Talented and misunderstood

Those with Asperger’s have high abilities but struggle to connect

LOGAN BUSH FIRST learned to play acoustic guitar from an instructor, then taught himself the bass guitar. It’s a trait common in those with Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism. “When Logan decides that he likes something, he knows everything about it,” said his mother, Betsy Sawicky, often obsessing about that thing and “dominating the conversation.” But that can be off-putting to his peers in social situations. (Theresa Proudfit/Daily News photo)

IRON MOUNTAIN — Logan Bush wants others to know he is not a bad guy.

“I’m just different. I’m not this evil kid that’s out to do bad, I just don’t work the way quote, unquote, normal people work,” he said.

Bush is among the 2.6 million people in the U.S. diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, considered part of the autistic spectrum but highly functioning.

Hans Asperger, the Austrian pediatrician after whom Asperger’s syndrome is named, suggested it was more likely to be observed in children of high intelligence and special abilities.

Bush fits that description, said his mother, Betsy Sawicky of Iron Mountain. After learning to play acoustic guitar from Bill Morrison, he then picked up bass guitar on his own. He speaks three languages and is currently studying two more. “He is constantly self-teaching,” she said.

EMILIA TOMASSUCCI, A special education instructor for fourth- and fifth-graders at Stambaugh Elementary School, is working toward her autism endorsement so she can work specifically with children with autism and their needs. (Theresa Proudfit/Daily News photo)

But when it comes to communicating with others, the 15-year-old struggles to connect.

His difficulty with social skills and trouble reading verbal cues can bring a great deal of miscommunication, making the school setting more difficult for Bush. He’s currently taking high school classes online through Iron Mountain schools, but plans to return to the classroom so he can participate in extracurricular activities like Quiz Bowl and the debate team.

When he does, Bush and his mother hope for a little understanding of how those with Asperger’s syndrome process things differently.

“They are happy and sad just like everybody else, but they don’t show it the same way and they don’t communicate it the same way,” Sawicky explained.

“It’s hard for Logan to pick up on what his peers are saying and doing and he misreads it,” said Sawicky, adding that Bush “struggles to make friends because his peers don’t understand him.”

Aspects of the syndrome — such as not making eye contact, not wanting to be touched, nervous wringing of the hands or fidgeting — make the social beginning very hard for people with Asperger’s. They can be obsessive about things as well, like hand washing and politics, which can cause conflicts for Bush.

“When Logan decides that he likes something, he knows everything about it and tends to dominate the conversation,” Sawicky said.

“We don’t know how to communicate with the rest of the world,” Bush said, adding he gets along better with other people who have autism or Asperger’s because “we communicate the same way.”

Otherwise, children with Asperger’s often choose to be alone because it’s easier, Sawicky said.

“Sometimes I get in a group of people and I just shut down. I need to be alone, I need people to leave me alone and I just go to a corner or something” Bush said.

“These kids are walking around and they are lonely and they want friends, but people have to give them enough of a chance to get to know them. Because behind that screen that separates them, they are just like everyone else,” Sawicky said.

“When he is one-on-one with somebody, he is great,” Sawicky said, “but when he is in a group he struggles with how to communicate with the group. He doesn’t know how to meld.”

And it isn’t just his peers — many adults have trouble understanding his body language.

“The biggest rift is even though you can have an adult conversation with him, he doesn’t look you in the eye or he won’t shake your hand. People see that as rude or disrespectful, but it isn’t him being disrespectful; it’s the Asperger’s,” Sawicky said.

He now is developing his social skills and coping skills, getting better at realizing when he is misreading actions. “I don’t make eye contact often, but I’m getting better at it,” he said.

Bush speaks English, German and Russian and is currently teaching himself Korean and Mandarin Chinese. He is looking at the option of attending the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia to major in political science.

“Logan researched going to college for free. He wants to live in Europe to study international relations and help change things for the better,” Sawicky said.

As a mother, Sawicky just wants people to get to know her child. “He is very intelligent, very inquisitive and has a fantastic sense of humor, but he has to be comfortable enough to let that out. He is hilarious — just talk to him. Just talk to him,” she said.

Melissa Winters of Dunbar, who recently moved to the area from Illinois, said her 14-year-old son, Zander, showed signs of Asperger’s early on in life.

“He was constantly asking why and you had to explain everything. He always had to be the one to push the garage door open or he would have severe temper tantrums,” Winters said.

Being diagnosed with Asperger’s “explained a lot,” Melissa Winters said. “We realized all the little quirks and why he didn’t like being touched or being in crowds or around loud noises,” she said.

Her son loves math and science, but when he gets obsessed with something it’s hard to get him off that subject. At one time, the only thing he wanted to talk about was the idea of becoming a cyborg.

His current obsession is to open an ’80s diner.

Food sensory issues make going out to restaurants a challenge, Melissa Winters said, and “once he picks a spot, you are not moving.”

Coming to Pembine school has proven to be a good move for the Winters.

“Being in a smaller group setting has helped … he is getting better at controlling his fidgeting,” Melissa Winters said.

It can be difficult sometimes for people to recognize those with Asperger’s because they don’t always outwardly show symptoms, she said. Sometimes even she doesn’t know “what is Zander just being an annoying teenager and what is the Asperger’s.”

She does know more awareness is needed.

“People need to be more considerate and more understanding. Especially other kids. They need to learn that not all kids are the same,” she said, adding, “It starts at home, with parents being more understanding about differences.”

Emilia Tomassucci, special education instructor for fourth- and fifth-graders at Stambaugh Elementary, is working towards her ASD Teaching Endorsement, the graduate certificate in autism spectrum disorder education, so she can work specifically with those children. “No two children are the same,” which Tomassucci says makes her work “exciting.”

“You really just have to get to know them, just like you would with any other person,” she said.

Tomassucci believes in peer-to-peer groups at her school — having students with and without disabilities in the same setting.

“They play games together, talk to one another, get know each other just for who they are, not for their disability,” she said.

Tomassucci really wants to see more awareness of the entire autism spectrum.

“I don’t think they should have to change who they are. I think we have to change to accept them into our society and into the classrooms, to be our friends, just for who they are,” she said.