Jennifer O’Toole is bubbly, energetic and extremely bright. She graduated with honors from Brown University, went on to graduate school at Columbia, has been nominated for Disney’s American Teacher of the Year, and is a Mensa scholar. But for years she was plagued with the nagging confusion of how she could have such success yet not be able to figure out the dynamics of social environments.
A year and a half ago, she got her answer. She has Asperger’s Syndrome. What’s more, so does her husband and three children.
It’s a label most parents fear, but because she shares it with her children, Jennifer does not see doom in the diagnosis.
“It’s like being left handed—the world is not exactly fit for you, but it’s your world nonetheless. Much like lefties with a pair of scissors, you just have to learn to work around it.”
She’s learned to work around it in her marriage and with her children. She’s sharing her successful methods in her new book, Asperkids: An Insider’s Guide to Loving, Understanding and Teaching Children with Asperger’s Syndrome (Jessica Kingsley Publishers).
After her daughter had been bounced around five different classrooms in two years, Jennifer began homeschooling her along with her other two children. “She was reading on a college level, but couldn’t keep her desk organized enough to find a pencil or handle any teamwork activities. Teachers were frustrated with her and she was just devastated,” Jennifer recalls.
Asperger’s syndrome is often characterized with a hyper focus on a special interest. Most teachers and parents of Aspies would refer to these special interests as obsessive and try to stop and redirect the Aspie. Such was Jennifer’s daughter’s experience in school. Instead, Jennifer decided to teach through her special interest.
She calls it the “access me here” button. For her daughter, her hyper-focused special interest is Greek mythology. For her two sons, zoology and Spiderman. While she and her husband teach that there is a certain amount of time they are able to discuss these topics, when it comes to learning school curriculum, Jennifer keeps her finger pressed on their “access” buttons. She uses rubber animal stamps to teach math problems, models of the Parthenon to teach geometry, and Spiderman dialogue to teach proper grammar.
She came up with these methods by combining her mother-knows-best intuition and her own personal understanding of the Apsperger brain. “As with any Asperger’s family, we’re constantly under the watch of occupational therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists…I was terrified they were going to tell me I wasn’t doing a good job.”
Instead, they told her the way she was teaching her children could revolutionize how Asperkids learn.
True to Asperger’s form, Jennifer got a hyper focused tunnel vision and wrote Asperkids in just three weeks. Two weeks later, she had a book contract with the leading publisher on autism and Asperger’s syndrome.
Already receiving great acclaim, Jennifer is surprised by the reaction from other Asperkid parents. “I thought that parents would see me as their partner, but they are seeing me as the adult projection of their Asperkid,” said Jennifer.
Jennifer says parents have been struck by her positivity about an issue steeped in negativity. “I think it’s just a function of diagnosis,” she says. “To get a diagnosis, you have to talk about problems and symptoms, which is negative.”
Life is not a perfect picnic, and even with intentionality and processes, there are setbacks. “We have a chart with chores that I change every Monday,” says Jennifer. A few weeks ago, she forgot and changed it on Tuesday. “You would have thought it was World War III in our house.” Change or deviation from the norm can send Jennifer’s family into chaos, so she is constantly looking for ways to impose order.
In some ways Asperger’s has strengthened Jennifer’s marriage despite the Aspie mental struggle to consider others and put oneself in another’s shoes. For instance, Jennifer’s son might ask about something he’s seeing on TV to someone in the family who is clearly on the other side of the screen. In this case, her son would not be able to understand why the other person could not answer his question. Because Jennifer and her husband have what she calls “Aspie self-awareness,” they are more aware of their tendencies to not consider the other person.
“We have a really great marriage not only because we can really understand each other and ask for what we need, but we are so intentional about making concerted efforts to put ourselves in the other’s shoes,” said Jennifer.
While the idea of seeing things from your partner’s perspective is an effort needed for any relationship, for Jennifer and her husband, those efforts are must-haves for functioning in the world. Because everyone in their home has the syndrome, everything the couple does has to be intentional in order to maintain function and order.
“It’s incredibly empowering, but very tiring,” Jennifer admits.
Jennifer is already wrapping up her second book, The Asperkids’ (Secret) Book of Social Rules: A Handbook of Not-So-Obvious Guidelines for Tweens & Teens with Asperger’s Syndrome, which will hit book shelves on October 15th. Future Horizons recently honored her with their 2012 Temple Grandin Award. She received the Grand Prize for an individual with Asperger’s for her achievements in advocacy and authorship in the Aspie community. This award comes on the heels of being awarded the 2012 Distinguished Spectrumite Medal (DSM) from GRASP (Global and Regional Asperger Syndrome Partnership Inc.), the world’s largest Asperger’s Partnership.
“I can’t believe how privileged I am to be able to use my experience as an Aspie and an Aspie parent and be able to serve as a translator for others,” says Jennifer. “If I can help keep a mother from crying or another child from feeling defeated and lost, then I feel incredibly lucky.”