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Freaks, Geeks and Asperger SyndromeReview - Freaks, Geeks and Asperger Syndrome
A User Guide to Adolescence
by Luke Jackson
Jessica Kingsley, 2002
Review by Kevin Purday
Apr 29th 2004 (Volume 8, Issue 18)

How any thirteen year old could write such a literate, funny and informative book as this is a complete mystery to me. Luke Jackson has been diagnosed as having Asperger('s) Syndrome which is a convenient label covering a range of symptoms down the milder end of the autism spectrum. Some autistic people, 'savant autistics', have amazing skills in music, art, mathematics, etc. Perhaps Luke has been granted an outstanding skill in writing and is thus himself a 'savant'.

The book is explicitly aimed at his fellow adolescents – those who themselves have Asperger ('s) Syndrome and those who have to live with a sibling who has this gift, as Luke calls it. In addition, the author hopes that adults too will read the book – parents, carers and professionals.

The book starts with a description of Luke's family and firmly places him within an extraordinarily quirky and talented group of people. His sisters, for example, Rachel, Sarah and Anna, have contributed all the drawings and illustrations in the book. Luke goes on to give a description of what comes under the heading of Asperger('s) Syndrome and cleverly explains how every one with the condition has a unique combination of communication, social interaction and imagination problems although these problems are not so severe as they are for people at the other end of the autism spectrum. The people with Asperger('s) Syndrome are said to have a form of high functioning autism while those at the opposite end are said to have low functioning autism. Luke himself was greatly relieved when he was diagnosed with Asperger('s) Syndrome and found the diagnosis a signpost which helped him accept himself and pointed him in the right direction. He hopes that his book might be of some use to others in helping them to understand and accept themselves. It also means that other people cease to regard as a freak anyone who has been diagnosed with Asperger('s) Syndrome.

The book goes on to deal with ten aspects of life for someone who has this gift. First comes a chapter on obsessive behaviour. It is quite normal for people to collect things or have a particular interest is something but people with Asperger('s) Syndrome tend to get fixated on or obsessed with things. Some obsessions may be long-lasting while others are temporary. Luke points out that a strong interest, in computing for example, may actually lead to rewarding career. Secondly, there is a chapter on the sensory disorders that may accompany Asperger('s) Syndrome. Touch, sound, sight, smell and taste may be problem areas since many people with the diagnosis are extremely sensitive in one or more. Luke also hints at the possibility of a form of synaesthesia when he talks about the senses being "all in a jumble". (p.75) Thirdly, there comes a section on physiological differences and especially dietary problems. It must be very reassuring for everyone concerned to know that Asperger('s) Syndrome seems to come as part of a package deal which tends to include one or more of a wide range of allergies and minor physical problems. Sometimes  the allergies are so severe as to be regarded as a direct cause of the autistic state – Allergy induced Autism. One commonly found allergy is dietary – the allergy to gluten and casein. Luke not only covers this problem but gives the reader references to further books about both this allergy and all the other aspects of  Asperger('s) Syndrome in an excellent bibliography along with addresses of various support organisations and websites of a wide range of institutions across the world. Fourthly, there is a chapter on sleep. Going to sleep and staying asleep are both frequently encountered problems. Luke links these problems with other aspects of the condition: sensitivity to sound and light, stress and the inability to relax, the need for a fair degree of pressure on the body, etc. Fifthly, Luke has an enlightening section on language – both body and verbal language. This chapter is reminiscent of Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (David Fickling Books, Oxford and New York, 2003), a work of fiction where the narrator is a boy with Asperger('s) Syndrome called Christopher John Francis Boone. Christopher finds it extremely difficult to decipher the complexities of language and takes everything literally. Luke finds the same problem and beautifully analyses it, looking at the complexities of interpreting facial expression and the difficulties of understanding metaphorical language. Luke has not only managed to master the understanding of metaphors but he now positively delights in them, deliberately scatters them throughout the book and has a key to them as an appendix to help young people with Asperger('s) Syndrome who might read the book. He also has very practical advice for parents, teachers and others who have to deal with such young people: always use clear, explicit and unambiguous language avoiding all similes and metaphors whenever possible. Sixthly, there is a very down-to-earth chapter on schooling. This covers most of the problems that are going to be encountered by someone with Asperger('s) Syndrome: reading problems ranging from precociously early reading (hyperlexia) through to dyslexia; writing problems; arithmetic problems again covering the spectrum from precocity through to difficulties with numeracy; homework; physical education; etc. The seventh chapter has strong links with Luke's comments on physical education which is a problem for most people having Asperger('s) Syndrome because they generally do not like having their personal space invaded, because they are frequently clumsy and suffer from aspects of dyspraxia and, lastly, because they frequently see no point in the game being played. These factors tend to make them outsiders and prone to being bullied. Physical Education teachers are asked to be aware that team games are not the only form of exercise. Teachers in general are asked to be on the lookout for bullying which can frequently be directed at students having Asperger('s) Syndrome. The eighth chapter follows straight on from those on school and bullying. Luke found that Taekwondo did wonders for his self-confidence and was a positive antidote for his clumsiness. It also helped him to stand up for himself in bullying situations so Luke definitely recommends the martial arts. The ninth and tenth sections are about social life. The former is made up of practical advice about friendship in general while the latter is about dating and contains a host of practical hints about how to make a success of boy-girl relationships.

So  much for the ten lifestyle chapters. The book ends with two sections on moral principles such as to have Asperger('s) Syndrome is to be different and "different  is cool". (p.185). Luke's love of metaphors blossoms at the very end of the book: "Believe in yourself, keep your nose to the grindstone and your head above water. If you find yourself sinking then stop, take a breather and remember, it isn't over until the fat lady sings!" (p.191).

This book is a must for those young people diagnosed as having Asperger('s) Syndrome, those who think that they may have it, their parents and their teachers. The Special Needs department in every school needs to have a copy both for the students and the staff to read. It is brilliant to have such a book written by someone on the inside. The insights are all the more illuminating for us on the outside.

 

© 2004 Kevin Purday

 

Kevin Purday is Head of the Cambridge International High School and is currently a distance-learning student on the Philosophy & Ethics of Mental Health course in the Philosophy Dept. at the University of Warwick.


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