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The mystery of Asperger's Syndrome

Kathy Turner’s students are easy targets for the mainstream student population at Klahowya Secondary School.

Turner, a special education teacher, realizes that some of her students — who are included in the mainstream for a majority of the day — are easier to pick on than others. Those students, the ones with the odd facial expressions and monotone voices, are on their way to tolerance through understanding. Or so she hopes.

There is a new front on an old, familiar face these days, and this front fits those students like a glove. That glove is labeled Asperger’s syndrome.

A quirky disease of oddities, Asperger’s syndrome is becoming the diagnosis du jour in the educational and psychological fields, and that’s not a bad thing.

Asperger’s is a mild form of autism that only affects social interaction — those with Asperger’s can often be described as “eccentric” or “odd,” according to the Online Asperger Syndrome Information and Support Web site.

Whatever the case, once the behavior is noticed, the child — or adult — may be referred to either a private therapist or to Kitsap Mental Health Services for evaluation, said Liliane Boardman, manager of intensive children services for KMHS. Boardman has a Ph.D. in psychology.

Although it was first described by German therapist Hans Asperger in 1944, Asperger’s syndrome is just now coming into its own as a diagnosis.

“Lately, we are becoming more aware, especially in the last five years,” Boardman said. Children who are now diagnosed with Asperger’s would have been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, obsessive/compulsive disorder or an anxiety or social disorder, she said.

Asperger’s syndrome affects adults and children alike. In many children’s cases, it can begin with a teacher’s or primary care giver’s observation of behavior in a child. The child may have difficulty shifting from one task to another, or may get locked into a topic of conversation and never budge from it. Or perhaps the child has to have his toys in a particular order, or has difficulty interacting with other children.

If a child’s behavior is raising red flags, there are safety nets in place to help.

For children 3 years old and younger, the parents are referred to Holly Ridge Center in Chico. The influx of recent Asperger’s syndrome diagnoses isn’t affecting Holly Ridge Center too much, said Kathy Fortner, the toddler program director. Although Asperger’s and autism are on the same health spectrum, Asperger’s cannot be detected as early as autism. Fortner has seen infants as young as 18 months old be diagnosed with autism.

“Asperger’s is typically not given as a diagnosis at this age,” Fortner said. “The typical diagnosis (age) is 3 or older.”

Those older than 3 are referred to the Central Kitsap School District for evaluation.

By state and federal law, the school district has to make an effort to get the word out in the community that it offers help to children 3-21 who may have a handicapping condition, said Kris Lenke, CKSD assistant director of special services. It fulfills that requirement by posting flyers in community gathering places, like laundromats and doctor’s offices.

The preschool assessments are done at Clear Creek Elementary School. During the assessments, the children play with toys and complete a series of tasks. To a layman, the evaluation looks like the child is playing. For an evaluation to be accurate, the child must be comfortable and act as they normally would, Lenke said.

There are three possible outcomes of the assessment: no services recommended and the staff of special services may recommend some ideas on how to cope with the child’s behavior; related services may be recommended, such as speech

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