Monday, December 22, 2008
I’m so grateful to you for your support, your comments and emails, and for sharing your expertise with me. I am truly blessed to have the honor of working with kids with autism, Asperger’s and ADHD. I learn something new from my clients every day, and I’m lucky to share in their passions and spirit, their directness and honesty, and to be able to see the world through their eyes, even if only briefly. And to the parents of these great kids, I appreciate the chance to get to know you and your families.
I also want to send a special thank you to all the parents writing blogs on the Autism Hub, and elsewhere on the internet. Thanks for sharing your experiences so generously!
Have a wonderful holiday, and I’ll be posting in the New Year.
I want to thank my readers for your support, your comments and emails (Whether they're agreeing with me or not!), and for sharing your expertise. I am so fortunate to get the opportunity to work with amazing individuals with Asperger's and autism. From you all I've learned new ideas, different ways of viewing the world and the value of diverse experiences and viewpoints.
I'm especially grateful to Asperger's and autistic bloggers, both those on the Autism hub and elsewhere, who share your experiences and ideas, and make my work so much more meaningful.
Have a wonderful holiday, and I’m looking forward to posting in the New Year.
Monday, December 15, 2008
The holidays can be a tough time of the year for adults and teens with Asperger’s. There’s a focus on parties, relationships, social interaction. The days get shorter and the weather gets colder. (At least here in the northern hemisphere.) Sometimes people may find they’re really getting a case of holiday blues, or worse depression.
First off, although I’m a mental health professional, I don’t do therapy over the internet and this blog is not intended as medical advice. If you’re feeling depressed, really down, or a danger to yourself or others, please contact a professional, right away!
Just feeling a little less upbeat than usual? There are things you can do to feel better. First off, it’s a great idea to re-evaluate your holiday plans. Are you focusing on obligations or what you really want to do? Try to reward yourself after you take part in that undesirable but obligatory family dinner or work lunch. Think about the things you love to do, your special interests, a hike through the woods, cooking a favorite meal. Whatever you love, be sure to leave time for that too, not just what other people like.
Realize that you may be a lot more introverted than those around you. A true extrovert loves parties and will feel energized and renewed after attending or hosting a party. But, if you’re more introverted, you need to give yourself plenty of alone time too. Schedule time for yourself just like you’d schedule in other events.
There’s a great deal of pressure in our society to be a part of a couple. It can be especially tough to be single during the holidays. Be good to yourself, just the way you’d expect a partner to treat you. Some people can have a great time by joining in with a group of platonic friends. Others want to be alone, and that’s fine. If you’re spending New Year’s Eve on your own, you can still treat yourself to a great meal, a favorite movie, or something else that makes the night feel special.
Take some time to review the past year. What great things have you accomplished this year? Pay attention to little triumphs too, they can really add up. Where do you want to be next year? It’s important to take some private time to take stock and set some new goals.
However you spend your holidays, I hope they’re special to you.
One place where it's easy to find a positive viewpoint of autism is right here, on the web. Check out autism blogs. You can find many of them listed on both Alltop and the Autism Hub. There are blogs written by parents of kids on the spectrum and by autistic individuals. Look around a bit and you'll find devoted parents who cherish their children, just the way they are. Adults who wouldn't want to change anything about the way they are. A few favorite posts right now are Left Brain/Right Brain, Susan Senator, A Day in the Life, and Drivemomcrazy.
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Monday, December 8, 2008
Do Some Prep Work
Find out the basics before the party. How formal is the event and what are people wearing? Are spouses expected to attend? How about kids? Is a meal being served? Ask your favorite coworkers, or check with the party planner if it’s not obvious from the invitation or announcement.
Plan Some Small Talk
Before the party, think about a few topics of conversation. You’ll want to know the basics of the major news stories. Even if you don’t bring them up, others may. Take a look at the lighter topics too. Sites like the Yahoo home page will give you the top news, sports and entertainment stories. Or, listen to popular radio on the drive to the office.
Watch the Time
It can be awkward to be the first to arrive at a party. But, you also don’t want to have the whole company waiting for you before the meal can be served. How late to show up depends on the length of the event. For a 90 minute lunch during the workday, just leave the office when everyone else does. For a Saturday dinner party, thirty minutes late is pretty standard, at least in the US. If a scheduled event is starting the evening, like a harbor cruise or some type of entertainment, find out when that occurs and aim to get there at that time.
Some people can easily manage a drink or two at a party. But if you’re reading this, chances are party socializing is not your strength. Stick to a club soda.
Topics to Avoid
Just because it’s a party doesn’t mean that the work rules are all suspended. Your coworkers may be more relaxed than usual or even a bit drunk. (Or maybe a lot!) Still, avoid criticizing anyone, gossiping, and anything that might be offensive to others, like sexual harassment, any off color humor, or controversial discussions.
This is also the time that discussions about your work projects may not
be appropriate. Many neurotypicals like to socialize and unwind at a
party. Your discussion of the latest experiment may be considered rude
or dull. Save it for Monday.
Small Talk at the Party
Conversations at a party can be a bit different than those at the office. They may be more personal, with more joking and teasing. That doesn’t mean you need to initiate these styles of conversation, but you may get pulled into them. Just try to adapt and not be offended.
If you've brought a spouse, be sure to introduce and include him or her. Talk to your coworkers spouses too.
When Can You Leave?
If possible, try not to be the first to leave. But, you get most of the credit for just showing up. Once you’ve talked to the major players, namely your boss, other bosses you want to impress, and your employees, you can safely exit. Try to thank the party planners too!
There, you did it! I didn’t say it was going to be fun, but you’ve attended, socialized and you’re free till next year, or at least the January birthday event.
Tuesday, December 2, 2008
The answer: It might be in your best interest professionally to show up. You might want to think of this as an unpaid evening work assignment, or an extra chance to show management that you’re a team player. Here are some things to consider when making this decision.
Is This Your Job, Or Your Career?
If you’re not hoping to be at the job long term, and it’s not in a field where you’re making lots of professional contacts, maybe you can get away with skipping the party. Don’t be too direct or detailed with your excuse here, just stay vague with a “family obligation” or “neighborhood get together.”
But, if this is a long term career, you probably have to make some effort to be sociable. Neurotypicals can get offended when their social advances are rebuffed. You don’t want to hurt people’s feelings, and your coworkers will trust and help out those with whom they socialize.
Are You the Boss?
The higher you are on the management ladder, the more important your presence will be. As a boss, you have a big impact on your employee’s daily lives. Neurotypical employees will want to introduce their spouse to their boss, but not necessarily the mail room clerk.
Who Wants the Party?
This is different than “Who’s planning the party?” Usually, an admin is assigned the task of putting the party together, but it might be the big boss, or your boss, or the boss you’re hoping to work for next year who’s all excited about it. You don’t want to be labeled by the higher-ups as hard to get along with just because you skipped an evening’s “entertainment.”
Who’s Planning the Party?
Holiday parties are a big job to plan, with venues reserved months in advance. Someone who’s put in hours of effort may feel slighted by your absence. If the planner is someone who works for you, someone with a lot of social power, or someone who helps you out a lot, you really should make the effort to attend.
Who Else is Going?
Ask around and see if everybody is going to be there. The more no-shows, the less obvious your absence will be. But if everybody is showing up except you, the night could turn out to draw a lot of attention your way, and not in a way that will help your career.
Can You Just Stop In?
Some parties involve a solid time commitment, things like a sit down dinner or a harbor cruise. Basically, once you’re at the party, you pretty much have to stay there until the main activity is over. Other events are more open ended, like a cocktail party. With these, it’s easy to drop in, chat briefly with the bosses and your employees, complement and thank the planners, and you’re free to go. Don’t get there too early, aim for the time of peak attendance to get the most impact from your brief appearance.
