According to police, missing 11-year-old Nadia Morgan Bloom has Asperger's syndrome, an autism-related disorder. Sentinel reporter Fernando Quintero talked with Dr. Robyn J. Cohen, the newest doctor to join Arnold Palmer Hospital's Pediatric Specialty Practices and a specialist in neuropsychological care for pediatric patients, about the developmental disability.
Q: What is Asperger's syndrome?
A: It is classified as an autism spectrum condition, and is often referred to as a mild form of autism. But it is different than autism, which is characterized by a significant delay in the development of communication skills – specifically, language ability. With Asperger's syndrome, there is no delay in verbal and language abilities. Those are usually intact. What makes it similar to autism is that there are delays in social development and understanding nonverbal communication. For example, we use facial expression and social gestures to get our point across. We might raise an eyebrow to show surprise or indicate that we need to know more information. Somebody with Asperger's would not be able to tell what that raised eyebrow or a shrugging of the shoulders means.
Q: How is Asperger's syndrome acquired and how common is it?
A: There is a genetic component to it, but we don't know exactly how it's passed down genetically. There is a lot of ongoing research into this area. Anywhere from 1 in 100 to 1 in 150 children are believed to have some form of autism spectrum disorder.
Q: How is the condition diagnosed?
A: Parents might notice their child having problems interacting with other children. Another symptom similar to autism is a restricted range of interest. Children with Asperger's might not have interest in a lot of toys, just one or two. Another similarity to an autistic child is repetitive mannerisms or motions. It could be something like clapping their hands. There could be inappropriate gestures or facial expressions. For example, seeing a child who hurt himself in the playground, and inappropriately start laughing. They're not sure what the appropriate reaction is.
Q: Are there any special precautions or considerations that need taken when caring for a child with Asperger's syndrome?
A: It would depend on the intellectual level of the child. You could have a child who might struggle with making decisions or reasoning things out. They obviously would need close supervision. However, you can have someone who's relatively bright and a quick thinker. Even though they might have problems with social behavior, they can still be highly functional. It's a case-by-case basis.
Q: What kind of treatment is prescribed?
A: Usually, social skills training is an important part of treatment. You might pair verbalization with gestures so they can improve their nonverbal communication. There might be social skills training with their peers, so they learn about waiting for their turn to talk or how to respond appropriately. Medication would generally not be given for symptoms of Asperger's, but for something the condition might be causing. There might be a high level of anxiety if a child is not allowed to continue with repetitive tasks. Anti-anxiety medication would be prescribed to help them cope with social anxiety. Sometimes these children have seizures, so it could be anti-seizure medication.
Q: Missing Nadia Bloom is believed to have been a fan of a book about a young girl who loves science and nature, and discovers that the wonders of nature are in her own backyard. Could the repetitive, obsessive nature of Asperger's cause children to lose touch with reality and get lost?
A: No, there's usually not a break with reality. But there is an almost obsessive interest in looking at all aspects of whatever they're into, whether it's a toy or a book. It would make them more likely to seek that out in their environment.
Q: Rescuers said children with Asperger's syndrome tend to be attracted to light and water, and were proceeding cautiously in their search. Is that true?
A: I don't think so. That would be something you would find in children with autism. They tend to be attracted to things that are shiny and stand out in the environment.
For more information on Asperger's syndrome and local support services, visit the University of Central Florida Center for Autism and Related Disabilities Web site, http://www.ucf-card.org.
Fernando Quintero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-650-6333.