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According to autismspeaks.org, autism spectrum disorders are 10 times more prevalent now than they were 40 years ago. In part, this increase is because of greater knowledge and awareness. However, as more information appears, so do more questions. The term autism spectrum disorders (ASD) describes a wide range of delays and/or disabilities relating to brain development. An understanding of the differences in this range of developmental delays is important for increasing overall awareness. In the past 20 years, knowledge about Asperger's disorder, a "high-functioning" form of autism, has increased dramatically. Yet there is still so much to learn. Whether you are touched personally by Asperger's or another form of ASD or simply need to broaden your own knowledge, increasing awareness can help create a better future for everyone involved.

Asperger's Disorder: Clinically Speaking

What is Asperger's? What are differentiating traits? What is meant by "high-functioning" end of the spectrum with regard to Asperger's? What do I need to look for as a parent?

It is often easier to understand something when it is broken down into smaller terms and definitions. As parents, we may not want to imagine our child receiving such a diagnosis, but having some guidelines gives us a starting point. It is important to understand that, although there are common traits to Asperger's and other forms of ASD, characteristics vary widely from person to person, and everyone is unique. There is no "one size fits all" description of Asperger's or any other disability. From a clinical perspective, Asperger's is often described as a high-functioning form of autism, meaning that "Aspergians" are relatively well-equipped to live, play, work, attend school, and learn self-care once proper and personally-tailored therapies and programs have been implemented. People with Asperger's may exhibit some difficulties with social skills, empathy, motor skills, and understanding social cues, but they are often highly intelligent and gifted in specific areas such as writing or math. For example, in conversation, an individual with Asperger's may not understand the cue to cease conversation, but what he or she may be relating to you could be accurate, memorized facts about a current fascination. This unique combination of traits is often cherished and advocated by those in the Asperger's community as it gives them a different perspective and rare abilities.

Unlike many other forms of autism, Asperger's is often not diagnosed until a child enters school. The traits listed above emerge upon the introduction of social interaction and routine. The online CAST test at livingwithaspergers.com can help you learn more about the signs of Asperger's and determine if your child may have the most common traits. However, trusting parental instincts is essential, and if any delays are suspected, do not hesitate to talk to your child's teachers and doctors.

Asperger's Disorder: Emotionally Speaking

What is the real-life experience of having a child with Asperger's? How can we increase our emotional awareness?

A true understanding and awareness of Asperger's and ASD comes when you can see through the eyes of the parent, the child, the caregiver — in a sense, as a human being. Asperger's may be labeled as a disability, but it does not inhibit the life that is within the person. Upon speaking with parents of children with Asperger's and ASD, this message was very clear: having a diagnosis does not make their children abnormal, and although life may have unique challenges, it also has unimaginable joy.

Jonathan Rintels of Charlottesville, author of the semi-autobiographical novel Lifemobile, a book his life with his son who has Asperger's says, "My son, who the book is based on in many respects...is one of the most interesting people I've ever met, and he is very interested in getting the message out that he is not disabled or defective. He's just different, and it's true." Rintels' novel, which is a heartwarming story of the bond forged between a father and son sparked by the purchase of a 1965 convertible Corvair, details some of the characteristics of Asperger's and its influence on social development. Rintels wanted to increase readers' knowledge of what Asperger's is and what it is not, and through the character Benjy, one learns about the adjustments and the gifts associated with having this "difference."
The book Lifemobile issues the challenge of what can really be defined as normal. The novel shows that, although some people view Benjy as too different, we all have idiosyncrasies and obsessions. We must not judge, but instead view each person as an individual.

Local mother Amber Davis speaks similarly about life with her son who has been diagnosed with autism. As a parent, Davis advises other parents to remember that each child is unique and to accept what your child is rather than dwell on what your child is not. She also cautions to not judge; autism and other spectrum disorders are not always physically apparent. Although there may be struggles, Amber emphasizes that the blessings of having an autistic child are tenfold. "When he loves you, he loves you," she says. "There is no faking, no questioning."

Stephanie Foster lives in Stafford with her children. She hopes to spread awareness through her work.

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