Yes, I’m seven seasons late to the beauty that is CBS’ The Big Bang Theory. The comedy won one of its lead characters, Dr. Sheldon Cooper, a third Emmy this year in addition to his wins in 2010, 2011. Yet I’ve just discovered what a gift the show is to the community of people who have an interest in Asperger Syndrome. It is aspie cool to the nth degree.
Actor Jim Parsons portrays Dr. Cooper, a gifted, gawky and genuinely lovable geek who exhibits some of the traits that can be associated with Asperger Syndrome: aloofness, inward focused, eidetic memory, discomfort in unfamiliar settings, the love of routine. The genius of the character and his place in the show is that he has a strong social group of peers who help him navigate the tricky world of interpersonal relationships. Oh that such social groups were the norm, not the exception.
Finding the right social group, one that you not only fit into but that makes you a better person, a higher achiever and moves you ever further toward self-actualization is sometimes an elusive goal for the person with an Asperger diagnosis. One-on-one relationships often can be easier than navigating group situations. Yet depending on one person for the bulk of your social activities can be limiting and disappointing, especially if schedules don’t mesh and opportunities to get together are minimum. That’s true even for people not on the spectrum and those who have no trouble meeting and connecting with new people.
A number of groups have sprung up to help anybody and everybody make social connections. Several are geared to young adults. Meetup.com is a great starting place to find an affinity group. Perhaps you love anime or videogames or cycling or outdoor adventures. Whatever your taste, there seems to be a Meetup to suit it. There’s even a specific Asperger group Meetup. Just go to the website, put in your Zip Code and you can find a group that gathers near you. Beyond that, churches, community groups, workplaces and the pages of your local newspaper or favorite local news website often provide information about activities and social groups that might appeal to you.
Asperger Syndrome is on the rise. At least that’s the implication of the latest research that finds autism is nearly twice as common as previously reported. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says nearly 1 in 88 children in the U.S. have autism — approximately one million children and teens. That’s up from 1 in 110 children in a 2006 study. Why the increase? The answer is inconclusive. It could be that better screening and diagnosis accounts for the findings. But there could also be overdiagnosis at play. What is clear, though, is that little progress has been made in the treatment for AS and autism and much more education and assistance is needed.
It’s no longer “Unfinished Business” for one of the most engaging race teams in the history of the show. Undone by the samba and bikinis, Zev Glassenberg made TV history as the first contestant with Asperger Syndrome to take on the always grueling yet fantastically adventurous race around the world. The team challenge is replete with trials, chores, roadblocks and puzzles that test the mettle of the mightiest and bring some of the smartest to tears. Yet friends Justin Kanew and Zev cheerfully stuck out each leg of the race determined to make good on a second chance to win a million dollars — and avoid the mistakes of last season that torpedoed their earlier efforts. Zev deserves special recognition for shining a positive light on Asperger’s and helping the world grow in its understanding of it..
The debate over the safety of the MMR vaccine won’t likely be quieted by this latest news. The British medical journal BMJ today is calling the 1998 Lancet paper that implied a link between the MMR vaccine and autism “an elaborate fraud.” The mumps, measles and rubella vaccine has long been suspected by some to play a role in the childhood development of autism. But BMJ editor-in-chief Dr. Fiona Godlee says the “scare was based not on bad science but on a deliberate fraud” and that such “clear evidence of falsification of data should now close the door on this damaging vaccine scare.” Last year, Lancet retracted the study linking MMR to autism, citing faulty scientific research by Andrew Wakefield. BMJ is publishing a three-part investigative series this week to get to the heart of the scare.
This week (July 26) marks an auspicious occasion: The 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. While it’s a moment for reflection on the changes the law has wrought, it’s also an opportunity for supporters to push harder for greater inclusion in the workforce of people with disabilities. The numbers have barely budged since this historic legislation was passed two decades ago, according to a survey conducted by Harris Interactive for the
Kessler Foundation and the National Organization on Disability. There’s a huge disparity between working-age people with disabilities who say they are employed (21%) vs. the 59% of people without disabilities who are working.
