DISABILITIES

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A National Institutes of Health website defines Asperger's syndrome as an autism spectrum disorder milder than autism but sharing symptoms. The person with it may have an obsessive interest in a single object, an inability to read social cues or recognize feelings, a discomfort for unplanned change, and physical clumsiness. It affects boys more than girls.

As an editor, Cynthia Parkhill publishes this column in two northern California newspapers, including the Clear Lake Observer American. “In childhood, I felt I was different from everyone and didn't have a name or explanation for it,” said 42-year-old Parkhill in a telephone interview. She was bullied throughout childhood, including being physically and verbally attacked, and ostracized. “I didn't fit in and seemed unable to make friends. People didn't like me for some reason. In sports at school, I was picked last every single time.”

In first grade, her teacher once asked all the children to hold hands in a circle and everyone refused to hold Parkhill's hand. The teacher then gave Parkhill a comb to hold so other students could hold the comb and not have to touch her hand. She said, “People have always been like aliens to me. It seems we're from different planets.”

She majored in English to earn a bachelor's degree and has been working at the newspaper 13 years. The high note of her life came when she joined the Society for Creative Anachronism, a medieval reenactment group that became her “obsessive interest.” Through it, she met her future husband and felt accepted by people for the first time.

In 1997, a friend with medical training suggested she had Asperger's syndrome. She and her husband found books on it and “chapter after chapter seemed like I was reading my own biography,” she said. “It was a revelation and I finally understood why I'd felt out of place in life.”

She has another distinction many people with Asperger's syndrome share: being a picky eater due to having an almost visceral reaction to certain food textures, smells, and tastes.

Her advice to parents having a child with Asperger's syndrome: “A lot of us (with Asperger's) are intensely involved in an interest. Try to encourage that interest as your child's point of contact with people. If that interest is trains, try joining a train club. Let the interest pave the way to socialization, instead of pushing socialization first.”

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