For kids like Ben, leading a normal childhood becomes
a wrenching struggle, due to Asperger’s Syndrome. And it isn’t
easy on the neighbors.
by Chrisanne Beckner, News Review, May 22, 2003
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Ben is a charming, intelligent adolescent whose Asperger’s
Syndrome limits his ability to recognize social cues such as
facial expressions and tones of voice.
As a youngster, Ben struggled desperately to make friends. He
couldn’t understand what was wrong with breaking rakes and hoes
into swords for play fighting. If he hurt a child with a good,
sound whack, he couldn’t understand the resulting animosity. If
he wanted to join a basketball game, he couldn’t bear to play by
the rules and would scream and fight for a chance to shoot.
Techniques that might have smoothed over such interactions, such
as humor or empathy, were not among his strengths.
Kids live by their own complex social rules, said Ben’s mother,
Elizabeth Stevenson. (She has chosen not to reveal Ben’s last
name, which differs from hers.) What’s cool and what’s not, and
whether something should be referred to as “the bomb” or “tight”
are all up for minute-by-minute re-evaluations, but such
understanding was beyond Ben. He couldn’t take a joke gracefully
or shoot one back; he was sometimes hostile and regularly wrong
about what other kids expected of him. As one neighbor said,
“Ben invited bullying.” As a member of a very tight neighborhood
community, he could never avoid the spats and fights that
erupted around him. As he headed toward adolescence, he grew
Ben couldn’t understand the social rules that simplified
everyone else’s life, but no one could fully understand what
rules governed his life, either. If Ben wanted to talk endlessly
about Legos, other boys were offended that he couldn’t care less
about what they had to say. If his parents repeatedly had to
stop his destructive behavior, people got the idea that Ben was
the victim of bad parenting.
The boy had been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity
disorder (ADHD) at age 5, but his social skills seemed to be
more like those of a child with autism, yet he was obviously
intelligent. It wasn’t until age 10 that Ben was diagnosed with
something more: Asperger’s Syndrome.
Though controversy surrounds almost every detail of Asperger’s,
it’s generally defined as a highly functioning form of autism
characterized by an overwhelming and varied collection of
symptoms: oversensitivity to sensual stimuli, including scratchy
clothing and eye contact; an inability to interpret non-verbal
cues, such as facial expressions; a tendency to become obsessed
with inanimate objects, such as cars or household appliances; an
interest in focused, detailed behaviors; and an almost tragic
lack of social skills--all imposed upon people with normal to
Ben’s diagnosis did give his problem a name, something the
family could address, but it also led to a shakeup in his
community. Ben’s family has lived in Southside Park Cohousing, a
community that thrives on social interaction between neighbors,
since he was 2 years old. Ben had always been the “difficult
kid,” but his diagnosis turned him into a difficult kid
afflicted with more than just willful boyhood defiance.
Stevenson said she doesn’t know how she would have survived
Ben’s childhood without the support of her co-housing community,
but she also remembers when some of her well-meaning neighbors
were as much a part of the problem as the solution.
“We didn’t know what we were dealing with,” she said.
In 1993, Stevenson, her husband, Roman, and Ben moved to
Sacramento and snatched up one of the final homes available in
Sacramento’s brand new co-housing development on T Street
downtown. Twenty-five units surrounded a common house that acted
as a community center, shared dining room, laundry facility and
boardroom for the difficult business of governing one property
owned by 25 families.
After 10 years, the development has matured. Poppies and rose
bushes border a shared yard, and the condominiums all are
painted in bright colors. The open spaces are big enough for a
rowdy game of tag, a garden of spring peas and tomatoes and a
Co-housing embraces the idea that neighbors should know each
other and interact regularly, so, on warm spring days, folks can
be found cleaning out the carport together, crossing paths at
the mailboxes and inviting each other’s children into their
games. They share chores, such as the cooking of communal meals;
assets, such as the single lawnmower; and duties they may not
have anticipated, such as helping to parent each other’s kids.
Stevenson admits that the early years weren’t all that idyllic.
“A bunch of white liberals don’t necessarily have all that much
in common,” she said flippantly. She jokes that co-housing is
the most expensive course in personal growth that a person can
Stevenson learned that social interaction was more complex than
she thought and that when conflict erupted, she sometimes was
part of the problem. Other neighbors may have come to the same
conclusions after dealing with Ben for 10 years.
For Ben, co-housing always has had its pluses and minuses.
Though kids with Asperger’s can become over-stimulated in
crowds, they also can slip away into isolation after failing to
fit in. Ben got to practice social interactions whether he
wanted to or not, and his neighbors practiced with him, whether
they wanted to or not. Now, at 12 years old, Ben is much more
social and playful than the typical Asperger’s kid.
