Soup Du Jour! Tips for Coaching Kids with Aspergers Syndrome

All My Readers,

As a Chicken Soup co-author I’m always looking for your stories to share with everyone else.  Not too long ago I did a “call out” to my members asking for heartwarming stories and was overwhelmed with over 2500 submissions.  I know you will enjoy hearing from others so I am going to be sharing them with you on a weekly basis.  Here is the eleventh one from Dr. Steven Richfield!

Tips for Coaching Kids with Aspergers Syndrome
(By Dr. Steven Richfield)


A parent writes: Our 11 year old son is diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of high functioning Autism. He is bright and inquisitive, but has great difficulty picking up on social cues and understanding many aspects of friendship. We struggle to coach him in these areas but our explanations often don’t make sense to him. What are your suggestions?

Aspergers Syndrome presents children with a variety of social and emotional stumbling blocks. Due to difficulties understanding implied meaning, humour, and other inferential reasoning skills, children are often confused by the rapidly changing landscape of social interaction. Their tendency toward quick and literal interpretation of words can produce significant problems with establishing and maintaining friendships. Preoccupations with narrow, solitary interests can impede their capacity to converse on the range of topics that typically interest peers.

Parents of children with Aspergers Syndrome often help them make sense of their social world, but success can be fleeting and isolated to certain circumstances.  Here are some coaching tips that may increase the success rate:

Think of the social world as a variety of “relationship road maps” that your child needs to perceive accurately and use talking tools to be able to follow. On various pieces of paper, draw “roads” of how conversations flow depending upon environmental cues. Cues include who your child is with, where it takes place, what the other child says and the degree of familiarity your child has with a peer. For instance, if your son bumps into an acquaintance at a movie theatre, depict how the initial greeting may lead to a short period of questioning about the movie, and finally to a closing remark about the next time he might see the peer again. Be sure to emphasize that what is said is just as important as perceiving the available cues in order to keep comments on target and within the boundaries of the environment.      

Refer to boundaries as the lines that keep people within the relationship road they are supposed to be on. Boundaries are a critical piece of the social puzzle but are often ignored by children with Aspergers Syndrome since they are subtle and hard to distinguish. Make boundaries visual by depicting the kinds of statements and behaviours that are appropriate to the particular “road” (write them within the road) and examples of responses that are not (write them outside of the road). Explain how behaving within the boundaries protect the feelings of others and tells people that we are aware of what is going on around us. Depict how boundaries are more narrow when first meeting people but gradually widen as they become more familiar. Likewise, display how boundaries are narrow or wide depending upon the people present, situation and other circumstances.

Offer ways of understanding humour or typical childhood banter that uses available environmental cues.  Children with Aspergers Syndrome can easily get caught in the throes of strong emotional reactions to common antagonistic statements made by peers. The intention of such comments may be to entertain bystanders, self-inflate, or trigger over-reactions by the child in question. Yet, no matter the intention, if your child reacts with verbal or physical aggression, they are going to pay severe penalties. This makes it especially critical to coach anticipation skills that normalize typical peer baiting. Draw another relationship road that depicts some of the standard comments that kids say to each other in various circumstances. Add a thinking bubble that contains a self-instruction to help you child keep their cool.

Dr. Steven Richfield is a child psychologist in Plymouth Meeting, PA.  He has developed a child-friendly self-control/social skills building program called Parent Coaching Cards.  His new book, The Parent Coach: A New Approach To Parenting In Today’s Society  is available through Sopris West (sopriswest.com or 1-800-547-6747) He can be contacted at www.parentcoachcards.com or 610-238-4450

Soup Du Jour! The Terrible 13’s

All My Readers,

As a Chicken Soup co-author I’m always looking for your stories to share with everyone else.  Not too long ago I did a “call out” to my members asking for heartwarming stories and was overwhelmed with over 2500 submissions.  I know you will enjoy hearing from others so I am going to be sharing them with you on a weekly basis.  Here is the tenth one from Jeff Stimpson!

The Terrible 13’s
(By Jeff Stimpson)

 My son Alex, who has autism, just turned 13. Hair is sprouting all over his body. He’s started using roll-on.  His voice has deepened.  Parts of him are suddenly stunningly large.  Others don’t seem to be growing at all.  “He must be getting very … wilful,” says his service coordinator, looking at him in our living room.  He’s watching Elmo.  I can see his first moustache from here.  Yes.

