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Asperger’s Can Become the Tie Connecting Teens, Duquesne Researcher Finds

A hallmark of Asperger's Syndrome, a condition on the autism spectrum, is often social awkwardness.

But a Duquesne University researcher, looking at the ways autism and society shape each other, has found a small, East-coast town where youth with Asperger's Syndrome have turned what typically is viewed as a negative difference into a positive one. Dr. Elizabeth Fein, assistant professor of psychology at Duquesne, has found "Aspie pride" resonates with these young people and enhances their social lives-and believes that their group might serve as a model for other communities. She will present the work at an international workshop on social and cultural impacts of autism that she co-organized in Rio de Janeiro Sept. 11-14.

"A number of people in that community believed very strongly that Asperger's brings important strengths and gifts to be cultivated, not just symptoms to be treated," Fein said. "Parents and teachers-some of whom were on the spectrum themselves-worked together to form a series of school programs and a community center where teens on the spectrum could come together to enjoy each other's company and could form enduring friendships."

Shared interests in science fiction and fantasy literature, and role-playing games also made a huge difference, Fein said. Imagining themselves as characters from these stories inspired the creation of a summer camp just for youth on the autism spectrum, combining improvisational theater and role-playing games to create interactive quests. The experience taught teamwork, collaboration and perspective-taking, encouraging students to form lasting friendships.

"If I hadn't been looking at autism in its cultural context-how these kids and their families were shaping the culture of this town and how local attitudes toward autism shaped their own opportunities for growth and development-I wouldn't have learned how powerful role-playing games and dedicated community space can be for helping kids on the spectrum build strong social connections," she observed.

Fein will present her research at an international workshop, Autism Spectrum Disorders in Global, Local and Personal Perspective: A Cross-Cultural Workshop, that will look at how autism impacts and is impacted by our social and cultural world. The workshop, will explore how autism plays out in diverse contexts. Held at the Rio de Janeiro State University, the workshop will explore how relationships between individuals, the community and the state shape political claims about disability, identity and public health in different social and economic settings.

Fein has organized this workshop with Dr. Clarice Rios at the Institute for Social Medicine, at Rio de Janeiro State to bring together intellectual traditions from North and South America. The gathering is supported by the Lemelson/Society for Psychological Anthropology Conference Fund and made possible by a donation from The Robert Lemelson Foundation.

Duquesne University

Founded in 1878, Duquesne is consistently ranked among the nation's top Catholic universities for its award-winning faculty and tradition of academic excellence. Duquesne, a campus of nearly 9,500 graduate and undergraduate students, has been nationally recognized for its academic programs, community service and commitment to sustainability. Follow Duquesne University on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.