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Vol. LXV, No. 12
Wednesday, March 23, 2011
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Historian, Inventor, and Car Buff, An Asperger’s Syndrome Child Speaks Out

Ellen Gilbert

“I love learning things,” said Lewis School student Sam Gelfand recently. The 13 year old’s favorite subject is history, particularly Greek and Roman civilization, despite the fact that “the Romans were just copycats.”

In addition to history, Sam loves the Jets, is a “huge” Mets fan, and also happens to have Asperger’s Syndrome. Sometimes described as a “milder variant of Autistic Disorder,” Asperger’s is “characterized by social isolation and eccentric behavior in childhood.” And so, while Sam describes his various enthusiasms and speculates about a future in sports broadcasting, his mom, Allison Craigie may remind the energetic young man to focus on the person with whom he’s speaking.

Like others with the condition, Sam’s interests can be intense. “Once I find something I’m interested in, I never get tired of it,” he said, offering the color blue and baseball as examples. At present he’s “completely into cars,” and can cite the price specifications and details of every new foreign car.

Sam’s accomplishments — a Facebook page that reflects his design ingenuity, a patent pending on a chemical toothbrush he created by himself, and his routine class reports on the day’s events in history — may seem to belie the difficulties faced by individuals with Asperger’s. Sometimes referred to as “little professor syndrome,” people with Asperger’s tend to have above average intellects and like to talk. (The name “Asperger” comes from Hans Asperger, an Austrian physician who first described the syndrome in 1944.)  Concurrent conditions, like attention deficit disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, Tourette’s syndrome, and insomnia are often accompanied by anxiety and depression. An Asperger person’s sensitivity to things like loud noises and food textures, and their tendency to take things literally, can be off-putting to those who are not aware of the source of these behaviors.

In an effort to remedy these misconceptions and encourage greater empathy for sufferers of Asperger’s syndrome, Sam has put together a compelling conversation about his experiences and taken it “on the road,” with appearances before area student and teacher groups.

In a recent talk at the Princeton Charter School, Sam described being “an easy target” for bullies. “It’s hard to be different,” he observed, noting that kids with Asperger’s are often referred to as “the quirky kid” or “the weirdo.” Flashing a wit and ability to laugh at himself that pervades his conversation, Sam said that typical Asperger’s tics — humming, raising one’s eyebrows, pushing one’s glasses back — “scream ‘bully me.’”

While Sam has excelled at the Lewis School and looks forward to attending Pennington School in the fall, earlier school experiences while he and his family lived in Florida fell short. “School did nothing to protect or help me,” he reported. “The worst part was not being able to tell anybody about my condition.”

At last week’s presentation, Sam seemed perfectly comfortable talking about his “condition,” and describing the many therapies he’s been through that were geared to render his diagnosis “invisible.” He reports that Facebook has been a real boon, allowing him to keep in touch with people when doing it in person becomes too “overwhelming.” Listening to classical music, relying on a series of charts strategically placed around his house, and practicing strategies to deflect bullies are very helpful. He also cites the importance of friends who “tolerate my idiosyncrasies.”

Sam’s advice to teachers included helping students to be tolerant and patient with people like him, and to find alternative ways of creating teams that bypass the typical style of having the two captains call out names — a method that invariably leaves a person with Asperger’s or similar problems for last.

Ms. Craigie reported that the doctor who diagnosed Sam when he was nine years old told them that “there’s nothing that you can do.”

“We’ve shown that you can,” she observed. “I always say to Sam, ‘you’re not defective; you’re different.’”

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