autism would typically have delayed or unusual speech development. Parents can find a diagnosis helpful in understanding their child, or in accessing help. But whether a particular label is appropriate or not, and forthcoming sooner or later, doesn’t alter the fact that some children require a greater level of management than other children. All children are different, and place different demands on us, and offer us different rewards and joys. As parents, the challenge is to learn to understand our child, learn to meet our child’s particular needs most of the time and learn to recognise the rewards and joys that only this child can bring. When you have a child whose behaviour regularly deviates from the average, other parents and grandparents will inevitably offer unwanted and unhelpful advice and comments. Sometimes this fuels your own self-doubts about your parenting strategy or skills. Sometimes you are able to let the comment pass, knowing that it comes from a place of ignorance about your child. Other times, you are required to advocate on behalf of your child, educate others who have narrow views of expected behaviours, and translate your child’s world to others so that with greater understanding they might be able to make room in the their hearts for you and your child. If you want to find out more about Asperger’s Disorder, here are two good starting points. Tony Attwood is an internationally recognised authority on Asperger’s Disorder. His website is www.tonyattwood.com.au. Also Autism Spectrum Australia (or Aspect for short) provides advice, education and services for individuals, families and the community. Their website is www.autismspectrum.org.au and their advice line number is 1800 069 978. Sharon Murphy Counsellor
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