Yohai and Asperger Syndrome

Up until the age of 4, Yohai was well-developed, and his behavior seemed perfectly normal: he was a lovely, perceptive, happy, and polite child. In some areas, he had above-average capabilities--he had an exceptional memory, a rich vocabulary, and he had learned to read words before he was 2 years old. He knew the names of colors at 16 months old. He was running almost as soon as he could walk. In retrospect, however, some behaviors were overlooked and never seemed a cause for worry--he never raised his arms in the "pick-me-up" gesture; he didn't carry on conversations so much as monologues; compared to other children, he couldn't roll over in a somersault, or sit and swing himself, and he looked very awkward sliding down a sliding board. But he was so active and more than compensated for these "clumsy" or slow developments by extraordinary mathematical skills, a love of chess and crosswords before age 5.
In kindergarten, Yohai began to dislike being touched. He sometimes had difficulty with aggressive children and noise bothered him. Before he went to first grade at Reali school, his parents were asked to have him evaluated as a "hyperactive" child. A neuropsychologist examined him; he diagnosed "minimal brain damage" and Yohai's still lacking a "dominant side." Yohai, he predicted, would have trouble copying from the blackboard. A special teacher was hired during the summer months before first grade. She helped him with his handwriting, neatness, and taught him to sit still on a chair, and worked with him on his motoric skills (i.e., catching a ball).
Later, a neurologist examined Yohai, and his evaluation was as follows: Yohai can "go nuts" in school and still learn all he had to in class, as he was so far ahead. Ritalin might help him behave better; but the doctor saw only mild neurological problems. Yohai tried Ritalin and another drug. It caused facial tics and didn't have the effect of "calming" him at all. After a month's trial, he stopped taking it.
Yohai's first-grade teacher was immediately aware of the gap: high scholastic achievements together with lack of interpersonal skills. Yohai often disturbed the class--he found that he drew laughs by rolling on the floor and throwing chalk. It seemed to him that such behavior was acceptable because it amused others. Yohai would get out of his seat (all his life he preferred to think while walking and pacing). At recess time on the playground, he pushed and shoved children in an effort to relate to them and join their play.
The teacher, who suspected Yohai was hyperactive, insisted that Yohai's parents do something to change his behavior in school. For well over two years Yohai and his parents met with a psychologist who had extensive experience managing hyperactive children. Within a short time, he'd concluded that Yohai did not suffer from hyperactivity or an organic disability. He believed the source of the behavior problems lay in the large gap between intellectual and emotional development. The psychologist recommended applied behavior modification be used in his case. So, Yohai began behavior treatment. He signed a "contract" outlining what was permitted and what was banned in the classroom and playground, and went to school with behavior charts; he and his parents met weekly with the psychologist and the parents also had "homework": more physical touching--tickling; playing ball with him; even pillow fights. Let Yohai play more outside with kids; invite them to visit his house, and encourage Yohai to visit them. Engage in additional activities that were not "intellectual" (chess, math), such as art (ceramics), music (piano), sports (karate), and adopt a pet. Put a stop to arguing and being drawn into arguments with Yohai. When he was "stupid in behavior" in the words of the psychologist, he had to be told. Though very bright, especially in math, Yohai was "low average" in social skills. Despite working on these year after year, progress came slowly. While the psychologist's technique did teach Yohai self-restraint in the classroom and at recess, and lowered the number of arguments at home, it was also obvious that some fundamental behaviors did not change:
  • Unlike his perfect recall of numbers, words and events, Yohai had difficulty remembering faces. When asked to describe a playmate, he could not give details about her appearance and only recalled that she was wearing a red shirt. He described another classmate as having a head in the shape of an orange. In later years, Yohai seemed particulary "forgetful" about people. When someone waved to him and said, "Hello," and he'd be asked, "Who was that?" more likely than not, his reply was: "I don't know."
  • Yohai found it hard to maintain eye contact with someone, though repeatedly told to "look at people when they are talking to you."
  • He couldn't imitate informal rules of behavior: To teach him a simple gesture like waving "hello" to greet someone required a lot of drilling, and so did answering the phone.
  • Yohai had great difficulty relating to others; thus he didn't hold a door open for someone; didn't step aside when someone approached him on a sidewalk. He did not learn any of these spontaneously and had to be constantly "trained" what to do.
  • He seemed to be lacking "common sense" and to be overly naive.
  • From being an infant who liked soft clothes and disliked orange juice, he became supersensitive in many areas: he disliked loud noise, glare, touch. He insisted on bland foods and stuck to the same diet.
  • One could tell when something clearly bothered Yohai; he cried, groaned, or shrieked out loud. While he was extraordinarily articulate in most ways, he seemed incapable of explaining what bothered him. He could not talk about his feelings.
  • Yohai couldn't make "small talk," and he would often converse about one of his favorite subjects--math, cats, chess, science. When playing games, Yohai found it easier to talk to others, and he seemed more relaxed.
  • From an early age, Yohai had characteristic gestures of his own--special movements of his hand, rather than shaking his head for "no." He paced--in the hallway at home, on the playgrounds and while waiting at bus stops.
  • In addition to the above-mentioned behaviors, Yohai referred to himself as a turtle and as a cat--and though he definitely did not want to eat cat food, and had no delusion about being an animal, it was hard to understand why he acted this way. It was not surprising, therefore, that Yohai's first impression on children and adults alike was sometimes wierd.
    Throughout all his years of study, including university, Yohai carried on stubborn arguments when he believed he was right and teachers (or parents) were wrong. With this one exception, he was a model pupil, preparing all assignments, and excelling in most of his school subjects. While Yohai's teachers and school counselors in all schools and all grades noticed his obvious social problems, his solitude in class and at recess, it was the exception that a teacher would take the trouble to help him in this respect. They all appeared to think that excellence in academic subjects could compensate for his social awkwardness.
