Many individuals on the autism spectrum struggle with sensory problems: the lights are too bright, the fabric too scratchy, the noise simply overwhelming. Unfortunately, the neurotypical world is often unsympathetic. This can be especially true in school settings, where all kids are expected to fit in to all the same requirements. Every kids must survive a fluorescent lit classroom, the overly warm, fetid cafeteria, and a screaming, running recess "break". These sensory challenges can make a school day into a marathon of overwhelming and exhausting input. (And leave your kids too exhausted to tackle that pile of homework.)
I think it can be hard for neurotypicals to understand what these sensory issues can feel like. Of course, everyone is different and each person has their own particular issues. But I did want to pass along an interesting article on one individual's experiences of sensory challenges. Brian King is a social worker, as well as someone diagnosed with Asperger's as an adult. Check out the third issue of Brian's Spectrumite magazine to learn about what his experience is like. Talk to your kids about their experiences, and try to understand their own particular sensitivities. Maybe the school can be a little more flexible, or some sensory related modifications can be written into the IEP.
Still not sure these sensory issues are real? Just think about biting on foil or scratching fingers down a chalkboard. Can you imagine trying to learn while that's going on?
For many of the families who are working so hard to do what's best for their special needs child, there's also a typically-developing sibling who is heavily impacted by the situation as well. Having a special needs brother or sister has both positive and negative facets, and most parents are extremely aware of both.
Because I spent many years working in school settings, I frequently had the opportunity to work with several siblings from one family, including the special needs child and the typically-developing sibling. From this experience, I've developed suggestions that could make life easier for your typically-developing child. Certainly, this is not a comprehensive list in one article, but instead a few tips for what I've found to be most important for the siblings of special needs kids.
1. Acknowledge everyone's mixed feelings.
If you only consider one item, this is the most important. Siblings of special needs children typically struggle with guilt. Of course they love their brother or sister, and may enjoy many aspects of their relationship. Kids with special needs are more than just a diagnosis, and family life can be filled with fun and joyful moments. However, realistically, special needs kids have "special needs" and much of the family energy will revolve around getting those needs met. It's tough for the sibling to be feeling embarrassed or resentful of a brother or sister, when they can see the difficulties they may be having. At the same time, when they look to their friends with more typical families, they are aware of how much easier that family life can be.
As parents, you have mixed feelings about the special needs as well. The best thing you can do for the typical sibling is to acknowledge your own mixed feelings, and give your child permission to feel that way as well.
2. Spend time alone with the typical sibling.
All kids need time alone with their parents, especially in this situation. Time alone will allow you to do activities that may not be possible with the whole family, and allows you to focus on just one child. When fun parent activities aren't possible, even a trip to the grocery store can be special if it's just the two of you.
3. Find kids a neutral person to talk to.
It's especially tough for children to share all these mixed, guilty feelings with their parents, who are far from impartial. It can be a real gift to your typical child to find them a understanding adult to talk to, whether a family friend, a coach or teacher, or a professional. Sibling support groups, if run by skilled leaders, can be useful as well.
4. Don't make your kids responsible for their siblings.
It can be tough to manage all the responsibilities of a special needs family, and the typically developing sibling may be very mature, responsible, and even eager to help. It's easy to fall into the trap of depending on this child to make your life easier and help with a brother or sister, but it can backfire. Children develop best when they are treated like children, not little caretakers. When you want to give your kids responsibilities, it's better to find household chores for them, while you take care of the family members.
5. Remember the advantages.
My intent is not to add a heavier load onto what may already be a very stressed family. Kids with special needs siblings generally learn to be especially compassionate, thoughtful, and caring adults. The sibling relationship can be much closer and deeper than in other families. And the most important thing any child needs is a loving parent. So do the best you can for everyone in the family, including yourself, and never feel guilty about being less than perfect.
I’m a big fan of unstructured time for kids. And it’s never as easy to schedule as it will be during the summer months. I think it can be tempting for parents to fill kids’ summer days up with activities, camps, playdates and daytrips. And, I’m not against any of these. Certainly, if child care is needed, or your child needs to catch up in summer school, these structured activities may not even be optional. But, too often, I think parents feel like they have to keep their kids busy, or they’re not being good parents. And that’s just not true.
