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Vienna, VA 22180

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Am I on the wrong planet?

Born without the capacity to empathize, people with the high-functioning form of autism known as Asperger's Syndrome often feel displaced and, coincidentally, misunderstood

By Tracey Meloni / Photography by Jonathan Timmes

Alex Plank is a 17-year-old film student at George mason with Asperger's syndrome. Frustrated with the lack of information available, he started a website for others like him to connect. Lively 6-year-old Joey's an expert in dinosaurs and loves to talk about them, but play dates are a challenge, as his passion prevents other children from sharing their interests. Patrick could read when he was 4 and loves books, but becomes agitated by non-literal idioms, like 'raining cats and dog.'' Second-grader Alice cries when the sound of rustling papers and background chatter in the classroom derails her concentration.

Each of these children has been diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome (AS). AS belongs to a group of disorders known as pervasive developmental disorders (PDDs), or autistic spectrum disorders. Experts agree that, if you meet one child with Asperger's, you have met  one child. Each is individual, unique.

Mapping Meaning
Patricia Velkoff of Vienna is a clinical psychologist specializing in lifespan development and family therapy. She describes the differences between Asperger's and the layman's view of autism:

Children with both AS and autism have some degree of difficulty with social attunement and emotional self-regulation. The AS child's challenges, however, are much less severe. They may isolate themselves when social contact becomes exhausting. They may repeat an idea that excites them even when others are bored. They may insist on their own way and not understand the needs of others. Each of the diagnoses applies to children who do not all look alike; a child's individual profile must be understood before interventions are designed and implemented.