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He's the world’s leading Asperger’s syndrome expert. How did he miss his son's diagnosis?

How did a world-renowned expert on autism miss the fact that his own son had Asperger’s syndrome?

Professor Tony Attwood still asks himself that question. It was only when his son Will, a drug addict, went to jail for burglary that he watched a video from Will’s childhood and was hit with the realisation.

Professor Attwood says when Will was a child, three decades ago, people weren’t aware of the subtle signs that showed someone had Asperger’s. Will’s behaviour was simply seen as naughty or difficult.

“He could only cope with socialising for only a certain length of time,” Professor Attwood tells Mamamia. “Once that was enough, he needed to escape. This was, say, after 20 minutes of a three-hour family gathering. He learnt when he was very young that if he was disruptive or difficult or embarrassing, we would have to leave, and that was his escape.”

As a child, Will experienced extreme emotions that weren’t helped by his parents consoling or distracting him. He was also sensitive to certain sensory experiences, like a knife buttering toast.

“We thought, ‘Why on earth is he so upset at breakfast time?’ What he wasn’t doing was telling us what circumstances were causing him distress.”

As Will got older, he turned to alcohol and marijuana, to reduce his anxiety and to make him less anxious in social situations. It gave him a culture to join. But it also meant he became disengaged from his family.

“I couldn’t get through to him to know what was happening,” Professor Attwood remembers.

Professor Attwood says when Will was a child, three decades ago, people weren’t aware of the subtle signs that showed someone had Asperger’s. (Image: Supplied)
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If Will had been diagnosed as a child, his life could have turned out differently. Professor Attwood would have been able to better understand his needs– for example, his need to escape social gatherings after a short time.

“Either my wife or I could have said to Will, ‘Okay, Will, we’ll go for a walk, we’ll just get out, I’m not going to talk, we’ll just walk, and after about 10 minutes we’ll come back and you’ll be ready for the next stage.’ It’s sometimes as simple as that.”

Professor Attwood says he would have also used his knowledge of how to manage emotions to help Will. That would have included teaching him yoga and meditation.

“Through yoga and meditation you can reach a level of inner tranquility which is much needed and you want to achieve naturally rather than through drugs.”

There’s a high level of addiction in young adults with autism spectrum disorder. That addiction can be alcohol or drugs, but it can also be computer games, which can be another way of escaping from reality. But Professor Attwood doesn’t believe addiction is anything to do with ASD. It’s to do with “neurotypicals” – that is, other people.

“I think it’s bullying, teasing, rejection and humiliation. So it’s not the condition itself but the reaction of the peer group that will corrupt the self-esteem and wellbeing of a person with ASD.”

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To Professor Attwood, Asperger’s should be seen as a gift. He can see Asperger’s traits not just in famous scientists, but in many famous artists too, including Vincent Van Gogh and Andy Warhol. He’s also seen those traits in a lot of successful singer-songwriters.

“They can convey their feelings and sense of self through music but not conversation,” he explains.

Professor Attwood says parents of kids with ASD need to work on building up their self-esteem.  They need to focus on their children’s skills, and also on the positive things about their personalities – that they’re caring, that their specialised knowledge can be entertaining.

“That builds resilience to the predators,” he adds.

As for parents of neurotypical kids, they should be teaching their children how to behave towards kids with ASD.

“Embrace, enjoy, encourage. Do not bully or tease or reject those with Asperger’s, because one day they could be your boss.”

You can see Professor Attwood’s story on Australian Story on ABC iView.

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