On a recent evening, Ben wrestled his 6-year-old sister, Emma,
to the ground in one of the communal rumpus rooms and then lay
on his back and let the girl crawl all over him. At 5 feet 9
inches, with short, dark hair combed over his forehead and only
a little baby fat left, Ben looks much older than he is, but he
still has a child’s expressive face. Looking adoringly at Emma,
he made a list of what he’d learned in school: 101 ways to get
away from bratty little sisters, 202 ways to avoid bratty little
sisters ... 3003 ways to move away from your parents.
Ben may have a history of misinterpreting vocal cues, but he
uses them naturally. Even as he teased Emma, his voice was sweet
and indulgent, and the little girl rarely stopped laughing.
“You’re not King of the World yet,” she cried, jumping on him
Stevenson sat comfortably on the couch, throwing in the
occasional one-liner and enjoying the scene--until Ben lifted
Emma up and tossed the laughing girl carelessly into a pile of
beanbag chairs. Stevenson warned that he was being too rough,
but Ben hoisted his sister again.
“One,” said Stevenson, her voice rising. Ben lifted the little
girl higher. “Two,” she said, with anger. Slowly, Ben switched
gears and put Emma down. The girl scampered around without the
“Sometimes,” said Stevenson, her voice returning to normal, “he
just needs an outside reminder.”
Two years ago, the boy never could have followed that countdown,
which universally means “stop, or you’re in trouble, mister.”
But the Asperger’s diagnosis kicked off two years of experiments
with diet and medication that have helped Ben develop a greater
self-control, which has improved his interactions with others.
Before the diagnosis, Ben was having the worst year of his life,
said Stevenson. In school, he was over-stimulated by the 33 kids
who shared his classroom. Anxious, he would flee from the room
randomly or do just the opposite and crawl under his desk. Or,
he’d hit someone. It wasn’t anger, said Stevenson, as much as
Things were bad at school, but they weren’t any better at home.
Still unable to mimic the acceptable behaviors of his peers, at
10 years old, Ben would scream at the top of his voice still
whenever he saw a spider.
“Come off it,” one neighbor thought to herself. “You’re just
trying to get attention.” Pam Silva, who lives upstairs from
Ben, remembers it getting so bad that Ben and his family began
hiding inside their home.
Ben seemed lost all the time, Silva remembers, unaware of his
body so that he’d bump into things. He seemed directionless and
physically destructive. The boy was always big for his age and
was what his mother referred to as “monster strong,” and he
would pick up sticks and swing them randomly wherever he went.
“He broke the clothesline over and over again,” said Silva.
The community responded to Ben in various ways. Some of them
blamed Stevenson. Some of them tried to train him, peppering
their angry lectures with the line, “Look at me when I’m talking
to you!” Some of them routinely marched Ben home to his mother.
“In co-housing,” said Silva, “everyone watched you live your
life. They felt they had the right to comment, to parent Ben.”
The thing that hurt most, said Stevenson, was a Christmas card
she received from a neighbor; inside was information about where
to find parenting classes. It became clear that neighbors had
identified Stevenson as the root of Ben’s problems, just as in
the past when “cold mothering” was considered the cause of
Desperate, Stevenson turned to her father, a school psychologist
on the East Coast who reviewed Ben’s symptoms and suggested he
be tested for Asperger’s.
The test was two-pronged, said Stevenson. One doctor took an
extensive history, focusing on Ben’s health, cognitive abilities
and emotional life. Then, an Asperger’s specialist conducted two
brain scans that plotted which portions of Ben’s brain were
activated for simple, focused tasks.
After reviewing the scans, said Stevenson, it looked as if the
part of Ben’s brain that should perform simple tasks
subconsciously lay nearly dormant. Instead, Ben was consciously
thinking through behaviors that should have come naturally. The
result was that it was impossible for Ben to think about the
content of a social interaction, such as a conversation or a
game, and simultaneously read the infinite number of verbal and
non-verbal cues that accompanied it. The conscious part of his
brain couldn’t handle the overload.
Stevenson shared the diagnosis with her neighbors one on one,
but when she found an episode of ABC’s PrimeTime that focused on
Asperger’s, she realized she’d found something the whole
community would understand at once. On the screen was a kid who
looked just like Ben, she said, who bumped into things, could
look at people only indirectly and was pedantic by nature.
Stevenson called a meeting and presented the video.
“It was very hard,” said Stevenson. “If you live in some place
for 10 years, the people you live with expect you to be the same
person over time.” With the video, Stevenson was asking her
neighbors to rethink their opinions about Ben’s behavior and
Silva said she just looked at the screen and broke into tears.
