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Today's word on journalism

January 13, 2009

Breakneck:

"I get the feeling that the 24-hour news networks are like the bus in the movie 'Speed.' If they stop talking for a second, they think they'll blow up."

--Jon Stewart, The Daily Show, 2008 (Thanks to alert WORDster Ross Martin)

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Living a normal life with Asperger's

By Charissa Ingraham

December 12, 2008 | Alisa Jenkins knew something was wrong when she saw her oldest son, then 6, lie down in the middle of a soccer game, curl up, and begin to cry. It wasn't that he was sick, or unable to play. It seemed as though any type of activity that included running made him upset.

There were other signs that something was different, such as his difficulty in getting along with other children, his raging tantrums, his inability to ride a bike and communication. Jenkins took her son, Spencer, to the doctor to be tested, where he was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome.

Spencer, now 8, still faces the minor challenges that children with Asperger's syndrome usually have, but he has a loving family and able teachers and counselors who support him. He goes to the local public school and takes special education classes, where he gets to learn at his own pace, Jenkins said. He also sees a child psychologist at school and has occupational and speech therapy. At home, he gets along well with his 4-year-old sister and two younger brothers, although he needs more attention than his siblings when the family goes out, said Jenkins.

"He doesn't play well with other children. He likes to play games by his rules," Jenkins said. "He'd rather sit and dig a hole in the dirt than play with anyone."

Spencer also has a hard time carrying on a conversation unless it's a subject he is interested in, and has a hard time reading emotions. However, he loves to collect things and is very intelligent and creative with his hands. Once, when Spencer was 4, he took pieces of paper from a magazine and created a mosaic dinosaur that was 8 feet long, Jenkins said.

Spencer's symptoms are common to most cases of children with Asperger's, a mild form of autism.

"Autism is a spectrum disorder," said Thomas Higbee, Ph.D., a professor in special education and rehabilitation and a professor at Utah State University. "There is a broad range. Usually autism centers around three main characteristics: problems with communication, social skills and behavior."

Depending on the severity of the case, behavioral problems could include resistance to change, repetitive motor actions, such as waving of the hands, or could even be as serious as aggression or self-abuse, Higbee said. Higbee, who is a director of the Autism Support Services: Education, Research, and Training (ASSERT), has worked with autistic people of all ages and said special education programs and therapies are very beneficial no matter how severe the symptoms.

The best way to help them learn is to figure out what they are interested in and what their learning style is, said Dr. Glenn Huff, a physician at Primary Care Pediatrics.

"These kids typically have something they can relate to, one or several things thing are very interested in," Huff said. "If you can figure out what they relate to, you can use it to your advantage."

Huff said as a physician, the goal is to make all his patients feel comfortable and to help them have a positive experience. However, this becomes a little more of a challenge with patients who have autism.

"When I have a patient come in who is autistic, I need to spend more time with them and make sure they feel comfortable," Huff said. "I have to find out how they learn and understand the environment. Sometimes, they are very perceptive to touch and sound. They are usually very anxious and uncomfortable when they come in, but if you find something they are interested in, it helps them."

For Spencer, that something was found when his mother enrolled him in the local children's choir last summer. Not only did he enjoy it, but he sang a small solo during one of the songs.

"He loves singing," Jenkins said. "It's one thing he doesn't fight against, and ever since he started, his attitude has been better, his tantrums have decreased, and his grades have improved. We are so glad we put him in choir."

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