Introduction

Martin joined his school as a Year 7 pupil in 2001 and he was seen as weird by his classmates. His social skills are poor. For example, he will continue to talk about a subject (eg tarantulas), unaware that people have lost interest. He does not understand when someone is making a joke, taking it literally. For example, when a fire broke out in the school, one of the pupils joked that they could toast marshmallows. Martin believed that she really was going to do this and told her it was dangerous. Martin excels at maths and science and is very knowledgeable about certain topics such as dinosaurs.

However, Martin is not weird. He has a condition called Asperger syndrome. 

What is Asperger syndrome?

Asperger syndrome is part of what is known as the autism spectrum. People who have an autism spectrum disorder have a special kind of disability that affects the way they communicate and relate to people around them. They may also have special ways of doing things. Martin has to put things in his bag in the same way every day. Spectrum means range.

You may know somebody with a disability, for example, someone who is deaf or blind, or uses a wheelchair, or who has learning difficulties. Autism is a very difficult disability to understand. Children and adults with autism look just like anyone else without the disability (although they may behave differently). Asperger syndrome is a form of autism named after the Austrian doctor who first described it. It is at the higher functioning end of the autism spectrum. This means the individuals are of average or higher than average intelligence. People towards the other end of the spectrum (classic autism) have learning difficulties and are sometimes non-verbal.

It may be that you have a person in your class or school who has Asperger syndrome. They may have some of the talents or difficulties experienced by Martin. However, it is very important to understand that all people with Asperger syndrome are different, just as you are different from your friends. He or she will not be exactly the same as Martin.

Characteristics of Asperger syndrome

People with Asperger syndrome may want things to be the same all the time. For example, they may find it difficult to cope with changes to their school timetable or a different teacher. Martin insisted that the knots on his shoe laces had to be tied in exactly the same way. He also lined up the things he needed to take to school and got angry when his brother interfered with them. Another example can be found in the Blue bottle mystery (see reading list below), Ben gets very upset when his father mentions he is thinking about moving house. He is unable to see the advantages of a new home.

Having Asperger syndrome can make it difficult for people to understand what other people are feeling or thinking. You may need to tell them what you are feeling. It is also hard for the person to explain how they are feeling or thinking themselves. Sometimes they may talk on and on about the subject in which they are interested. You may need to let them know when they have told you enough. One idea is to suggest they only talk about their favourite subject at break times.

Children and adults with Asperger syndrome sometime have difficulties in understanding language. They may take things literally. For example, when Josh says to Martin 'You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours', meaning you help me and I'll help you, Martin replies: 'But my back doesn't need scratching.' They also have difficulties in understanding non-verbal communication. Ben in the Blue bottle mystery has to be taught about crying and tells his friend Grandma says tears mean someone's sad.

How do doctors test for Asperger syndrome?

Sometimes, if you are unwell and go to see the doctor, s/he will do tests, such as a blood test, to find out what is wrong with you. At present, it is not possible to test in this way for autism or Asperger syndrome, although research is being carried out all the time to achieve such a test. Instead, a paediatrician (a children's doctor) or another qualified health professional will carry out an assessment. This assessment may include observing the child in the clinic, at home or in school; intelligence and language tests. A detailed history of the child's development from their parents will be taken.

Causes

It is thought that Asperger syndrome is caused by differences in the brain. This does not mean that people with Asperger syndrome are stupid. As can be seen in the example of Martin, although he has difficulty with English, he is extremely good at maths and science. He is also very knowledgeable about certain subjects such as spiders and dinosaurs.

Making friends

Children and young people with Asperger syndrome find it very difficult to make friends. However, that does not mean they don't want friends. Martin tells his brother how much he wants to make friends but they don't understand him and he doesn't understand them. This is where you can help your classmate.

The most important thing is to try to get to know him or her. Find out what their interests are and let them use them. (For example, Martin's knowledge of tarantulas will be very important in his class science project on spiders. Kristopher, a child with Asperger syndrome, is excellent at kicking a ball. His friends invented a game, Krisball, where his skills at kicking a ball really high are used.) Talk to them like you would talk to any of your other friends. You may have to be very patient. You may have to explain things. Sometimes it may take longer for them to do something or answer a question.

