Friday, May 29, 2009

As the School Year Ends

In my last post, I gave some tips on setting things up so that kids have a fun and social summer. On the flip side of that planning, I think it’s important to think a bit about academics, such as what worked and didn’t work this school year.
Has it been a great year? I hope so. Now is a good time to analyze that success. Was the teacher a great fit? It might make sense to schedule an end of year meeting and get that teacher’s tips for what might work next year. Lot’s of structure, frequent breaks, short term rewards, a buddy system? You child’s teacher has probably put a great deal of time and effort into fine tuning a classroom and homework situation that has been effective. Now is a good time to see what can carry over to the next year. If possible, the teacher could even meet with next year’s teacher to pass on some of these tips.
Has it been a bad year? Thankfully, it’s almost over. Before you breathe a big sign of relief, it will probably pay to consider what the problems were. Compare this bad year to one that worked out better. Was there a big difference in teacher personality, the tone of the classroom, the way homework or discipline was handled?
Remember, you are the expert on dealing with your child. You’ll need to share your expertise with teachers, the principal, and all the specialists who will be working with your child. It’s best if you can be precise, detailed and concrete in discussing how to manage your child’s education. Saying something vague, like, “Ms. Jones was really nice, my son liked her a lot better than Ms. Smith.” will not be very helpful. But, if you put a bit of effort in now, you’ll be able to come up with a very clear statement, like, “My son does best in a structured and quiet classroom, like he had in third grade. In fourth grade, the room was much busier and louder; he reacted badly to that  much stimulation. He also responded very enthusiastically to his first grade teacher’s visual behavior plan.”
See what details you can figure out for your child.

Friday, May 22, 2009

End of the School Year Tips: Plan Now for the Best Summer

Just a few more weeks and you’ve made it through another school year! For kids with special needs like autism, Asperger’s or ADHD, the upcoming break can be a huge relief. But, before you walk out the school door for the summer, there are a few things you should take care of now so you have the best summer ever.

Make Some Social Contacts:

The summer is a great time to relax with family, but your child needs to spend some time with peers as well. It’s a lot easier to connect with some friendly kids and their parents now, while you’re all at school together. See who’s going to be around this summer, get their contact info, make some casual plans.
Think About Camps and Activities:
Now is the time to plan some structured activities for  your child’s summer, and it’s great if there are going to be some school buddies there also. Check with the other parents and see if any activities are going to be especially popular this summer. Shared activities help friendships grow. Next year in school, your child may be best friends with the kids from camp this summer.
Plan on Sports:
Many kids with ASDs are not very athletic. That’s tough, because children’s social lives revolve around sports. Find out from the homeroom teacher or PE coach what the kids play on the playground during recess. It’s probably something that requires ball handling skills, like kicking or dribbling. Jumping rope may also be popular. Whatever the game, the summer offer a great opportunity for your child to practice and catch up with their classmates’ skills.
That’s it! A few simple conversations and you’re ready for a great summer.

Reading Faces: Emotions Revealed, by Paul Ekman

All of us, whether on the autism spectrum or not, could do a better job of reading each other’s emotions. One obvious way is to look at facial expressions. And the expert on facial expression is Dr. Paul Ekman, a psychologist and author who has devoted his career to understanding how humans in many cultures express emotions . Ekman spent 8 years developing a facial expression coding system and studying how we express common emotions like anger, fear, sadness, happiness, surprise and disgust. He’s worked with everyone from police departments to the Dalai Lama, and is one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2009. The Fox TV show Lie to Me is based on Ekman’s work.
One of the most interesting things about Ekman’s work is that these skills can be learned. In “Emotions Revealed” Ekman uses detailed pictures of his daughter making tiny changes to her face, and explains how this results in vast differences in expression. This is backed up with news photos of people expressing the same emotions. Ekman explains how we can even generate emotions in ourselves just by moving our facial muscles. The back of the book gives a quiz on reading facial expressions, which Ekman suggests taking both before and after reading the book.
You can find more info on Paul Ekman, including extensive interviews with him, on his website.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

But Small Talk Is So Boring!

