Dr. Diane Twachtman-Cullen, editor-in-chief of Autism Spectrum Quarterly, began working with children with autism 25 years ago, “back when autism was a rare disorder,” said Twachtman-Cullen in a telephone interview. “It involved about two (children) in 10,000 then.” Now autism affects one in 110.
A National Institutes of Health website defines Asperger’s syndrome (AS) as a mild form of autism and notes people with AS have three core symptoms: obsessive or repetitive routines, poor communication skills, and physical clumsiness. People with AS often are called “geeks” or “nerds.”
Twachtman-Cullen described two boys, in particular, with Asperger’s syndrome: one she worked with beginning in fourth grade; the other, from first grade on. She said, “They both had problems socially and didn’t have friends. That didn’t matter to them at first, but as they approached adolescence, it did. For example, with the boy I began working with in first grade, at first he could care less if he had friends. When he got into seventh grade, however, it did matter. There are exceptions, but this has been my experience with children with Asperger’s. At some point, most want friendships but don’t know how to go about making them. That’s one distinguishing characteristic between them and children with straight autism.”
She said people with AS also have many positive traits, including good language ability and intelligence. Often their intense interests form the basis for a satisfying hobby or vocation.
One tool professionals use to diagnose AS is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Its next edition (probably released in 2013) will probably eliminate the AS diagnosis and simply lump it in with autism. Many people, including this columnist, object to this proposed revision, in part because it could stigmatize a group of people already having social adjustment difficulties. In addition, Twachtman-Cullen believed the revision could result in fewer public school services for children with AS. She supported revising rather than tossing out the diagnosis.
People with AS often call themselves “Aspies.” Twachtman-Cullen quoted the senior editor of Autism Spectrum Quarterly, Liane Holliday Willey, who has AS: “Asperger’s syndrome is more than a clinical label to many of us; it is the glue that ‘created’ a community of individuals who have finally found their true essence and place in the world.”
Said Twachtman-Cullen, “A lot of people with Asperger’s feel as she does.”