Monday, December 17, 2007

Living with Asperger's

For a 10-year-old, Jake Hayes is very clear about what he wants to be when he grows up.

"I want to be a paleontologist for a museum," said Jake, whose room does not hide his fascination.

Shelves are covered with prehistoric creatures, mystical dragons and Godzilla, which Jake explains is a mutated reptile. Where there aren't creatures, there are books.

But Jake's not going to work in anybody's museum — he'll work in his own.

That Jake knows he wants to work for himself is just a tiny hint of his disorder. There were others when he was growing up that, when strung together, began to spell out Asperger's syndrome.

"Even when he was a baby, he would sit alone and play contently by himself," Colleen LaBorde, said of her son who was diagnosed with Asperger's at age 5. "He didn't have any marked developmental delays; his gross motor was a little delayed, but there was nothing that would set us off."

Asperger's syndrome is one of the autism spectrum disorders. Children with Asperger's typically have normal or above-normal IQs but struggle with social aspects of language and nonverbal communication, according to diagnostic criteria for the disorder.

The disorder is also marked by intense preoccupation around one or more patterns of interest.

That was evident very early on with Jake.

"When he was about 3, he memorized his favorite dinosaur book almost verbatim. He'd have sentences memorized before he knew what the words meant," LaBorde said. "If you asked him a question about a dinosaur, he could tell you these amazing facts."

In preschool, other characteristics became more pronounced.

"The teacher was worried because he would ask for the dinosaur book and go sit in a corner by himself," LaBorde said.

In kindergarten, the behavior got worse. Her son was ritualistic, protective of his toys and obsessive about certain things.

"He won't wear anything with a hole in it, not even a sock. I was at the school every day because of his behavior. He wouldn't sit still, and he'd poke himself and other students."

Every possible reason for his behavior — cerebral palsy, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, Tourette syndrome, among others — was offered up.

Nobody mentioned it might be autism until a Caddo school occupational therapist saw Jake.

"A therapist and my pediatrician thought the idea was absurd," LaBorde said. "I finally got a diagnosis from a pediatric neurologist."

She had to clear another hurdle when she began looking for resources.

"Nobody I went to knew enough about Asperger's to help. I was ready to leave the area to look for help when I found The Center for Therapy in Shreveport," said LaBorde. "That's made the biggest difference. It's really helped our family with so much more understanding (of the disorder.)"

Frustration has been turned into knowledge to help Jake work through the areas of life with which he has trouble. For example, he struggles with math, and his ability to focus can be a problem.

It's also difficult for Jake to understand what's appropriate behavior in social situations.

"You also have to be very literal when you talk to him," LaBorde said. "He doesn't understand sarcasm or little white lies."

She knows that with Jake's seemingly brilliant mind, he could have gone even longer without a diagnosis. That scares her, not only for her son, but for other families who might be seeking answers.

"If you catch it early, you can do a lot to help them improve their life," LaBorde said. "But there needs to be more trained professionals in the school system (who) can catch these children, because that's where it shows up."

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