Asperger’s and Peanut Butter

By now most people in the New England area have read about the horrific murder of 15 year old James Alensen, allegedly at the hands of 16 old John Odgren, a special needs student at Lincoln-Sudbury High School in Lincoln, Massachusetts. If you haven’t, you can read the story here.

While any story about teenagers committing violent crimes is disturbing, this story in particular hit home for me. John Odgren has been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. As the stepfather of a twelve year old with the same condition, seeing this rarely mentioned condition in the newspaper got my attention. You can learn more about this condition at the Asperger’s Disorder Homepage here. There is also a very well done introductory article written by Barbara L. Kirby here.

My concern is that now that the Asperger’s cat is out of the Asperger’s bag, all these kids will be painted with the same brush. I can see the same soccer moms who got peanut butter banned in the school cafeteria marching on their local high school once they find out it has a special needs program that includes (gasp!) Asperger’s kids. I just can’t wait to hear Soccer Mom demanding the removal of Asperger’s kids from her little darling’s school and placing them in a secure facility so they can’t murder anyone else. But don’t worry, I’m sure it will be a peanut butter free facility.

When the shrillness and hand wringing starts, and it will, it will be grossly unfair and uninformed. What Asperger’s kids have in common is a tendency to withdraw into their own little world, but they are not, as a group, violent. Asperger’s kids can tell right from wrong (as can be attested by some of the priceless looks of guilt on my stepson’s face when he screws up.) But Asperger’s kids do suffer from a condition that makes their own life a living hell.

Dealing as I do on a day to day basis with an Asperger’s kid, this is a condition I have become rather familiar with. Asperger’s is being referred to, in the almost daily newspaper articles about this tragedy, as a form of Autism. This is not precisely correct. Asperger’s falls into a larger category known as Autism Spectrum Disorders, although the term PDD (Pervasive Developmental Disorder) is more common in the United States. But it is not Autism in the usual sense of the word. Asperger’s kids (and adults, for that matter) seem to have to very marked traits in common, poor social interaction skills, and a tendency to hyper focus on one or two subjects. It is a difficult condition to diagnose and even more difficult to treat. It is often accompanied by other develepmental dissorders such as Attention Deficit Disorder.

Think about what goes on when you have a conversation with another person. Think about all the non-verbal cues that you instinctively pick up on. Facial expressions and body language are as important to communication as the words themselves. By reading these non-verbal cues, we can gauge to what extent we are being understood, and how effective we are being at maintaining the other person’s interest. A slight frown, or a look of boredom, tells us that perhaps we had either change the subject or at least change the manner in which we are communicating.

Asperger’s kids seem unable to pick up on these non-verbal cues. Furthermore, their tendency to hyper-focus on subjects that other kids do not find terribly interesting, along with this inability to see that they’re not holding their audience’s attention, of brands these kids as “strange” and subjects them to ridicule.

My twelve year old stepson is such a one. Like many Asperger’s kids, he is exceptionally intelligent, but it is a lop-sided kind of intelligence. In his case, his great fixation is Lego’s. He has been in love with them since he was old enough to walk, and as he has grown older his interest in them has grown more intense, and his creations more elaborate. His bedroom looks like Lego City.

Now, considering he wants to be an architect when he grows up, this is not necessarily a bad thing. But unfortunately he has a very difficult time transitioning away from this preoccupation, another characteristic of the Asperger’s child. It’s as though the gearbox in their brain gets stuck in one gear, and they often find transitions of any kind difficult.

He has at various times obsessed over other things that were not as healthy. When he was in first grade, his teacher conducted a class about poison, and more specifically, how to avoid them. This was the basic “don’t drink what’s under the sink” class that gets taught to all first graders. In one of our first warnings that all was not quite right with him, after that class he obsessed over the notion that he might be ingesting poison. EVERYTHING was poison in his mind: his food, his milk, even his bath water were regarded with the deepest suspicion. It got to the point where we even had to taste his food before he would eat it. This went on for about a year before he finally grew out of it.

Unfortunately, this was soon replaced by another obsession: hurricanes. Once again, something he had learned about in school had seized his imagination to the point where he could focus on little else. Even a few clouds in the sky were enough to make him apprehensive, and if there was an actual storm going on he would not leave our side, terrified by the idea that our house would be blown away with him in it. Thankfully, this too passed in time.

