by Cathi Cohens
Being a parent is an enormous responsibility. Being the parent of a child with Asperger’s Syndrome requires you to develop a whole new set of strategies and techniques. You cannot control the complex temperament and singular qualities that your child was born with, but you can make sure that you create an atmosphere where she can flourish. The following steps will help you create a safe and nurturing environment. Remember, you know your child better than anyone, so keep your knowledge of her in mind when you practice these techniques.
Help Your Child Build Relationships with Peers
It is never too early to focus energy on helping your child develop friendships. She may not be interested in her peers when she is young, but as she moves into adolescence, she will be. You will want her to have basic social-interaction skills under her belt before she hits adolescence when peer pressure increases exponentially.
Be clear that what we are talking about here is acquiring social skills, not emotional relatedness. They are very different aspects of social interaction. Your child needs to practice the social niceties―saying “please” and “thank you,” sharing, taking turns, and so forth―and not interrupting or being a “space invader.” These skills allow a child to gain entry into social relationships. Emotional relatedness, on the other hand, is that intangible sense of connectedness that is hard to define and even harder to teach. Concentrate on social skills.
Set limits on the time your child spends playing computer or video games by herself, so she has some time for “free play,” and help her build appropriate social networks early on. She might not be able to play with peers for hours―that’s too much time for her to negotiate the complicated interactions of play and/or communication―so keep play dates short, perhaps just twenty minutes at first.
Prior to a play date, you may want to review the social rules. For instance, remind your child that the guest gets to choose what she wants to play with and what topic to discuss. You can also focus the play on an activity that interests everyone involved. Remove all toys that your child does not want to share. If she is made aware of behavioral expectations in advance of the situation, your child will feel more a part of the decision-making process. Asperger’s syndrome individuals appreciate the feeling of inclusion when making decisions!
Encourage Areas of Competence (to a Point)
A child with Asperger’s syndrome may develop a particular area of interest to the exclusion of others. Indulgence in a child’s fascination with bees, for instance, offers her enjoyment, a sense of mastery, and a topic to talk about with peers and adults. In addition, the topic may help her manage social anxieties she feels around peers. The problem for many families of children with AS is that the expertise comes at a cost. You may be happy that your child has found an area that helps her feel like an expert, but it may drive you crazy to have to listen to her talk about the topic incessantly.
Rather than cutting her off from her interest entirely, start setting some boundaries that limit the times she spends on the subject. Timers can be helpful in signaling the end of an activity and the beginning of another one, and visual tools are highly effective. While your child is getting used to these limits, make sure you plan ahead and offer her another enjoyable activity afterwards. You may also want to create a secret code word or gesture with your child that inconspicuously alerts her to change the subject.
Promote Physical Activity and Healthy Nutrition
Like many children with Asperger’s syndrome, your child may have motor-skill challenges that result in her avoiding activities that require balance, such as riding a bike, or that involve a ball or running. However, physical activity should be part of her normal daily regime. Do not give her a choice about this issue. She may choose the specific activity, but her participation is mandatory. In addition, make sure she eats a balanced, healthy diet.
Use Praise and Discipline Effectively
Set clear limits with your child. When you give her a direction, make sure that she understands it (check for comprehension) and that you mean it. Say the command clearly and firmly, and impose an immediate consequence if the command is not followed.
For instance, you may say, “You are dressed for school; now, you must brush your hair.” If the direction is not followed, say, “You have not done what I asked. For each minute I wait for you to brush your hair, you will lose a minute of screen time this afternoon.” Praise needs to be immediate as well. Be specific and honest. For instance, “I like that you immediately went to your room to brush your hair when I asked you.” Kids know when you’re being insincere with praise, so do be genuine.
Help Your Child Learn from Mistakes
Children with low self-esteem are terribly afraid of making mistakes, and this fear makes it difficult for them to take chances. This is especially true for a child with autism. In the mind of spectrum children, one mistake is just as enormous as the next. Lacking the ability to see themselves through others’ eyes heightens the struggle to differentiate between small and large mistakes.
If your child sees all of her mistakes as HUGE, she may choose to retreat into her own world rather than face possible failure outside of it. You can help her get over her fear of failure, but it will take time and patience. Make sure that you react calmly to your own mistakes as well as hers. Show her alternative behaviors that make amends for the mistakes that she makes. Continue to encourage her to take risks and praise her efforts to do so.
Encourage Positive Self-Talk with Asperger’s Syndrome Children
When your child is experiencing an emotional situation, the thoughts that go through her head can be either helpful by urging her forward or hurtful by holding her back. A child who says negative things to herself is not going to soothe herself; rather, her words will stir her to new heights of anger or depression. Openly communicate with your child about various feelings she may be experiencing and the self-talk associated with those feelings. Give her new language to use. Instead of “I hate myself” or “I can’t do this,” help her think and say, “I’m mad, but I can handle this.” Or, “I can do this.”
Remember, your child is a child first. She came into the world with a unique temperament all her own. In addition to who she is as a person, she also has a condition called Asperger’s Syndrome. It affects how she perceives her world, but it is not the sum total of who she is. Her personality is constantly interacting with outside forces.
As a parent, you cannot completely control who interacts with your child or how her self-esteem will ultimately develop, but you can create a safe, nurturing home where her uniqueness can unfold. You may find yourself feeling simultaneously discouraged, frustrated, hopeful, challenged, and enlightened with her growth and development, but your child will show you her unique talents and abilities over time. By appreciating and validating who she is and helping her achieve her goals, you ensure your child’s happiness and healthy self-esteem.
Cathi Cohen is a licensed clinical social worker, certified group psychotherapist, and the creator of In Step, a comprehensive mental health practice. She is also the author of Raise Your Child’s Social IQ: Stepping Stones to People Skill for Kids and other books. To learn more on Asperger’s syndrome, testings, or support, visit insteppc.com. This article first appeared in the The Virginia Home Educator, Winter 2017.