Whatever your decision, don’t say anything negative about the party, before, during or after. If you do decide to attend the party, check back here for tips on how to manage it.
Friday, November 21, 2008
However, if you'd like to try breathing to ground your emotions and feel more relaxed, I encourage you to explore the techniques I'm linking to here, in an article written by my colleague Toi Lynn Wyle. Toi Lynn is not only a psychotherapist and
life coach, she's a yoga instructor as well, so she's an expert in this
topic. I know everybody is different, but we all breathe. Under stress it can be easy to move up into our heads, and not remain grounded in the body. Breathing helps to connect us to our bodies. For those of us who weren't athletic as children, it can be very easy to be in the habit of living in our heads.
Take a breath.
Thursday, November 20, 2008
Recently, in response to a post about play dates, I got the following question from a reader:
“What is the appropriate way to handle situations when other kids do not want to play with your child? When your child expresses an interest in playing with another child, and you ask the parent if their child wants to play with yours, the response is, ‘My child doesn't want to play with your child.’ It's extremely difficult as a parent to hear that, and how do you explain that to your child?”
Rejection can be a heartbreaking situation for both parents and kids. But if parents can be strong for their kids, they may be able to improve the situation. The first step is to see if you can figure out any specifics about what going on.
Before talking to the child about it, I’d do a little detective work. Some parents might be telling you this in an open way, one that lets you get more information. It’s best to be direct yet non-defensive here. Ask the other parent if anything specific happened to cause this situation. The answer might hurt your feelings, but you could find out what the other kids are thinking and saying about your child. And that gives you the opportunity to help your child make things better.
From my experience, I find that kids with poor social skills are frequently perceived by their peers as “mean” or “unfriendly.” Remember, for neurotypical children, social skills are for the most part instinctive and automatic. If a neurotypical child attempts a friendly conversation and doesn’t get the expected friendly response back, she’s likely to feel hurt and rejected, not go into a detailed internal analysis of differing social skills abilities and neurodiversity issues. It’s going to be nearly impossible for your child to re-educate the crowd on this issue. Instead, I’d be practical here. Coaching your more socially awkward child on the basics of friendly interaction can go a long way toward making them seem more friendly. Many kids will overlook and even enjoy a quirky behavior pattern in a peer, so long as they don’t feel rejected. Teaching simple scripted greetings and tips about staying on topic may do wonders for your child.
I also hear kids say that they don’t want to play with other kids because those kids are “boring.”
Many children on the spectrum have a deep satisfaction with their own special interest, and it can be the greatest source of joy for them. Unfortunately, if peers don’t share that interest, it will be tough to initiate play dates. One solution is to have a more structured, away from home play date. A joint trip to a park or museum may be enticing to a friend, and the Pokemon cards can be taken out later in private. Another option is to see if your child’s interests can be highlighted to the class. I remember when an unpopular classmate was suddenly in great demand when the other boys realized he was willing to share his winning Tick Tack Toe strategies.
Finally, it’s important to consider social hierarchies at school. Many parents hate to hear about this, and it doesn’t seem fair, but children’s social status is rigidly defined. Kids with social skills issues don’t recognize this, and may be attempting to play with others who are “out of their league” socially. Being popular is a highly political and strategic undertaking, not one that will be easy for any kids with social issues. It’s better to set your social sights on kids who are more approachable, and less in demand. Frequently, these are the kindest and most empathic kids, and the most likely to give your child a chance. Teachers can be a great resource in identifying potential playmates.
As far as talking to your child about this rejection, I’d be supportive and empathic, yet honest and direct. Kids on the spectrum may not be able to identify their feelings or other’s, so I’d say something like, “Emily said that she didn’t want to play with you, and I was sad to hear that, because I knew you wanted to see her. I wonder if you feel sad too.” (Don’t worry about getting your child’s feeling right, he can correct you if he wants and say, “No, I feel really mad!” and you’ve both learned something.) After some time on empathy, I’d move to problem solving. If you know the reason for the rejection, share it gently with your child. This can feel so mean and unfair, and I’m sure your instinct as a parent is to protect your child. But remember, your child has to make his own friends; you can’t do it for him. And he can’t solve a problem if you haven’t told him what it is. After sharing the facts you can brainstorm some solutions. Be careful not to badmouth the rejecting child. It’s not going to help your child’s social standing if he repeats the mean things you’ve said in private.
Finally, keep trying for play dates with other kids. Your child doesn’t need every kid to be her friend, sometimes one is just enough.
Friday, November 14, 2008
I recently posted here on how important it is to teach your kids to apologize. In this followup, I’d like to expand on that, discussing ways in which you can help your child learn this important social skill.
For kids on the autism spectrum, including those with Asperger’s Disorder, or impulsive kids, like those with ADHD, as well as any kids who struggle with social skills, an apology may not come easily. So, what can a parent do to help a child learn the social rules of an apology? Are there special tips for kids on the autistic spectrum? Here are a few things you can try.
1) Make apologizing an experience, not just a conversation.
Since kids on the autistic spectrum often have trouble generalizing lessons from one setting to another, experiential learning is best. Parents need to be paying attention here, not to create an apology-ready situation, but to be ready when the situation comes up naturally. Play dates, school situations, even unstructured time on the playground can all result in hurt feelings, and a chance for you to practice the art of apology with your child. Any accident can be a chance to give or get an apology, and because it’s an actual experience, instead of a discussion, the lesson might be more meaningful.
2) Lead by example.
The best way to teach your child to apologize is to be sure to be generous in giving your own apologies. Some parents may worry that offering an apology to a child is not appropriate for an adult, that it may show their kids that they’re human and prone to mistakes. But seriously - your kids already know that you’re human! Your kids need to see that everybody makes mistakes, even parents! Kids who experience the relief of getting an apology will have an easier time offering one. If you bump into your child, “Oh, I’m sorry.” can show how it’s done. Adding, “I didn’t mean to do that.” further shows that an apology doesn’t have to be reserved for deliberate events.
3) Try Role-Plays
For these kids, sitting around discussing things probably won’t have much meaning, but sometimes role-plays, especially reenacting troublesome events that actually happened, can invest the lesson with a more concrete, meaningful tone. Many older kids on the spectrum will agonize over mistakes they’ve made. A reenacting role-play may be the way to give the event a happier ending, and let your child rest.
4) Turn the Tables
Sometimes the best lessons come when your child is the inadvertently injured party. If an apology is forthcoming, casually point out that the apology doesn’t indicate negative intent. If your wronged child doesn’t get the apology that’s expected, this can be the perfect opportunity to turn the experience into a concrete and meaningful lesson. Try a conversation starter like, “You seem really upset that Brenda didn’t apologize to you.” After empathizing with your child’s feelings, it might be useful to say, “I wonder if John felt the same way when you yelled at him yesterday?” You don’t have to follow this with a detailed analysis, you can just leave that statement hanging.
5) Make It Visual
For visual thinkers, like a lot of kids on the spectrum, it helps to present a situation in visual terms. Tools like Social Stories ™ or Comic Strip Conversations from Carol Gray can make a complex interaction more straightforward. Draw a picture of the situation, with your child and the other kids. Give everyone a speech balloon and a thought bubble, so you can explore what each character is doing, saying, and thinking.
There are lots more techniques, but these simple tips can get your child on the road to learning a great new social skill.