This condition becomes very hard for them to live with when they become teenagers. These kids spend a great deal of time in their own little world anyway. When fellow teenagers, with their notorious cruelty and lack of empathy, make them the butt of jokes and forbid them to enter their social circle, the natural reaction of the Asperger’s kid is to retreat even further into this self created world where they find protection from the meanness and cruelty they encounter in the real world. As they retreat further, their behavior becomes even more eccentric, leading to further ostracizing, and it become a vicious cycle.

In my stepson’s case, he just deals with it by building another Lego skyscraper, but John Odgren had a different, darker way of dealing with the world that was hurting him. He became obsessed with knives and, allegedly, killing.

None of this is meant to minimize the death of James Alenson or let John Odgren off the hook. Just because he has Asperger’s Syndrome doesn’t mean he can’t tell right from wrong. He has committed the greatest of all sins, and he will almost certainly pay with his young life. No, he won’t get the death penalty, but is a life sentence with no hope of parole, starting when you’re sixteen years old, really any better?

I know how incredibly difficult and frustrating it can be to deal with an Asperger’s kid. But I do wonder why there was not more concern that a teenager, who is alleged to have roamed the school corridors in a trench coat, in a conscious attempt to emulate the Columbine murderers, supposedly owned a sizable knife collection. I also wonder why, when he allegedly asked his teacher about such subjects as making a bomb, and how “get away with” murder, that no one in the school system thought this worth looking into.

I can’t help but wonder to what extent the system failed him, and by doing so, failed James Alenson. John Odgren had the right to special education, but James Alenson had an even more basic right: the right to come home from school alive. But now one teenager, a child really, is dead, and the other as good as dead.


10 Responses to “Asperger’s and Peanut Butter”

  1. January 29, 2007 at 6:53 pm

    My son has Asbergers Syndrome. It is a shame that the only times that the media focuses on Asberger’s is when it shows itself in violence. My son is many things but violent he is not. In fact not being assertive enough is a problem that he may never conquer.

    You’re right. It is such a misunderstood condition, except by those who either study it or live with it. My step-son’s behavior would seem a little odd to most, but I have no doubt that there is little he would do that would surprise you. One of the nice things about having him in a special needs school is the opportunity to meet other parents of Asperger’s kids. It’s one of those situations that you have to live through to be able to understand. My warmest best wishes to you and your son!

  2. 2 L. Champagne
    February 4, 2007 at 8:04 pm

    Many Asbergers Children do have violent tendancies and although your child may not be one of them it does not mean that this child was the exception. I live in constant fear for my daughter because her 17 year old half brother who has Asbergers has made very frightening remarks towards both of us. The two Children are not permitted to be together because of the threat for her safety. His father is a very active, involved parent who spends the majority of his time with his special needs son but these restrictions and the lack of help and specialized programs for dealing with Asberger teens especially has put an immense strain on our family. He is hardly ever available without his son to see his daughter and she now has little more than an hour or so contact with her father because of not finding the proper help his son needs. We need more research, understanding and better resourses in and out of our schools for helping these kids so that more parents, teachers and their peers are better able to cope with these various situations. I suspect that you being a concerned and caring stepparent will help guide your son through his difficulties in adolescents which seems to be much harder on Asbergers kids.

    I agree with most of what you say. But my point with this post was that ALL Asperger’s kids would be painted with the same brush. Asperger’s Syndrome by itself will not cause a child to be violent. However, the syndrome often has co-morbidities; it is rare to find an Asperger’s kid who doesn’t have other issues. My best wishes for you and your children. This is not an easy situation to live with.

  3. 3 A
    February 8, 2007 at 9:54 am

    My son has autism — high functioning — but suffice to say I understand…and pfnevyl — it’s so beautiful to me that you share this about your son with everyone. I love to see the world through his eyes. Not a cliche. Such a difference.

    Having a child with autism (or any birth defect, for that matter) is a challenge. It certainly puts to the test the old cliche “God never give you more than you can handle.”

    Smith…thank you for the comment…I’ll be checking in.

    Thank you for sharing this with me, and thank you for stopping by.

  4. 4 Jeanna Johnson
    April 3, 2007 at 5:15 am

    I was looking at this website because my daughter has social difficulties, but I became very offended because she also has peanut allergies. I would love for peanut butter to be banned in school, most schools will not ban it. I really don’t see the removal of peanut butter to protect the lives of children with extreme allergies related to removing children with social difficulties.

    In your own concern for your child be a little more sensitive to others concerns.

    J. Johnson

    Frankly you’re just the sort of soccer mommy I was writing about. I have no doubt that if your child were allergic to chalk dust you would be leading the crusade to ban blackboards from the school system. I hate to be the one who points this out to you, but the world does not revolve around your child and her food allergy.

