I've gotten mixed responses on my recent post about taking a breath. Some people say it doesn't work to relax them, others say they're not nervous. Of course, do whatever works for you.
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.
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.
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.
Please read my newest article, published in the November-December 2008 issue of Autism Asperger's Digest Magazine. It's called "Anger Management: Step-by-Step Strategies for Parents of Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders."
“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.
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.
The apology is one of the most basic of social skills. I was reminded of this when reading Seth Godin's blog. He doesn't write an autism blog, he writes about business and marketing. But he also really gets to the heart of the matter. In a post entitled "Easy To Type" he wrote: " 'You are right. I screwed up. I'm sorry.' It goes a long way." That's the entire post.
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.
ASAN, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, has begun to sponsor a new 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.
Patricia Robinson MFT
I'm a licensed therapist in Danville, California and a coach for Asperger's and ADHD nationwide. I work with individuals of all ages who have special needs, like Autism Spectrum Disorders, ADD, ADHD, and the family members and partners of special needs individuals.