There are two impressions that one can get from the common representations of Asperger’s syndrome. The first is that it’s a bit of a boys’ club. More boys than girls are diagnosed with an autism-spectrum disorder, and Simon Baron-Cohen postulated that high-functioning autism is but an “extreme male brain,” taking traditionally male traits of logic, systematic organization, and stoicism, and extrapolating them to their natural conclusions. I don’t like this. I am high-functioning, yet prone to highly illogical decisions and poor organization, to say nothing of my frequent emotional outbursts. Other than perhaps some deep-seated, reptilian-brain desire to spend inordinate time sitting on a couch and watching sports, I’ve never thought of my brain as being all that male, let alone extremely so. Oh, well; when you’ve met one of us, you’ve met one of us.
The second is that as far as boys’ clubs go, it’s not even much of a club. If we were a club, we’d show up to meetings late or not at all, forget to pay our dues, and we’d never figure out what to have for dinner, having failed to make any sort of compromise with one another. And I’m sure many people with Asperger’s, in their more self-effacing moments, would just deploy the famous old Groucho line about clubs and their membership standards. Having no paucity of self-effacing moments in my life, I’ve used it a time or two myself.
So how nice it is, then, to be reminded that the autism spectrum does not discriminate, and that males and females alike are eligible for participation, such as it is. Jennifer Cook O’Toole, mother of three and overseer of a growing franchise of books, introduces us to her family where everyone is on the spectrum in Asperkids.
I first read Ms. O’Toole’s work — albeit out of order — several months ago, in The Asperkid’s Secret Book of Social Rules, this flagship book’s followup that details how young adults can find their way in a world where they don’t always fit in. I was familiar with the author’s prose style, which I described as “friendly but authoritative” as she helped her readers navigate. In Asperkids, we are treated to a history of the author’s road to her own diagnosis and her efforts to homeschool her three children, all of whom have Asperger’s, often in addition to other challenges, like ADHD.
Homeschooling your own children may not be reasonable. And modern homeschooling, due to its often fundamentalist Christian implications, has gotten a bad name in America these days. But even if your children attend mainstream schools, education isn’t limited to school grounds. The blueprints for activities detailed in Asperkids, if not applicable to a homeschool setting, will be perfect for some casual summer enrichment, taking your children’s special interests, building them up further, and dovetailing them into more comprehensive and global studies of core subjects. Chances are your child already has quite the zeal for learning, and will appreciate a summer curriculum tailored to his or her interests and pace. Ms. O’Toole approaches her own children as someone with a background in special education, giving her the requisite appreciation for exceptional minds and exceptional ways of learning. She also, of course, approaches her children as someone who is on the autism spectrum as well. From a daughter’s special interest in Greek mythology, for instance (one of my old favorites, too), Ms. O’Toole teaches not just history, but geography, physics, geometry, music, and even the classical languages of Greek and Latin — the knowledge of which go a long way in improving our strength with our native English. While I was able to get an A+ on a family tree of the Greek gods in sixth grade, I never thought to extrapolate my studies into the construction of the Parthenon, or the Greek etymologies of everyday words. Alas, we can’t teach ourselves everything.
One topic to which the book devotes some much-needed attention is that old bogeyman of mathematics. In a chapter entitled “All Aspies Are from Missouri,” named in tribute to their “Show-Me State” moniker, Ms. O’Toole talks about the difficulty of applying the abstractions of math to the concrete minds of kids with Asperger’s. I can empathize. While I blazed through English and history courses, I repeatedly found myself tripped up by math — with the not insignificant exception of geometry. (That so many kids on the spectrum struggle with math should really throw our extreme maleness into question: clearly we’re not all budding engineers.) I could memorize facts, learn languages, but when it came to algebra, there was so much I couldn’t begin to process. I still don’t know what a matrix is, or how to multiply one against another. That math teachers couldn’t “show me” didn’t help. While the book doesn’t progress to the perils of high school algebra, it does offer an array of tips to make math not only something tangible, but something applicable, answering the refrain that eats away at every person who has ever taught a math class: “When will we use this in real life?”
Beyond the pedagogical content is some warm advice on how to handle the challenges of being a parent of a child or children on the spectrum. Ms. O’Toole talks about comfort zones, particularly how we will quite often find ourselves beyond them. Meltdowns, teacher conferences, and difficult discussions are not anyone’s idea of comfortable, but they are unavoidable in this life, and the author hopes to assist her readers in handling these situations with confidence, bravery, and, when applicable, a sense of humor.
Asperkids is a touching, informative book and a valuable resource for the family touched by the autism spectrum, whether that’s one child, every child, or every child and a parent or two. More than anything, as someone without children of my own to educate, Asperkids is simply a book that makes me happy. I love learning, and think fondly upon my autodidatic excursions, while lamenting the shortfalls that could have been improved with more malleable instruction and, let’s be honest, at times a more receptive learner. While there are certain lost expectations that every parent of a child on the spectrum will have to grieve, the life of raising that child will still indeed be rife with enriching and meaningful experiences.
If you are so inclined, you may purchase a copy of the book here.
Daniel Heinlein is the host of I Am Autistic, seen exclusively on The Autism Channel.