Learning to live with Asperger’s syndrome

Okanagan College student overcomes challenges associated with autism.

Okanagan College student Kevin Vrieling is grateful for the help his mother Carolyn has provided in his dealing with Asperger’s syndrome.

Kevin Vrieling is a straight-A student at Okanagan College with high aims for the future.

His academic success is even more inspiring when one takes into account that Kevin has Asperger’s syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder that can severely impact how one relates to and communicates with others.

He and his mother, Carolyn, were guest speakers at a recent Shuswap Childrens Autism Support Group meeting in Salmon Arm.

Carolyn recalled how Kevin, very early in his life, seemed different from other children. The way in which he interacted with others his age, and his difficulty in communicating with other children in social settings, and understanding their actions, made her believe something was wrong. At one point she began to suspect it was autism, but when she finally had Kevin assessed, the professional said there was nothing wrong with him.

Meanwhile, Kevin was having difficulty in school. As he explains, emotions of children with Asperger’s Syndrome are more easily triggered.

“They feel everything 10 times more,” says Kevin. “When they are mad, they are really mad, and when they are sad, they are really sad.”

The more people there are, the worse the anxiety gets, and this is often followed by meltdowns. It was not uncommon for Kevin to come home from school shaken and crying.

Kevin says he is grateful for the special attention and care he received from a couple of school friends. Without them, he says he would have been incapable of dealing with school situations.

After much more testing, Kevin was eventually diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome.

Carolyn had never heard the term before.

“I knew autism, but I didn’t know of Asperger’s syndrome,” she says.

Carolyn and her husband began to research Asperger’s, meeting with professionals regularly, while helping their son every way they could.

Over time, Kevin’s perspective on his disability, and individuality, changed as he learned how to get a handle on it. He found in the past that people would categorize him with others who have Asperger’s, and that he himself initially saw those with Asperger’s as “clones of each other.” But he says this is a mistake, that you must not let the condition define you, that you must strive to be an individual.

He has also learned the best strategies for dealing with his condition.

“Don’t hammer at the weaknesses, as that won’t make them go away” says Kevin, adding that expanding on strengths has been very beneficial.

Being accepted by one’s peers can be critical in a teenager’s life, including those with Asperger’s. Kevin’s advice is to make an effort to understand everyone else, although the world will probably not make an attempt to do the same.

“I know it’s unfair,” says Kevin. Yet, he advises not to dislike oneself for being different, noting that it is a mistake he himself has made.

“Choose your friends wisely, don’t settle for anyone. Otherwise you will get hurt.”

Kevin’s goal is to become a professional who diagnoses autism spectrum disorders, as he says there are too few out there.

Learning as much as one can, supporting as much as possible, getting as many resources as are available and asking questions is essential to a child’s success, says Carolyn. This is what brought her and Kevin to the Shuswap Childrens Autism Support Group, whose purpose is to encourage and give hope, offer support and connections, and to educate and inform. Group founder, Gretta Bakewell says that with early intervention and therapy, there is so much hope.

A current venture the group has been working on is the Shuswap Autism Spectrum Disorder Resource Guide, an autism how-to guide, which will soon be distributed to Shuswap day cares, preschools, teachers, and doctors’ offices. The guide will cover what autism is, what to do if you suspect autism, how to get a diagnosis, what service providers there are in the area and what to do with the funding which children receive after the diagnosis. Many people do not know how to detect autism, or mistake it for misbehaving, observes Bakewell, so the guide will address and attempt to solve many of these problems.

Bakewell believes it is important those dealing with autism know they are not alone in the community. “I want to help parents not feel lost when they first get a diagnosis”, says Gretta. Her goal is to give other people hope.

To contact Bakewell, acquire a copy of the Autism Guide, or attend an awareness meeting, email autism@shuswapchildrens.ca.