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A Handbook for Families Living with Autism

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Having a child diagnosed with autism can be a numbing and confusing experience for parents. To help them understand the diagnosis and the wide variety of treatments available, Sally Ozonoff and Geraldine Dawson have written a new book, A Parent’s Guide to Asperger Syndrome and High-Functioning Autism. 

Dawson, UW professor of psychology, is the founding director of the University of Washington’s Autism Center. Ozonoff is an associate professor of psychiatry at the M.I.N.D. Institute at the University of California, Davis. James McPartland, a UW doctoral student working with Dawson, is a co-author of the book. 

Researchers now know that there is a spectrum of autism disorders affecting people in varying degrees of severity. People with the most severe form, or what is termed classic autism, are often very handicapped and may be mentally retarded. People with high-functioning autism and Asperger syndrome are not as severely affected. 

A child with high-functioning autism fits the definition of autism but has much better cognitive and learning abilities. These children have initial difficulty acquiring language but eventually are able to speak at a level appropriate for their age. Children with Asperger syndrome have fewer symptoms and little or no difficulty developing language at the appropriate age. 

Dawson and Ozonoff estimate that autism spectrum disorders affect upwards of 500,000 people in the U.S. Two-thirds of those appear to have high-functioning autism or Asperger syndrome. 

“We are seeing an increasing number of these children in our clinic, and more cases of Asperger syndrome and high-functioning autism are being diagnosed at a younger age,” says Dawson. “The prognosis for many of these children can be quite positive compared to 20 years ago. Today 25 percent to 30 percent of them finish high school and a quarter of those go on to college.” 

Dawson and Ozonoff’s book is designed to be a road map to help parents of children with high-functioning autism and Asperger syndrome through trying times, starting with diagnosis, progressing through childhood and into adulthood. Its guiding principle is to focus on a child’s strengths and to have parents channel their child’s unusual behaviors and ways of thinking into positive achievements. 

“There is a tendency to focus on children’s problems so they don’t get a chance to figure out how to use their strengths,” says Dawson. “These children have unique ways of learning so it is very important to identify a child’s learning style. This can help them blossom rather than flounder.” 

“[Parents] need to know this process is a distance race, not a sprint, and that eventually their child can lead a satisfying and productive life.

“There is no reason why many people with Asperger syndrome and high-functioning autism can’t get married, go to college, get a job and give to society. All are reasonable goals that can be reached, but usually with a lot of work.”