Issue date: July 18, 1999
9, has Asperger Syndrome, a neurological disorder you've probably
never heard of. But as many as 2.5 million other Americans have
By Jeffrey Cohen
Asperger Syndrome is a condition of social disability. Here,
Jeffrey Cohen embraces son Josh at their New Jersey home.
hen my son Josh was asked to leave his first nursery school eight
years ago, I told myself he'd grow out of it. He won't.
Asperger Syndrome (AS) is similar to high-functioning autism. It
is a neurological impairment Josh shares with as many as 2.5 million
other Americans, most of whom don't know it exists.
You see it in social situations: When Joshskins his knee, something
another 9-year-old would shake off, he cries. His style of play
can be to tell another child what to do and get upset when the child
refuses. When excited, he flaps his hands, jumps up and down, sings
movie music and stares at the ceiling.
think your child may have Asperger Syndrome (AS), see a pediatric
neurologist. AS is different in each individual, so not every
child has every symptom.
on one subject to the point of obsession (from train schedules
to understand idioms (example: "get your goat" is taken
(ADD- and ADHD-type symptoms).
tolerance for frustration.
for one's age (example:
a 12-year-old speaking
like a cartoon character).
Some parents are reluctant to invite Josh to play with their children.
Others think I'm an awful father because sometimes I physically
force him to look at me to get his attention.
To a schoolmate, he may just appear weird: Josh clicks his tongue
and recites TV commercials when he doesn't realize he's making sounds.
He's exasperating. He's also astonishingly creative: He wrote
and filmed his own videos when he was 4. He is sweet-natured, funny,
loving, fair-minded, smart and charming. He delights in other people
and is a delight himself. Of course, I'm a little biased.
Josh has always been "mainstreamed" in public school classes.
A good school year, like the one just ended, is defined by Josh
not hitting other kids, not becoming frustrated when they tease
him, not imagining a movie instead of doing math. This success is
due largely to his teachers and the paraprofessional assigned to
help Josh through his day.
AS is a condition of social disability. As with autism, patients
usually avoid eye contact. They don't understand body language or
idioms, and become confused if you say you're "pulling their leg."
Why would you pull someone's leg? If you pulled my leg, how would
I stand up?
They take things very literally, so sarcasm is lost on Josh, which
is a major disadvantage in my family.
His emotional maturity runs behind his intelligence. His third-grade
report cards were fine, but we worry that as he gets older, the
frustration could overwhelm Josh, and his work could suffer.
My wife was the first to suspect AS in Josh, and researched the
condition until a pediatric neurologist confirmed the diagnosis.
We know there is no "cure," but symptoms can be addressed.
Since kindergarten, he has taken Ritalin to help him concentrate.
He goes to occupational and speech therapy to learn social speech
(unlike autistic children, AS kids usually speak very well) and
to a social skills group run by a psychologist.
All his work is showing signs of progress. This year, Josh played
with other kids at recess. He joined the Rabbit and Guinea Pig Club
at school. For the first time, Josh is making friends, and learning
- slowly - how to keep them. All his work helps him learn things
other kids pick up naturally.
His victories are smaller but harder fought. They always will
be, and just for the sheer number of them, you have to be proud
PHOTO CREDIT: Jeff Zeleevansky for USA WEEKEND