Many years ago, I knew a family with a child who obviously needed some special attention and extra help. And she wasn’t getting it.
This girl had many of the signs of Asperger’s Syndrome, including a monotone voice, sensory sensitivity, poor balance, and serious social difficulties. At the time, she was being shunned by her entire preschool (yes, that young) class, and her teacher was very concerned about her eccentric behavior.
But not every parent with a child in need of help is able to recognize the signs.
There are many reasons for this, and none of them deserve our scorn or judgment. After all, the process of a) recognizing a problem and b) dealing with it can be a very arduous journey. It can be complex, heart-rending, and fraught with both emotional and financial difficulties.
Besides, doesn’t everyone just want problems to go away? Don’t we all hope that any difficulty is “just a stage”? Or that our children are just brighter and better than the rest, so it isn’t their fault that their peers don’t “get” them?
It took years of very cautious, very careful talk and support to convince the mother that something serious was going on. That, despite how wonderful and intelligent her daughter obviously was, she could benefit from some extra help.
Perhaps you know someone like this.
Perhaps you’ve struggled with how to communicate with the parents, or whether to say anything at all. Possibly, it’s an ongoing conflict, and your heart hurts for the struggling family.
There are ways to help that child. Really.
- Be direct with the child. Always. If he or she says or does something objectionable or out-of-place, chances are they have no clue. By speaking kindly – but directly – to them about it, you are helping them learn how to behave appropriately. This may save them from being teased or ostracized in school.
- Be calm and patient. These kids have meltdowns. It’s just part of Asperger’s Syndrome. Getting upset, holding grudges, assuming they are “spoiled”, or blaming the parents is unfair and will only cause resentment.
- Accept the sensory sensitivity. If the child does not like to be touched, don’t force him/her to hug you, and be sure to limit physical contact. If he/she appears to be sensitive to noise, try to keep things quiet (if possible). If he/she claps his hands to his ears, understand that he’s not putting on a show for your benefit, but is actually overwhelmed by sound.
- Don’t encourage the monologue. These kids want to interact with others, but often don’t know how to do so. This will lead to them talking at you, rather than with you. Don’t zone out and endure it (thereby tacitly encouraging the behavior); instead, try to initiate some back-and-forth. If there are multiple children, kindly discourage interruptions, have them take turns, and point out things they may have in common (and thus can talk about). If you can’t think of anything (or can’t stand the chatter), encourage them to learn three things about each other and leave them to it!
- Praise. Praise kindness and good behavior. Be sure to use specifics.
- Listen. Often the parents are overwhelmed and traumatized by teachers, guidance counselors, meltdowns, and eccentric behavior. They desperately need support, and just listening – without judging – will help them.
- Do not encourage the parent that everything will be okay as is, or that this is just a phase. Listen, be supportive (see above), but avoid lulling the parent into believing that doing nothing -which many want to believe – will fix the problem.
- Tactfully encourage parents to do some research online or follow up with their pediatricians. Not all doctors understand Asperger’s Syndrome, so a blow-off from one should not be considered final. For instance, I have heard at least two doctors tell me that AS is greatly exaggerated, and that everyone has social difficulties. If they only knew my son!
- If possible, discuss parallels and solutions. This has to be done delicately. Naturally, many parents believe their own kids to be amazing and unique. And they are. But often discussing other AS kids (and parents) will help people realize that they are not alone in their difficulties. Mentioning success – as in how great that social skills class was for X – is a good way to offer a solution. After all, every child – Asperger’s or no Asperger’s – can benefit from a social skills class.
Obviously, there are many other ways to quietly give assistance to child and parent. But a listening ear, patience, and encouragement will go a long way toward helping them through a difficult time.
You can make a difference.
Note: Thank you to everyone out there who has taken the time to explain “appropriate” or praised these kids for good behaviors. Your kindness, direct approach, and gentle guidance have helped them understand how to behave in an otherwise complex and confusing world.