‘My child’s not the only one’

Support group helps families cope with Asperger’s syndrome

Posted: Monday, April 23, 2007

Kellie Schneider knew her son Ethan was special when, at 11 months, he could work the VCR and was able to scan a CD to pick his favorite song.

Now 6 years old and a kindergartner at Sears Elementary School in Kenai, Ethan has moved up from home electronics to the family’s home computer. He likes to rename the printers, and is very capable downloading and transferring files. He’s also reading at a second-grade level, and working on relatively complex mathematical equations, problems involving four or more numbers.

“He’s a little mini-engineer,” his mother said.

Those characteristics, Schneider said, are common to people with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism with which Ethan was diagnosed last year. Schneider said Asperger’s syndrome is becoming more commonly identified, with about 1 out of 150 children diagnosed with the condition.

When Ethan was diagnosed, Schneider said she was unable to find many resources in the community. A pediatrician said other children in the community had been diagnosed with the same condition, so Schneider decided to start a support group.

“It’s been very helpful,” Schneider said of the group, which has about a dozen members. “Up until now I’ve been struggling with, ‘Is this typical 5-year-old behavior, or is this Asperger’s?’”

As she’s learned more about the condition, she’s been able to distinguish between typical kindergartner behavior and reactions symptomatic of Asperger’s.

“It’s a high-functioning autism,” Schneider said of the condition, adding that she’s learning more and more about what that means. “Most people, when they think of autism, they think of ‘Rain Man,’ or they think of children that sit in the corner and rock back and forth.

“(Children with Asperger’s) are vocal, but they don’t understand things they may say and do come across as rude, or they don’t understand social interaction with children their own age -- it’s just a very social disability.”

Schneider said people with Asperger’s sometimes are diagnosed as having attention deficit disorder or oppositional defiance disorder.

“It’s kind of a melting pot for a lot of those disorders,” Schneider said. “They often behave in an irrational manner because they don’t know how to cope with everyday situations.”

Schneider said the goal of the support group is to help parents teach their children to cope, and also to help siblings learn how to deal with a brother or sister with Asperger’s. Schneider said other group participants have children Ethan’s age and older, and it’s been helpful for her to be able to listen and take their advice.

“Other parents, it’s reassuring to hear them talk -- OK, my child’s not the only one,” Schneider said.

There’s plenty of sympathizing at meetings, Schneider said, but there’s also a healthy dose of learning how to cope.

Schneider said Ethan’s kindergarten teacher and classroom aide have been coming to meetings, something that’s been helpful as they try to help Ethan learn to cope in a classroom setting.

“He doesn’t do well in large groups,” Schneider said. When he gets overwhelmed by a situation, his reaction is to wander off or run away.

Schneider said people with Asperger’s can grow up to lead normal lives -- provided they learn how to cope with the condition and function in school and social settings. Many people with Asperger’s tend toward engineering and computer jobs.

The Asperger’s support group meets the first Monday of every month at the Kenai Public Health Center on Barnacle Way. Schneider said the group also is putting together a Web site, www.aspiesofalaska.org, with more information and resources. For information about the group, e-mail Schneider at crazy8s@alaska.net.

Schneider offered one piece of advice she’s learned about raising a child with Asperger’s syndrome.

“You’ve got to have a sense of humor about it,” Schneider said. “Otherwise, you’ll never make it.”

Will Morrow can be reached at will.morrow@peninsulaclarion.com.

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