Starting Monday, April 5, 2010, the PBS show Arthur is introducing a new character, Carl, who has Asperger’s Syndrome. You can read about the episode on the Autism Society website.
I don't follow Arthur regularly, so I can't comment on the program. But, TV is an excellent way for you to open a discussion on the condition with your diagnosed child as well as his or her siblings. Asperger's is a broad spectrum and kids will have a variety or behaviors. Watching the show together then lets you talk about things like how similar Carl's behavior is to your child's, and how the kids at Carl's school treat him, compared to the kids your child goes to school with.
Social skills get more subtle once kids reach high school, and that’s a time when many teens with autism, Asperger’s and ADHD really start to struggle with friends and peer relationships. Often, these kids have gone through the basic social skills training at school or in a social skills group when they were younger. By now, they want nothing more to do with a formal class, but they’re still missing out on some of the more subtle details.
I thought TV episodes might be a useful, fun way to help teens look at social signals. Although the plots of a lot of teen programs are pretty unrealistic, the situations more mature, and the conversations often more adult and introspective than teens really use, the settings are familiar, and the programs are something teens will relate to. They also tend to use body language, but in a bolder, broader way, which can be easier for teens on the spectrum to pick up on. Finally, because these scenes are online, you can watch and rewatch as many times as you want to catch the details, even muting the dialogue to shift focus to the nonverbals.
This week I’m looking at some personal space and nonverbal communication issues as illustrated by the show Glee. You can see these episodes on Hulu.com for free. Note to parents: some of you may object to the more mature themes in this program. I’ll be looking for other shows to comment on as well, but before banning the program, consider if this is something all the other kids at school are watching. Not having seen a popular show can make it hard for kids to fit in. You can watch together, and discuss issues, such as is this scenario realistic, or appropriate, or does this fit with your own values. (If you have a particular show that’s online that you’d like me to analyze, please comment here, or send me an email.)
In Glee, Season 1 Episode 9, Wheels, the show starts with scenes of cheerleading practice. Sitting alone in the bleachers is blonde Quinn, soon to be joined by tall, dark haired Finn. (If you’re new to this show, it might not be obvious from the ways they’re acting that these two are a couple.) Notice the tense body language. As Finn approaches, he doesn’t greet Quinn, he just sits down, at a distance that’s not typical for a dating couple having a one on one conversation. Quinn doesn’t turn to Finn, she doesn’t lean toward him or adjust her body posture, she barely even looks at him. Before anything is said, and without knowing anything about the plot, it’s clear that this pair is not feeling close and connected. Throughout their scene together, Quinn only turns her eyes or occasionally her face to Finn, never her shoulders or the rest of her body, a clear sign of discord between the pair.
Now look at Season 1, Episode 10, Ballad. The show starts with all the students sitting on the bleachers, spaced evenly with almost mathematical precision. (Your teen may not be aware of this spacing rule, but it’s pretty consistent in our culture. People tend to space themselves out fairly evenly, sitting closer to close friends, but not sitting next to strangers unless the space gets more crowded. Think about a movie theater. If it’s almost empty, sitting in adjacent seats is something only friends do. Strangers space themselves out. As the theater fills, it’s not threatening or inappropriate to sit next to strangers.) The exception to the Glee bleacher spacing, which may not be obvious to kids who don’t pick up on social cues, is Quinn and Finn, sitting together as a couple. Finn’s posture isn’t that different than in the previous episode, but now Quinn is leaning into Finn, almost draped on him. Clearly, she is in a different mood than the previous episode. Notice also that the rest of the students are angled slightly toward the center, indicating some cohesion, and friendship alliances can be gauged just by noting who is sitting together. When the teacher asks, “Who knows what a ballad is?” notice how Rachel immediately thrusts up her hand with too much enthusiasm. Can your child glean information about Rachel’s character from this simple action?
Well, I’ve watched about 5 minutes of TV, and written a full post on the details. What details can you and your teen pick up from body language?
Don't forget, the Temple Grandin movie is premiering on February 6, 2010 on HBO! Most of my readers are familiar with Temple Grandin, PhD, perhaps the most well known autistic person in America, as well as the designer of almost half the cattle handling equipment in North America. Dr. Grandin is inspiring because of her clear presentation and writing style, as well as the way she’s learned to adapt the strengths of her diagnosis to accomplish things she probably wouldn’t have been able to if she weren’t autistic. Dr. Grandin remains a free thinker, an individual who lives a life that is meaningful for her, and expands our own vision (whether autistic or neurotypical) of what a successful life can be.
Our society so frequently presents one way of succeeding in the world, with a fixed idea on success, relationships and how we should behave. Dr. Grandin is an example to all of us on how success can really be defined by the individual. Although she writes about learning social skills and has adapted to a neurotypical world in some ways, at the same time she remains true to herself, defining her own needs and wishes with regard to career and relationship. I always enjoy Dr. Grandin's writing, and I'm looking forward to this movie.
Girls with Asperger’s and autism seem to be more involved with TV, movies and the whole celebrity culture than neurotypical girls. For these girls, the restricted interests that are a part of the autism spectrum often fall into the realm of pop culture and celebrities. Add in the facts that these girls aren’t connecting as well with their peers, and often struggle athletically, and the result is that teen and tween girls on the spectrum can spend all their free time watching favorite TV shows, reading about celebrities and Googling them on the internet.
One big concern about this is that the messages the media send to young girls are anything but positive. Pressures about image and consumerism are rampant. Girls may feel they can’t measure up. It’s not surprising because the media images are not just unrealistic, but often completely false.
