"When did you find out your son has learning difficulties?" asked the reporter from my local newspaper.
"He doesn’t have learning difficulties," I replied. "He has Asperger’s Syndrome. That’s different."
"Oh," she said, "Okay."
I assumed it was a slip of the tongue. So I continued to talk about my book – a memoir of motherhood and Asperger’s Syndrome – but didn’t pause to explain exactly what Asperger’s was.
Then, I read the article. The theme? My son’s "learning difficulties".
I screamed. And then I cried.
"Ms Case said it wasn't until a school counsellor recommended her son have an IQ test that she knew he had learning difficulties," the article read.
My son Leo started school knowing how to read and write. He would read chapter books in his Prep class while his classmates chanted the alphabet.
In the schoolyard, things weren’t so easy. He often played alone. He would wander in late from lunch, or sit on the outside of a classroom circle, reading while he was supposed to be listening to the teacher.
The journalist wrote that I wondered whether my son was gifted, or if he struggled at school. But it wasn’t an either/or proposition.
It turned out that these two things were connected. The school counsellor suggested we test Leo for being gifted – and the resulting profile of strengths and challenges spelled out Asperger’s Syndrome. An official diagnosis later confirmed it.
Asperger’s is characterised by the very presentation Leo had: advanced skills in some areas, like language and memory, and being behind in others, like social comprehension.
Someone with Asperger’s Syndrome learns social skills intellectually rather than intuitively, meaning that they need to process every social interaction as it happens. Though they can and do learn social skills, it requires extra time and effort.
Emotional management is a challenge. People with Asperger’s Syndrome feel emotions intensely – and can react when upset, angry or frustrated, with "meltdowns". They can learn to recognise triggers and take themselves out of emotional situations before they melt down.
Another characteristic of Asperger’s Syndrome is a special area of interest, which will dominate a person’s thoughts, free time and conversation. These interests can be arcane, like doorknobs, or they can be normal interests for their age group, pursued with an unusual intensity. Often, they can lead to careers, or become a way of making connections to others who share those interests.
When Leo was diagnosed, aged seven, his special interests were Lego and AFL football. These days, he’s immersed in film – and his You Tube channel. He has nearly 700 subscribers, has been invited to join a select group who receive monthly payments for their work (at the moment, he makes twenty dollars per month), and has made friends all over the world, who he communicates with daily. He also has a tight-knit group of ‘You-Tuber’ friends at school.
Leo’s intelligence and his awesome learning capacities are among his great strengths. That passion for knowledge, and affinity for it, is part of who he is.
Leo doesn’t need learning support at school – at least, not in terms of his educational needs. He is a bright boy, with an excellent memory and an ability to learn facts quickly – and retain them. He’s also an excellent reader. He is very good at maths (though he finds it difficult to show his working out). He is gifted at digital media, excellent at grammar and punctuation (his last primary school teacher had him edit her worksheets and notices), he has a distinctive writing voice and is savvy at analysis.
All of the above is not despite his Asperger’s – it’s because of it.
But there are some things Leo does need help with at school, to address the challenges of Asperger’s. Organisational support to help him remember his homework, to bring his textbooks to class, to record deadlines. He needs some flexibility from educators, in terms of putting him in a classroom grouping where he’s comfortable (so he doesn’t have to concentrate so much on the exhausting ‘second curriculum’ of navigating social relationships). And there are systems in place to deal with emotional blowouts – for instance, he has a red card in his pencil case that, when presented, allows him to access time out to cool down when upset.
His high school provides all of this as a matter of course. When we exuberantly thank them, they respond with bewilderment. ‘That’s our job.’ Not every Asperger’s kid or parent is so lucky.
The school deals with Leo’s challenges so well (and appreciate his strengths) because they understand Asperger’s. The journalist who interviewed me obviously knew nothing about it, but she didn’t bother to find out either. Or to listen.
When I first saw the article, with its description of my son – who is defined as much by his ability to soak up and apply knowledge as his challenges – as defined by ‘learning difficulties’, I wished I had never written a book.
But I wrote it because I wanted to show people with Asperger’s Syndrome as more than stereotypes – to introduce them as people you might recognise and relate to, not just walking sets of symptoms. I wanted to show that Asperger’s bestows gifts as well as challenges.
I guess that this experience shows that books like mine are needed.
Jo Case is the author of Boomer and Me: A Memoir of Motherhood and Asperger’s (Hardie Grant). Her website is www.jocasewrites.com.