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Raising a Child with Asperger’s Syndrome: Mary Walsh’s Story

It takes patience, structure, and sometimes a special dog to raise a child with Asperger’s.
By Mary Walsh
WebMD the Magazine - Feature

I began noticing something was different about my son, Matthew, when he was about two years old. He didn’t make good eye contact. Noise bothered him. He had trouble with some of his motor skills, such as using a spoon.

He was also having a tough time at day care. He’d cry when I dropped him off. He couldn’t relate to other kids. He would get bothered if toys got out of order. And he clapped a lot, more than normal. When I look back at pictures of him at that age, he looked really sad, really serious. My husband and I thought that was just the way he was, that he would grow out of these behaviors. But he didn’t. The behaviors got worse.

Diagnosing Asperger’s Syndrome

Finally in January 2005 -- when he was about to turn 3 -- his preschool teachers told us they were concerned about his lack of sociability and obsessive tendencies. Our pediatrician reviewed the preschool’s notes and said that just one symptom isn’t unusual, but several point to something more serious. Then she mentioned Asperger’s syndrome. I had no clue what that was. But after a pediatrician who specializes in developmental problems evaluated Matthew, the diagnosis was confirmed.

Asperger’s is similar to autism, with some differences. Autistic kids often have delayed speech, for instance, while the speech of children with Asperger’s tends to develop normally. But children with Asperger’s have trouble with “expressive language,” as well as with empathy and reading social cues.

Asperger’s and OCD

Many children with Asperger’s also develop obsessive interests. That explains why Matthew started focusing on garbage at an early age. He knows more about it than most people who work for garbage companies. Asperger’s sometimes has other components of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), too. Matthew feels a need to shut doors and push in chairs. He gets very upset when his routine changes. Plus he has anxiety and anger management problems. That’s why he claps: It helps him organize himself when he’s upset.

But to some extent, Asperger’s and OCD are just labels. What’s most important is figuring out how best to help him. So we try a lot of different things: reducing the triggers for his aggressive behavior, occupational and physical therapy, a very routine schedule, medications, and finding friends who will be good role models for him. Last year, we also bought him a golden retriever puppy named Tiger. It’s been helping him develop social skills -- Matthew can talk to Tiger, play with Tiger, tell Tiger he loves him. It’s good practice for relating to people.

Asperger’s is not insurmountable. It’s not the kiss of death. Matthew’s a very bright child, but his wiring is different. That’s all.

Reviewed on January 15, 2009

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