The similarities were so obvious, and she was one of those
adults who’d assumed Ben was acting out just to get attention.
Recognizing the problem was part of the solution. Stevenson
followed up by explaining what Ben could and couldn’t do. He can
listen, or he can look at you, she told them, but if he tries to
do both, his brain shuts down. She also asked for her
community’s help. If they had problems with Ben, said Stevenson,
she wanted to hear about it, no matter how uncomfortable it
Two years after that meeting, a new peace exists between Ben,
his family and his community. At a recent meal, Ben snacked on
apples while Stevenson sat in front of a plate of chickpeas and
cabbage and looked out the floor-to-ceiling windows that
surrounded the communal dining room.
“That’s beautiful,” she said, watching her daughter and a
Outside, Emma was standing squarely in the middle of a picnic
table with her arms held out. A neighbor carefully applied
mosquito repellent to the girl’s bare feet, rubbing it around
her ankles. She sprayed Emma’s arms and then sprayed her own
hands and touched them gently to the little girl’s cheeks,
looking after Emma as if the child were one of her own.
Ben may never have been nurtured in quite the same way, but his
neighbors regularly comment about the extreme, positive changes
in his behavior. They notice his strengths now, his vivid
imagination and his ability to focus on complex tasks.
Though Ben had trouble integrating into his community because he
was not “normal,” his condition actually becomes more common all
the time. Though it mystifies doctors, more and more diagnoses
of “autism spectrum disorders,” including Asperger’s, are
popping up every day.
“A genetic disease should not grow day to day,” said Stevenson.
“Something in the environment is making them sick.”
Some theories blame childhood immunizations; others blame
pollution. Scientists haven’t been able to agree, partly because
the science hasn’t caught up with anecdotal evidence yet.
“We have such filthy diets,” said Stevenson. “As our houses get
cleaner, everything else gets dirtier.” In her opinion, America
could empty out its jails if it correctly diagnosed the
disorders that affect inmates, fed them a healthy diet full of
fresh vegetables and offered them the right meds.
Those are the three things that have affected Ben’s behavior
most. Medication is one of the more controversial.
“None of these drugs have been tested on children,” said
Ben takes a combination of stimulants and anti-depressants, and
though drugs seem a risky prospect, Stevenson has decided that
whatever improves her child’s quality of life is worth the
gamble. She hopes to wean him off over time.
In Ben’s case, diet may have played an even bigger part than
medication. Stevenson has joined her son on an experimental diet
free of wheat and dairy. The theory behind this treatment is
that people with Asperger’s seem unable to process certain
proteins that act like opiates on the brain. One of Ben’s
doctors suggested that the shallow depressions that showed up on
Ben’s brain scan indicated his intolerance for these foods.
Though the diet theory is another one that’s caused great
disagreement, Stevenson is convinced that both her life and
Ben’s have improved because of it.
“He was like a junkie around food,” said Stevenson. When she
took away the things he craved, his cravings quickly dissipated,
and without these foods, Ben’s behavior quickly improved.
Sally Ozonoff, associate professor of psychology at the M.I.N.D.
Institute in Davis, said there’s very little research either to
support or deny the theory that dietary restrictions help. Two
or three tests have been done, she said, but they failed to meet
even the basic criteria for good science. In her opinion,
changes in diet are fairly benign. So, if parents want to try
it, she won’t discourage them. “We don’t know it doesn’t work,”
In Ben’s case, even the skeptics are convinced. Ben’s father,
Roman, was very much against the idea of a restricted diet, but
he said that in less than a week, what looked like an unusually
long string of good days became a consistent pattern. Stevenson
was even more quickly convinced. “Within 24 hours,” she said.
She remembers Ben picking up a fork as if he’d never seen one
before, and eating normally. It was the first time he’d eaten
with a fork without constant reminders.
Asperger's Syndrome first was identified in the 1940s, but it
has only come into fashion as a diagnosis in the last decade. In
spite of all the attention it’s getting, there’s a great deal of
controversy about even the basics of the disorder.
Some suggest that the syndrome is nothing more than a set of
normal personality traits seen in the extreme. Some very
successful scientists, business people and engineers can be said
to be focused, technically minded, and yet socially inept.
Ozonoff said experts do think of such disorders as part of a
continuum that “shades into normal.” But depression and anxiety
also can shade into normal, she said, or they can be
In Ben’s case, the combination of medication, diet and diagnosis
seems to have reversed a downward spiral. The boy is less
depressed, is better able to control his impulses and can even
look strangers in the eye tentatively. He’s even improved in
school, now that his diagnosis has helped him get into the
non-public Northern California Preparatory School that caters to
kids with emotional and behavioral problems.