Many individuals find small talk inane and dull. This may be especially true for individuals with Asperger’s or autism. So many of my coaching and therapy clients have told me that they don’t enjoy talking about sports, or the Oscars, or the weather. It’s true, if you hate sports, the Super Bowl seems both trivial and overly hyped. Even if you love movies, the Oscars are just a celebration that the stars throw to honor each other. And the weather? We can all see what the weather is like, talking about it doesn’t change it.
Some people take this to mean that small talk is unimportant, a waste of time, and not something worth participating in. I disagree. It’s true, small talk doesn’t fix any of the world’s big problems. Few important insights are generated. But, small talk does enable people to establish relationships. It’s a simple, low risk way to share something personal about yourself, without opening up too much. It might be something really simple, like the fact that you love the snow. Or something a bit more personal, like that you took your family skiing over the weekend. However much you share, you’ve given people a hook, a means to get to know you just a bit better.
Many autistic individuals complain about feeling lonely and isolated. Obviously, relationships are the key to combating this isolation. But, people don’t go from total strangers to best friends overnight. It’s a gradual process, from strangers, to acquaintances, to friends. That process starts with small talk. And it’s not just a conversation about the weather, it’s an entire nonverbal communication as well. How friendly is the other person? How positive? Is body language open? Is the flow of conversation appropriate? Is this a person I’d like to get to know better?
So, the next time everyone is standing around the coffee maker chatting, try to join in. You don’t have to be witty, or clever, or original, or even fake. Just attempt to be positive, curious, and friendly. You can admit that you’ve never watched American Idol, just try to be open about what the rest of the crowd finds so entertaining about it. You might just find that people are trying to be friendly to you, they just need a chance.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Collaborative Divorce: A Conversation

kids with autism and Asperger's can be challenging, and this is
especially true for couples who are no longer married. In my last post, I
touched on some information regarding divorce rates, which indicated
that about 30%  of families with autistic children are divorced, and in
the majority of those families, the child is living with only one
parent. It's a concern that so many children are growing up without the
support of both parents and that many parents are trying to carry the
load on their own. One way to ease the burden of divorce and single
parenting on these families could be through the Collaborative Divorce

Today I'm interviewing JoAnn Rodrigues, MFT. JoAnn
Rodrigues is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in San Ramon,
California, as well as a Coach and Child Specialist for Collaborative
Divorce. You can read more about her work on her website,

Patricia Robinson: JoAnn, can you explain Collaborative Divorce?

Rodrigues: Collaborative Divorce is an alternative to a traditionally
litigated divorce. The process came about as a desire to help families
navigate a difficult and often devastating event without adding more
trauma. In this non-adversarial approach the couple agrees never to go
to court. The family has a team of professionals: two attorneys, two
coaches, a child specialist and a financial specialist who have all
been trained to help the family reach a settlement that takes into
account the emotional and financial needs of all the family members.
The goals are to improve communication and co-parenting so that the
family can reach a lasting settlement that preserves relationships
rather than destroying them.

In collaborative practice the
control over the process lies with the couple as opposed to the court.
This leads to more creativity and flexibility in all aspects of the
settlement including parenting plans. This is especially important for
families with special needs children as having that flexibility can
greatly benefit their children.

Patricia Robinson: What do you see as some of the advantages to using this process?

Rodrigues: The benefits to the family are evidenced in a reduced level
of conflict, improved communication, co-parenting skills, and a better
adjustment for the children. Since everyone's needs are taken into
account no one leaves the process feeling like they got the short end
of the stick, which only leads to continued resentment and sabotage. As
therapists we are often faced with the results of a "bad divorce" where
the fighting never ends. No one benefits when that happens.

financial cost when the fighting never ends can be enormous. In the
collaborative process the couple has a greater initial output of money
(retainers for the team members) but can save money in the long run by
actively working in the team meetings to reach lasting agreements.

Patricia Robinson: Can you explain your role in the Collaborative Divorce process?

Rodrigues: I have two separate roles in the collaborative process, one
as a coach and one as a child specialist. I would act in only one role
in each case. In my role as a coach I meet individually and in team
meetings with one of the spouses. My task is to help that person
identify their needs and goals as well their strengths and concerns to
help support them through the process. It is different from therapy
because I do not go into depth about their issues but instead help
guide them and teach them skills when their issues are getting in the
way of helping them achieve their goals. I do the same in the team
meetings by monitoring the emotions and helping to keep the process on
track. I also assist in developing a parenting plan based on the
information received from the child specialist.

As a child
specialist I am basically making sure that the child's voice is being
heard.  I am assessing the child or children's adjustment to the
divorce. I am looking at what they need developmentally and what is
helping and what is causing distress. I am a neutral person in the
process sharing the information I have gained with the parents and the

Patricia Robinson: How do couples find a collaborative divorce team?
JoAnn Rodrigues: They can go to our local website,
and click on team members. They can contact any member such as myself
and that person will meet with them and make suggestions for the other
team members based on their needs. For people reading this outside the
Bay Area they can go to the international collaborative website at

Patricia Robinson: Thanks JoAnn! I'm sure my readers will find this information helpful.