Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Recommended Books for Asperger's, Autism, ADHD and Parenting

Please check out the new list on the side of my blog! I’ve added some favorite books on the topics of Asperger’s, Autism, ADHD, other special needs, and parenting in general. These are all books which I’ve read and enjoyed, that I think will be helpful to parents, and they’re books I recommend to my clients.

Parents of kids with special needs seem to be some of the most well read, well educated parents out there. I think in part it’s because the answer aren’t clear. No one has all the answers about what causes ADHD or Autistic Spectrum Disorders. No one knows the best treatments and what will help any particular child. But there are some answers out there. Researchers, therapists,  doctors, parents, teens, and kids, are all writing about their knowledge, experiences and what’s worked for them.

I’d love to hear from you. What books did you find most useful? What books do you recommend to other parents? Is there something in one of these books that you didn’t find to be helpful? If you comment here, I’ll try to leave your recommended books in the comments sections. If I read it and find it helpful, I’ll add it to the recommended list. Thanks for your comments!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Michael Savage Blames Parents for Autism

I just watched a You Tube video of Michael Savage discussing autism and parenting, and felt I had to write something. Generally, I try to make this blog useful and practical, but not controversial or reactionary. Also, I like to give people the benefit of the doubt. After all, I didn’t listen to Michael Savage’s entire program, just a few out-of-context minutes. In any case, I don’t want to focus on negative energy from anyone, when so many people are working so hard to make the world a better place. Should I even comment about statements that seem so extreme, angry and unjustified?

But then I started thinking about the parents I’ve worked with, parents who read my blog or visit my web site, or parents who bring their children in to see me. Generally, whether the children have a diagnosis or not, the parents are doing the very best they can. When a child is struggling with some issue, I find that the parents are looking for answers, some way to make their child’s life better.

The autism community is filled with positive, educated, devoted parents. Of course, there are differences of opinion, sometimes extreme and even angry, on causes, treatments, even whether or not to attempt to “cure” autism. But behind it all is a general core idea that parents want their children to have happy and productive lives. Then someone like Michael Savage comes along and makes extreme and blaming comments. Should parents who are trying so hard to take care of their children have to deal with this sort of thing?

Psychology has a long and sad history of blaming parents, usually the mother, whenever a child is different. Just do some research on Freud’s theories of homosexuality, Bettelheim and Kanner on autism and Lidz on schizophrenia. These theories are discredited in professional circles, but they still jump up on occasion, like with Michael Savage’s statements.

I think this idea is most damaging to the parents of newly diagnosed children. These parents, usually struggling to determine the best treatment for their children, are often overwhelmed with the huge amount of information on autism, coupled with a very real lack of knowledge over what is the best treatment. The last thing they need is blame that they caused the issues or that they made the whole thing up.

One of my favorite psychological theorists is Donald Winnicott. He was a pediatrician in the middle of the 20th century, both well respected in the most elite psychoanalytic circles and, at the same time, able to  write in simple, accessible terms to actual parents. Winnicott wrote extensively about the idea of the “good enough mother”, which is the idea that children don’t need, in fact, don’t even do well, with a perfect parent who meets all their needs. Instead children need an attuned parent, one who is attempting to take care of them. I think this is an idea that is especially important to keep in mind when working with kids who are struggling, whether socially, academically, or emotionally. 

As difficult as this whole controversy can be, I think it can focus the entire autism community on Winnicott’s message. All children, autistic and neurotypical both, need caring, loving parents, not perfect parents.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Importance of Play Dates

Play dates with other children are a key way for any child to improve social skills. Hanging out with adults, spending time with siblings, even structured, professionally led social skills groups are all great activities, but will not give your child the learning experiences that they’ll get from a simple play date at home with another child. All kids need to learn to get along with peers. Kids who are struggling with social skills, such as children with a diagnosis of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD, or ADHD), autism, Asperger’s syndrome, or other Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) can struggle especially hard with social issues.

School can be an excellent opportunity for your child to spend time with other children, but your child needs more than just school-time socializing. At school there is only a limited number of other potential friends from which to choose. There may be intense and deeply entrenched cliques and social games, which can be just too tough for less sophisticated socializers to manage. Most of the school day is structured, which leaves little time for open, kid organized play. Finally, the recess and lunchtime activities tend to revolve around sports, especially for boys, so less athletic kids may be left out. All these factors mean that, while school can be a great  chance for socializing, it is not enough.

Brothers and sisters are also a useful chance for socializing, but again, not enough for children struggling with social skills. Family dynamics, birth order and gender roles, and parental influence will all mean that siblings play together in a way that’s different than interactions with other kids. If your child has special needs, the siblings have probably adapted to any unusual behavior, rigidity or stubbornness, or failure to read their social signals. The siblings will probably be both more adaptable and in other ways, less adaptable, than unrelated kids. In summary, siblings will always interact in different ways than unrelated kids.

Structured social skills groups can also be a useful activity where children can learn to make and be friends. Depending on the type of group, there may be an actual chance to play with other kids, or just a discussion about play. (For many reasons, which I’ll discuss in a later post, I find that social skills groups where kids play rather than talk about play are more useful for most kids, especially those on the autistic spectrum.) One real advantage is that the group has been designed so that it should include other kids who are excellent social matches for your child. The problem with social skills groups is cost, frequency, and availability. Even the longest groups tend to continue for only a matter of weeks or months. If kids are a good match, it’s wonderful to let them play with each other frequently and on an ongoing basis.

What about time with adults? Many children on the autistic spectrum, and those with ADHD, relate very well to adults. Adults can appreciate these kids’ more unusual interests, and will often overlook any unusual behaviors. Adults adapt to difficulties in attention, becoming more engaging to capture the attention of an inattentive child or soothe and calm a more hyperactive child. These relationships, whether with parents, other relatives, or adult friends are invaluable to kids who struggle socially, but they do not take the place of peer-aged friendships. Your child still needs to learn to deal with kids the same age, where the relationship is about shared activities and conversations, not catering specifically to your child’s needs.

What can your child learn from play dates with other kids? How to get along, make compromises, find that place where goofy can be fun, but not too odd, pay attention to other kid’s needs and interests, read social signals, have and be a good friend. In short, all the social skills they’re going to need as an adult.