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
“How was your weekend?” This is another one of those questions that can really confuse professionals with Asperger’s, autism or just general difficulty in reading social signals. Of course, as always, everything depends on context. If it’s your therapist, the doctor in the emergency room, or your wife asking the question, chances are, they really do want to know the answer. But I’m not talking about situations like that, I’m referring to the guy standing at the coffee machine on Monday morning, saying, “So, good weekend?”
This is one of those questions that is really a variation on, “How are you?” or “Good morning.” that neurotypicals like to use on Monday mornings. If you don’t feel talkative, you can probably just answer with, “Great, and yours?” Pause here, so you can hear their response. Then a cheerful, “Oh well, back to work!” should be enough to end the script.
But, this question is friendlier than “Good morning.” or “How are you?” so it’s also an opportunity, an invitation to connect. If you want to make friends, appear to be more approachable, or connect with coworkers, “ How was your weekend?” is your chance. You know that your coworkers are going to ask this question, so you can be prepared in advance. You don’t want a rote or practiced response, but you do want to think about your answer in advance. Have an interesting statement or two to throw into the discussion.
Remember, it’s small talk, so keep it light. Popular culture, weather, hobbies, family activities. These are all good topics. “My daughter had a great soccer game.”, “I was hoping to rake the leaves, but it rained so much.”, “I finally caught up on Grey’s Anatomy.” It’s also a chance to bring up your special interests if you want to share them. “I went to the Star Trek convention.”, “I organized all my internet correspondence.” It’s easy to avoid topics you don’t want to share. Generally politics, religion, issues related to health or bodily functions can all get very intense and personal quickly. Use the topics with caution.
I think it can be easy to look down on small talk as useless and meaningless. But, at it’s best, small talk is about human beings trying to connect to each other.
Friday, November 7, 2008
The economy is pretty shaky right now, and many businesses are making some changes. For some of my readers, that might mean a job interview, which can be especially stressful for those with Asperger’s and autism. This posting doesn’t cover everything involved in a job interview, just one simple tip. I’ll cover other areas in future posts.
The most important thing to do before going into an interview is to try to relax. We’re going to set up a relaxing “space” now, before the interview, so you can use it during the interview. Take a breath. Seriously, right now, as you read this, take a deep breath. Breathing is a way to calm yourself, move your chattering thoughts into the grounding influence of your body, and exist in the present moment. The more you can get into the habit of taking a deep, conscious breath, the more your body will connect it with slowing down and relaxing. Practicing a deep breath in a safe, calm environment will help you access those same calming feelings when you repeat the breath during your interview. It can be helpful to think a soothing phrase, like, "It’s OK.", "You’re fine.", or, "You can do this." (Keep the phrase short, positive and silent!)
As you think about and prepare for your interview, continue to practice the breathing technique. When you get stressed about what’s might go wrong, take a breath, "It’s OK." When you remember things that went wrong in past interviews, take a breath, calm yourself, and then figure out the lesson of that situation.
Your future employer expects you to breathe, so this calming technique is something you can use during the interview. As you walk into the interview room, take a breath. If you have a break during the interview, remember to take a breath. Tell yourself, "You can do this." Of course you can.
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
This is a crucial idea for kids struggling with social skills. Often, kids on the autism spectrum and those with Asperger's are very concrete thinkers. For them, an apology can be invested with so much heavy meaning, things like, "I don't have to apologize because it was an accident," or, "I already feel bad, I shouldn't have to keep talking about it," or, " He was mean to me yesterday. Now we're even." Other kids may not have a heavy meaning. Instead they get so overwhelmed, and feel so bad, and get so stressed that everyone is looking at them, and now the teacher is demanding an apology, and... You get my point, the apologizing can quickly get overwhelming.
Try to teach your kids the art of apologizing. It goes a long way toward smoothing relationships.
Monday, November 3, 2008
Yahoo group for teens on the autism spectrum. Participants can be self
diagnosed, and they must be at least 13 years of age. This group is
being moderated by ASAN adult members. You can get more information on
this group from the Southwest Ohio chapter of ASAN's blog.
I'm a big fan of this type of group. Many adults
are wary of online interactions, and they think they're inferior to
face to face communication. I don't think that's the case. Online is
different, not necessarily inferior. Face to face friends are not
always possible. Many kids on the autism spectrum are outcasts at
school, maybe the only one with their diagnosis in the entire class or
even grade level. These teens may not fit in with the other
neighborhood kids, or with kids they meet on teams or in groups. Online
communication can allow teens to feel connected to others who they may
have a lot in common with. The online medium allows teens to filter out
some really difficult and distracting social cues and still be a part
of a community. It's tough to feel different, and this group will allow
some teens to take an important social step. I hope parents will consider this group for their teens.
Friday, October 31, 2008
In an effort to keep this blog fresh and informative, I’m starting a new feature today. Periodically, I’ll be posting a “conversation” with other individuals who I think may be of interest to adults with Asperger’s and autism. If you’d like to contribute to a future conversation, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Maybe I can interview you on this blog next!
Sex is a topic that isn't frequently discussed in connection to Asperger's Syndrome. There are a few books and several websites, but in general, I think sex is often an issue that gets overlooked. In the book Asperger’s From the Inside Out, author Michael John Carley discusses how issues around sex can be difficult for many adults with Asperger’s. (p. 110) Sensory issues, inadequate sex education, and difficulties with social skills can all contribute to problems in establishing and maintaining a healthy adult sex life. Therefore, I thought this topic would be a good place to turn to an expert.
Today I’m conversing with Isadora Alman, a Board certified sexologist and a California licensed psychotherapist and counselor. She’s the author of "Ask Isadora," a syndicated advice column on sex and relationships, which appears in newsweeklies nationwide, as well as the Sexuality Forum website.
Patricia Robinson: For starters, can you please explain exactly what a Board certified sexologist is, and how they work with clients?
Isadora Alman: As you know, the state of California licenses people helpers of several sorts: psychologists, social workers, and marriage and family therapists. All have their areas of expertise in people helping. There is no licensing for those who make sexuality their specialty so there are several professional organizations such as the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists and The American Board of Sexology who review the professional experience and expertise of those who do specialize and give them certification.
A sex therapist or a sexologist (one who studies sexuality) will be knowledgeable in relationships and in sexuality because one generally takes place within the context of the other. I might work with clients who have little or no sexual knowledge or experience, making referrals and offering resources to gain know-how and confidence. If a client's sexual expression is not as satisfying as it might be, I will work with him or her in making suggestions to improve knowledge and skill. And, since communication is a very important part of finding a partner and enjoying sexual expression, I will also help with that.
Patricia Robinson: I think lack of sexual experience and lack of confidence can be common issues for adults on the autism spectrum, maybe those who didn't get to experience dating and relationships when they were younger. How would you help a client who feels less experienced than peers?
Isadora Alman: For social skills I don't think there's anything better than a mixed (men and women) support or therapy group. There's is almost always one nearby anywhere in the Bay Area. There one can get information, support and feedback from others without going on an actual "date" until s/he is ready.
In matters of sexuality I strongly recommend educational explicit films put out by folks like the Sinclair Institute that show and teach all manner of sexual expression. I recommend a massage course to learn how to touch and be touched. I recommend weekend workshops such as the Human Awareness Institute's "Love, Sex & Intimacy". If a client would like, I can also make a referral to a sexual surrogate partner of either sex to learn hands on skills.
Patricia Robinson: There is so much information on sex on the Internet, and there are many different types of people to work with. (Therapists, medical doctors, sexologists, surrogate partners.) How can my readers be sure that they're getting good, educational and ethical information and help, and not just wandering into a misleading or exploitive situation?
