Smart but Scattered, by Peg Dawson, EdD, and Richard Guare, PhD, is one of the reasons I combined my two blogs into one. Social Skills For Kids was aimed at parents of children with ASDs and ADHD and Coach for Asperger’s was aimed at adults with these conditions. But, often, resources work for both kids and adults, even when they’re aimed at one or the other, which is why I’m now writing this combined blog. For individuals of all ages, with Asperger's, ADHD, autism, an autism Spectrum disorder, or a combination, executive function can be a real problem.
Smart but Scattered calls itself “the revolutionary ‘Executive Skills’ approach to helping kids reach their potential”, and that the real benefit of this book. Executive function has been discussed a lot recently, and many people understand that deficits in executive functioning can impact all types of achievement. Smart but Scattered takes that rather abstract idea and brings it to a concrete, example and solution packed level.
The book details what the authors consider the 11 skills that make up executive function: response inhibition, working memory, emotional control, sustained attention, task initiation, planning and prioritization, organization, time management, goal-directed persistence, flexibility and metacognition. As an engineer, I learned that any time you can break a problem down into small parts, it’s much easier to solve. This list is probably the best breakdown of the executive skills that I’ve seen in a book for kids or adults.
From my work with clients, I know that individuals struggle with different aspects of these executive skills, and that most people are pretty good at figuring out just where their problems are once they’re given a list like this. Sometimes it takes a bit of coaching, or detailed questions, but generally, both adults and teens can figure out their deficits. Parents usually know their own kids well enough to figure out where they’re struggling as well. Smart but Scattered takes a developmental approach to these skills which I find less practical, since growth at all levels can continue for a lifetime. But, the specific examples and definitions are helpful, and there are questionnaires for different ages, including adults.
The second half of the book lists plans for tackling specific tasks. It seems like parents could just as easily make up their own, more applicable plans, but for adults who struggle, these might be very helpful. Basic skills like cleaning a room or managing open ended tasks are not that easy without strong executive skills and these lists can be helpful. (For other detailed plans for adults, you can refer to Life and Love: Positive Strategies for Autistic Adults, by Zosia Zaks, as reviewed in a previous post.) Overall, Smart but Scattered is an easy read, filled with lists, table and charts to make it straightforward, and it could be very useful for parents, teens and adults.
Mozart and the Whale: An Asperger’s Love Story, by Jerry and Mary Newport, with Johnny Dodd, is a sometimes hilarious, often heartbreaking, but ultimately inspiring story of a couple who never really fit in, until they met each other. Jerry Newport is the author of several earlier books, and he’s been quite active in the Asperger community, even starting the support group where he met his future wife.
Both Jerry and Mary Newport relate the stories of their own difficult childhoods, growing into adults who struggle with relationships, underemployment, and social isolation. Jerry’s portrayal is engrossing for many reasons, not the least of which is his unique way of viewing the world through numbers. In spite of his mathematical genius, Jerry struggles to find a career that uses his skills in any way, and frequently has to make a living through less challenging jobs, and admits to having no concept of how to relate to women.
Mary’s story is less typical, and often truly tragic. So often, Asperger’s is thought of as a male diagnosis, and women on the spectrum are overlooked. Mary Newport, as so often happens with Asperger’s women, does manage to have relationships, although they fall into the realm of dysfunctional, often abusive, and sometimes bizarre.
The framework of the book, and the real soul that makes the story so is compelling, is the couple’s relationship, their struggles to connect and understand each other, and their commitment to support each other and grow. They often don’t fit the norms society may expect, but Mozart and the Whale is inspirational.
Boy Alone is a gripping, honest, and heartbreaking story of a family caught up in trying to raise a severely autistic child in the 1960s and 70s, told from his now adult brother’s perspective. Karl Taro Greenfeld is two years older than his brother Noah, so he barely remembers life without him. Noah, who spoke for a brief period, regressed at age two and his family began a decades long struggle to find answers. It’s a journey many families go through, first that nagging doubt that something is wrong, then searching for a diagnosis that fits, and seeking just the right treatment, one that might lead to a cure, or an improvement, or finally, sometimes, just hoping their child is safe and cared for. Through it all the Greenfelds, like most of these families, struggle to maintain hope in the face of ever multiplying disappointments. Greenfeld documents these experiences in his family with a haunting clarity.
