Sometimes, Shlomi and Ofir Forget That They Are Different

These are the little things that distinguish children with Asperger Syndrome (AS) from other children: talking with friends, playing a pick-up basketball game, going to the mall to see a movie. Always hovering in the background are difficulties with social interaction and with decoding daily situations. "There is an enormous gap between intelligence and behavior, between high scholastic ability and being obsessed with cartoons. And the level of common sense one expects from a 16-year-old boy is not always there," says Mazal Dayan of Rishon Letzion, whose son Shlomi was diagnosed with the disorder. There are also the times when Shlomi withdraws into himself. "He closes his inner shutters. There's no point fighting it, you just have to wait for him to return."

Shlomi, a 10th-grader, is one of 24 students with AS at Rishon's Amal high school. AS is considered an autism spectrum disorder. Children with AS are of average or above-average intelligence. A total of 2,618 children with autism are within the education system's special education framework. An additional 632 are in the regular system. Many of these have AS.

The mainstreaming at Amal began last year. Each child has an individually tailored curriculum. Depending on their abilities and level of knowledge, they study in small groups with other students with AS or in regular classrooms. Shlomi, for example, goes to regular classes for math, Hebrew and English.

Shlomi says that when he entered a regular class, in the beginning of the year, "I was very excited. I didn't understand why I was so excited, because I had been in integrated frameworks before, but this is high school, and that is something else. Now students are starting to think seriously about doing well on the matriculation exams, about the opposite sex. The first thing I thought about was succeeding academically. I recently got an A on an English test, and when the teacher announced my grade all the students clapped. I felt part of the class."

Although everyone with AS is very different, a few characteristics, apart from the average or above-average intelligence, are common to all. Difficulties communicating is a major part of this and can be expressed in avoiding eye contact or problems understanding nonverbal communication or figures of speech.

All three Dayan siblings were born with visual disorders. Shlomi, the eldest, was for years diagnosed as having behavioral problems resulting mainly from his vision problems. His youngest brother, on

the other hand, was diagnosed with AS at a relatively early age. Last year, Shlomi was diagnosed with AS. "For us, it was a relief," Mazal Dayan recalls. "For years I suspected it because his symptoms were similar to those of his brother, but the diagnoses said otherwise. Now he's finally in a place that's right for him, with other children on the same wavelength."

AS, unlike other autistic disorders, is characterized by a gap between cognitive abilities and daily functioning. At school, Shlomi is considered a strong student. At home, his mother says, "He's addicted to cartoons and obsessed with them. For example, he collected everything connected to 'The Lion King' - videos, stickers, toys. The only way to end it is by starting a new obsession. Shlomi does not always use the kind of common sense expected from a 16-year-old. He cannot tell what is more important, and often the marginal is the most important."

Shlomi says the main difference between him and his classmates is his "short fuse. I can easily lash out at some nudnik. It's my problem but I'm coping. We learned all sorts of self-control methods, it works great ... but sometimes I get lazy."

Ofir Flum, an 11th-grader, has similar difficulties. "When I'm feeling pressure, tension or disappointment I sometimes find it hard to control myself," Flum says. "I don't know exactly what I'm missing so I don't always know what to ask for, but most of the time we feel like regular students in every way."

After so many years in integrated school settings, Shlomi and Ofir have learned to answer the question of how they differ from their classmates. "I'm exactly like the others," Shlomi says repeatedly. Two weeks ago the school invited the parents of all the 10th-graders to a sexual education workshop. Shlomi did not give his parents the invitation. "When I asked him why, he didn't say anything about the workshop," his mother related. "His response was, 'why should we go? What am I, autistic?'"

One characteristic of AS is difficulty decoding and following social codes. "Some jokes you don't tell," Shlomi's father, Haim, says, referring to his son's love of telling jokes. "It's inappropriate to tell dirty jokes at family gatherings," Haim continues. "That doesn't matter to Shlomi, he's positive that everything he says is funny. The main thing is to tell the joke."

Another characteristic is following strict rules, which stem from difficulty with acting spontaneously. For people with AS, routine equals security, and every departure from routine is unsettling. While students in regular classes view the appearance of a substitute teacher as an opportunity for a free period, those with AS will first ask what happened to the regular teacher or to speak to the principal. "There's a 'changes notebook' in the classroom to help them to accept any deviation from the familiar schedule," explains Reut Rubin-Shalem, one of Shlomi's and Ofir's special ed. teachers. "A process that takes one second with regular people and usually takes place almost spontaneously, takes them longer. If for some reason there's no end-of-class bell, some of the students won't leave even though the rest are in the yard," Rubin-Shalem says.

In order to cope with the difficulties of social interaction, pupils with AS start learning a number of "life skills" from a young age. One major topic is conducting a conversation. Like the children's manner of speaking, the instruction is methodical and highly structured. "The questions have an order," Ofir explains. "First of all you say hello, then you ask what's your name, where do you live, when were you born, what are your hobbies, and so on. It's important to maintain the order of the questions because then I can get to know the new friend faster and he won't reject me. Last year we practiced conversing, listening to one another, playing."

Children with AS sometimes find it hard to generalize: They can learn how to act in a particular situation, but will treat a situation that is identical except for one detail as a completely new task. "When I didn't feel well in class a few days ago, one of the students came up to me to ask how I was. There's no guarantee that he would know to do the same thing if another teacher felt ill," Rubin-Shalem said. The life skills training attempts to cover as many social scenarios as possible, but it can never deal with all the possibilities.

There is indication that the students with AS are integrating socially, such as the classmates from the regular classroom who came to visit Ofir at home last weekend, or the joint class trip, or students helping each other with math lessons after school. "I prefer being with the regular class," Ofir says with a smile, "I don't have any problem communicating with them. I simply need more time. I am a social animal."