Isadora Alman: The Internet is full of misinformation, it's true. Anyone can post anything. Unfortunately, there also exist people with degrees who may act unethically or have their own agendas, but usually membership in an accredited institution such as the American Medical Association or the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists is a fairly reliable endorsement. The very best endorsement is a referral from someone you know and trust who has used that person's services before. Ask around. Ask other professionals you trust to recommend someone. Sometimes the same name comes up as a resource from several sources. That's a good indication that this person is respected in his or her field.
Patricia Robinson: Isadora, thanks so much for talking to me on this topic. I’m sure this is an article that will be useful to many of my readers.
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
In an effort to keep this blog fresh and informative, I'm starting a new feature today. Periodically, I'll be posting a "conversation" with other individuals involved in some way with autism, Asperger's, ADHD or social skills for kids. If you'd like to contribute to a conversation, please email me at email@example.com and let me know what you'd like to talk about. Maybe I can interview you on this blog next!
Today I'm talking to Mel C. Mel is the author of the blog Nitzy Fritz. She's the mother of an autistic son, and a neurotypical daughter. Although we haven't met in person, I've been following her blog postings for a while.
Patricia Robinson: Mel, one of the issues that a lot of parents struggle with is how to speak to their child about his or her diagnosis. Tony Attwood, the author of The Complete Guide to Asperger's Syndrome, states that there are a number of advantages to a child about knowing about the diagnosis. (p. 29) This can include things like removing fears of having another, potentially more worrying, diagnosis, and the recognition that the child is actually struggling with very real difficulties. I'd imagine the situation is the same for children with other diagnoses on the autism spectrum. Still, it's hard to know when to start the discussion of a child's diagnosis, and to know how much to say. I'm interested in hearing about your experiences in this area.
Mel C.: My experience was unusual in that my son was diagnosed late (5 1/2) although I had suspected since he was two. I had lived with the idea of autism for so long that I had gotten used to it. I did struggle with when to tell my son and how to tell him. I had always been open with everyone else, from the schools to the person in line behind me at the grocery store, but hadn't told Liam yet. I realized that if I didn't do it soon, someone else might! There are two schools of thought on this--some parents don't reveal the diagnosis to the child, either trying to avoid a label, or hoping the child will "recover" and no longer have the label.
When I did decide to tell Liam, I used two great books to open the discussion--My Friend with Autism and Andy and His Yellow Frisbee. I read the books to both kids, then said, "Do you know anyone who might have autism?"
Zoe immediately yelled, "Yes--Liam!" It seemed like she was relieved to put a name to what was so different about her brother. I said, "Liam, did you know you have autism?" He mumbled, "Yes" and left the room. I tried to bring it up a couple of times after that, but he clearly didn't want to talk about it. About six months later, he saw my sister wearing a puzzle piece pin and asked her why. She said, "To let people know about autism." He said, "Oh. You know, I might have autism." We just let it go, but he seemed to have a greater acceptance after that moment.
Now we are at the point where we can have conversations about autism. This summer, when I came home from a very powerful autism conference, I sat him down and said to him, "I am proud of you and I'm proud that you have autism." He said, "You are?? You mean, you're not mad?" "Of course not!" I said and we had a talk about all the reasons I'm proud of him. I know some parents who still have not told their 7, 8 and 9 year olds. I would never say my parenting methods are superior to someone else's (at least not out loud), but I do worry about the shame those kids might feel when they finally do find out. They're going to wonder why something so integral to who they are was kept a secret for so long.
We try to celebrate the positive aspects of Liam's autism, while pointing out it is just one way in which everyone is different. He doesn't use autism as an excuse (at least, not yet), but sometimes I will remind his sister when she gets frustrated with his perseveration or delayed social skills.
PR: What a supportive approach! I think it was really important that you gave your son some time to adjust to the idea of autism, and let him come to terms with it at his own pace. Reading a book together and then leaving it out for the child to look at again works so well - it conveys acceptance and still gives the child some control over the conversation. I also love your strength based approach. Can you talk more about the positive aspects you see in Liam's autism?
Mel C: Liam has the most fantastic memory. He always remembers names--sometimes I need his help with that! Once his language developed, it became clear that he was absorbing and recording everything on his little neurological DVR even as he appeared to be "in his own world". He remembers small details about things that happened years ago. Once he has seen a movie a few times, he can "watch" it in his mind. From what I hear, this is not uncommon for people on the spectrum. His information is usually reliable, because he doesn't lie.
Liam has a condition called synesthesia, which I believe is related to his autism. He "sees" the days of the week, months, numbers and letters in specific colors. This may be why schedules are so important to him.
He has a unique way of looking at the world, which helps other people to see things differently, too. I learn from him on a daily basis. Some days that learning takes a lot of patience.
Contrary to what we think we know about autism, Liam is capable of forming intense bonds with people (always adults). I have seen it time and time again-- he will meet a new person, look deep into their eyes and talk to them; completely charming. He seems to know when someone needs a little extra love or attention. It's the kind of emotional skill that I don't think you can teach.
I try to make him aware of these special skills he has because we spend so much time every day working on all the things that are hard for him--academics, fine motor, peer relationships. I think it's important to remind him he is good at a lot of things too. The most rewarding part of being Liam's mom is that when he does get something we've been working on, it's over the top joy for me.
PR: Beautiful! Your son sounds like a very special person. Mel, thanks for talking to me about this topic, and I hope we can do this again.
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
Individuals with Asperger’s and autism frequently struggle with both social skills and sensory issues. More than just two separate symptoms of autism spectrum disorders, these situations interact with and build on each other. Difficulties in managing intense sensory inputs can make it terribly tough for children to focus on social connections. And, a few sensory overload meltdowns can mean that a child is quickly labeled by the other kids as a misfit and social outcast.
Let’s first look at a typical school setting. Classrooms are bright and cluttered, filled with posters and bulletin boards, blinking fluorescent lights and smelly animal cages. And then the bell goes off every 45 minutes. The classroom doesn’t compare to the sensory overload of lunchtime and recess, where hundreds of children are all talking at once, eating lots of different smelling foods and then running around and yelling outside. All this input can be too much for a child with sensory integration issues.
For many neurotypical kids, lunch and recess function as breaks in the school routine, a chance to shift focus, relax from the academic pressures, socialize and have fun. This may not be the case with teens and children on the autism spectrum, where the sensory overload and lack of structure can make this the most stressful part of the day. When the sensory issues are so overwhelming, there’s little capacity left to focus on interpreting and sending appropriate social signals, much less any chance to take a break.
So what can you do to help your child? It’s important to understand your child’s environments at school. For younger students, you can often volunteer as a classroom, lunchroom and recess assistant, and can readily see your child in the school environment. For older kids, having a parent hovering nearby may be a social detriment, but you may be able to check out the classroom, lunchroom, and playground when other age ranges are using them. Focus on sensory issues, especially things you know are issues for your child.
It’s also important to look for clues to sensory overload. If your child is having meltdowns at school, pay attention to when and where they’re occurring. When I worked as a school therapist, I knew that rainy day lunchtimes in a crowded cafeteria were the most difficult environments for many of the students. Lots of them would act out on those days. Some kids don’t fall apart while they’re being overwhelmed, they seem to hold on until things calm down and then show their struggles with tears, tantrums, or withdrawn behavior.
Ideally, kids will stay with the rest of the students and have a chance to interact and socialize. Something as simple as permission to wear sunglasses may make this possible. But, if the environment is simply overwhelming, it might be necessary to make some accommodations. Maybe your child will need to eat in a quiet classroom or the office before heading out to the playground, or be allowed to go to the library instead of the playground after lunch. Socializing is important, but so is the opportunity to regroup and calm down. Think seriously about what would work best for your child, and remember that it’s better to have 10 minutes of positive socializing than 45 minutes of sensory overload.