On a recent afternoon, Ben sank into a pile of beanbag chairs
and stretched his arms and legs out as if exhausted. He was
complaining about the no-touching rule at school while idly
tapping at one of Stevenson’s shoes with his bare foot. Like
many of his interactions with his mother, this one was gentle,
trusting and playful.
The no-touching rule may have been unpopular, but Stevenson saw
“What can’t happen?” she prompted Ben.
“No beat-ups,” said Ben solemnly, puffing out his cheeks. Even
the thought of his previous life can make Ben immediately sad.
In his first special-needs school, Ben had to be restrained when
he became disruptive. Students at his school now “take space”
when they get upset. They sit alone at a picnic table and wait
to speak to their therapists, “if they’re available,” said Ben,
sounding slightly put out.
Principal Daneen Johnson described the strategy in more detail.
While sitting away from the class for 10 minutes, a child on the
verge of acting out answers a number of questions about what
upset him. Once he’s chosen an appropriate response, the student
can rejoin the class, having made a calm, informed decision not
to have a meltdown.
Though Johnson says it’s still hard for Ben to sit through
classes without taking space, she sees definite improvement.
The boy whom she once saw walking around the perimeter of the
school by himself during breaks now hangs out and plays
comfortably with a group of friends.
Photo By Larry Dalton
At Southside Park Cohousing, Ben, his mother and his sister
share a table with a neighbor (lower right) during one of the
community’s regular evening meals.
His relationships at home have improved, as well. Though his
best friends live away from Southside Park, Ben can play video
games with his neighbors, share meals with them and accept, with
brave humor, the fact that whenever they play football, he’ll
always be the one who gets tackled.
“I’m usually the punching bag,” he said with some amusement.
Ben also has developed a sense of humor. Stevenson said she
intentionally ribs him, to make him comfortable with the idea
that teasing doesn’t always have to be hurtful. It’s helped Ben
become a charming, funny and intelligent communicator,
especially with adults.
“Adults don’t reject you if you’re a little weird,” said
At first, Stevenson feared that the improvements she saw were
only wishful thinking. But then her neighbors began to notice.
Now, Stevenson’s not even sure if Ben would still qualify as an
Asperger’s kid. She’s not willing to retest him, though. The
diagnosis opened the door to services like the Northern
California Preparatory School.
Though Stevenson’s neighbors may have occasional conflicts with
Ben still, they understand him better. In the meantime, the
community has decided that even the most normal kid needs
special attention sometimes, so now parents regularly take a few
minutes at meetings to describe for their neighbors what their
own kids are going through.
One girl, Stevenson remembers, sometimes felt like a girl but
sometimes felt like a boy. Her parents took a few minutes to
explain because they didn’t want their daughter to be
embarrassed every time someone new noticed her gender bending.
Another child, Silva remembers, was not just smart but was
unusually good at memorizing. Her parents wanted the community
to know that the toddler was dying to be asked to recite the 30
jokes she’d recently learned.
On Ben's 12th birthday, he wore a new pair of big, black shoes
with embedded wheels to his birthday party at the common house.
Three of his best friends, all of whom have Asperger’s, met him
Stevenson, the mother of a smart kid, made a slightly lopsided
cake decorated with the numerals “7” and “5.”
“Congratulations on turning 75!” yelled one of Ben’s friends.
Stevenson stood at the head of the table and gave the kids a
look, as if to say they all should have been smart enough to
figure this one out. “What’s seven plus five, Ben?” she asked.
Over cake, the kids pulled out their best risqué “your mama’s so
fat” jokes, and Stevenson teased the boys until they changed the
tone of their conversation.
“OK,” said one. “You’re so tall that your anus is millions of
miles from the Earth!” The other boys cracked up.
Every kid at the table got the reference to the planet, but that
didn’t stop one young boy from quickly and inexplicably rattling
off every detail he could remember about Uranus, including
exactly how far away it was and what it looked like.
“So?” asked his friends.
But really, they understood why one of their own would be aware
of these details and ready to share them. Asperger’s kids often
study subjects obsessively, and all of them have quirks and
unusual skills that make them stand out. The youngest in Ben’s
group of friends even discovered for himself that he had
Asperger’s, by doing reports and research on the subject.
“I’m no savant,” he said, knowingly, “but I can process
information really quickly.”
As a group, the kids seemed slightly brainy, a little ungraceful
at times, but very close to normal. They were almost
indistinguishable from any other bunch of rowdy, hyped-up kids
at a birthday party.
The whole affair was a manifestation of what Ben called the
“greatest aspect of my life.” He explained that his great “home
life” included his family, but only secondarily. What really
defined the greatest aspect of Ben’s life?
“I have friends now,” he said.