    When given the opportunity to teach, Yohai proved to be an excellent teacher. Not only did he have an immediate grasp of the material, he seemed intuitively to have the knack of explaining things so that they could be understood. When he was in elementary school, he was teaching neighborhood children older than himself by five years or more, how to solve their arithmetic homework problems. Several times, Yohai's parents asked school counselors and teachers to allow Yohai to make use of this talent, to tutor other children who were having difficulty with math; they, in turn, might have social skills to impart to Yohai, and would help him in areas where he was weak. If at first it seemed that the school's lack of cooperation derived from laziness, over time (and with repeated, unexplained refusals), it appeared that there was another explanation--Yohai's wierd, but harmless, behavior put them off from making contacts between Yohai and other pupils.
    Yohai appeared to some as an "astronaut," and "absent-minded professor." He had acquired a number of eccentric behaviors in his speech and walk, and gestures. Nevertheless, throughout all his school years, not a single specialist or educator or counselor had identified Yohai as suffering from "Asperger Syndrome." In all honesty, in the early school years, hardly anything had been published about it.
    With no knowledge of Asperger Syndrome, Yohai's parents also had their reservations about his future compulsory military service. Yohai himself, who was well aware of his limitations, also was apprehensive. He was worried about whether he'd be bullied in the army, as he had been in school. He knew that in every organization there are those who prey on the weaknesses of others and treat them cruelly.
    Yet despite his weaknesses, all his life Yohai had sought out challenges and enjoyed facing them. He believed that military service was an obligation and would be a worthy effort for him. He hoped, perhaps too naively, that he'd be offered a chance to contribute his knowledge and skills and talents, and develop them further, for the benefit of the military. That is one reason he'd wanted to complete his academic degree before his induction; that is why he'd spent months in physical training--he stuck to a rigid routine of workouts every other day, to strengthen himself physically.
    When he was 16 and 17, Yohai was called on to take a battery of tests and be interviewed for service in the Intelligence branch of the military. A year after his death, when his parents received the investigation report into his death, they found out that interviewers had found him to have "giant problems of adjustment" and decided he was not fit for their unit. Later on, when Yohai was first called to the recruitment center, his odd behavior caught the attention of the interviewer, who sent him for a mental evaluation. In school and at home, he said with a cynical expression on his face, that "they thought he was crazy" in the recruitment office and had referred him to this examination. The results of this psychiatric examination were almost the exact opposite of those of the Intelligence people; nevertheless, not a word about Asperger Syndrome. According to this evaluation, no basis was found to exempt him completely or partially from military service.
    With much anxiety, Yohai's father accompanied him, on recruitment day, April 6, 2002, to the bus that would take him to the army base. Both Dad and Yohai knew that in addition to the social difficulties that Yohai would face in the military, Yohai had some motor problems that made him a slow dresser, and some problems with spacial orientation. Yohai, who could compute with lightning speed and grasp abstract theories so easily, took ages to tie his shoelaces. Yohai, who found his way through paper and pencil mazes and computer games, didn't have much of a sense of direction. (He didn't look at maps, saying he couldn't follow them. When asked about the direction of a place familiar to him, he'd cross his arms over his chest, with each hand pointing in a different direction, and say in his characteristic cynical way: "It's this way!")
    Despite these difficulties, Yohai succeeded well in basic training, and was justly proud of himself. He described himself as "physically fit as the others," and joked about the situations he encountered. While, on the one hand, in basic training there were those who perceived his weaknesses and trusting nature, and exploited them, on the other hand, Yohai found at least one person who both appreciated his uniqueness enough to seek him out as a friend, and was protective of him. The officers in basic traing, also noticing his oddness, appreciated his motivation, the way he overcame his difficulties of adjusting to military life, and his efforts to fulfill all tasks.
    At the end of basic training, Yohai was sent on to the Air Force. He began a course for operators of communications equipment. It was a tragic placement. He suffered from two main problems. The first was that much of the day was spent in independent study. According to Yohai, and testimony of others in the course as well as the tutors, a very short time sufficed for him to learn the material. He was nevertheless forced to sit idle all day long with nothing to occupy him (he couldn't read his own books, for example)--and this was in stark contrast to his restless nature. Yohai had spent even the few spare minutes free from training exercises during basic training to read books he'd brought from home. The second reason for Yohai's misery involved his fellow soldiers. According to testimony by officers, this course was characterized by cadets whose motivation was extremely poor. Yohai found this malingering and attempts to avoid carrying out duties very frustrating; it was his nature to "follow rules" and do the right thing. On his last visit home, after he'd described what was going on in this course, he allowed Dad to write to a very senior army man of his acquaintance, to seek his assistance in finding something more suitable for Yohai. Yohai felt some relief when Dad sent his letter that same weekend.
    One week later, on Sunday, July 21, 2002, a secretary in this man's office called to acknowledge the receipt of the letter and to promise help. That very same night, a group of soldiers knocked at the parents' door to tell them that Yohai had been found shot in the head earlier that evening at his base.
    When Yohai's parents encountered the term "Asperger Syndrome" they thought that the description of these symptoms resembled Yohai's behavior. (Finding another person with the same eccentricities was awesome.) A psychiatrist specializing in the diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome, who heard accounts from parents and read accounts from teachers, classmates, and other later sources, concluded that Yohai's strange behaviors throughout his life could almost certainly be explained by his being a person with autism of Asperger type.
    [to homepage]