I hope parents will take some time this summer to allow their kids to do nothing, to putter around in the back yard or the neighborhood, to lie on the hammock and read a book. It’s OK for your child to be bored, children need to learn to entertain themselves, not just to participate in structured activities. Children learn creativity from doing things on their own. They learn to make friends when they’re drawn to interact with the other neighborhood kids.
Notice that I’m not talking about TV or video games here. Again, I’m not against TV or video games. I think they can be an appropriate relaxation activity for some kids, and they are a huge part of children’s cultural world. But, screen time, whether TV, video game or computer, is still a place where your child is being entertained. There’s no need to figure out how to entertain yourself amidst the flashing lights and the laugh track.
Instead, let’s just do nothing. In honor of that, I think I’ll cut back on my summer blog posting schedule, so I have some down time too.
I’m a therapist, also called a counselor, a psychotherapist, or even a "shrink", and I work with people who have Asperger’s, autism, or other ASDs. But that doesn’t mean I’m trying to cure someone of their autism. That’s a confusing distinction, but it’s important.
Many individuals on the autism spectrum are struggling with the symptoms from a mental disorder, such as depression, anxiety, or getting caught up in repetitive thoughts. Those are all things that can be treated with psychotherapy, (and sometimes other means), and often “cured” or at least managed so that the symptoms aren’t a problem.
Other individuals on the autism spectrum are trying to deal with issues that go along with their autism, such as difficulties with social signals or managing relationships. Those symptoms can also be managed through psychotherapy.
But the important thing is that in neither of these cases is psychotherapy meant to take the autism away from an individual. It’s not trying, or even wanting, to “cure” autism or Asperger’s.
I think that many autistic people don’t want to be changed. They appreciate and enjoy their cognitive strengths. They derive a great deal of pleasure from their special interests. They relish alone time. And they have no interest in becoming a social, outgoing, maybe even shallow, neurotypical.
The good news is that people can have the best of both worlds. Therapy can manage depression, anxiety, or other symptoms so they’re not a problem. People looking for more satisfying relationships or professional success can learn to adapt in the ways they choose to. And at the same time, all the strengths and special characteristics of ASDs don’t have to be erased.
You can learn more about this topic at my Therapy and Coaching for Asperger's, Autism and ADHD website or in my ezine article on Depression with Asperger’s and Autism.
In my last post, I gave some tips on setting things up so that kids have a fun and social summer. On the flip side of that planning, I think it’s important to think a bit about academics, such as what worked and didn’t work this school year.
Has it been a great year? I hope so. Now is a good time to analyze that success. Was the teacher a great fit? It might make sense to schedule an end of year meeting and get that teacher’s tips for what might work next year. Lot’s of structure, frequent breaks, short term rewards, a buddy system? You child’s teacher has probably put a great deal of time and effort into fine tuning a classroom and homework situation that has been effective. Now is a good time to see what can carry over to the next year. If possible, the teacher could even meet with next year’s teacher to pass on some of these tips.
Has it been a bad year? Thankfully, it’s almost over. Before you breathe a big sign of relief, it will probably pay to consider what the problems were. Compare this bad year to one that worked out better. Was there a big difference in teacher personality, the tone of the classroom, the way homework or discipline was handled?
Remember, you are the expert on dealing with your child. You’ll need to share your expertise with teachers, the principal, and all the specialists who will be working with your child. It’s best if you can be precise, detailed and concrete in discussing how to manage your child’s education. Saying something vague, like, “Ms. Jones was really nice, my son liked her a lot better than Ms. Smith.” will not be very helpful. But, if you put a bit of effort in now, you’ll be able to come up with a very clear statement, like, “My son does best in a structured and quiet classroom, like he had in third grade. In fourth grade, the room was much busier and louder; he reacted badly to that much stimulation. He also responded very enthusiastically to his first grade teacher’s visual behavior plan.”
See what details you can figure out for your child.
Just a few more weeks and you’ve made it through another school year! For kids with special needs like autism, Asperger’s or ADHD, the upcoming break can be a huge relief. But, before you walk out the school door for the summer, there are a few things you should take care of now so you have the best summer ever.
Make Some Social Contacts:
The summer is a great time to relax with family, but your child needs to spend some time with peers as well. It’s a lot easier to connect with some friendly kids and their parents now, while you’re all at school together. See who’s going to be around this summer, get their contact info, make some casual plans.
