Explaining AS to Parents of Second-Graders in 500 Words or Less: How’d I Do?

01 May

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!)

“Dear Parent,

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:




Posted by on May 1, 2011 in ASD in the Schools


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7 responses to “Explaining AS to Parents of Second-Graders in 500 Words or Less: How’d I Do?

  1. Shelly Ivins

    May 1, 2011 at 7:33 PM

    This is Fantastic! As A parent of an Aspie, I sent it to my son’s teachers as a “must read.”

    • jholverstott

      May 1, 2011 at 9:17 PM

      Thanks, Shelly. I hope it meets a need.

  2. Kristen Hagen

    May 2, 2011 at 12:34 PM

    Brilliant, baby, brilliant!

  3. Kim

    May 23, 2011 at 5:47 PM

    Awesome! Never a question that you would come up with the perfect thing to say!! I wish it had come to you a few years ago!!

  4. Dana King McCroskie

    September 29, 2011 at 11:35 AM

    Very informative:)) Hope it was OK to share with others??

  5. Restless Hands

    October 2, 2012 at 5:50 PM

    My only objection is to the section about “mindblindness,” although I understand why you have written it this way for the benefit of NT parents.

    To extend the metaphor, putting yourself in the shoes of another requires that those shoes are the same shape as your own feet. In my experience, and according to numerous testimonials by individuals on the spectrum, ASD folks are quite good at reading, anticipating, and understanding the minds of others on the spectrum, just not neurotypicals… and the reverse holds true as well! Some auties and aspies also report being able to read the facial expressions and body language of each other far better than they can read these signals from NTs.

  6. Berisha

    November 1, 2012 at 6:11 PM

    “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.
    I don’t agree with this part, it cracks me up a little bit, we take for granted all us non Autistic people are so sensitive to the views of other and compassionate. It strikes me we would be living in a paradise of peace and harmony right now if that were true. The fact of the matter that Autistic people have a harder time reading nonverbal body language and understanding complex social interactions. It does not mean we lack empathy, sort of like how if you ask a deaf person for help with words and they don’t help you its not because they’re a lazy bum. The term mindblind and another even more messed up term “extreme male brain” have largely been promoted by one man. Simon Baron Cohen. An Autistic women who a distant cousin of his Rachel Cohen Rottenberg has sharply criticized his work as lacking “empathy” towards his supposedly unempathetic research topics. Gasp there are Autistic women
    Here is one of her articles on the subject, there are many:

    Also common sense, apparently we all lack it now. It’s a really vague American colloquial term. I am American so I think I know what it means, and to me it seems that Autistic people oftentimes have more common sense. Despite sometimes being good with academics ie book smart most Autistic people think rather concretely and materialist instead of in abstract ideas and clichés. I think it actually ties into the empathy thing too, if an Autistic person feels they can do nothing to help someone in need they will not try, oftentimes neurotypical people make a gesture of empathy in order to “keep up appearances”. Part of why Autistic people have difficulties integrating into society is because much of it doesn’t make sense to them. Petty social rules that are important for looking good, dealing with bureacracy, Autistic people tend to have a hard time, but I don’t think the lack of common sense is necessarily to be found inside the Autistic person, if anything they might have too much common sense and not enough ability to understand nonsense.

    I guess my advice to people trying to describe or define Autism is don’t think of it as a disease or a laundry list of negative things, its a different view point on the world. I am not tying to be PC either, I really believe that.


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