Why my daughter's Asperger's diagnosis brought relief

Dec. 14, 2010 at 10:05 AM ET

When Wendy Walsh's 7-year-old daughter threw screaming fits in public, she blamed herself. Then a chance encounter led to a diagnosis that turned her world around... in a good way.By Dr. Wendy Walsh
Wendy Walsh
You might think that a diagnosis of a neurological abnormality in one's child would be heart-wrenching. In my case it brought crystal-clear relief. Here's what's fabulous about my 7-year-old daughter. Her visual intelligence is off the charts. She seems to have a photographic memory, a knack for puzzles, and a talent for coordinating colors that would make any decorator green with envy. Here's the other part: She has had daily screaming melt-down tantrums since birth, often in embarrassingly public places (like airplanes and museums). She is strong-willed and bossy. She often appears rude because she won't look adults in the eye or say hello, please or thank you. And if her shoelaces aren't tied in perfect bows, she loses her mind for hours. Like any good mother, I blamed myself. Seeking answers for my failings, I read every parenting book I could get my hands on. I sought advice from a behavioralist. I tried stricter boundaries. I tried empathy and consoling. Nothing worked. So, I learned to tolerate the screaming and strange obsessions. And, I went on an anti-depressant and I drank plenty of red-wine. It's an antioxidant, don't you know? Then came first grade. As most parents know, first grade is a pivotal year. Kids learn to read, sit in rows and hold their pee and poop until lunch. My angel did none of those things well. At one meeting of teachers and administrators, when asked about my child's strengths her teacher could only muster, "Well, when she wants to, she can be pleasant." I was exasperated. Last summer, something fortuitous happened. We met a lovely couple from Canada, and during the meeting, my little angel had one of her familiar tantrums complete with head spinning and spewing green vomit. OK, I'm exaggerating. But that's what it feels like. Rather than looking at me like I was the worst mother in the world, my female houseguest gave a knowing nod. Then she gently explained that she is an autism specialist and she suspected my daughter has a high-functioning form of autism called Asperger's syndrome. It was like someone had turned on a light in a dark room. The next day, I was flying to Boston on business, so I marched into the Harvard medical library and pulled everything I could on Asperger's. It was like I was reading a biography of my daughter's life. As soon as I returned to L.A., I began the arduous task of getting the school district to provide an assessment. That story is a whole other blog post. After weeks of testing, my daughter was diagnosed with Asperger's. And now I can get her the specific interventions that she needs to grow into a superhero. The biggest feelings I have are relief and happiness. Because now I know where to find help. She's already registered for a social skills class at UCLA for "Aspie" kids. Having a child who is not “neuro-typical” isn't a death sentence. It has been suggested that Bill Gates and even Mark Zuckerberg might have Asperger's. I have some suspicions about Naomi Campbell. The other night I forgot to bring my daughter’s favorite purple hat when we went ice-skating. She was absolutely unable to skate unless her "look" was perfect. So while she sat on a bench at the rink, refusing to join her sister and friends, I dashed to Old Navy to buy a $5 replacement hat. Unfortunately, the purple one was gone, so I choose a pink striped one, praying that it would match her outfit. Taking the hat out of the bag, I watched her eyes well up with tears and her bottom lip tremble, as she burst out, "The pink is WRONG!" Before this diagnosis, I would have admonished her for ungrateful behavior, but now I understood. The pink, apparently, was wrong. I took my angel onto my lap and rocked her for about 20 minutes while she cried, and we both mourned what could have been a perfect fashion look. Eventually she consoled herself, and decided she could brave the ice with her bad pink hat. And I exhaled. Because now I understand. Some colors are so wrong. And my child is so perfectly right. Dr. Wendy Walsh has a private psychotherapy practice in Los Angeles, blogs at "Dating. Mating. Relating" and is a columnist for Pregnancy Magazine. As a psychological expert, she appears regularly on television. She is the author of “The Boyfriend Test” and “The Girlfriend Test.” She is a single mother of a multiracial family.