Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Q & A - Asperger's syndrome with Tony Attwood

Q&A - Asperger's syndrome
By Tim Leslie

Celebrate difference:
Tony Atwood says the public needs to recognise the talents that often come with Asperger's (AFP: Jim Watson, file photo)

Asperger's syndrome is a neuro-developmental disorder, one of the suite of conditions making up the autism spectrum.

While people with Asperger's have an intellectual capacity within the normal range, they experience problems with social interaction, and difficulties understanding the nuances of emotion, as well as intense preoccupation with a particular subject or interest.

These difficulties are often offset by exceptional abilities, brought about by the intense focus that forms part of the disorder.

For International Asperger's Day, ABC News Online spoke to expert Tony Atwood, a psychologist who specialises in treating children with the disorder, and has authored several books on the subject.

What is Asperger's syndrome?

Asperger's syndrome describes someone who is different, and one way I describe it, is that the person has found something more interesting in life than socialising.
And that means that the person with Asperger's syndrome finds people a real challenge in reading body language, making friends and really understanding social situations.
But there are other dimensions too, a different form of learning, of perceiving the world, becoming very sensitive to certain sensory experiences, and sometimes being a bit sort of anxious. But someone with Asperger's syndrome may have particular talent in areas like engineering or the arts.

How does it occur?

What has happened is that the brain didn't develop as we anticipate. Now that may be because of inheritance; in other words it's a family characteristic that with this particular child is greater, or something has disrupted brain development from conception, right through to early infancy.

Is there a genetic component to the condition?

There is a genetic component in the sense for half the children we see, this seems to be a characteristic within families, and also from our clinical experience one in five of the families we see have more than one child with the characteristics.

Asperger's syndrome and autism are often linked together, can you explain the difference between the two?

It's part of what we call the autism spectrum, and it's a bit like visual impairment. You can have someone who is blind, ie you can have someone who's severely autistic - completely blind to the social world.
Asperger's syndrome is like someone who needs glasses, who can read the big print, for example that somebody is crying, so they're sad, but may not read the fine print in facial expressions, say embarrassment or jealousy.

How common is Asperger's?

Asperger's is about one in 250 people, and the ratio is about three to one; so three males to one female.

What do you think of public perceptions of Asperger's syndrome?

I think the general public is very positive. I think people are very curious, it's a name that they're starting to get to know.

What we're trying to get across is that the child has difficulties, but also talents, and I think if there's going to be a change, it's in terms of seeing their qualities as children eg for Lego, their ability to play music, their ability to draw in photographic realism.

So we're looking at their strengths to build up their self esteem and also their careers.

Do you think there needs to be more support for those who have Asperger's?

If it's one in 250 people everyone will know someone either at school or a neighbour or somebody in their past with those characteristics.

So what we're trying to do is to get people to recognise such individuals, and instead of laughing at them, or feeling annoyed by them, to show some degree of compassion and support.

What is the one thing you would like the public to keep in mind in regard to Asperger's syndrome?

Celebrate difference and not necessarily see it as defect.

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