People with disabilities are part of the fabric of American society, notes Kathy Martinez, assistant secretary, Office of Disability Employment Policy for the U.S. Department of Labor. In a recent blog post, she urges “friends and colleagues (to) look for ways to support the younger people with disabilities who are beginning their adult and work lives. Young folks – seek out mentors and role models in the multiple communities of which you’re a part, because disability is not our only source of identity.”
One of the hottest new degree programs is the master’s in disability studies. A year ago, City University of New York’s School of Professional Studies became the first to offer a standalone master’s in the subject, its website says. But dozens of universities across the country, including Georgetown and Syracuse, offer similar degrees. Why the explosive growth in such programs now? Need, pure and simple. Georgetown estimates that more than 18 percent of the U.S. population has some type of disability. According to the university’s website: “Disability studies programs provide students with the tools to understand disability; to educate and increase awareness among various audiences about the experiences of individuals with disabilities, as well as their families and support systems; and ultimately to contribute to social change.” However, not all programs are created equal and there’s very little information to date on the relative quality of each program. Anyone interested in pursuing this graduate degree should choose carefully and stick with universities with strong reputations for quality.
Remember that song “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves,” the classic by the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, and Annie Lennox of the Eurythmics? Well, students are doing it for themselves. When they see opportunities to improve the college social experience for fellow classmates on the autism spectrum, they are taking the initiative and starting their own social groups. Take Thomas Hamed, a junior economics major at American University who has an Asperger Syndrome diagnosis. He started a social group on his campus because, he says: “I believe in the power of human connection. The easiest way for us Aspies to learn about connections, I believe, is through each other, where we feel safest.” Thomas says he approached the university’s administration with the idea of forming a social group, and officials agreed to help. Thomas penned an invitation, and the administration forwarded it to students on the spectrum. The group was a success from its first meeting. They had pizza, played Monopoly and got to know each other, says Thomas, who also writes a newsletter for a trade association in Washington, D.C., and is thinking about going into public relations. The group plans to meet regularly, organize games, and even go out to dinner occasionally. “I am not sure if my group has enough momentum to sustain itself,” Thomas says, “but at least they now know each other, and can relate to each other’s problems.”
President Obama makes good on his promise to support autism research in his budget proposal. More than one in 110 children in the United States has an autism or autism-related diagnosis, such as Asperger Syndrome. The president’s $3.8 trillion budget includes $222 million for autism research. Last year, the Obama administration allocated tens of millions of dollars in grants through the National Institutes of Health for autism-related research. Among the recipients were researchers at more than a dozen top universities including the University of Michigan, University of California-Davis, University of Southern California and Vanderbilt University. Some research projects:
- adapting the current standard for diagnosing autism into a brief parent interview that can be done over the phone — reducing screening costs.
- expanding a pilot program to identify subtypes of autism based on behavioral, biochemical and brain imaging markers.
- discovering and tracking genes involved in autism that could lead to specific treatments.
- developing interventions for parents that might minimize behaviors and developmental delays in a second child.
- defining the role that race, gender, socioeconomics and culture play in diagnosis and finding ways to reverse the pattern of African American children with autism being underserved.
- assessing the changing cognition, service needs and quality of life on young adults and older adults with autism.
- understanding the impact of sensory integration on communication and social skills.
Famed actress Claire Danes and cable television’s HBO give autism the star treatment Saturday night in a critically acclaimed biopic of author Temple Grandin, a doctor of animal sciences and likely the best-known autism advocate. Grandin, 62, who was diagnosed with autism in the 1950s, is one of the world’s top experts in animal psychology. Her diagnosis was later refined as Asperger Syndrome as researchers became more knowledgeable about autism-spectrum issues. Danes serves up a fabulous acting job, according to Entertainment Weekly. “Director Mick Jackson uses a variety of techniques — onscreen graphics, quick cuts, fantastical flashes, and heightened sound effects — to give viewers a sense of what it feels like to be autistic. As Temple explains, she ”thinks in pictures.” She remembers everything she sees. Her brain is a crowded and overwhelming place. Because we’re given visual glimpses of how she thinks, we begin to understand cows and horses the way Temple does,” Jennifer Armstrong writes. The biopic’s supporting cast includes Julia Ormand as Temple’s mother; Catherine O’Hara as Temple’s aunt; and David Strathairn as her teacher. HBO’s “Temple Grandin” airs at 8 p.m. February 6, 2010.