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An old grump? Maybe it’s just Asperger’s.

14/06/2012

Asperger’s is a ‘high-functioning’ form of autism where sufferers often have very high IQs

When martial arts teacher Sandra Beale-Ellis discovered one of the children in her class had Asperger’s syndrome, she set out to discover more about the condition.

‘I’d seen the film Rain Man, but that was the extent of my knowledge about autism,’ says Sandra, 44, who lives in Herne Bay, Kent. ‘So I bought a book about Asperger’s to read up about it.’

Autism is a developmental disability causing difficulties with communication and relating to other people.

Learning about its classic characteristics — social awkwardness, a love of detail and repetition, and a tendency for obsessions and collecting — Sandra was surprised to recognise some of the traits in her husband, Joe, 50.

Joe, who is the founder of Kent Karate Schools, a string of martial arts academies in Kent, owns hundreds of salt shakers he has been collecting since he was ten, which sit in neat rows in their house. He is also obsessed with castles and runs an online tearoom review site.

Sandra grew more interested, and signed up for a postgraduate certificate in Asperger’s. That was when the lightbulb moment came.

‘One of my tutors said people with autism and Asperger’s often have sensitivity to light, touch, colour or taste,’ says Sandra.

‘Joe hates clothes against his skin and would strip off to his T-shirt and underwear the minute he got home, even in winter. He hates the colour red and bright lights. I’d always called them Joe-isms. Now I realised they were signs of Asperger’s.’

Joe was sceptical, but after two years of persuasion, he saw a psychologist and after a three-hour interview he was diagnosed with mild Asperger’s.

But, incredibly, there was more to come. Though Asperger’s is significantly more common in men than women, as Sandra sat in on Joe’s interview she felt pangs of recognition.

‘It was like a checklist of my own past,’ she says. ‘Like Joe, I love detail, order and lists.

‘I was in the top group for most subjects at school, but I didn’t understand fashion or dolls or boyfriends, so was often left in the corner with my book. I didn’t have any friends.’

In the two years after Joe’s diagnosis, several people on the postgraduate course asked Sandra if she thought she, too, might have Asperger’s.

Sure enough, in October 2010, she had a day-long interview with psychologists and was also found to have the condition.

‘I left the interview and burst into tears,’ she says.

‘I went from feeling upset to angry to confused and sat there crying my eyes out.’

According to the National Austistic Society (NAS), one in 100 adults has a form of autism.

There are 225,000 adults living with Asperger’s, most of whom don’t know they have it because they can get by in mainstream life and hold down jobs.

The consequences of having Asperger’s and not knowing it can be severe.

‘People can develop depression and panic attacks or what psychologists call meltdowns. That’s where those with Asperger’s use so much energy to act normally that they end up exhausted and unable to get out of bed for days. Even a small change in plans can shake them.’

‘There is a lack of understanding among GPs in spotting autism,’ says Sarah Lambert, head of policy at the NAS.

‘As a result, a third of adults with undiagnosed autism go on to develop severe mental health problems.’

As is common with many of them, Joe’s condition manifested itself as an anger problem. ‘Joe would lose his temper for the strangest reasons,’ says Sandra.

‘He never hurt me, but his language was hurtful and we had plenty of broken furniture and holes in the walls.

‘People with Asperger’s struggle with emotional displays, so their partners often interpret their behaviour as uncaring and undemonstrative. They may find it important to stick to plans and timetables, often becoming upset when their partners want to do something spontaneous.’

In women, Asperger’s symptoms can manifest as extreme passivity or anxiety, says Dr Judith Gould, consultant psychologist and director of the Lorna Wing Centre for Autism in Kent.

Joe agrees. ‘I realised it wasn’t that I had a rotten temper, but the Asperger’s was affecting my behaviour,’ he says.

‘I have learned to control it and when I feel a meltdown or rage coming, I have time alone or listen to music to calm down.’
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