среда, 29 августа 2007 г.

A different focus

Ben Anderson is feeling the Beatles. In every sense of the word.
The 20-year-old from Santa Monica knows every lyric, every note of the band's 208 songs. He's now recording the entire catalog, playing most of the instruments, singing all the vocals, producing and arranging with the help of two music industry veterans.

He also has perfect pitch, a photographic memory and not a shred of performance anxiety. In the already-recorded versions of numbers like "Octopus's Garden," the vocal similarity is uncanny.


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Video: The Autism spectrum

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"They represent a lot of me," Anderson says of the Beatles.

But on a Thursday morning in the Woodland Hills studio of music teacher and co-producer Guy Marshall, Anderson's connection to the Beatles manifests itself another way.

"I remember being


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shot," he says. "I don't really remember it, but I have a vision. When I read on the Internet how John Lennon was shot, I could kind of remember and feel how that must have felt.
"Am I crazy for that?" Anderson asks.

Diagnosed with a social disorder known as Asperger's syndrome (AS), Anderson asks this question often. The answer is no, although to those who don't understand or recognize the syndrome, AS individuals — or "Aspies" — often come across as decidedly oddball.

As young children, they can soak up vast amounts of information on a single topic, lecturing and educating anybody they meet (AS has been referred to as "Little Professor" syndrome) on anything from astrology to animals to Japanese anime.

Dr. Laurie Stephens, director of autism spectrum disorders at the Help Group in Sherman Oaks, recently worked with a nearly 4-year-old boy whose obsession was woodchippers.

Because their social abilities are impaired or underdeveloped, AS children don't pick up on social cues and often have difficulty developing and sustaining friendships.

"It's really difficult to take these chatty, intelligent kids and think this is a psychiatric disorder," says Stephens, adding that most Aspies aren't diagnosed until age 9.

"I'd say it's kind of like a disorder where you don't understand social norms, and you assume people are out to get you," Anderson explains.

This prompts his mother, Susan Rubinyi, to ask: "What do you see as some of the positives of Asperger's that we usually tell folks about?"

Rubinyi's book about her son, "Natural Genius: The Gifts of Asperger's Syndrome," seeks to cast the disorder in a different light. There are challenges, certainly, but great benefits as well, Rubinyi contends.

"Albert Einstein had it," Rubinyi argues, adding composer Bela Bartok and pianist Glenn Gould to the list.

"I want to show people there are great gifts and strengths within (people) with Asperger's."

Grouped as it often is with autistic spectrum disorders, AS is not without controversy. The disorder didn't make it into the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) until 1994, and the criterion one must meet to receive the diagnosis is hotly debated. Some contend that AS and high-functioning autism are the same thing.

In many schools, a diagnosis of Asperger's alone is not enough to get the district to pay for special education services, often forcing psychiatrists to confer a diagnosis of autism instead. Neither condition has a cure.

First described by Austrian physician Hans Asperger in the 1940s, AS is diagnosed less frequently than autism: About one in 500 children has the condition, compared to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's most recent estimates that one out of every 150 children is autistic. Male Aspies outnumber their female counterparts by a 10-to-1 ratio.

"Say 'autism' and most people respond with something like, 'Rain Man,' " says Dr. Stephen Shore, author of "Understanding Autism for Dummies."

"Say 'Asperger's syndrome' and people think you're talking about donkeys in Dusseldorf or something," he says.

At age 4, when a nonspeaking Shore was diagnosed with autism, Asperger's awareness was even lower. Thirty years later, Shore was re-evaluated and deemed to have AS qualities.

"There's more literature about Asperger's. People with Asperger's are writing both autobiographies and books on how to help people with (the condition)," says Shore.

Mark Haddon's best-selling novel, "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," whose narrator is generally considered to have AS, has been optioned for a film.

Whereas severely autistic individuals frequently speak little and avoid social interaction, Aspies are typically extremely verbal and social. They desperately want friends but have difficulty learning the necessary skills to cultivate and keep them.

William Wagnon, 20, is working on his general education requirements at Santa Monica College and hopes eventually to become a therapist. He has run seven marathons, competed in triathlons, helped build a house in Mexico and worked with children with disabilities.

Even so, when it comes to everyday interaction, "It's really the luck of the draw," Wagnon says. "Sometimes I'm able to approach someone and whip up a conversation with them. I'm able to see the social etiquette rules before I break them. Other times, with other interactions, I don't."

For nearly 10 years, Wagnon has been attending a social group through Focus on All-Child Therapies. During weekly meetings, group members discuss everything from food to school to jobs. And, "Once or twice a month, the subject of sex comes up," Wagnon says.

"The real key is social skills training," adds the Help Group's Stephens. "Most adult (AS patients) want to be in relationships. They want to get married and have children, and they do get depressed when they're not successful at that. If we get the kids early enough, we can give them social skills, and most of them do quite well."

For Anderson, music is a part of his education and, potentially, his future career. Anderson lives with a roommate, and in his sessions with Marshall, he is learning not only the ins and outs of cutting a track but also about collaboration, keeping a schedule and taking responsibility.

"He comes in sometimes and prefaces the session by saying, 'I have to start working on original songs. Nobody is going to take me seriously if I don't,' " Marshall says of Anderson. "He's really come a long way."