It seems a blink ago that he was a premature baby in an isolette in a neonatal intensive care unit. It was 13 years ago.  It was a blink ago – about 15 minutes, actually – that my wife Jill called to say:  “We haven’t had a good outing.  He’s lying down on the line for the registers and I’ve tried taking his ear and it didn’t work.  People are staring.  It’s going to take a special set of people for him, and we’re not them.”

“I didn’t like it when he was five and he drank out of puddles, but nobody laughed at him and nobody made fun of him,” Jill says. True.  But in the past six months Alex has become more embarrassing than at any time in his life. People are starting to look at Alex, then look away, then look back, as if at a train wreck, says Jill.  They never used to.  He pitches forward and back on stiff legs.  His voice is getting loud and embarrassing as he sprawls on the floor of a store and bellows “Banana!”  Jill says that during their recent outing Alex had to use the bathroom.   Jill can’t go in the bathroom with him anymore, of course. She says a boy about 13 came out while Alex was in there.  “You could tell he didn’t want to be in there with Alex,” Jill says.  “People are starting to react to him.”  She also said her legs hurt when she returned with him.

His school – school,  that bastion of sanity in Alex’s life – has reported that he needs a 1:1 para-professional to shadow and monitor him so he doesn’t bolt to the playground or barge into counselling sessions with students or into classrooms.  “With hormones and puberty and everything going on, it’s becoming a little too much for him to focus,” said his head teacher.  Indeed.

An adult recreation program I tried to get him into last month sure reacted to him. They found him in a pre-school room on the fourth floor, with its huge red rubber ball and Elmo books.  We all watched him press the ball to his midsection and flip through Elmo books.  “He’s obviously more comfortable in this environment and we’re not set up to deliver that,” says one staffer, speaking of the big ball and the Elmo books.

He grabs his crotch these days and purrs “Mooooommmmmmmyyyyy …”  We tell him to do that in private, when he’s alone.  He does it on the sidewalk, too, between bouts of running ahead of us, shouting, bobbing and weaving and biting his arm.  “God it’s embarrassing,” says Jill.”   I hate to say it, but it’s true.”  He seems to prefer men as companions — I sure found females confusing at 13, too — and when out with a female sitter recently darted into a health club kids’ room and started pressing a big ball against his midsection.

Can the teachers, can anybody, help him understand that he shouldn’t leave our apartment and bust in on neighbours?  Stop biting his arm when frustrated, stop unravelling and ripping his own T shirts? Can they help him understand the dangers of traffic?  “I can’t have him run across the street when I have five kids back here on this corner,” his teacher says.

Busting in at home:  There was the couple that we think was having sex.  The young woman in the middle of her first brunch for friends in her newly renovated two-bedroom.  There was the couple with the great cats.  The family with all the expensive ship models in glass cases that I could picture Alex missing by a hair as he darted into their apartment.  There was the surgeon. “Do you need any help?” he asked.  He wasn’t smiling; neither was his wife. “He took my hand and tried to go right in,” Mrs. Surgeon said. Alex was sprawled on the carpet outside their door.

I bought three white plastic doorknob covers for babies  (babies, for Christ’s Sake; Alex is shaving.). Aunt Julie suggests a combination lock.  Ideal, but we checked into this back in 2006 when Alex first bolted.  You want a what?, the locksmith asked.  He figured, after some head-scratching, that a combo lock wouldn’t work that way – the bolt goes into the door jamb the wrong way– unless installed upside down.

I’ve sent notes to neighbours, and made Alex apologize in person.  “I’m sorry,” he says;  I stand there wondering if he knows what the syllables mean.  Jill suggests that when he gets home from school, we take him out.  “Take him floor to floor.  Let him get it out of his system.”  This sort of works  for one night.

