I spend a lot of time thinking about conversations. Frequently, when I’m coaching individuals with Asperger’s and autism we’re working on conversations and how to manage them. This can be tricky because conversations vary depending on the situation. Do you stick to the topic you started with or let it wander? What do you do with interruptions? How do you manage questions? All these concerns come down to one basic issue: What type of conversation is this? It can be helpful to think about this before starting to talk, and keep it in mind during the conversation.
The most formal conversation is a presentation. If you’re giving a presentation you know what material you want to cover. Visually, this is like a train track. Start at point A, get to points B, C, D, and E. Sometimes members of the audience will ask questions. You can visualize this as a train track, but people may get off and wander around at the various stations. It’s important to get back on topic after the question, much like you’d get back on the train.
Less formal conversations are things like job interviews. Everyone is probably seated, there is no written structure to the discussion, and the direction of the conversation is in the control of all the speakers. Don’t let this fool you into thinking that the conversation should go in any direction. In something like an interview or a discussion with your boss you should have some idea of what points you want to cover before you start speaking. The conversation may wander between those points, but you’ve got to be sure to bring the focus back so you cover your material. I picture this type of conversation as a loose string, pinned at certain points, and wandering between those points.
The least formal conversations are things like small talk, dating conversations, social chatting and hanging out. Although neurotypicals may find this type of conversation fun and effortless, some individuals on the autism spectrum and those with Asperger’s may find the unstructured nature difficult to manage. I picture this conversation with the scientific term "random walk" or "drunkard’s walk". The starting point is fixed, but after every statement the conversation can go in any direction and there’s no end point in mind. The key here is to let go of the control, pay attention to your partner’s inputs and move together. It’s almost like a verbal dance.
I’ll be going into more detail on managing these types of conversation in future posts, so please check back.
It's Monday, the holidays are over, and, at least here in Northern California, the weather is dreary and drizzly. A little depressing. Even my dog, Olive, doesn't seem to have much energy. Maybe you're feeling the same way.
Many individuals on the autism spectrum, and those with Asperger's, can be prone to depression, both the temporary feeling of sadness and the DSM diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder. Of course, I can't treat mental health issues or diagnose over the internet, but I can direct you to the well written Mayo Clinic website. They discuss Depression, nutrition, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), light box therapy, the benefits of exercise, psychotherapy, and even alternative therapies. My favorites are the coping and support sections under the topics for both SAD and Major Depression. These are some excellent tips for improving your moods, and taking steps to feel better. The site also has good info on when to see a doctor.
If you're feeling a little down after the holiday rush, why not check out this website?
Kids who struggle with social skills, such as those with Asperger’s, autism and ADHD, frequently have difficulty when it comes down to the rules of the games they play. If parents are playing the game, the adults may be flexible and adapt to their children, but it can be a big problem when the children are playing with other kids. Too often the fun of the interaction is ruined by arguments about the rules.
Many children with autism, Asperger’s and ADD tend to be black and white thinkers, and they insist on following the official game rules to the letter. They may become the game’s self appointed judge, reading the box for every detail. That’s fine if all the players are in agreement. But sometimes, the rest of the kids just want to play. They may have their own traditional rules, or they may have come up with their own rules for special circumstances. It’s important for kids to be aware that following the rules is a bit of a gray area. Kids who read social signals easily can pick up on the tone of the game and figure out how methodically their playmates want to follow the rules.
Other children who struggle with social skills love to set up the rules. They may insist that the way they played last time is the only correct way, or the rules used at school must apply at home. Frequently, these individualized rules are complicated and only explained when it’s to the advantage of the rule maker. (As a children’s play therapist, I’ve spent many hours playing games without being told the rules!)
Parents are important in helping kids understand how to play games, and how rigidly the rules should be followed. Think about a friendly poker game versus the World Tournament of Poker. Children need to realize both ideas, “rules are rules” and at the same time, “rules are made to be broken.” It all depends on who’s playing.
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.
“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 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.
Individuals with Asperger’s and autism frequently struggle with both social skills and sensory issues. More than just two separate symptoms of autism spectrum disorders, these situations interact with and build on each other. Difficulties in managing intense sensory inputs can make it terribly tough for children to focus on social connections. And, a few sensory overload meltdowns can mean that a child is quickly labeled by the other kids as a misfit and social outcast.
