Understanding Asperger's Syndrome

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Renee Montagne talks with Rhea Paul, professor of communication disorders at Southern Connecticut State University and a researcher at Yale's Child Study Center, about Asperger's Syndrome. Paul explains the disability in the context of this week's StoryCorps installment that features a conversation between a child with Asperger's and his mother.

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

We're going to add one more voice to the conversation you just heard between Joshua and Sarah Littman. It's Rhea Paul who's done extensive research into autism and Asperger's Syndrome. Welcome to the program.

RHEA PAUL: Thank you for having me.

MONTAGNE: This conversation between mother and son, is it typical, if you will, for children with Asperger's.

PAUL: Well, I think the questions that Joshua asks are quite typical. They focus on some of his special interests and the first thing he wants to ask Mom about is her view of animals and that is what we see in many of these children who have very obsessive interests in particular topics.

MONTAGNE: What about Joshua's really arresting choices of words sometimes as in I was the one who made you a parent? Is that just Joshua or partially Asperger's, the intensity of it?

PAUL: Well, he's looking to define people in terms of categories so that his mother wasn't a parent until he came along and then he, in a sense, placed her in the category of parent. So, in a way, it's his attempt to organize the world in a manner that's comprehensible to him.

MONTAGNE: And that kind of behavior would seem to help him academically, but maybe hurt him socially?

PAUL: Absolutely and as your lead-in said, he does very well in school, probably as a result of his very strong intellectual abilities, but those somehow don't allow him to figure out the things that he needs to do socially to make him more acceptable and more available to kids his age.

And part of that is the words that he chooses, things like saying someone is his mortal enemy--that's not something most 12-year-olds would consider themselves to have--but also it's just a way of understanding what it takes to be a friend; that it takes interest in the other person's hobbies and things that they like to do, in addition to wanting to tell them about your own interests.

MONTAGNE: You know, one of the interesting things listening to Joshua, he was born in England but the family moved to America. He still retains the accent and you think usually kids are the first to shed an accent.

PAUL: That's absolutely right and my opinion is that this is because children with Asperger's are less tuned into their peers. Children usually acquire the local accent by speaking with their peers and wanting to talk like them.

MONTAGNE: Well, finally, we mentioned that Joshua was diagnosed with Asperger's when he was five. Is it treatable?

PAUL: Well, it's not curable, however, there are certainly things we can do to help these children and that's mostly a matter of education and strategies that allow them to negotiate through interactions, and it helps. But, although Asperger's Syndrome is a disability, children like Joshua are really quite charming and interesting people, and I think people need to know that about kids with various kinds of disabilities and this is just one example.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

PAUL: Okay, thank you for having me.

MONTAGNE: Rhea Paul is a professor of communication disorders at Southern Connecticut State University and a researcher at Yale Child Study Center.

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