09 July 2008

On the autism spectrum

Children suffering from Asperger's Syndrome are often misunderstood and seen as "difficult" children. A child psychiatrist explains more about this syndrome.

Children suffering from Asperger's Syndrome are often misunderstood and seen as "difficult" children. Early diagnosis is important to obtain the right type of help and support. Fortunately there is now a growing awareness in South Africa about this syndrome which affects one in every 300 children.

What is Asperger's Syndrome?
Children with Asperger's Syndrome (AS) struggle to "read" social signals such as gestures or facial expressions, and therefore find it difficult to communicate with others. They lack the ability to place themselves in someone else’s shoes, and therefore cannot easily make sense of the thoughts of other people.

Unlike "classic autism" their language abilities are well developed. Young children with AS sometimes impress one with their knowledge of a narrow field (e.g. asteroids), but then fail to maintain friendships with peers.

They often feel lonely and are at risk of developing psychiatric complications such as depression and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Sometimes Attention Deficit Hyperacitify Disorder (ADHD) or epilepsy accompanies Asperger's Syndrome.

For these children the social world is an anxiety-provoking and puzzling place. They sometimes unintentionally offend others and may become extremely upset by a minor change in their routine. AS is often only recognised at high school, when the increasingly complex rules of social interaction leave them feeling isolated and frustrated.

What can be done?
Early diagnosis and treatment can make a huge difference to children with AS and their parents. A child psychiatrist or paediatrician can make the diagnosis.

Once parents and teachers have a better understanding of the child’s behaviour, they offer appropriate help and support. In most cases the child can be supported to be educated within a mainstream school.

There is a growing number of support groups for inclusive education and social skills classes. A monthly parent support group is held at Paarl-Vallei High School, Somerset West (021 8519669).

Further information can be obtained from the Mental Health Information Centre of Stellenbosch University: Tel 021 938 9229 or

Dr Bennie Steyn, Child Psychiatrist.




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