Think About Camps and Activities:
Now is the time to plan some structured activities for your child’s summer, and it’s great if there are going to be some school buddies there also. Check with the other parents and see if any activities are going to be especially popular this summer. Shared activities help friendships grow. Next year in school, your child may be best friends with the kids from camp this summer.
Plan on Sports:
Many kids with ASDs are not very athletic. That’s tough, because children’s social lives revolve around sports. Find out from the homeroom teacher or PE coach what the kids play on the playground during recess. It’s probably something that requires ball handling skills, like kicking or dribbling. Jumping rope may also be popular. Whatever the game, the summer offer a great opportunity for your child to practice and catch up with their classmates’ skills.
That’s it! A few simple conversations and you’re ready for a great summer.
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.
Many individuals find small talk inane and dull. This may be especially true for individuals with Asperger’s or autism. So many of my coaching and therapy clients have told me that they don’t enjoy talking about sports, or the Oscars, or the weather. It’s true, if you hate sports, the Super Bowl seems both trivial and overly hyped. Even if you love movies, the Oscars are just a celebration that the stars throw to honor each other. And the weather? We can all see what the weather is like, talking about it doesn’t change it.
Some people take this to mean that small talk is unimportant, a waste of time, and not something worth participating in. I disagree. It’s true, small talk doesn’t fix any of the world’s big problems. Few important insights are generated. But, small talk does enable people to establish relationships. It’s a simple, low risk way to share something personal about yourself, without opening up too much. It might be something really simple, like the fact that you love the snow. Or something a bit more personal, like that you took your family skiing over the weekend. However much you share, you’ve given people a hook, a means to get to know you just a bit better.
Many autistic individuals complain about feeling lonely and isolated. Obviously, relationships are the key to combating this isolation. But, people don’t go from total strangers to best friends overnight. It’s a gradual process, from strangers, to acquaintances, to friends. That process starts with small talk. And it’s not just a conversation about the weather, it’s an entire nonverbal communication as well. How friendly is the other person? How positive? Is body language open? Is the flow of conversation appropriate? Is this a person I’d like to get to know better?
So, the next time everyone is standing around the coffee maker chatting, try to join in. You don’t have to be witty, or clever, or original, or even fake. Just attempt to be positive, curious, and friendly. You can admit that you’ve never watched American Idol, just try to be open about what the rest of the crowd finds so entertaining about it. You might just find that people are trying to be friendly to you, they just need a chance.
One defining symptom of Asperger’s and autism is a difficulty in reading social signals, body language and facial expressions. But, lots of people struggle with this, not just those on the autism spectrum. Although for neurotypicals, reading others tends to be instinctive, everyone, autistic or neurotypical, can learn to pay attention and improve their skills.
There’s a fun self test on the BBC website where you can practice identifying real and fake smiles. The test has videos of 20 people smiling which you can analyze. During the test you can only watch the videos once, but if you want to study them repeatedly, you can review them after you get your results.
All individuals, whether they have a diagnosis of autism or Asperger’s or not, are faced with stressful situations. This might be a job interview, an athletic competition, a performance review with a boss, or all the testing that students have to go through. Some people just seem to sail through these experiences, others get completely caught up in the stress. A big part of how well you manage is related to how well you can soothe yourself, and that’s all about self talk.
The idea of self talk was parodied by Al Franken as Saturday Night Live character Stuart Smalley, where he repeatedly affirmed “I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!” But it’s more than just a joke. Positive self talk has its roots in well researched psychology techniques such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). And, self talk can be effective for not just serious mental disorders like depression and anxiety, but for the more commonplace stresses we all face.
So exactly what is self talk? It’s those little comments running through your head when faced with a tough situation. Pay attention next time to what you’re telling yourself. Faced with a challenging math problem, is it something helpful like, “I can do this, I’ve done lots of practice problems.” or , “OMG, I’m awful at math. I’m always so stupid!” When you encounter your critical boss, do you think, “Oh no, he hates me! He’ll be complaining about my report.” or can you shift to a more helpful, “”I did a great job on that report. He’ll be pleased with it even if he doesn’t comment.”
Learning to notice and even change your own self talk can be the first step towards success.
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.