Dealing With the Symptoms of Asperger's Syndrome

by Miriam Darnell

This article was written in response to a parent who had a question about her child who has Asperger's Syndrome.

In response to a parent who asked if Asperger children ever outgrow their symptoms:

My son was such a hypertonic baby that I had to start the vacuum in another part of the house, away from him because he would startle so much and cry for hours over the sudden noise. We couldn't break out into laughter or applause around him because he would cry. His ears were so sensitive when he was little, that life was just agonizing for him. He was also afraid of everything. He'd go from one worry to another, from our house getting robbed to tornadoes to scary dogs to monsters under the bed... you name it. We had to put him on an anti-anxiety med when he was 10, though I had spent years trying everything besides medication (including occupational therapy, vision therapy, mental health therapy, sensory dieting, etc.). Then we met a very good psychiatrist who put Connor on an amazing med. You'll be surprised to hear this, but Clonidine (an old time blood pressure medication) in small doses helps to calm the system, and if given over a one-year period, can actually reset the brain's thought patterns so that the world doesn't seem so scary. The best thing about this med is that it's over 50 years old, has been tested on millions of people, has no side effects, and it's super cheap. I think we paid $10.00 a bottle for it. We did it for a year, and sure enough, Connor felt better. It started working right away, of course, but by the end of the prescription, we were able to stop all meds and he was much better able to cope with the world around him. This is not to say I'm a fan of meds. I think they should be an absolute last resort, and even then, should be taken in moderation for a limited time period. But hey, if it works...

Connor had a major change when he turned 14. I don't know if it was hormones or maturity or what, but he actually felt his filters fall into place.

You see, the way we've always viewed it, kids like Connor don't have a proper sensory filtration system in place. They can't tune out certain noises in order to focus on what the teacher is saying to them. They can't tune out the shiny objects in the room in order to focus on what is written on the board. The further up the autism spectrum you go, the worse this condition is. The over-stimulation can be agonizing for these kids, not to mention cognitively exhausting. If they have to learn all about the bird chirping outside the window and the kid tapping his pencil next to them and the ant crawling across the floor and the tag on the back of their shirt itching, all at the same time that they have to learn what the teacher is trying to relay, they lose cognitive energy very quickly. There's no volume control. No visual adjustments either. I'll bet these kids even see colors most people can't perceive. Result: A tired, cranky, immature-acting, anxiety-ridden child who has plenty of energy to run around outside and play (physical energy is different from cognitive energy), but who has not one spot of mental energy left to think or do homework with.

Anyway, back to my story... Connor came home one day from school with the biggest smile on his face.

He said, “Mom! It finally happened!”

I said, “What happened, Son?”

“I was able to sit in the lunchroom today and the noise didn't bother me! I felt my filters fall into place! I actually felt it happen!”

I was stunned. I hugged him and cried. I prayed it wasn't just a temporary thing. That it would actually stay this way. All his life, he had been so tortured by the noises in his world. We tried ear plugs but they itched. We tried sound proof headphones, but they put too much pressure on his head and annoyed him. We spent $300.00 getting him ear filters, which he couldn't stand to wear because they bothered and distracted him, not to mention that he was socially conscious of how they looked in his ears at that point. We found quiet places for him to work, but those came and went easily in a school filled with noisy children.

Now, here he was, saying he wasn't bothered by noise anymore. I watched and waited, day after day to see if it stuck. Indeed it did! He was able to handle the noisy school lunch room, the loud movies on television, and even a day at an amusement park! I couldn't believe it. The only problem was that it only lasted from September-January, and then he was very very tired. It took all of his energy to keep those filters in place and tune out the extraneous noise in school. He started to resist school more and more by the day, just saying “I'm done! I don't have any energy left! I can't think! I can't learn!” and he meant it. He had the energy to keep his filters in place just so long, and when he got too tired, that was it.

Still, five months of proper sensory filtration was a dream come true. I knew that if I could get him rested enough, he'd be able to continue to handle school in a positive way. I spoke with his teachers, and we did some tweaking to his schedule so that I could pull him out of school one hour early each day and home school him for one class. It helped. I brought lunch to him two times a week and we ate it in the silence of the car, and that helped too. I bought him an Ipod and he listened to his favorite music during passing periods and in study hall, thereby blocking out the outside noise, and that helped the most. That Ipod became his best friend in the whole world. Thankfully, at the time, he attended a school that allowed him to use it in his study hall and during lunch. We got through the rest of the school year this way, limping along, taking an absence once a month when it just became too overwhelming, so he could rest and recharge, but for the most part, he made it through okay.

The next year, he made it all the way until March before he began to crash. I couldn't complain. That was a miracle for Connor!

The year after that, he made it to the beginning of May and we celebrated! That was also the year that he watched his first horror movie and didn't get scared. He was 16. I don't like horror movies or violent things myself, so it was weird for me to celebrate his ability to look at violent images and not be bothered by them. But what could I want more for him than to stand strong against his fears? While I don't like being part of a desensitized society, desensitization is the best thing that could happen to Connor.

Now that Connor is 17, he can watch, listen to, and play virtually anything and not be bothered by it. But he still gets migraines when he's been in a noisy environment for too long. School still drives him a bit crazy with all the constant noise, but he advocates for himself quite well. His teachers are always pleased when he approaches them, tells them what his problem is, and then says what exactly he needs in order to make it better. It's usually something small and easy to give. Headphones or a quiet place to work. Problem solved. He's a great advocator.

So... I'd say, YES, it gets better! Hang in there! Connor's going to make a great, very self-aware adult. I'm sure your child will too. :-)


P.S. I know I focused on the auditory over-stimulation aspect of Connor's development here, but he overcame many other eccentricities as well, such as the need to chew the collars of his shirts until they looked like rags, the need to stand on his head for half an hour after he came home from school every day, the weird habits he had like the "chicken dance" - a weird, nervous motion that we couldn't help but laugh at when it became a habit for him, and many more things I can't begin to relay here. It's all gone now.

There's still a few things we're working on, but they're minor and I'll talk about those in future posts.