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LIVING WITH ASPERGER'S SYNDROME

Q: You recently wrote a column about a 7-year-old boy with poor social skills. I know you cannot diagnose a child in the column, but symptoms his mother described (being impulsive, immature and disruptive) also fit a high-functioning form of autism called Asperger's Syndrome. Please tell parents to get started early if they suspect their child truly faces a challenge that falls outside the norm.

- A Mother in Charlotte, N.C.

A: This Charlotte, N.C., mother says she and her husband wish they had been steered earlier in the direction of high-functioning autism as the culprit behind their daughter's baffling behavior.

Despite many trips to see psychologists, the girl wasn't diagnosed until age 9 with Asperger's Syndrome, which falls at the high-functioning end of a broad range under the autism umbrella.

"It would have saved all of us a lot of difficulties, time, money and heartbreak if we had known what we were dealing with earlier," the mother says.

Asperger's is characterized in part by a lack of social common sense, such as how to make friends, take turns, use eye contact to pick up on social cues, restrain impulses and use language appropriately in social settings.

"It's a tricky diagnosis," says Nancy Popkin, parent advocate for the Autism Society of North Carolina. She says her 11-year-old son has benefited greatly from early recognition of autism (at age 3) and continuing intervention.

As Popkin says: "A diagnosis without knowing what to do next is useless." For her family, and many others, figuring out "what's next" is an ever-evolving journey. Your local mental health agency or area autism society are helpful places for parents to start, she says.

April is National Autism Awareness Month. Never before have parents had so many resources available and research backing them, and never before have so many children and families needed help. Autism cases are rapidly rising for reasons that are unclear. Today, the Centers for Disease Control says that as many as one in 166 children have autism. Ten years ago, the estimate was one in 2,500.

Running on a spectrum from mild to severe, the symptoms and characteristics of autism, including Asperger's, can present themselves in a wide variety of combinations, according to the Autism Society of America. Two children, both with the same diagnosis, can act very differently from one another and have varying skills. Research has demonstrated that children identified early through extensive observation and enrolled in early-intervention programs make strides in their language, cognitive, social and motor skills, and can learn to succeed in regular classrooms.

As with many skills, from learning to count to riding a bike, a child can have difficulty in social situations, says Tony Attwood, a clinical psychologist. Some children are naturals at being friendly and making friends; others must be taught, says Attwood, author of "Asperger's Syndrome: A Guide for Parents and Professionals" (Taylor and Francis Group, 1997).

A father in Riverside, Calif., says his child's impaired social social skills eventually led to an Asperger's diagnosis. His advice: "Our son is doing fine with treatment. Parents need to have their child evaluated early so they can get their child proper training in social skills."

Tip of the week

Moms, here's one more reason to take your vitamins. A Penn State study has found that new mothers who are even mildly deficient in iron are less able to cue in to the emotional needs of their babies, and they get bored more quickly while playing with their tots. Earlier studies had already found a link between low iron and postpartum depression.

If you have tips or a question, call toll-free (800) 827-1092, send e-mail to p2ptips@att.net or write to Parent to Parent, P.O. Box 4270, Davidson, N.C. 28036.