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Review of "Learning and Behavior Problems in Asperger Syndrome"

By Margot Prior (Editor)
Guilford, 2003
Review by Elizabeth McCardell, Ph.D. on Mar 9th 2005
Learning and Behavior Problems in Asperger Syndrome

Asperger Syndrome (AS) is a curious disorder often misdiagnosed. A 44-year-old woman of my acquaintance, for instance, was categorized at school as merely a slow learner, despite her obvious, but admittedly peculiar, intellectual interests (and skill in solving the Rubik's Cube), her physical clumsiness, as well as a wooden way of speaking, failure to read the subtleties of body language and the multiple dimensions of social discourse. Her style of thinking differs significantly from the non-Aspergers population. She perseverates upon a single idea and lacks flexibility of thought. Classically, she lacks a recognition of the feelings and thoughts of others (known as a lack of "theory of mind"). She, in turn, however, suffers heightened emotional frustration that comes from not making sense of others' emotions, intentions, and tacit behavior. Despite these obvious problems, this woman's eyes shine and she laughs quickly and fulsomely.

Forty-four years ago, Asperger Syndrome was not generally known in the English-speaking world; in fact twenty years ago, this was the case. This is not to say that the disorder is a recent one, or an innovation of educationalists and medical science (as suggested by the uninformed).† As illustrated above, the spectrum of disorders that is AS and other autism-related disorders, was misunderstood by educators and other professionals.

Originally described in a series of case studies by the Australian psychiatrist Hans Asperger in 1944, the special interest in this higher functioning form of autism was overshadowed by an interest in the symptoms of classic† autism described by the American Leo Kanner. The identification of Asperger Syndrome, though, suffered not just from being relegated to the background, but from an indecision regarding precisely what the spectrum of conditions actually constitutes. This remains the case. Interestingly the determination of a diagnosis of AS using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fourth Edition describes a pattern of behavior that differs markedly from those presented by Asperger in his early writings. The book under review, Learning and Behavior Problems in Asperger Syndrome, gives a very interesting and thorough account of the differences.

This book, edited by Margot Prior, also maps how people with AS, children and adults alike, learn and how these learning patterns differ from more typical children. Valuably, the contributors to the papers in this book provide excellent advice and modus operandi for the effective inclusion of these children into educational situations. Indeed, this book is not only useful for schoolteachers, special education units, psychologists, and parents, but teachers in higher education as well.

The realization that some people with AS can be incorporated into traditional educational settings, including those of university and colleges, of course radicalizes our preconceptions regarding the educability of people with AS. Certainly, their patterns of learning are different, but when differences are taken account of, learning goals can be well and truly achieved. One of the contributors to the book, Tony Attwood (an Australian clinical psychologist who specializes in AS and related disorders), proposes several strategies for such an integration to happen. What is so beautiful about this paper is that Attwood includes ways for encouraging greater social interaction, and the making of friends.

The book also includes a personal account of living with Asperger Syndrome. Wendy Lawson remembers her schooling in an era very unfriendly to differences. Typical of people with AS, she has an acute, precise memory for things and events and times. The account captures not only this, but the non-complex language-line of the AS mind. She writes,

When I heard the words "Wendy, aren't you changed yet?" I only felt scared. What was I to become? What might I change into? What and when might this change occur? Would it be a sudden change? Might it happen when I wasn't looking?. I had to be vigilant, and maybe if I ran away from times when people expected me to "change," "the change" might be avoided. If it had been explained to me in other words, such as "Take your day school clothes off here and put your PE school clothes on for PE," I would have understood.† (p.181)

This excerpt well illustrates the difficulties facing the literalists that are AS people and the difficulties encountered by parents and educators associated with them. We have to modify much of what we say; we have to be mindful that our shortcut language and tacit displays of intent are explained in detail.

This is a fascinating book, but it is less one for easy reading than a valuable resource book for professionals and interested parents.† Highly recommended.

© 2005 Elizabeth McCardell

Elizabeth McCardell, PhD, Independent scholar, Australia.

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