Living with Asperger's: A personal journey - WOWK 13 Charleston, Huntington WV News, Weather, Sports

Living with Asperger's: A personal journey

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Dena Gassner defines her son's Asperger Syndrome through the movies he's memorized, through his fixation on the Titanic and the Thundering Herd, and the only milk he'll drink: chocolate.

"My son's sort of a cross between Pinocchio and Forest Gump," Gassner said. "Patrick had two aggressive behaviors ever in his life and both were under the undue influence of wrong medication."

In light of the Newtown massacre and reports that the gunman, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, had been diagnosed with Asperger's, Dena Gassner sees an opportunity to redefine the syndrome.

"I tell people being autistic never disabled me, but trying to be normal nearly killed me," she said.

Gassner was diagnosed with Asperger's shortly after Patrick was diagnosed with AS at the age of three.

According to the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Asperger's (a form of autism) is not considered a mental illness.

She said she first noticed her son might have a developmental disability when he struggled with breastfeeding. She also described his body as "floppy."

Gassner said every case of Asperger's is different. Her mother had it. She has it. Her son has it. The syndrome is usually marked by a difficulty in connecting with other people. But not always.

"I'm a social extrovert on steroids," Gassner said. "We continue to think of it as a 'lack of'. A lack of eye contact instead of just regular eye contact."

Gassner told 13NEWS Lanza matches several Asperger Syndrome profiles. But ultimately, she does not believe the condition caused Lanza to kill 27 individuals, including himself.

But the idea that there could be a link between violent behavior and people living with Asperger's? Well, years of scientific evidence fails to support this theory.

"They tend to be among the sweetest, most polite, most caring individuals you will ever meet."

And Gassner said even though the Newtown tragedy might shine a negative light on Asperger's, a light's a light.

"People are angry Asperger's is even brought up," Gassner said. "I believe it's a cry for help for our community. It's a tragic situation that can be turned into a public outcry."

And maybe result in a better understanding of the syndrome and the problems that come with it.

"My son says it best: 'I wish I didn't have autism at the dentist.' There are some things that are so difficult for him," Gassner explained. "In the fourth grade, my son was physically assaulted. He was thrown into a corner of a desk. Why my son able to go to school everyday? I could never explain to you where he found the courage to go."

At age 23, Patrick just finished his first semester at Marshall University. He belongs to a special program that helps students with autistic needs. 13NEWS asked Gassner if she wishes her son wasn't autistic.

"I wish the journey had been easier," she said. "I wish that he could have had better school services earlier, but he's the first wave of those students coming through. But I wouldn't trade him for who he is for anything."

Gassner manages a program, the Center for Understanding, that offers support to teens and adults with Asperger Syndrome in Nashville.

She said she hopes to start a similar project in West Virginia.