Beyond the story of the family is a more personal memoir about a sibling’s experience. Greenfeld writes honestly from his own perspective, chronicling his childhood confusion, his adolescent resentment, and his adult despair. Through it all, he maintains what one reviewer called a “ruthless honesty”, owning the hard truths that so many books shy away from.
When I work with the siblings of special needs kids, I’m always struck by the idea of “mixed feelings”. Children love their special needs siblings, bond with them regardless of the difficulties, but too often, they’re expected, or expect themselves, to ignore the uglier aspects of the truth, the feelings of loss and grief, the rivalries, anger, embarrassment, and even hatred they may be feeling.
That’s why Boy Alone can be so valuable for parents, older teens and adult siblings. Karl Greenfeld is not the only sibling to struggle with his feelings toward a disabled brother, but he’s one of the few who is able to step back into his childhood emotions, presenting the truth about his feelings and experiences with a raw substance, even decades later. Siblings often feel very alone in what they're going through. This book can help them feel connected.
The Only Boy in the World: A Father Explores the Mysteries of Autism, by Michael Blastland (2006) is a fascinating, philosophical, and honest account of raising a child with severe autism. The book, unlike so many others, isn’t about treatments or the day to day struggles of raising a special needs child as much as it’s a look at theories and ideas behind autism, illustrated and brought to life through one small boy, Blastland’s then 10 year old son, Joe.
This book is not a feel-good inspiring story of hope and triumph. Blastland can be quite pessimistic about his son’s prospects. There are a few promising signs of progress presented, such as an expanded list of foods Joe will eat and some progress in reducing aggression. But, Joe is severely impacted and struggles throughout the book. However, the author is clearly a caring father, who loves his son and wants to do what’s best for him. He presents scenes of embarrassment and near disaster, such as when Joe hits a toddler, as well as times when Joe is joyful in his own experiences. Throughout the book, the author examines some of his own difficult decisions, such as his mixed feelings about the decision to send his son away to live at a school.
Frequently, this book feels almost philosophical in tone, moving well beyond autism into ideas that impact all of us as humans. For example, most well informed parents of an autistic child have read articles on ideas such as Theory of Mind. But in this book, Blastland takes the theory beyond science into experience. Using examples from Joe’s life, the author looks with compassion at different experiences with Joe, and analyzes just what might be going on inside his son. Certainly, none of us can truly know another’s interior experience, and when communication is severely limited, as in Joe’s case, his father can only make guesses. But Blastland is consistently and sometimes painfully honest about his own thoughts, as well as what he’s guessing about what’s going on for his child. Blastland then pulls in other ideas from his own extensive reading.
This book shares the joys and pains of raising a severely disabled child, brings the theories behind autism to life, and in a much broader way, raises questions about what makes us all human
For adults on the autism spectrum, including those with Asperger’s, sensory issues can be a major problem. Clothing textures are irritating, foods taste and feel unpleasant, lights may be glaring and noises and odors overwhelming. These issues can be a major contributor to problems with social interactions and managing work environments.
Often, children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) like Asperger’s, autism, or PDD-NOS, as well as those with ADHD are under the care of a medical doctor who recommends Occupational Therapy as a part of treatment. OT can be invaluable in helping these children manage sensory problems. Unfortunately, many adults on the autism spectrum were not diagnosed as children, and only figure out their issues when they self diagnose as adults. Learning about autism and Asperger’s can help many adults adapt to their own deficits and start to utilize their strengths more effectively. Frequently, looking at sensory integration and sensory defensiveness can add immeasurably to the quality of life for adults with ASDs as well.