For more information on understanding and managing sensory issues, Zosia Zaks’ Life and Love: Positive Strategies for Autistic Adults, (2006, Autism Asperger Publishing Co.) is a wonderful resource. Although its written for adults, the author includes an insightful explanation of what’s happening during sensory overload situations and many useful strategies for how to manage these situations. You can find a full review of this book in my blog Coach for Asperger’s.
Life and Love: Positive Strategies for Autistic Adults is an insider’s guide to many aspects of life on the autism spectrum. Zosia Zaks has a master’s degree in Technical Journalism, and, like many adults with Asperger’s Syndrome, was not diagnosed with Asperger’s until the age of 31. In the first half of the book, entitled, "Life", Zaks takes on concrete and straightforward topics such as the practicalities of managing sensory issues, household chores, shopping, travel and healthcare. From her insider perspective, the author gives step by step instructions and detailed tips for a number of situations, like putting together a sensory emergency kit of items such as sunglasses and headphones, or sample schedules for managing clutter and organizing the home. This is the kind of practical, step-by-step information that will be useful for those who are struggling with the details of daily life. There’s also some brief but concrete and specific advice for attaining career success, including choosing an appropriate job and managing social issues at the office.
The second half of the book, entitled, "Love", is where Zaks shows her full range as a writer and the book really comes to life. The "Love" section of the book focuses on relationships, from friendship, to dating, to committed partnerships. Zaks skillfully shifts back and forth from abstract concepts, such as falling in love, to concrete tools like defining acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. The author continues to write in a practical and useful manner, but she discusses more emotional topics, like dealing with conflict, social isolation and the very real differences of life for males and females on the autistic spectrum.
There are also sections on internet dating, relationships with non-spectrum partners, and the different levels of friendships. This section also includes extensive materials on how individuals can keep safe while interacting with others, and a discussion of the pros and cons of disclosing an autism diagnosis.
I recommend this book to those on the autism spectrum and to those who care about someone on the spectrum. The first half of the book can function as an ongoing, practical reference, almost like an instruction book for adult living. The second half is much more, something to read and consider, and a way to deepen your understanding of relationships, whether you’re on or off the autism spectrum.
Monday, October 20, 2008
As stated in their website, the Community School follows an “emphasis on social-emotional development, communication and relationship skills, and contextual, experiential learning. This program offers a nurturing and highly interactive learning environment built around experiences of strong personal interest.”
Thursday, October 16, 2008
The author first achieved a small amount of fame when his brother, Augusten Burroughs, wrote about him in his own book, Running With Scissors. Burroughs then encouraged Robison to write his own memoir about growing up with undiagnosed Asperger’s. The result is Look Me In The Eye. Look Me In the Eye is that great combination of funny and entertaining, while giving the reader a close up viewpoint about what it was like to grow up feeling different, misunderstood and like a misfit. Robison writes about his childhood and adult life, and he’s introspective and forthcoming about what was going on for him as he tried to figure out how to make friends, follow social rules and use his impressive intellectual gifts.
One interesting chapter is early in the book, where Robison discusses his earliest friendships. It’s heartbreaking to see the problems he has in connecting with other children in spite of his well meaning, friendly advances. Robison clearly points out his own limited way of thinking, for example, he couldn’t conceive of the fact that there might be more than one way to play in the dirt. His preschool attempts to make a friend are rejected when he can’t pick up on the cues his companion is sending, something many parents are all too familiar with in watching their own children.
Robison also discusses how he makes some slight behavioral changes after learning of his diagnosis. He worked on making more eye contact, followed more neurotypical rules for conversation, and made more small talk. His result was that he suddenly made a lot more friends and was included in social functions. At the same time, Robison doesn’t give up his quirky personality. He’s unusual and brilliant, and seems to succeed professionally and personally because of that. Maybe that’s the best part of this book. While taking a clear and honest look at the problems the autism spectrum may bring, the gifts of autism are even more apparent.
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
Is it worthwhile undergoing diagnostic testing if you’re an adult and you suspect that you have Asperger’s? That’s a question that seems to come up frequently. There are pros and cons and no answer is right for everyone. But, it can be helpful to look at the experiences of others.
Last month (September-October 2008), Autism Asperger’s Digest Magazine published an article entitled "Better Late Than Never", by Douglas Hogetvedt. The author was diagnosed with Asperger’s at the age of 49, and he writes about his experience with later life diagnosis. Some of the points he raises are that with the diagnosis his life “finally made sense.” He discusses how his diagnosis helps him understand his past, and makes him feel energized about his future. Hogetvedt did a lot of his own research through books and online before getting a formal diagnosis from a psychologist. He also talks about how difficult it was to find a professional who works with adults on the autism spectrum.
In the memoir Look Me In the Eye: My Life With Asperger’s, author John Elder Robison, discusses his own diagnosis at the age of 40. Like Douglas Hogetvedt, Robison first considered his own condition after learning about Asperger’s from a friend. Robison was given the book Asperger’s Syndrome, by Tony Attwood. He describes reading the book and experiencing relief that there were others like him. “All my life, I had felt like I didn’t fit in. I had always felt like a fraud or, even worse, a sociopath waiting to be found out.” (p. 238) Robison questions how his life might have been different if he’d had the knowledge earlier, and how he missed opportunities for relationships and education. He discusses how the diagnosis helps him feel that his knowledge and abilities are both rare and legitimate.
The other interesting point is how Robison used his knowledge of Asperger’s to understand the neurotypical world, and how he started making some conscious efforts to behave differently. He states that those changes resulted in getting different reactions from those around him. He defines this as moving from “being weird to being eccentric” (p. 240) and that the confidence his diagnosis gave him helped him to make friends. Robison also makes the point that he’s not defective, and that his Asperger’s traits contribute to his strengths.
The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome, by Tony Attwood (p. 29) has a long discussion of the pros and cons of diagnosis for both children and adults. It’s too lengthy to summarize here, but certainly worth checking out. Attwood gives mostly positives of diagnosis, but has a few cautions as well.
So how do you get a diagnosis if you want one? The ideal is to find a psychologist who specializes in autism and Asperger’s and who works with adults. Some medical doctors are very familiar with the diagnosis, others don’t have much experience in testing or with Asperger’s. There is no blood test or simple, universal method to test for Asperger's, so the experience of the professional is important. If you’re just looking to get some understanding of yourself, and you don’t want a formal evaluation, you can start with the scales published by Simon Baron-Cohen. The Essential Difference: Male and Female Brains and the Truth About Autism (2003) has a range of self tests in the appendix that you can take before seeking professional advice.
(As a final point, I’ll end by stating that I am not giving medical advice. Please seek professional advice if you have concerns about medical issues.)
Wednesday, October 8, 2008
Many individuals on the spectrum say that they work very hard to behave in a manner that’s acceptable to the neurotypicals around them. Frequently, I read about people saying that they need to recharge after spending time socializing. What may look like a waste of time to parents may be just what your child needs to get ready to go out into the world again.
Isabel Briggs Myers, one of the originators of the famed personality test, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, wrote about introversion and extroversion in Introduction to Type. (6th edition, 1998, Consulting Psychologists Press, Inc.) In it, the distinction between introverts and extroverts is made on the basis of how individuals receive energy. Extroverts are defined as people who “receive energy from interacting with people and from taking action.” Introverts receive energy from “reflecting on their thoughts, memories and feelings.” (p.9)
Many individuals on the autism spectrum have what Tony Attwood terms “special interests”. In The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome, 2007, Attwood states that “the pleasures associated with the special interest are greatly superior to many other pleasures in life.” (p. 183)
It’s so easy for families to get overloaded and overwhelmed. But, it’s as important to schedule in downtime as it is to make time for sleep. Both might make it easier for your child to learn and function at the best level the next day. Give your child the gift of downtime.
