I am working on a letter to the parents of one of my client’s classmates. “Joe” is a second-grader at a local parochial school. In one page, I have to accomplish the unthinkable — educate and teach acceptance. How did I do? (Remember: ONE page!)
Today Joe and his parents talked about Asperger’s Syndrome (AS), an autism spectrum disorder. We want to provide you some information about AS, which is often called an “invisible disorder” because the individual looks like everyone else. He’s often intelligent and witty, but he thinks, acts, and speaks very differently. Although no two people with AS are alike, we want to point out some specific traits.
Rule-Governed: Kids with AS are literal and thrive on rules. Structure and routine make learning easier. When rules aren’t followed, something seems “wrong”, like a speeding car in a school zone. It just needs to be “fixed,” something kids with AS do without thinking. They transform into a bossy police officer, telling kids (and even adults) what to do and what not to do.
Order and Routine: Hitting, slapping, and yelling are some of the behaviors individuals with AS impulsively use to restore order in a situation. Typically violence is not intended. The individual feels anxious or frustrated and cannot always verbalize his emotions, so he attempts to return the situation to routine as soon as possible.
Sensitive: Smells, noises, and touches can trigger a “fight or flight” response. Accidental contact, like a bump, can “feel” like a hit to Joe because he does not read someone’s intent. At the same time, kids with AS struggle to modulate their own volume and control their bodies. They yell at others who are shouting, and they shove or run away from those who are too close. If this confuses you, just imagine how confusing this is for Joe.
“Mindblind”: We take for granted how easily we can “step” into another’s shoes when needed. Individuals with AS innately lack the ability to take the perspective of another, inadvertently making them appear rude, selfish, or less intelligent. Kids with AS have to be taught not only how but when to think about others.
“Faceblind”: It is well-known that nonverbal communication is as important, if not more so, than what we say. Individuals with AS do not innately read facial expressions, tone of voice, gestures and body posture. You can just say your son or daughter’s name with a particular tone or you can “give them a look”, and they immediately “know” what you mean. Because Joe’s brain misses this information, he misses more than just what someone is saying to him, he also misses why.
Book Smart: Individuals with AS often lack common sense. This plays out most distinctly with their ability to socialize. They want friends but have no idea how to do so. Without direct instruction and countless opportunities to practice, appropriate behavior and socialization can be very challenging. They are prone to relentless bullying.
Your child has likely come home with observations about Joe that fall into one of these categories. Your initial inclination might be to tell your child to avoid or ignore Joe, after all you don’t want your son or daughter hurt. This is perfectly understandable but, unfortunately, will only exacerbate Joe’s struggles to learn how to interact. Joe is diligently working at school and at home on how to behave more appropriately. To help Joe, we ask that if your child comes home with a complaint, you respond in this manner: “Just like ________ is tough for you, ___________ is tough for Joe.” We ask you to reinforce that idea that everyone has struggles, and, unfortunately, Joe’s struggles are easier for your son or daughter.
If you would like to read more about AS, we recommend the following websites:
Autism Society of America: www.autism-society.org