Sometimes you may get frustrated with your friend with Asperger syndrome. That's okay, but remember you also get frustrated from time to time with your friends or your brothers and sisters. Remember, too, that just as there are times when you want to be alone, there will be times when your friend wants to be left alone. If you don't know what they want, ask them! At other times, they may get frustrated with you. An example of this is when Martin is unable to understand that one word can be a noun, verb or adjective. 

It is also important to try not to get cross with them for something they do that bothers you or something they don't do that you think they should. Sometimes they cannot understand what is expected. Remember how it feels when you are trying to do something you find very difficult.

Be a buddy

Children and young people with Asperger syndrome can be the target of bullies. One young person with Asperger syndrome describes how bullying left him in tears for hours every night. What made matters worse, was that he was being bullied by someone he thought was his best friend.

One of the reasons that students with Asperger syndrome are bullied is because they find it so difficult to communicate and relate to others. For example, when they don't understand a joke, other people may tease them about this. What is needed is a 'buddy' like Kathy in Grange Hill. She explains to Martin when someone is joking and calms him down if necessary. To be a buddy all you need do is look out for your friend with Asperger syndrome. Ways in which you can help include: explaining jokes, teaching the rules of games and helping them if they are being bullied eg by encouraging them to tell the bully to stop. You may like to talk to a teacher first. If you would like to discuss how you can help a friend with Asperger syndrome, you can contact our Autism Helpline

People with Asperger syndrome can be extremely sensitive to certain sounds, tastes, smells, touches etc. Martin provides an example of this when he becomes distressed by an innocent touch from another pupil. Kathy has to calm Martin down and explain that Josh was only joking. It is important to be aware that touch and sound can actually be painful to the person with Asperger syndrome. Martin finds the noise of a drill unbearable. Be careful not to make fun of someone if they cover their ears at such sounds. Kenneth Hall, a young boy with Asperger syndrome, describes the sound of children's chatter as 'dynamite going off in my ears'.

Some children and young people with Asperger syndrome find it easier to be with just one other person at a time. It can be very difficult to be in a group. This can be particularly hard during break times, when there are a lot of children running about making a noise. In some schools, the child with Asperger syndrome may be allowed to sit quietly in the library. It may be that you are allowed to keep them company before returning to the normal routine of lessons.

Learning more

If you want to learn more about autism and Asperger syndrome, the following resources might help you:

Novels about autism

Hoopmann K. (2000) Blue bottle mystery: an Asperger adventure. Jessica Kinglsey

Hoopmann K. (2001) Of mice and aliens: an Asperger adventure. Jessica Kingsley

Hoopman K. (2002) Lisa and the lacemaker: An Asperger adventure. Jessica Kingsley

Jarman J. (1999) Hangman. Anderson Press

Rees C. (2000) Truth or dare. Macmillan Children's Books

Ogaz N. (2002) Buster and the amazing daisy: adventures with Asperger syndrome. Jessica Kingsley

Rodowsky C. (2001) Clay . New York: Farrar Straus Giroux

Books written by young people with autism/Asperger syndrome

Jackson L. (2002) Freaks, geeks and Asperger syndome. Jessica Kingsley

Hall K. (2000) Aspergers syndrome, the universe and everything: Kenneth's book. Jessica Kinglsey

Mukhopadhyay T.R. (2000) Beyond the silence: My life, the world and autism. The National Autistic Society

Other books

Gerland G. (2000) Finding out about Asperger syndrome, high functioning autism and PDD. Jessica Kinglsey

Spilsbury L. (2001) What does it mean to have autism?  Heinemann

Videos

A is for autism. Channel 4

Rain Man. Warner Home Video

The ages of autism. Mark-It Television Associates in association with The National Autistic Society

Factsheets/leaflets

Factsheets for school and college students studying autism:


If you require further information, please contact:

Autism Helpline
Tel: 0808 800 4104 (open 10am-4pm, Monday-Friday)
Minicom: 0845 070 4003
Website: www.autism.org.uk/helpline

Our Autism Helpline provides impartial, confidential information, advice and support for people with autism spectrum disorders and their families and carers.