Local author sheds light on adult Asperger’s Syndrome

Martha Schmidtmann Dunne

Martha Schmidtmann Dunne, whose husband Mike Dunne is a local food and wine writer and editor at Sacramento Bee, found that she was also a writer when she began penning a book about her family’s struggle with her youngest son’s Asperger’s Syndrome.

“I never had any intention of writing a book. I was just trying to understand my son,” said Dunne, who wrote her book in the house she shares with her husband and son in Sacramento.

Four years ago, Dunne and her husband came to the realization that their adult son, Dylan Dunne, then 36, had Asperger’s Syndrome.

This led her on a three-year research spree of Asperger’s that eventually culminated with the publishing of her book, “Wait, What do you Mean? Asperger’s Tell and Show.”

Asperger’s Syndrome is a developmental disorder in the Autism spectrum in which individuals have a neurological makeup that is different from the typical population. Individuals with Asperger’s do not have the brain circuitry that would enable them pick up on normal social cues.

After a lifetime of viewing her son’s atypical behaviors: early intelligence, having rote memory (learning by repetition and recalling in great detail), having an awkward gait, speaking in monotone, suffering from sleep abnormalities, lacking of impulse control, the inability to pick up on social cues and to empathize, and his capacity to hone in on specialized interests – Dunne said she had an epiphany.

“These two words explained all these behaviors that we knew were odd – we knew were singular,” Dunne said. “I picked up a book on Autism and read the characteristics (of Asperger’s) and, point after point, that’s him. My thoughts went straight to Dylan.”

Dunne said that, to this day, Dylan Dunne has had no formal diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome. In her research Dunne said she found that it is difficult for adults to be diagnosed with Aspergers. Funding for autism spectrum research and outreach is geared at children.

The American Psychiatric Association did not formally recognized Asperger’s Syndrome as a neurological condition until 1994. Dunne said she believes there are a whole generation of adults with Asperger’s who have had no treatment or acknowledgement of their condition. This can lead individuals with Asperger’s to withdraw, to fall into depression or to become violent.

According to Dunne, Liane Holliday Willey, who wrote a memoir, “Pretending to be Normal,” about her own Asperger’s condition, coined the term “Aspie.” Today, many individuals with Asperger’s self-identify as Aspies, including Dunne’s son.

“Just because it became a diagnosis in a book does not mean that everyone (with Asperger’s) all of a sudden got diagnosed,” Dunne said.

Dunne’s book lays out the case that her son, who growing up exhibited awkward and perplexing behaviors that no one could explain, had Asperger’s.

At 12, Dylan Dunne wrote and illustrated a picture book called “A Collection of Violent Poems.” It was a book filled with weapons and dismembered people. One poem is called “Knife.”

“I wish I were a knife / to go on body raids / and end human life / with my shiny blade.”

Dylan Dunne’s poem is accompanied by a picture of knife that has speared through a distressed man’s head.

“Basically if they don’t pick up on (social boundaries), they don’t know how another person is feeling,” Dunne said. They are accused of not having empathy, but the fact is they just don’t know how someone else is feeling. If they knew, they might care.”

Dunne had her son’s picture book was published in 2010 along with her own book. Dunne said that her son’s inability to recognize that his illustrations crossed the boundaries of what is appropriate is characteristic of someone with Asperger’s. Dunne said he had no idea how another person would feel viewing his art work.

“They don’t know what to expect of other people. They don’t have the social learning because they don’t learn in the way (normal people) learn. Not being able to anticipate another person’s intent can be very limiting.”

Dunne said her family nearly came apart in 1987 when her oldest son, 20-year-old Jason Dunne, committed suicide while away at Cal Poly Pomona. He had taken over-the-counter pills and put himself in front of a train. Jason Dunne left behind a goodbye video, leaving little doubt as to his intent.

“I never stated in the book that Jason was an aspie but I think he probably was. I would have watched him more carefully – been more aware of his social interactions,” she said.

Dunne said that she would tell parents of children diagnosed with Aspergers today to guide their children in the direction of their unique interests as a way of coping with their condition.

“I would say to (parents of children with Asperger’s today) to not focus so much on making their round peg fit into the square hole. It’s an old, worn-out cliché, but it makes the point,” she said. “Stop trying to make them typical when they’re never going to be. Instead, focus on their strengths, which would be roughly defined as their interests, whatever they may be, and to help guide them very literally with the rules that they have to follow in order to get along.”

Dunne said she wrote her book to help people who have Asperger’s but are undiagnosed. She also wrote her book for people who are normal and neural-typical.

“We probably all know someone who is an adult Aspie, and we think of them as weird or odd. Sometimes people think of them as retarded because they don’t quite get it. Hopefully it will promote understanding and tolerance,” she said.  

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July 31, 2011 | 10:08 PM

Very insightful Martha,my mom says that “some type of mental illness” runs in our family, I ‘ve seen from a behavioral standpoint,my great grandfather,grandmother,and aunt (her sister) and most recently my brother exhibit not “A” typical behavior,but the family dismissed ,rather chose to be ignorant that although their mannerisms were different in nature, something was off..I am, have been curious,until this article struck a familiar chord with asperger type symtoms….Looking foward to reading your book…tell Mike HI…Kevin Deamer

August 2, 2011 | 2:08 PM

Very good and infomative article. I encourage anyone to take the online autism spectrum quotient test.

August 3, 2011 | 6:57 PM

As the parent of an Asperger’s kid, I empathize with Ms. Dunne’s statements.

When my son was very young, we saw his ‘eccentricities’ (couldn’t stand to be wet…spoke like a ‘little professor’… read many years beyond his age-level…photographic memory on topics of interest to him…no real social cues…) as just being part of who he was. Many times, he would have ‘meltdowns’ that were baffling to us -but which were real crises for him.

Once we discovered what was going on with him (and had doctors confirm our suspicions), we began to change our reaction to his behaviors and it made all the difference in the world.

Although we don’t use the term “Apsie” to describe him, my son is aware of the syndrome and that it affects how he perceives the world. We never use it as an excuse, rather as a starting point for understanding him and discovering better ways to help him respond to the world around him.

I applaud Ms. Dunne – and authors like her – for sharing their experiences with others who may not fully realize the impact Asperger’s can have on a family… rather the person ‘afflicted’ (for lack of better word) is an adult or a child.

August 5, 2011 | 8:49 AM

It is very easy to become discouraged; however, we do observe improvement in some areas. Ben is very loving and comfortable with his family, but when others arrive on the scene he prefers to disappear into another room. We believe it is because he does not have the confidence to participate appropriately in conversations that may be going on.
We find it interesting that Ben goes to another room in the house where the computer is. He listens to all conversations that are going on in the living area. Sometimes, the conversation is about current events, history, or geography to which no one knows the answer. Ben, from the other room, answers the question with authority and, of course, it is the correct answer.

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