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Understanding Asperger's syndrome

A local support group is being formed for victims of this condition that reduces people's ability to read social clues

If you've ever tried to talk to someone who's smart enough but seems socially clueless, you might be dealing with a sufferer of Asperger's syndrome, a mild form of autism that has become understood in just the last 10 years.

I didn't know what it was. I just thought of myself as a loner all my life, said retired physician Janet Fletcher, 63, of Phoenix.

I had no friends. I just thought I was different, but I didn't know how I was different. It never occurred to me that normal human beings had a full range of emotions and I didn't.

Asperger's is a complex neurobiological developmental disorder that affects mostly males.

— Sufferers typically are of average to high intelligence who cultivate intense areas of study and interest. Often scapegoated as weird or strange, they are impaired in their ability to read feelings from facial expressions or body language. They often adhere to fixed routines and seek bookish rather than social pursuits, according to Asperger's Web sites.

In more severe cases, people with Asperger's are clumsy, engage in rhythmic hand or body movements, can completely isolate themselves and often fixate on plane schedules, counting or collecting rituals, much like the Dustin Hoffman character in Rain Man.

They're with us, all around us, said Dr. Eric Morrell of Medford, who has diagnosed many cases. They're recognizable by their social impairment, a mechanistic approach to social interactions, where they don't pick up on normal social cues. A friend of mine, a prominent businessman, never gets jokes. I'm pretty sure he has it.

Diagnosed a few years ago, Fletcher said the syndrome was a handicap all her life because she didn't know about it. Now she's undergone life skills training with a therapist, learned how to identify facial expressions, modified her diet (cutting out wheat and dairy seem to help) and participated in Toastmasters, art and memoir-writing classes.

Fletcher has started an Asperger's support group at Rogue Valley Medical Center's Smullin Center. It meets at — p.m. the first Sunday of the month; for more information, call 535-1790.

I was socially clueless, she said. I felt I was less than others. In med school, there were hardly any women, so I was trying to prove a woman could do the job. What I didn't get were the emotional cues ' that they didn't want me there at all, because I was a woman.

For Monty Stern, 51, an Ashland investor, a life of Asperger's syndrome has been like being on the high seas in a little sailboat.

I had a vague sense something wasn't in the cards for me. I decided I was really dumb and sat in the back of the class. It wasn't until I wanted to impress the cute girl in class that I set out to win the spelling bee and realized I had a savant memory.

As a young man, Stern went to How to Win Friends and Influence People courses, made a checklist on how to get on with people and avoided most conflicts and judgments, he said.

Both Fletcher and Stern reported a low tolerance for small talk, gossip and dishonest communication, adding that they saw relationships as opportunities not for nurturing and rubbing elbows but for exchange of a rich data stream.

Since Asperger's was named a medical disorder in 1993, understanding and treatment of the syndrome have greatly increased. Asperger's sufferers are often put on anti-psychotic drugs, said Morrell, emphasizing that it is not a psychotic disorder.

Many are also on antidepressants or anti-anxiety drugs, he added, because they know they're different and they feel outcast and alienated about social interactions and changes in routine that seem beyond their control.

A lot of people have the syndrome and don't know it, because identification of it is so recent, said Morrell. Brain scans of Asperger's sufferers reveal abnormalities in brain structure, usually with enlarged parietal lobe (the area of math and spatial reasoning), as found in Einstein's brain, said Fletcher.

Among historical figures now suspected of having high-performance Asperger's are Einstein, Newton, Curie, Mozart, Jefferson and Edison ' all highly gifted loners with the ability to focus on an area of learning with sheer obsession, said Stern.

Getting diagnosed was a huge step, said Stern, adding, You can either get the medical diagnosis or get the moral one ' meaning being judged as an oddball. Joining a support group has been like going from night to day, he added.

If they found a cure for AS that involved losing its advantages, I would choose to stay the way I am, Stern said.

I'm delighted to know the reason I'm a loner. I'm excited to know I have these abilities and potentialities that are out of the normal and that I can harness them.

Janet Fletcher, a retired physician living in Phoenix, has started a support group for people with Asperger?s syndrome, a little known disorder in which sufferers often feel alienated and ?different.? Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell - Mail Tribune Bob Pennell