There are several good books on sensory integration and sensory processing, but generally they concentrate on children’s issues. Too Loud, Too Bright, Too Fast, Too Tight: What to Do If You Are Sensory Defensive in an Overstimulating World, by Sharon Heller, Ph.D. (2002, Harper-Collins) is an excellent guide that's written more for adults.The beginning of the book explains sensory processing and details the many ways that sensory defensiveness can manifest itself in different individuals. Heller focuses on the different senses and how each sense can individually vary for different people. While some people are tormented by tactile sensations, others struggle with smells and tastes. The most useful section of the book called “Your Sensory Diet” lists dozens of activities and lifestyle changes that individuals can make to improve their sensory experiences. Appendix B lists the many ways in which different individuals may react to sensory issues. I think a lot of people, both on the spectrum and neurotypical, will recognize themselves in some of these areas.
While many adults may (and should) decide to see a specialist, such as an Occupational Therapist, to get treatment for sensory issues, this book is both a useful introduction to sensory processing, and a reference book packed with ideas to get the problem under control.
Mother in the Middle is a fascinating book, a moving and personal memoir of a woman’s experience with raising small children while at the same time caring for a parent with Alzheimer’s. But the author is also a neurobiologist, and she beautifully interweaves her own technical perspective into the work. It’s this unique juxtaposition that makes this memoir stand out from others.
Usually, I review books about careers, business, social skills or autism and Asperger’s on this blog. And this is not a book about any of those topics. But I think it’s appropriate for this blog anyway. Human development, mental illness, emotions, thoughts, behavior and personality are all controlled by our nervous systems, but we’re still at the early stages of understanding those systems. For those of us who aren’t neuroscientists, making the connection between the brain structures and human experiences can be especially difficult. This book makes those connections. Life events and biology come together clearly. The fact that the author is also a teacher makes her explanations that much clearer.
As an example, at one point in the book the author narrates an event where her mother completely forgets about an important loan she made. The memoir moves smoothly from discussing the event to describing what’s actually taking place in her mother’s changing brain. The technical explanations are beautifully balanced with the honest and insightful experiences the author and her mother are going through. The growth and development of her children's abilities contrast dramatically with her mother's declines.
I love books that combine the personal with science. Maybe that’s because I’m an engineer as well as a therapist and coach. But, I think examples help all of us understand, and true life examples can really make a technical discussion come to life. That’s what this book does so well.
I’ve added a new side bar to this blog, showing some of my most frequently recommended books for adults with Asperger’s or autism. You can get lots of information online, but for more in depth knowledge, a book might be the solution.
Certainly the most well autistic writer is Temple Grandin. Grandin’s strength is how clearly and personally she describes her own experiences and the creative ways in which she’s built a satisfying and successful life for herself. Grandin is willing to make her own choices about how to balance career and social issues.
If you’re new to Asperger’s, the most complete source of both general and detailed information is probably from Tony Attwood. (Much of his writing applies to autism as well.) Attwood has an easy writing style, and he covers almost any topic you can imagine. The best aspect of his writing is how thoroughly Attwood’s statements are documented. I often use Attwood’s books as a starting point to research a topic further.
Getting a diagnosis as an adult is a complicated issue since the best known measures were created for children. I often send adults to the self test in the back of Simon Baron-Cohen’s The Essential Difference. From there, you can make your own choices on further evaluation. Baron Cohen has published his research extensively and this book is both thorough and interesting.
For information on managing depression, which is very common for those on the spectrum, I recommend David Burns’ The Feeling Good Handbook. This book isn’t a substitute for professional care, but does describe in great detail a Cognitive Behavioral technique for managing depression.
The most troublesome issue for many adults on the ASD spectrum is managing sensory issues. I often send readers and clients to Zosia Zaks’ Life and Love: Positive Strategies for Autistic Adults. Zaks also has a full range of recommendation for everything from daily life activities to social and romantic issues.
If you’re looking for a more specific book on Asperger’s or autism, a good starting point is the Jessica Kingsley Publisher’s website. They have an extensive list of books on many special needs topics.
Adults with ADHD really struggle with managing the daily aspects of their lives. Those with Asperger’s and ASDs often have issues with ADHD or executive functioning as well. For all these individuals, the tips and strategies in ADD-Friendly Ways To Organize Your Life, by Judith Kolberg and Kathleen Nadeau, Ph.D. (Taylor & Francis Group, 2002) may be useful.
