Thomas Hulme, 10, likes to write short stories; one recent oeuvre featured a haunted fireplace. “Thomas is incredibly intelligent and has an amazing vocabulary,” says his father, Ben.
But Thomas has difficulty understanding instructions and needs a special teacher in school. He suffers from Asperger’s syndrome.
“In school I have special stickers, so I get points if I behave and lose points if I misbehave,” he explains. “And I have calm-down time.”
Asperger’s syndrome was discovered in 1944 by Austrian pediatrician Hans Aspberger, who noticed a pattern of social isolation and repetitive behavior in some children, including future Nobel Prize in Literature winner Elfriede Jelinek.
“Asperger’s is the most difficult developmental disorder to diagnose,” explains professor Gary McAbee, director of Pediatric Neurology at JFK Hospital in New Jersey. “There are some prominent features, primarily difficulties in social situations and obsession with a certain interest. But unlike children with autism, children with Asperger’s don’t have speech delays. When the symptoms are mild, you face the question of whether the child has Asperger’s or is just a little bit weird.”
In fact, some children with Asperger’s have such impressive vocabularies that they’re often called little professors. But they have difficulties understanding social cues like jokes and have trouble with eye contact and facial expressions.
The disorder is increasingly diagnosed. A recent report by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that the prevalence of autism among American children rose by 27 percent between 2002 and 2006.
Hans Asperger died a famous man on Oct. 21, 1980. But 30 years later, his disorder may soon die, too. New medical handbooks plan to drop Asperger’s as a separate disorder and include it in autism.
“That would have a big impact on Thomas’s life,” says Ben Hulme. “If his classification changes to autism, he may receive services that are unsuitable for his needs. Thomas also identifies himself as having Asperger’s syndrome and he is comfortable with this label. ... It would be confusing and unsettling for him.”
Obsession: Is it curse or a gift?
One trademark feature of Asperger’s syndrome is obsession. Most people with Asperger’s have a strong interest in extremely organized subjects, like maps.
One young patient of Dr. Gary McAbee’s knew everything about early 19th-century Russian history; another was an expert on submarines, and another focused on luxury ships.
Bram Cohen, the founder of software company BitTorrent, is considered a computer genius. He attributes his coding skills to Asperger’s, which allows him to single-mindedly code for hours at a time.