There are some fascinating sites online that show just how invalid media ideals can be. Check them out with your own daughter, and have a conversation about what the media is presenting as beautiful. Jamie Lee Curtis started the whole discussion years ago, by allowing photographers to document her appearance before and after a team of experts polished up her appearance. Dove has a great campaign including a fascinating video called Evolution, showing how makeup and Photoshop transform an attractive, but normal, young woman into a billboard image. There are other sites that show some of the worst offenders of modified images from magazine covers.
You can't change what your daughter finds fascinating, but paying attention and connecting over her interests can make a positive difference in your relationship and her self esteem.
Like most middle aged American women, I’m a big fan of Oprah. Her shows are inspiring, informative and cover every topic. I read her magazine cover to cover. That’s why it’s so frustrating to watch Oprah give Jenny McCarthy free rein to discuss everything related to autism. True, Jenny is the mom of a boy who’s been diagnosed with autism. I don’t object to hearing her share her experiences of raising her son. But this doesn’t mean that Jenny is suddenly an expert in epidemology, medical science, vaccine studies, or even the divorce rate of parents with autistic kids.
I missed the original September broadcast of Jenny McCarthy discussing her Warrior Mother book on Oprah, but I watched the rerun last week. Lots of emotion, big statements, but little respect for facts or science. Autism is a complicated issue. Vaccines are not only a complicated issue but an issue that’s critical to our health. Couldn’t Oprah present us with a balanced, fact based discussion of autism and vaccines?
After this show aired, the blog LeftBrainRightBrain posted a link from Every Child by Two. This organization is asking Oprah fans to contact the Oprah website directly and request a more balanced vaccine show. You can go to Oprah directly and submit your request. Better yet, read the full post on LeftBrainRightBrain.
Did you wonder about Jenny’s 90% divorce rate statement? I can’t find a study that shows that rate. But I did find a more moderate discussion of the topic, along with a referenced study, on About.com/autism.
Parents deserve the right to make decisions based on facts and science, not hype from entertainers.
As your child enters middle school, junior high, or high school, it can get especially difficult for you as a parent to help with social skills. This can be a problem because older kids are dealing with a more complex social environment than they were when they were younger, and many kids who managed in the early school years really start to struggle as they get older.
One problem is that parents of older kids just aren’t as involved with the school as they used to be. There’s less of an opportunity to volunteer, your kids may no longer want parents around, the kids are coming from a larger geographic area, the school is bigger, there are multiple teachers who may not really know your teenager. For many reasons, it may seem as if you are sending your child off into unknown territory to manage academically and socially, and you can’t understand that world.
That’s why movies, books, or TV can be a useful communication tool for kids and parents. You can watch or read together, enter the same world together, and use that as a way to understand what your child goes through every day. From there, you can help your child figure out and manage all the subtle social things that go on at school every day.
One movie that’s very useful for this purpose is the 2008 Sundance film American Teen. American Teen is a documentary about the 2005 graduation class of tiny, rural Warsaw, Indiana. This film doesn’t tackle the larger issues that may be impacting many teens. There no talk of gangs or violence, and little mention of multicultural issues, drugs, and all the heavy problems facing today’s teens. Instead this film focuses on the same universal issues that teenagers have been dealing with for generations, namely friendships, young love, bullying, and pressure. Peer pressure, social pressure, academic and athletic pressure, pressure from parents, and maybe the biggest pressure of all, that universal concern about what’s going to happen after graduation.
As a first step, go watch this film with your son or daughter. It’s rated PG-13, and contains themes and language some parents may object to. Kids-in-Mind, (http://www.kids-in-mind.com/a/americanteen.htm), a very useful movie rating website that ranks movies on a scale of 1 to 10 in three categories, Sex and Nudity, Violence and Gore, and Profanity, has given American Teen a score of 3-4-5. (If you’re not comfortable seeing this film with your kids, consider watching it yourself to get back in touch with those memories of high school pressures, cliques and the really cruel way kids can behave. But remember, your kids’ daily world at school would probably be rated at least a PG-13 as well.)
Many teens who struggle with social skills aren’t very skillful at analyzing the social landscape of their school. That’s one area where this movie can help. All the standard high school stereotypes are represented here: the popular girl, the jock, the outcast, the prom king, the emotional girl. These may be stereotypes, but that doesn’t mean they’re not real, or that these kids don’t exist at your child’s school. It really eases basic social navigation if your child can figure out who plays these roles at his school. Then some of the “rules” become clearer, things like: just because a teen is popular doesn’t mean she’s nice, there’s a lot of pressure to date within your own clique, kids aren’t necessarily nice to their own friends. See if you can come up with your own list of some of the rules at your teenager’s school. How is the film school different from your teen's?
On a more advanced level, this film will allow your teen to view peers with a more balanced vision. At school, you really don’t know why somebody is treating you badly, because you can’t understand the other side of the story. Because this film shows what’s going on for many kids, your teen can get a different perspective. See if you can move beyond the broad strikes. Are the class winners under pressure too? Do bad things happen to them also? Is the outcast left out because he's a bad guy? Learning to view everyone as a full human being, with strengths and weaknesses, triumphs and failures, goes a long way toward developing more mature social skills.
One character in the film is a self proclaimed social outcast. He makes a real effort throughout the film to connect socially, especially with girls. Watching his awkward yet sincere attempts at relationships should give you and your teen plenty of material for discussion. What did he do well, and where did he fumble the situation? Are there times he wasn’t very attuned to his partner?
Finally, just use this film to empathize with your teen’s situation. It seems like everyone in the film is struggling and even the most popular kids are not having a great time. Everyone, even the school’s basketball god, has to deal with the same issues about moving on from high school. Your child spends hours every day dealing with the pressures of school. A few hours with this movie will help you remember what that's like.
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
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.