    It’s not that I don’t sympathize, I do. But I find it interesting that my offhand remark about peanut butter was all you were able to take from this essay. It tells me that you’ve totally missed the point of this post.

    This is the sort of thing that offends you, is it? Frankly I think that says more about you than it does about me. If you want to disagree with me, so be it. But offended? Please. Get a thicker skin.

  5. 5 Jen
    December 5, 2007 at 10:01 pm

    So far you are the most sensible person that haas close ties to Aspergers that I have had the pleasre of reading about. I will tell you that I first hand knew John Odgren and his mother when he was at the school in 7th grade. I totaally understand the quote, “I can’t help but wonder to what extent the system failed him, and by doing so, failed James Alenson. John Odgren had the right to special education, but James Alenson had an even more basic right: the right to come home from school alive. But now one teenager, a child really, is dead, and the other as good as dead”. Especially coming from someone outside of Elementary Education and Special Education.
    My only question is this… Where are his parents to pick up this responsibility? I hate to put it this way, but they “created a monster”. They allowed him to hyperfocus on crime and dark gory things, they obviously never punished him (as they never did when I worked with him, they had NO discipline at all), when he brought the weapons to school the proir times. How did he own a knife colletion? Why let him take a forensics class? Reading gory Stephen King Books? And if the parents were aware of some of the things that he was writing… yikes. If I had a choice I would send these parents to prison right along with John. Never once in John’s Elementary career did I even see his father. Onlly his mother, who was clueless and couldn’t get a handle on any situation.
    I believe some fault lies with the schools, but more lies with Mr. and Mrs. Odgren.

    P.S. Loved your comment about the peanut butter… to all the parents out there, if you think you can stop 1,000 elementary school kids from EVER bringing peanut butter to school, forget it, and most principals are unwilling to make schools “peanut free” because it is too much of a liability for them to deal with.

  6. December 23, 2007 at 1:46 am

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    Thanks for stopping by! I’m glad you enjoyed it.


  7. 7 Frederica
    December 3, 2008 at 7:15 pm

    Thank you for your wonderful presentation of what it means to have a child with a psychiatric illness. I am appalled by the lack of concern shown by the school’s teachers and John’s parents. They should all be on trial. It is so much easier to blame the illness than their lack of concern. How true are your words, a child is dead and the other as good as dead.
    And by the way, it is ridiculous to have a peanut free school while the children can carry weapons with them…

  8. 8 Nancy
    March 25, 2009 at 6:10 pm

    As an Aspie I can say that’s terrible! As a kid I was not violent.
    As an adult I am not violent! I don’t like violence, as it scares me.
    But I do tend to have a temper, but since adolescence, that temper has and is still directed toward me, I do not lash out at people.

    What an unfair portrayal of AS.


    • 9 Magali Alonso
      June 16, 2009 at 3:54 am

      I m writing you from Belgium, and I complètely agree with you!
      They did the very same thing about a guy who shot 2 or 3 persons in Antwerp.
      It was a racist crime, …and the first thing every journalist say was that the young man was under medication for a disorder syndrome.heres’s in french ! you can follow the link, I m not inventing!


      “Selon son rapport, Van Themsche souffre du syndrome d’Asperger, une forme d’autisme responsable d’un dérèglement mental assimilable à l’état de démence.”

      translation ” According to the medical report, Van Themsche suffers of Asperger’s syndrom , an autism form responsible of a mental disorder assimilable to dementia;

      They have “put” a label on every Asperger in the world because of a “wrong” one. That’s UNACCEPTABLE !

      When my daughter was 6 years old, just before first grade, the “PMS” which is in french Psycho Medico Social. They “diagnosed” that my daughter could be kind of autistic, and I refused to believe it!
      back to 1999 the only “idea” that I had of autism was ” Rain-Main”. (sorry)
      So I stands that my daughter was weird and special in some ways, but I had decide to be in her side and love her, because she was and is lovable, curious…
      Then,a few months ago I heard of Asperger syndrome and I Have recognize patterns of my daughter’s character. So now she’s almost 16 and I’m considering of ask for a test or something to figure out that she may have asperger. I can confirm that she’s not violent, like Nancy said, she’s afraid of violence. She’s kind with animals, she has learn all by herself to hold a bee in her hand! she’s always rescuing spiders in the house ;o) getting them safely in to the back yard. She knows tons of things about sharks.

      Thanks again for the essay!


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