Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Asperger Syndrome and Definition from two college students living with Asperger's

Daniel Eisenberg rushes from his Alfred Hitchcock class to the Tufts student center, where, as film society chairman, he retrieves reels of "Prairie Home Companion." He's a sophomore math major, and a member of Tufts' Monty Python Society, quiz bowl team, and lecture series. He hopes to study in England next year.

Paul Ratner studies electrical engineering part time at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and works part time as a circuit tester. He transferred last spring after struggling academically and suffering from depression at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Indiana.
Eisenberg and Ratner are college students with Asperger's syndrome, whose experiences, like Nomi Kaim's, illustrate the range the neurological disorder can exhibit. While Eisenberg, 19, expects to graduate on time from Tufts University , Ratner, 23, traverses a rockier course. Where Eisenberg was diagnosed at 8, Ratner learned he has Asperger's only after problems surfaced at Rose-Hulman. Where Eisenberg is poised, confident, albeit with a flat affect, Ratner is nervous, less likely to make eye contact.
"Primarily, the problem is social. I don't have many friends," says Ratner.
"I don't know where I end and Asperger's begins," says Eisenberg. "I don't like big parties. I don't know if that comes from the Asperger's and not being able to process all that or if it's me being me."
Shortly after Asperger's was officially recognized in 1994, Eisenberg's aunt read about it. Maybe that's Daniel's problem, she suggested. Maybe this explains his tantrums and social troubles.
Eisenberg's parents drilled him on social conventions, insisted on play dates, prepped him for new situations, and sent him to Harvard one summer to preview college life. He takes Risperdal for stress, but didn't take it last semester until exams approached. He has a single room for refuge.
"I can actually tell the difference when I'm on the medication and when I'm not. I'm a lot more likely to escalate a stressful situation than be able to diffuse it. Usually it comes out in social situations, or in terms of work just overloading. It results in a little bit of a breakdown. An I-can't-do-anything-right-now-life-is-too-hard breakdown," he says. "A couple of days later I'll say, 'Really? I broke down because of that?' "
Eisenberg is still "slow on the uptake" socially. "My family is very gentle," he says, "about telling me when what I've done is wrong." He's drawn to math's objectivity. "It's comforting to know there's an answer," he says.
Time helps. "As you get to know more about what's going to happen with different people and different settings," he says, "it's easier."
Ratner is newer to Asperger's. As a full-time student at Rose-Hulman, he failed courses once the material got harder, which triggered depression so severe he was hospitalized twice before quitting. When he finally learned he had Asperger's, the symptoms fit -- the difficulties organizing his homework, making friends, tolerating situations as mundane as a brightly lit or noisy place. "Being in a room where there are lots of conversations makes me feel bad," he says. "I try to listen to every conversation." As for reading social cues, he says, "I'm probably so bad that it goes right over my head."
Medication helps control his depression. He's getting A's and planning a career. He joined the Asperger's Association of New England and plans to try Springboard, a social group for people with Asperger's or learning disabilities.
Ratner finds himself mentioning Asperger's when he talks about himself. Eisenberg rarely does. "No need to," he says. "I have a 3.87 GPA. I have friends, and I'm hopefully going to Oxford next year. So what?"


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