A boy’s talk about his Asperger’s resonates in his school

A boy’s talk about his Asperger’s resonates in his school

February 22, 2012

Marci Shatzman mshatzman@tribune.com

 Since Jack Lebersfeld told the entire sixth grade he has Asperger’s syndrome and explained what that meant, his speech has taken on a life of its own that Jack and his parents could have never imagined.

Asperger’s is one of the autism spectrum disorders that affects a person’s ability to socialize, and that’s what was happening to Jack at school. The 11-year-old was being “isolated and picked on,” in the words of his friend Spencer Kusel.

Now Jack gets fan mail. “I hung onto your every word, imagining you as an invincible super hero, doing the world good,” wrote Briana Finocchiaro, 12, who didn’t know him but felt compelled to write the next day.

“People treat him differently now,” she said in an interview later.

Saint Andrew’s School parents posted on Facebook and emailed Jack’s parents, Susan and Eric Lebersfeld of West Boca, thanking them for teaching their children a life’s lesson. Now the school is using the video of Jack’s speech to urge other middle school students to act kinder and gentler, said Ann Haynes, head of middle school.

The Lebersfelds said they had other diagnoses for Jack when he was as young as 3. Susan stopped working, did her homework and placed her son in a special needs preschool and got him therapy. When they moved to Florida five years ago, they decided on Saint Andrew’s for Jack and his sister Hannah, now 9, and met with his teachers. “A squeeze on his shoulder can help him concentrate,” Susan suggested.

When they learned he had Asperger’s in the fall, they sat down with Haynes and sixth-grade guidance counselor Ben Liston, and brought in a counselor from the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities at Florida Atlantic University.

Then they told Jack. And as a family, they watched the movie “Temple Grandin,” about the famous woman with autism who invented a more humane way to handle livestock.

“It made me feel better about myself,” said Jack, who will be 12 in April. “It showed me who I am and what I can become and what my parents can do.”

“We started thinking about telling one person,” before a field trip to Sarasota, Susan said.

“We thought it would be more effective face to face,” Eric added.

When an assembly program and speech was suggested at school, Jack said his first reaction was, “No way!” But he warmed to the idea. “I wanted people to know who I was. I didn’t want people to think I was dumb,” he said.

So in January, the entire sixth grade, some 85 children, listened to Jack say, “I have been in school with most of you since the second grade and for the most part I am just like you, but in some ways I am different.”

Jack explained that people with Asperger’s can be impulsive, too literal or over-react. “My brain is not wired like yours..,” he said.

But Bill Gates and Albert Einstein have Asperger’s, too, so “I don’t want you to feel sorry for me,” he said. “I am in good company.”

Eric knew the gamble to have Jack speak had paid off when the audience paid “rapt attention.”

“The reaction and caring from his classmates in the moment and after the fact were great,” said guidance counselor Liston.

Jack’s performance didn’t surprise classmate Ava Goldstone, who called him, or Haynes, who said Jack is among the more talented actors in school plays. “He’s an amazing artist, so he’s talented in other areas,” Ava said later.

“I was amazed he was willing to do it,” Haynes said, when the talk was being planned. She knew the message would be “more powerful coming from him.”

“As a parent, I am more comfortable dropping him off now,” his mother said.

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