Monday, October 6, 2008
In the article, Leake also discusses a study by Patricia Howlin, of the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London, which found 39 of 137 people with autism possessed an “exceptional mental skills, such as memory.”
Thanks to the Autism Hub blog LeftBrainRightBrain for pointing me in the direction of this article.
Thursday, October 2, 2008
I just posted an entry on my companion blog for adults with Asperger’s about managing small talk at the office and it got me thinking. Reading social signals is an issue for many people with Asperger’s, other autism spectrum disorders, and ADHD, whether a child, a teen or an adult. But a big problem is that the rules for social skills are so different for kids and adults. It’s important that adults keep this in mind when assessing their own children’s behaviors and the behaviors of the other kids your child spends time with. You can’t expect kids to behave like little adults, in fact, that “little professor” behavior is what is often seen in kids with Asperger’s.
The flip side of this issue is that kids who struggle with social skills need to realize that their peers are not going to follow adult rules. Children are often rude, tacky, silly, or distracted with each other. It’s not a reflection on their companions, it’s just kid behavior. Often, I’ve seen children get hurt feelings, get angry and lash out, or withdraw because they think the other kids aren’t treating them well. Certainly, that may be the case, but often I think the situation is misinterpreted.
In the years I worked as a school therapist, I had the opportunity to work with both the school "bullies" and the school "victims". What I learned from this dual perspective is that generally, each side of the conflict saw things differently, and often the “bully” wasn’t nearly as hostile as the “victim” thought.
Part of my message here is that kids with social skills challenges may be misreading the other kids’ intent. Bullying does occur, and shouldn’t be tolerated. But pause before you call it bullying, because it may be just a misunderstanding. Kids act like kids, and shouldn’t be expected to act like adults.
2. Dealing With “How Are You?”
“How are you?” is an example of a social script that neurotypicals use all the time. Typically, it’s followed by, “Fine, thank you. And you?” That’s answered with “Fine, thanks.” Most of the time, there’s very little variation to this script, other than the slight modifications involving “great” “pretty good” “hangin’ in there” or for the particularly upbeat “fabulous!”
I think most people learn to follow this script at a young age, although it’s rarely used by kids to each other. But the question is, when do you follow the script, and when are you expected to actually answer the question?
Nonverbal cues give the answer. The problem is that the question can be either a greeting or a true request for information. As a greeting, it’s essentially the same as saying, “Hello.” The person who starts the script will often be walking toward you, and they won’t really slow much, or will even continue talking after asking the question. If you’re getting these signals that the answer is not of much interest, then it’s fine to just follow the script. If you don’t know the person other than to say thanks when they hand you the bag of groceries, the scripted answer is expected.
What are the signs that the questioner really cares about the answer? Well, he or she will often do one of these things:
- Attempt steady eye contact.
- State the question with more emphasis.
- State the question more slowly.
- Stop walking or slow down.
- Continue to sit silently after asking.
These are just some of the cues that a real answer is expected. Circumstances make a difference too. If you’re hobbling around on new crutches, just got back from a family funeral, or just won the lottery, the questioner may know that and be asking for greater detail.
In any case, you’re probably safe keeping the initial answer fairly short and positive. If your listener interrupts, looks away or over your shoulder, or even starts to walk again, these are signs the conversation has gone on long enough. And of course, your closer friends will want longer and more honest answers.
As I read blog posts and have conversations with people on the autism spectrum, I continually hear the question, “Why don’t neurotypicals just say what they mean?” It’s true, we don’t and I think I’ll feel embarrassingly shallow next time I ask, “How are you?”
Friday, September 26, 2008
Of course, you can do whatever you want with regard to small talk. But, if you think you’re being somehow penalized at work for not participating in small talk, I’ll be posting some tips to play the small talk game.
1. You Can Keep It Short, But Say Something
Let’s say you’re going to get a cup of coffee, and the pot is surrounded by coworkers rehashing the weekend game. You hate football, didn’t see the game, and have nothing to add to the conversation. It’s very logical to ignore the conversation, get your coffee and get back to work.
But, wait! Neurotypicals are trained from infancy to look for subtle clues to other’s feelings, and they can be very insecure. If you say nothing, they will start making all sorts of assumptions, usually assumptions that revolve around their own insecurities. Things like, “Why is that guy so unfriendly?” or, “Why does he hate me?” or even, “Does he know that I’m about to get laid off, and he’s not telling me?”
A better option? Just say, “Good morning!” in a pleasant tone, look at them and smile, and move on to your coffee. This is one of those situations where neurotypicals also use scripts to know what to say. If you have to cut through the group, add in a cheery sounding, “Excuse me.” That’s it. Your coworkers will probably think you’re friendly, but busy, and not even think any more about it.
Please check back here frequently, I’ll be posting more small talk tips.
Because kids on the autism spectrum may have very different ways of interpreting situations and behaving, it's worthwhile to have a discussion in advance, so your kids and teens know what would be expected of them if they got into a police interaction.
Thursday, September 25, 2008
When I work with children who don’t identify emotions well, such as kids and teens with Asperger’s, autism, or ADHD, we spend a great deal of time learning about emotions. This knowledge helps kids in two ways: they manage their emotions more easily, and they deal with other’s emotions more skillfully.
At a very basic level, I start with the four basics feelings listed above. The first step is to identify the feelings of mad, sad, glad and scared. (Even more basic could be only two, glad and bad.) This can be done in a number of ways, such as asking the child how he’s feeling right now, or how he thinks you’re feeling, or how he was feeling when something memorable happened. This feeling identification game can be carried further, such as guessing the feelings of people in photographs or on television shows. Television can be very useful, because, depending on the program, the emotions can be very subtle or very broad. (Any Disney channel kid’s comedy is likely to show very strong, intense, exaggerated emotions, great for beginners. Also, if you record the program you can go back and view it over and over.)
When your child is ready, step into more subtle emotions. You can find great lists of emotion words online, at places like http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_emotions. Don’t try to tackle them all at once, just as many as you can handle.
Many kids on the autism spectrum love to analyze and classify, and they can do this with emotion. These Wikipedia lists can be ideal for these kids. I’ve worked with some clients who like to graph the emotions, for example showing the intensity of the feeling on a chart. (Elated would be higher than happy, which would be higher than content.) Other kids can graphically show the subtle combinations of how different motions are related to each other.
Just remember, kids on the autism spectrum can think and learn in very different ways than neurotypical kids. Visual and concrete methods can be the best method for them. The goal is to understand emotion, and your children may surprise you once they get started.
I’m struggling a bit with these postings, because I’m trying to be very respectful of the rights of my readers. The neurodiversity world, very appropriately, can resent the efforts of neurotypicals who may seem to be trying to get them to change. At the same time, I speak to many people with Asperger’s or autism who pay a high price because they don’t play by or even understand the complex, unwritten, and rather rigid rules neurotypicals have for social interactions.
With that said, I’m hoping my readers will consider this blog with a forgiving spirit. As I frequently tell my clients, if things are going well, then there is no reason to change anything, and these postings are not written for you.
But, if you’re struggling because you’re not getting everything you want and deserve, things like friendships, romantic partners, promotions or professional recognition, then maybe you want to make some sort of change. That’s who I’m writing this blog for.