Let’s first look at a typical school setting. Classrooms are bright and cluttered, filled with posters and bulletin boards, blinking fluorescent lights and smelly animal cages. And then the bell goes off every 45 minutes. The classroom doesn’t compare to the sensory overload of lunchtime and recess, where hundreds of children are all talking at once, eating lots of different smelling foods and then running around and yelling outside. All this input can be too much for a child with sensory integration issues.
For many neurotypical kids, lunch and recess function as breaks in the school routine, a chance to shift focus, relax from the academic pressures, socialize and have fun. This may not be the case with teens and children on the autism spectrum, where the sensory overload and lack of structure can make this the most stressful part of the day. When the sensory issues are so overwhelming, there’s little capacity left to focus on interpreting and sending appropriate social signals, much less any chance to take a break.
So what can you do to help your child? It’s important to understand your child’s environments at school. For younger students, you can often volunteer as a classroom, lunchroom and recess assistant, and can readily see your child in the school environment. For older kids, having a parent hovering nearby may be a social detriment, but you may be able to check out the classroom, lunchroom, and playground when other age ranges are using them. Focus on sensory issues, especially things you know are issues for your child.
It’s also important to look for clues to sensory overload. If your child is having meltdowns at school, pay attention to when and where they’re occurring. When I worked as a school therapist, I knew that rainy day lunchtimes in a crowded cafeteria were the most difficult environments for many of the students. Lots of them would act out on those days. Some kids don’t fall apart while they’re being overwhelmed, they seem to hold on until things calm down and then show their struggles with tears, tantrums, or withdrawn behavior.
Ideally, kids will stay with the rest of the students and have a chance to interact and socialize. Something as simple as permission to wear sunglasses may make this possible. But, if the environment is simply overwhelming, it might be necessary to make some accommodations. Maybe your child will need to eat in a quiet classroom or the office before heading out to the playground, or be allowed to go to the library instead of the playground after lunch. Socializing is important, but so is the opportunity to regroup and calm down. Think seriously about what would work best for your child, and remember that it’s better to have 10 minutes of positive socializing than 45 minutes of sensory overload.
For more information on understanding and managing sensory issues, Zosia Zaks’ Life and Love: Positive Strategies for Autistic Adults, (2006, Autism Asperger Publishing Co.) is a wonderful resource. Although its written for adults, the author includes an insightful explanation of what’s happening during sensory overload situations and many useful strategies for how to manage these situations. You can find a full review of this book in my blog Coach for Asperger’s.
Kids and teens with special needs like Asperger’s, autism, ADHD and ADD are frequently getting lots of special services, like resource programs at school, therapy, group treatments, and tutoring. Then add in the fact that these kids spend the day struggling to read the social cues of their peers and teachers. While neurotypical kids may recharge at recess and lunch, these kids may struggle with the pressure of sports, too much sensory input, and unstructured, unpredictable social interactions. When they get home, they may feel exhausted and overloaded, and it’s time to start in on homework. No wonder they’re exhausted!
Many individuals on the spectrum say that they work very hard to behave in a manner that’s acceptable to the neurotypicals around them. Frequently, I read about people saying that they need to recharge after spending time socializing. What may look like a waste of time to parents may be just what your child needs to get ready to go out into the world again.
Isabel Briggs Myers, one of the originators of the famed personality test, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, wrote about introversion and extroversion in Introduction to Type. (6th edition, 1998, Consulting Psychologists Press, Inc.) In it, the distinction between introverts and extroverts is made on the basis of how individuals receive energy. Extroverts are defined as people who “receive energy from interacting with people and from taking action.” Introverts receive energy from “reflecting on their thoughts, memories and feelings.” (p.9)
Many individuals on the autism spectrum have what Tony Attwood terms “special interests”. In The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome, 2007, Attwood states that “the pleasures associated with the special interest are greatly superior to many other pleasures in life.” (p. 183)
It’s so easy for families to get overloaded and overwhelmed. But, it’s as important to schedule in downtime as it is to make time for sleep. Both might make it easier for your child to learn and function at the best level the next day. Give your child the gift of downtime.
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.