by Gary Spencer
Paper aeroplanes. Everywhere! Since my last blog, my son’s passion for paper aeroplanes has been reignited, and it seems to have given him a new enthusiasm for life in general. He literally goes to bed looking forward to waking up and folding some more the next day. Oh, the joy of ‘special interests’ and kids on the spectrum!
Interestingly, these special interests are given a higher priority by those on the spectrum than their relationships with those around them… Unlike many of their their fellow humans, they find themselves energized by special interests, but drained by relating to people. If this is the case, how can we support them as they live in a social world?
Here are my top seven tips about being strategic, thinking about your parenting style and allocating your resources to support the social side of your ASD child.
1) TRY ENCOURAGING FRIENDSHIPS WHERE THERE IS A SHARED SPECIAL INTEREST
Others on the spectrum can make good companions, especially if they have some shared interests. Communication through nonverbal language, which is so difficult for those on the spectrum, is not expected by either party in this case! To a degree, special interests can help in friendships with typical kids as well... I still remember the time kids were lining up at school to have my son make them paper aeroplanes!
However, before a play-date with any child, the ASD child should be briefed on what possible things his friend might like to do, so that the special interest doesn't dominate too much.
2) DON’T PUT PRESSURE ON KIDS TO SOCIALIZE BUT SUPPORT THEIR SOCIAL INTERACTIONS
I once thought that if I threw my child into enough group situations, he would eventually get used to the experience and become almost desensitised to the stress of socialising. I had no idea just how hard my little boy’s nervous system was working with all his sensory, cognitive, social and emotional vulnerabilities. I soon realised that sending him, unprepared, into social situations was just creating negative memories for him, and that it was making him even less willing to socialize.
According to Mental Health Professional Bill Nason, who runs the popular Autism Discussion Page, studies have shown that even in a resting state, the nervous system of those on the spectrum is on high alert, with greater levels of stress chemicals. So imagine how they must feel trying to interact in a busy environment, with unfamiliar people, or even friends, who they struggle to ‘read’ and understand. It really is exhausting, and we must realise that our child’s mood will take a nosedive if we don’t pace social interactions and allow time to recover in between. For my son, time for solitude is crucial. Never forget how exhausting it is for your child to socialise.
I now have a much more supportive approach with my son, exposing him regularly to social situations he is comfortable with, and sometimes deliberately to situations which will stretch him a little. When a hectic social situation is unavoidable, I know to provide a safe place for my son to escape if he needs it. I have also taken on board Tony Attwood’s top tip for people with ASD attending social functions like parties – “Arrive a little early before the crowds, and leave early before it all gets too overwhelming.” The takeaway here is to plan your family social diary so you don't overdo it or expect too much from him/her.
3) CONSIDER SOCIAL DIFFICULTIES AS A POSSIBLE SOURCE OF BEHAVIOURAL PROBLEMS AT HOME
If your child’s behaviour at home has changed, and he/she is more irritable, more rigid or even acting out with aggression, it is important to work out if something is happening at school in their social world. It may be that their self-esteem is taking a beating as their friends treat them badly, or that they are struggling with feelings of loneliness because they sense that they are different.
Studies done by Psychologist Pamela Ambler at the University of Newcastle have shown that social anxiety can lead to aggression, and more so in those with ASD than in neurotypicals. Helping a child with ASD navigate his/her social world, combined with teaching anger and anxiety management skills, is therefore essential.
While my natural parenting style is like the popular TV show “Super Nanny”, I have learnt that I can’t adopt traditional discipline styles when he is dealing with deeper issues within himself. For example, I need to be aware that when he is socially exhausted, he is not going to be able to respond to me as would a neurotypical child. I need to keep reminding myself of this. It is not about my desire to have an obedient child, but about guiding him and supporting him with the challenges he faces.
4) DON’T UNDERESTIMATE THE IMPORTANCE OF USING A NATURAL ENVIRONMENT TO HELP WITH TEACHING SOCIAL INTERACTION
The best context for a child to begin to learn the complexities of relationships is with his/her parents, and then with his/her own siblings. Sitting around a dinner table together with no distractions provides lots of opportunities to learn how to have a conversation, take turns at sharing opinions etc. In my own family, though it is not at all easy, we work hard at trying to guard this time and to make the most of this opportunity. We also chat about social situations, and introduce social skills in a non-threatening way. Ensuring time to be at home for family meals is important. For me, with a number of competing priorities, I often feel tempted to finish my work and come back home later than I should, missing the evening meal. We need to plan to be home for these occasions.
5) TAKE TIME TO EDUCATE PEERS AND OTHERS AROUND YOUR CHILD
Watching my son interact with his peers, as well as other people he may come into regular contact with, I have noticed that some of his people are easily frustrated and communication quickly breaks down. This can be heartbreaking to watch. However, typical children need to know why the ASD child isn’t responding in a way he/she would expect.
For instance, once after a soccer game, one of the team members approached my son to encourage him, telling him how great it was that he nearly scored two goals. My son made no eye-contact and was unable to respond. His peer walked off shrugging her shoulders, looking frustrated.
Peers need to be given the information to help them to understand why kids with ASD respond and behave differently – about how they take in information from their surroundings differently, and are often unable to react quickly or appropriately… it could be as easy as mentioning in non-threatening way to the peers that some kids struggle to read books and some kids struggle to read faces.
6) BE A “SOCIAL DETECTIVE” FOR YOUR CHILD AND TEACH THEM TO BE DETECTIVES TOO
In her book, “You Are a Social Detective” (2008) Michelle Garcia Winner talks about helping your kids to gather facts and details to investigate social situations. Kids on the spectrum struggle to “read” other people, so we need to teach them what to look for. For instance, with the soccer incident described above, later at home, you could ask, “I wonder how Ella was feeling when you didn’t look at her after the soccer game when she spoke to you?”…“Were there any clues?”…“Can you remember what her body was doing?”.
Speaking of detectives, by far the best resource so far for teaching our boy about reading expressions and social skills has been the social skills computer program called Secret Agent Society. http://www.sst-institute.net/.
7) THINK ABOUT YOUR PRIORITIES AND DEVELOP A SPECIAL NEEDS LIFE PLAN
As a Special Needs Financial Planner and father, I try to take a strategic approach to what is happening in my family’s life. This includes allocating time and potentially sacrificing financial resources and taking a strategic approach to the social challenges my child faces.
From my experience, helping your child socially cannot be achieved with small amounts of “quality” time. “Quantity” is what is needed. You may need to look at lifestyle changes, even a change of job and a drop in income, to create the time your child needs. Are you ever home for a family meal? Do you have the time to give the head space to what your child needs? Are you and your partner around to coordinate play dates and support your child’s social development? Are you prioritising and really planning to help the social side of ASD child? If I can help with your Special Needs Life Plan please let me know.
In the meantime, it is back to watching my son show me how well his aeroplanes fly!