“Will he get over this?” they asked at a sexuality and autism workshop a year ago. This is the question I asked a prospective babysitter (…babies, for Christ’s Sake…) whom I interviewed this afternoon. You can expect more aggression, said the first.  Sure it’s normal, said the second.  Great, but once again in my son’s life I feel myself groping for what others find normal.

jeffslife.tripod.com/alextheboy
Twitter Name: Jeffslife

“Alex: The Fathering of a Preemie” (on Amazon and at academychicago.com) and “Alex the Boy: Episodes From A Family’s Life With Autism” (available at vervante.com and on Amazon)

Soup Du Jour! Preparing The Aspergers Young Adult For The Social Challenges Of College

All My Readers,

As a Chicken Soup co-author I’m always looking for your stories to share with everyone else.  Not too long ago I did a “call out” to my members asking for heartwarming stories and was overwhelmed with over 2500 submissions.  I know you will enjoy hearing from others so I am going to be sharing them with you on a weekly basis.  Here is the ninth one from Dr. Steven Richfield!

Preparing The Aspergers Young Adult for the Social Challenges of College
(By Dr. Steven Richfield)

 

As older adolescents with Aspergers Syndrome prepare for college, many challenges await. The familiarity of high school and the routines of daily life have provided a secure structure for them to accomplish tasks and manage interactions with others.  College presents a drastically different set of circumstances requiring skill sets that are unique to this environment. The autonomy and fragmentation of college life places a greater burden upon the student to be able to use interpersonal skills to build a successful academic and social foundation.

Although parents’ roles will change from those held when their child was in high school, thoughtful preparation can ensure that the young adult continues to build an effective interpersonal repertoire. Here are some coaching tips to get the process underway:

Expand the dialogue to include the “interpersonal requirements of college.” Most parents have already addressed the impact of Aspergers upon life, but now is the time to link it to college.  For ease of discussion, explain how college entails more complex interactions that can be roughly divided into input and output. Interpersonal input includes comments made by and observations made of roommates, as well as conversations overheard in class or announcements made by professors.  In contrast, output entails an individual’s behaviours and comments that are received by others, setting the stage for all types of first impressions and final interpretations to be arrived at.  Emphasize that their ability to accurately interpret input and adjust their output to send the messages they want is critical to their happiness and success in college.

Begin to share stories of how both of you received input and offered output to others in your lives.  Such stories provide the Aspergers young adult with a variety of ways to enhance their repertoire.  Parents might explain how, despite their discomfort, they asked for clarification when confused by someone’s reply.  Since Aspergers is marked by social ambiguities and a reluctance to pursue help this can facilitate initiative.  Similarly, if your soon-to-be college student describes social snapshots of their life you can help them consider likely interpretations of input as well as the output that would flow well with those comments or behaviours.  Most importantly, by respectfully exchanging these ideas and stories with one another you build a trusted dialogue where your young adult with Aspergers can continue to gain vital interpersonal skills.

Preempt the typical anxiety and withdrawal that are triggered by new social settings.  Aspergers tends to make people seem stiff and aloof when deep down they really want to feel attached and involved.  A barrier of anxiety stands in the way but there are ways to overcome it.  One way is to ask your incoming freshman to write lists of their interests, views, recent experiences, character strengths, and goals.  Such lists help them relate more spontaneously when there are opportunities to interact around such themes. Point out how news items, music and interesting classes tend to stimulate discussions so it’s a good idea to be ready to meaningfully contribute to the conversations that follow.  Periodically reviewing their lists gives them an “interpersonal head start” when these opportunities are presented.

Offer strategies to build interpersonal fluency and confidence. Since social life appears so amorphous to the Aspergers young adult it is best to keep strategies simple and easy to remember. One approach is to coach them in ways to “drop seeds of interest” during the opening phase of conversations. This entails briefly mentioning topics that tend to have “high interest value” to peers such as concerts, movies, technology, or members of the opposite sex.  Another strategy is to practice “good lead-ins with good timing,” or using past information that has been revealed provided that the timing is right.  Coach them in how information revealed during a one-on-one discussion may be inappropriate to use as a lead-in during a group conversation.  Discuss how as information becomes more personal, timing becomes more critical.

Dr. Steven Richfield is an author and child psychologist in Plymouth Meeting, PA   He has developed a child-friendly, self-control/social skills building program called Parent Coaching Cards now in use in thousands of homes and schools throughout the world.  His book, “The Parent Coach:  A New Approach to Parenting In Today’s Society,” is available through Sopris West (sopriswest.com or 1-800-547-6747) He can be contacted at director@parentcoachcards.com or 610-238-4450. To learn more, visit www.parentcoachcards.com

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