It would be ideal if everyone was valued and understood in a straightforward way, but that’s not the case. I don’t think neurotypicals deliberately shun those who don’t send the expected social signals. I think they’re mostly not even aware of what they’re doing. It’s instinctive and unconscious, and it’s probably not going to change anytime soon. In this blog, I’m talking about the standard rules as I understand them, and you can make your own choices on playing by them.
Thanks for taking the time to read my opinions. I'd love to hear yours!
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
For kids and teens with a diagnosis, like Asperger’s, autism, or ADHD, this strength based focus is really crucial. So many people are working together to improve your child’s abilities, make accommodations and give them the support they need. That’s great, but the child may start to feel like a list of symptoms and a problem to be fixed, not a well rounded individual. In an ideal world, everyone who came into contact with your child would be enthusiastically looking for the abilities as well as the deficits. Unfortunately, too often, this doesn’t happen. In the rush to fix the problems and comply with all the medical and educational requirements, the special qualities that make your child shine can get overlooked.
This is where parents can really make a difference. You know your child best. You can keep your child’s strengths in mind and share them when dealing with teachers, aides, and medical professionals. (Never walk into an IEP without reviewing your child’s gifts first! The school knows she’s disorganized. Will they remember that she’s gentle and caring with other students as well?) Your child has strengths that are a basic part of his or her personality, and there are strengths that come with the diagnosis as well. I can’t speak about individual personalities, but I do want to look at diagnoses. When kids are diagnosed, it’s generally based on a list of symptoms in the DSM. (The APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.) While the DSM focuses on symptoms, there are also a lot of positives that don’t get the attention.
It can be helpful to look to some authors who have focused on a realistic, yet more positive view of a diagnosis. For ADHD, I recommend The Gift Of ADHD: How To Transform Your Child's Problems Into Strengths by Lara Honos-Webb and ADHD & Me: What I Learned from Lighting Fires at the Dinner Table by Blake E. S. Taylor and Lara, Ph.D. Honos-Webb. Both are filled with positive viewpoints of ADHD as a different way of being in the world. For Asperger’s and autism spectrum disorders, the work of Tony Attwood has a positive spin. On his website you can find an article “The Discovery of "Aspie" Criteria” by Tony Attwood and Carol Gray, which looks at Asperger’s as a collection of “strengths and talents.” Online, many of the neurodiversity websites are taking a strength based approach as well.
John Gottman, Ph.D., author of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, and a prominent researcher on marital happiness has found that successful marriages have five positive interactions for every negative one. I think this can apply to parents and kids as well. Can you list five gifts for every problem your child has?
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
The internet is filled with information on autism, both fact and opinion, and it can be overwhelming to sort through everything out there. Translating Autism shows the latest research and gives the source of the information as well. The blog says that it discusses information from peer-reviewed journals, which I think is an important detail. (For those who aren't familiar with the term, articles in peer reviewed journals have undergone an analysis from other experts, generally to ensure that there's some scientific validity to the research methods. Clearly, not every example of poor science is found, but I think parents can generally trust information in peer reviewed journals more readily than claims that are just published elsewhere online.)
I found this blog's tone to be pretty accessible technically, written in an interesting manner, and I think it will be helpful to parents as well as adults trying to understand their own diagnosis. Of course, as the blog's author states, it's important to talk with your own medical doctor before taking any advice from a website. Please check it out and see for yourself.
Thursday, September 4, 2008
One key trait of kids who struggle socially is that they may be highly attached to routine. And home may be the very symbol for that routine. Bring another child into your child’s home, and you’ve opened the door for all sorts of issues, things like being territorial, not wanting to share, going to hide, or watch TV, or follow some other type of typical routine. Suddenly, it’s not just a play date, it’s a power struggle.
So, where can they go to play? Here’s where you have to consider your child’s individual temperament and sensory issues. Most kids will adapt their mood in different environments. Think specifically about what kind of stimulation your child will be getting in different places. How does your child deal with sounds, lights, textures? If your child is very sensitive, test out any new setting alone before adding the additional pressures of another child.
If kids can take the stimulation, I think a park or playground is ideal. It’s nobody’s territory and the setting is easy to supervise. If you’re lucky enough to have access, a beach or pool lends itself well to casual play opportunities. Also try out snow, sand, woods, water, or fallen leaves and see if that’s a soothing yet energizing setting for play. Nature and the outdoors can be so important for kids that it’s worth some effort to really try out different outdoor settings until you find something that fits.
If your child is one who seems to come unglued without a ceiling overhead, you may have to concede to hold play dates indoors for a while. Indoor play areas can be a little trickier to find, as well as more expensive, but you don’t need anyplace fancy or elaborate. Think again about sensory issues and pick a place that feels sheltered and not too stimulating. There are lots of small, lesser known museums, little traveled malls, libraries, bookstores, or pet stores that may allow your child to interact with a friend in a simple, casual way.
As your child gets used to playing with others,you can experiment with trying out each other homes. Having a parent for each child can make the stress more manageable. Above all, keep trying. Play dates are important and every little success makes the next play date easier.
Wednesday, August 27, 2008
I write this blog mainly for parents of kids with Asperger’s or autism who are trying to help their child with social skills, and more importantly, to help their child develop good relationships. It’s important to remember these basic goals when working with anyone, because the point isn’t to change someone or to define one way as right or preferred. Social skills are useful to help people interact with each other, understand others and to be understood, and at the core, to help us all feel connected to each other. For parents of kids on the autistic spectrum, understanding your child’s world can really help in knowing how to teach them social skills, and that’s why I like this article so much.
Zosia Zak’s article discusses two important topics. First is an exploration of the difference between empathy and the ability to follow the rules of social skills. She asks the question of whether or not she is lacking in empathy, or instead is missing “the social and linguistic skills to navigate an alien social world successfully.” She describes in detail several experiences where she misses the point of a conversation and the resulting interpersonal disconnect. She clearly states her intentions: “I deeply wanted to get along with my co-workers and I wanted to be friends too!” For parents working with their children, it’s important to keep this distinction in mind. Social skills, reading others’ messages, sending the right signals, all these are important, but they’re basically the mechanics behind relationships, and completely different than your child’s feelings, intentions and desires for interaction.
I think it’s important to return to the source here, which would be the DSM IV-TR™. (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision, published by the American Psychiatric Association in 2000. Officially, it’s the book that lists the symptoms of Autism and Asperger’s, or any other mental disorder.) What’s clear from the DSM is that a diagnosis of Autism or Asperger’s requires an impairment in social interaction, such as nonverbal behaviors, social isolation or even lack of awareness of others. There’s nothing listed about lack of empathy or caring.
There’s also an interesting variation of this discussion on WrongPlanet.net (http://www.wrongplanet.net/postt75459.html) where someone named Amik asks if neurotypicals lack empathy toward people on the autism spectrum.
The second area of interest in Zosia Zak’s article is her discussion of how she tried to set up a series of rules to use in future interactions. I thought of children in social skills groups, and how often they are presented with a list of rules on how to interact. This article vividly illustrates the experience of fitting an everyday interaction to a list of rules, and how difficult and exhausting it can be. I think it’s something for therapists and parents to keep in mind when trying to teach kids about social skills.
Please check out this article, and I’d love to hear your comments on it.
Tuesday, August 19, 2008
ADDitude magazine and website, which focus on issues revolving around ADHD, is one of my favorite resources. Both the magazine and the website are filled with informative articles on a variety of topics and I find that many are applicable for individuals dealing with issues revolving around the autistic spectrum as well as ADHD. This makes sense, since both kids with ADHD and kids with ASDs often struggle with the same concerns: social skills, depression, anxiety, school and organizational abilities. (One disclaimer, the website has lots of ads for ADHD medications. I’m not a medical doctor, and I’m not trained to prescribe or recommend medications or to tell people not to use them. In any case, whether or not your kids are using medications, the articles are practical and useful.)
