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Autism & Asperger’s Conference with Dr. Tony Attwood, Part 2

Posted Nov 05 2010 5:00am

Welcome! This is Part 2 in a series related to the recent Future Horizons conference I attended with Dr. Tony Attwood speaking on Autism & Asperger’s. I will be publishing these 2-3 times a week until I get through all of my notes.

Part 1 covered the topics of Autistic Personality, Prevalence of ASDs and Asperger’s in Girls.

Today I am going to talk about the Reaction to Being Different, How to Explain the Diagnosis and the Social Tree versus the Sensory Tree. I hope it’s okay, but I’m going to call him Tony from here on out–Dr. Attwood just takes too long to type. :)

Children faced with the feeling of being different but not really knowing why tend to react by either internalizing or externalizing their emotions. The first results in depression or escape, and the second comes out as arrogance and anger or imitation.

Depression
With depression, there is generally a deep intensity to the sadness or worry and a tendency towards catastrophizing things due to a sense of extreme despair. Isolation is also very common. While cognitive behavior therapy and medications can help, they are not going to solve the underlying problem.

In Tony’s words, Prozac won’t give you friends.

If the root cause is social isolation, we need to provide social success to truly make a difference in the person’s life.

Escape
Escape takes the form of imagination and fantasy, often by way of a special interest. You might also see imaginary friends, which in this case is evidence of loneliness, not psychosis.

Arrogance and Anger
These are often expressed through constantly correcting others and never admitting to making a mistake. Everything becomes someone else’s fault and other people’s actions may be seen as malicious when they are really accidental or even friendly.

Imitation
On the flip side of this, some children become natural mimics and imitate those around them in order to try to fit in. Speech and drama lessons can be very helpful for learning how to act in real social situations.

Of course, a child can shift between the various types of reactions. They are not predetermined to react only one way.

In his opinion, the best time to reveal and explain the diagnosis of Asperger’s to the child is when they first realize they are different, usually around 6-8 years old. If the child is already a teenager, however, he warns to use caution and consider waiting to confirm the clinical diagnosis until adulthood. Either way, you can have conversations about being different.

One good way to start the conversation is to use a white board or a large piece of paper and list “qualities” and “difficulties” for each member of the family. Start with Mom, then Dad, then siblings and finally the child with Asperger’s. Make sure the list of qualities for each person is longer than the list of difficulties.

Once you have gone through this exercise, you can talk about how scientists look for patterns and how, when they find a pattern, they like to give it a name, often after the person who first discovered it. Examples would be Newton’s Laws of Motion or Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. In this case, they call this pattern Asperger’s after Hans Asperger, who first identified and described it.

Be sure to tell the child they are not mad (it’s not a mental illness), not bad and not stupid. They are different, not defective.

Tony recommended a series of books with a child who has Asperger’s as the main character. The books, of which the first is the Blue Bottle Mystery , are written by Kathy Hoopmann and appear to aimed at middle and high school students.

For adults, employment is a key factor to their mental well-being. Another need is support for couples in relationships where one or both partners are Aspies.

Tony used this image as a metaphor for the way an infant’s brain grows and develops. Most of us have probably heard the idea of our brains as trees with many branches that are growing rapidly over the first couple of years of life. As he described it, one tree will grow higher than the others and form a sort of canopy over the rest of the forest.

For neurotypicals (NTs), the tree that grows the highest is the social tree. NTs are pre-wired to absorb and prioritize social information and cues.

For children with an autism spectrum disorder, the tree that has grown the highest is the sensory tree; their system is prioritizing sensory input and information and responding to that instead of to social information. As time goes on, they may have different areas that flourish, such as mechanical ability, mathematics, music, imagination or interest in and ability to connect with animals.

My personal observation is that all people tend to gravitate towards the areas they are good at, but that children with Asperger’s and autism may become hyper-focused on them due to a variety of factors that have been brought up in this discussion.

I’m going to stop there for today. The next section is on Exploring Feelings, and there were some big aha moments for me that may be revelations for you as well, so I want to take my time to focus on them. I am very curious as to your thoughts on these topics, so please feel free to leave me a comment with any additional ideas or other perspectives.

For more information on other conferences, please visit the Future Horizons website. They also have a variety of books and other materials by Tony Attwood and a number of other authors in their online store .

Note: I attended this conference for free as a member of the Future Horizons blogger review team. I did not receive any other compensation for this post.

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