The book attempts to provide strategies, accompanied by what the authors term support and structures, to manage various organizational issues every adult faces. The premise of this book is that those with ADHD may not do well with the intense, detailed organizing ideas presented in many other organizing books, but that simple structures, accompanied by support from friends, family and professionals, can result in effective changes.
The book is broken down into chapters for those who are troubled with different aspects of disorganization, such as overcommitment, waiting until the last minute, dealing with clutter, and managing bills and money. For each area, a simple plan of organization is offered, although it’s probably not a lot different than that of many other systems. The ADHD twist of this book is then in adding support in the form of assistance from friends, family or professionals. Although this could be useful, it may be unrealistic to expect a friend to sit by supportively watching as an adult sorts through monthly paperwork. I wish the book had focused more on helping adults grow and shift from using the support of others to developing independent ways of functioning in the long term.
Still, in spite of these shortcomings, the book does offer many useful tips. I especially like the limit setting tips, such as for every item or activity you add to your life, first you need to subtract one item or activity that you already have. In the chapter on prioritizing, the advice calls for limiting the to do list to 5 items only, and each should be done today.
The authors also are quite clever in utilizing the creative strengths of those with ADHD. Their “muttering” filing system uses file labels such as “Why can’t I find this when I need it?” and “I have got to call these people!” They suggest cleaning the garage to organize it in the same way a hardware store would be organized.
Like most organizing systems, adults with ADHD will not find all the solutions in one place, but they may find a number of useful tips.
Disorganization is one of the hallmarks of Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and it’s often a key feature of autism, Asperger’s and Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASDs). But, the good news is that disorganization is one of those issues that can be managed with relative ease. The goal isn’t to turn your child into a filing, cleaning, organizing wunderkind, but instead to teach some systems to help your student develop a level of organization that allows for school success. A great resource for this is The Organized Student: Teaching Children the Skills for Success in School and Beyond, by Donna Goldberg with Jennifer Zwiebel. (Simon and Schuster, 2005)
Although individuals with ASDs may be terribly disorganized, this weakness is frequently offset by strengths in analyzing and what Simon Baron-Cohen terms “systemizing”. The Organized Studentis set up in a way that takes advantage of your child’s innate abilities and problem solving skills to develop customized, personal systems for organizing at home and at school. Goldberg runs through the specifics of organizing lockers, backpacks, desktops and all those papers that come home. The strength of the book is the immense detail Goldberg goes into, while at the same time not setting up “one size fits all” solutions. She respects her students needs to have a system that works with their own abilities and that feels appropriate to each individual.
Many of the students I’ve worked with intend to start each new school year off right, organized and structured. But without a strong yet flexible system, the best intentions don’t work, and the students are lost in a sea of papers by October. If this describes your child, it might make sense to pick up this book now. Pay attention to each new teacher’s organizing requirements, adapt the book’s suggestions to fit your child’s own needs, and start the new school year off right.
All of us, whether on the autism spectrum or not, could do a better job of reading each other’s emotions. One obvious way is to look at facial expressions. And the expert on facial expression is Dr. Paul Ekman, a psychologist and author who has devoted his career to understanding how humans in many cultures express emotions . Ekman spent 8 years developing a facial expression coding system and studying how we express common emotions like anger, fear, sadness, happiness, surprise and disgust. He’s worked with everyone from police departments to the Dalai Lama, and is one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2009. The Fox TV show Lie to Me is based on Ekman’s work.
One of the most interesting things about Ekman’s work is that these skills can be learned. In “Emotions Revealed” Ekman uses detailed pictures of his daughter making tiny changes to her face, and explains how this results in vast differences in expression. This is backed up with news photos of people expressing the same emotions. Ekman explains how we can even generate emotions in ourselves just by moving our facial muscles. The back of the book gives a quiz on reading facial expressions, which Ekman suggests taking both before and after reading the book.
You can find more info on Paul Ekman, including extensive interviews with him, on his website.
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.