What’s so inspiring about these interviews? First of all, the children went on to achieve impressive success not just in spite of their diagnoses, but in some ways because of them. The mothers seem to strike a balance between recognizing and dealing with their kids’ problem areas while at the same time highlighting their strengths. The mothers also exhibit the open-mindedness needed to keep trying out different solutions. I also loved the quote from Ty Pennington’s mother, “I was constantly getting calls from the principal’s office. I felt like the worst mother in the world.” Too often, I hear the parents I work with say the very same thing, and it can be so discouraging to feel blamed for your child’s difficulties.
It’s interesting to note that two of these individuals thrived in a very physical environment, one that really focused their high energy. (Something to keep this in mind next time your kid wants to spend hours watching TV or playing video games!)
Your child probably isn’t going to grow up to be an Olympic champion, a world record holder, or a TV celebrity, but these parenting examples can help any kids achieve their very best.
Tuesday, August 12, 2008
One problem is that parents of older kids just aren’t as involved with the school as they used to be. There’s less of an opportunity to volunteer, your kids may no longer want parents around, the kids are coming from a larger geographic area, the school is bigger, there are multiple teachers who may not really know your teenager. For many reasons, it may seem as if you are sending your child off into unknown territory to manage academically and socially, and you can’t understand that world.
That’s why movies, books, or TV can be a useful communication tool for kids and parents. You can watch or read together, enter the same world together, and use that as a way to understand what your child goes through every day. From there, you can help your child figure out and manage all the subtle social things that go on at school every day.
One movie that’s very useful for this purpose is the 2008 Sundance film American Teen. American Teen is a documentary about the 2005 graduation class of tiny, rural Warsaw, Indiana. This film doesn’t tackle the larger issues that may be impacting many teens. There no talk of gangs or violence, and little mention of multicultural issues, drugs, and all the heavy problems facing today’s teens. Instead this film focuses on the same universal issues that teenagers have been dealing with for generations, namely friendships, young love, bullying, and pressure. Peer pressure, social pressure, academic and athletic pressure, pressure from parents, and maybe the biggest pressure of all, that universal concern about what’s going to happen after graduation.
As a first step, go watch this film with your son or daughter. It’s rated PG-13, and contains themes and language some parents may object to. Kids-in-Mind, (http://www.kids-in-mind.com/a/americanteen.htm), a very useful movie rating website that ranks movies on a scale of 1 to 10 in three categories, Sex and Nudity, Violence and Gore, and Profanity, has given American Teen a score of 3-4-5. (If you’re not comfortable seeing this film with your kids, consider watching it yourself to get back in touch with those memories of high school pressures, cliques and the really cruel way kids can behave. But remember, your kids’ daily world at school would probably be rated at least a PG-13 as well.)
Many teens who struggle with social skills aren’t very skillful at analyzing the social landscape of their school. That’s one area where this movie can help. All the standard high school stereotypes are represented here: the popular girl, the jock, the outcast, the prom king, the emotional girl. These may be stereotypes, but that doesn’t mean they’re not real, or that these kids don’t exist at your child’s school. It really eases basic social navigation if your child can figure out who plays these roles at his school. Then some of the “rules” become clearer, things like: just because a teen is popular doesn’t mean she’s nice, there’s a lot of pressure to date within your own clique, kids aren’t necessarily nice to their own friends. See if you can come up with your own list of some of the rules at your teenager’s school. How is the film school different from your teen's?
On a more advanced level, this film will allow your teen to view peers with a more balanced vision. At school, you really don’t know why somebody is treating you badly, because you can’t understand the other side of the story. Because this film shows what’s going on for many kids, your teen can get a different perspective. See if you can move beyond the broad strikes. Are the class winners under pressure too? Do bad things happen to them also? Is the outcast left out because he's a bad guy? Learning to view everyone as a full human being, with strengths and weaknesses, triumphs and failures, goes a long way toward developing more mature social skills.
One character in the film is a self proclaimed social outcast. He makes a real effort throughout the film to connect socially, especially with girls. Watching his awkward yet sincere attempts at relationships should give you and your teen plenty of material for discussion. What did he do well, and where did he fumble the situation? Are there times he wasn’t very attuned to his partner?
Finally, just use this film to empathize with your teen’s situation. It seems like everyone in the film is struggling and even the most popular kids are not having a great time. Everyone, even the school’s basketball god, has to deal with the same issues about moving on from high school. Your child spends hours every day dealing with the pressures of school. A few hours with this movie will help you remember what that's like.
Wednesday, August 6, 2008
Facilitating great play dates for kids who are struggling socially is a complex issue for parents. This post will only cover a small part of this topic, with additional ideas in later posts. It pays to begin at the beginning, so that’s what I’ll do here. The first issue is figuring out which child you’ll invite over for a play date. For many parents, that’s the toughest part.
For children and teens who are developing socially at a standard pace, parents may not have to get too involved with helping their children find friends. For kids who are struggling socially, parents are going to have to get involved. The more trouble your child is having, the more you as a parent will have to step in.
Kids struggle socially for a number of reasons, be it just their personality traits or due to an ASD, Asperger’s or ADHD diagnosis. For kids who don’t do well socially, I find that they have the best play and social interactions with other kids who are functioning socially at about the same ability level. At the same time, kids clearly need to have some interests in common in order to want to interact.
What does this mean in practical terms? Basically, if your child is delayed in social skills, he or she may not get the most out of a play date with a socially advanced child from the same age group. Too often, the more developed child will either ignore the child with lesser social skills or take on a care-taking, parental role. The goal of the play date is to work on peer relations, and these two types of interactions don’t really count toward that. That doesn’t mean that the play date cannot be fun and useful. I think most social interactions can be, it’s just that they’re not really peer relations.
Having socially delayed kids play with younger children can be one solution, depending on circumstances. With too great an age gap between kids, differences like size, interests, intellectual or athletic abilities may prevent useful peer relations. A chess expert probably won’t want to watch Blue’s Clues on a play date.
That leaves the play date pool considerably smaller, so finding matches takes more work, and parents may need to get creative. Ideally, you’d look for another child of the same gender, same age, and same school, with a similar profile of intellectual and social abilities. That’s a tall order, so you’ll probably have to make some compromises, and enlist a bit of help in searching.
Good teachers and principals can be the best resources here. Talk to the adults at school about your desire to help your child find friends. See if they can introduce you to other parents who may have appropriate children for your child to meet. Many principals meet with other school leaders on a regular basis, and they may be able to informally search out kids from other schools. It doesn’t have to be a big deal, just meet the other parents for coffee, see if your kids sound compatible, and set up a meeting for both kids and parents at a park.
The other great resource for finding potential play dates is by attending support groups for families with your child’s particular diagnosis. You can find support groups online, through community agencies, Yahoo groups or meetups.com, and through national and local Autism, Asperger’s and ADHD websites. Often, professionals working with kids will be familiar with the support groups that may be appropriate. (For example, I list resources and support groups for ADHD and ASDs in the East Bay, California area on a page of my website.) At these support groups, don’t be afraid to directly ask other parents if they know of any kids looking for play dates.
All this may sound like a lot of work for parents, just to get a few kids to play together! In my view, it’s worth it. Strong friendships will help your children develop socially, keep them from feeling isolated and different, and will become more and more important as they grow up and less involved with their families. Spending the time now to set up play dates can really improve their quality of life, both now and in the future.
Readers, if you have other ideas for how to find play date partners for special needs children, please leave me a comment. I’d love your input!