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Parent’s Guide to Social Issues: Asperger’s

May 2, 2014

With Asperger’s or Higher Functioning Autism, cognitive and verbal abilities can mask any number of challenges the developing child faces.

Often those challenges can go unnoticed, unless or until they result in acting-out behaviors. Even if no obvious acting-out behavior occurs, there are usually a number of warning signs or calls for help that a child sends out. But, not fully understanding what’s normal, yet wanting to take part in this world, the child doesn’t know or is afraid to seek out help and will often devise his or her own coping strategies.

To help with a child’s Asperger’s Syndrome or HFA requires parents who trust their instincts, observe their children closely, and are willing to put in the work rather than allow their children to work out the answers on their own. It also requires the assistance of knowledgeable and skilled experts who can provide the therapy, support, and guidance that help the child keep those differences from becoming a functional disability.

Every child has unique needs.

Some of those needs are more rare or harder to understand than others. At Butterfly Effects, we look at providing the right help to match the needs of every child, and the right support to adequately educate those in charge of that child’s future. Below you will find a discussion of concerns that may indicate your child is challenged with Asperger’s or High Functioning Autism, followed by the most appropriate approach to treatment.

Social Reluctance and Ineptitude

Here the child displays a limited desire to engage in activities with others, especially peers. He or she prefers to play alone. To the observer, the child may appear to be highly imaginative and organized.

While the imagination is real, the solo requirement is fueled by the child’s desire to control all elements, and avoid surprises. The child may also try to engage others, but simply doesn’t know how or becomes frustrated when the playing becomes more spontaneous and beyond his or her exacting control.

No child wants to grow up as an island. It’s especially sad for the isolated child, when we realize that every person needs the society of others to be fully engaged, to grow, and to be happy.

Recommended Approach: ABA-Based Behavioral Intervention

Lack of / or lowered ability to directly engage and interact with others one-to-one.

This capacity is so critical to parenting and educating a child. We may think of the child as shy, as he or she avoids eye contact and is reluctant to participate in conversation. In some cases, the child may stare and simply observe without wanting to engage.

We may think it is that shyness or nervousness that makes it so difficult to hear and connect with what others are saying. We may even think that it is a choice the child is making. But no child makes the conscious choice to become that island. It’s much more about deficits in abilities of perception and a lack of intuitive social skills. It also speaks of challenge with regard to the human capacity for perspective, which normally starts to become evident as the toddler matures.

Language may also be a problem. Typically the child with Asperger’s evidences good language skills. Despite that, there may be a delay in processing spoken language that that doesn’t allow the child time enough to makes responses in the normal cadence of conversation.

Recommended Approach: ABA-Based Behavioral Intervention and possibly Speech Therapy as well as continued ABA-Based Academic Support

Lack of Separation Anxiety

The child with AS may appear braver, more adventurous than other children in that he or she is not afraid to leave his or her parent’s side and venture out.

Typically, toddlers individuate and learn independence a little at a time. At first, they are reluctant to go beyond the parent’s reach. As they progress, they are okay when they are able to look back and know that they are within the parent’s gaze. Each time when they feel they’ve gone a little too far, they scamper back to be close again to the parent.

A child with Autism may seem more courageous, but actually lacks that natural anxiety that keeps him or her from wandering too far. He or she may also lack the ability to appreciate unique perspective and consequently, not understand when the parent is able and not able to perceive him or her. Often the child with Autism also fails to acknowledge the cues from parents to return. Wandering or elopement is a constant fear of parents raising children with Asperger’s or Autism.

Recommended Approach: ABA-Based Behavioral Intervention and Parent Training

Lack of Emotional Awareness

The child with Asperger’s isn’t able to read the expressions and cues of others, or simply fails to respond to them. The child will keep prattling on about a favorite subject as the listener pleads with yawns and rolling eyes for the lecture to stop.

We may think the child is merely preoccupied with his or her own excitement about a topic and just needs to slow down and listen. We may not appreciate that he or she is incapable of perceiving the emotions of another, no matter how much the child slows down and listens. In some ways, our approach is often as useless as speaking louder and slower to someone who doesn’t speak our language. It’s a question of comprehension.

While it may not come naturally, this comprehension can be taught and internalized through repeated practice. Higher functioning children will become fluent in the language of emotional expression, but lower functioning children may need to learn rote responses to a vocabulary of facial expression and other cues.

The child with Asperger’s may also have a great challenge in communicating his or her own needs and state of being. Either the child is not fully aware of how he or she feels, or lacks the ability to use the words, facial expressions, and body language to get a need met. The child could be hurting or sick and the parent has little idea. The child could be really excited about an option presented but fails to communicate the expected excitement back to the parent and that option is dropped. An acting-out behavior may then follow. This is the kind of failure that can be detected through a Functional Behavior Analysis that looks to get at the root of seemingly spontaneous eruptions.

Recommended Approach: ABA-Based Behavioral Intervention with Functional Behavior Analysis as needed

Failure to realize age-appropriate motor skill development

He’s not really the outdoors type. He’d much rather read, is how the parents may explain why their son can’t learn to ride a bike. He’s ADHD or simply rushes too much to learn how to tie his shoes or improve his handwriting.

The word that Hans Asperger used to describe this trait was clumsiness. The child may demonstrate an odd walk or seem to lack the coordination required to run. He or she may also fail to develop the fine motor skills needed to handle utensils, write legibly, or tie his or her shoes. Despite repeated efforts, a skill fails to be learned leading to frustration for both teacher and student.

If the child has adequate cognitive abilities, he or she might be branded as willful. It’s also possible that the child’s skills in other areas might degrade to get rid of what has become an impossible expectation. The first grader is told that smart children can learn proper penmanship, and unable to live up to that expectation, he or she lowers the bar on all achievements demonstrating smart.

Recommended Approach: ABA-Based Behavioral Intervention as well as Physical and Occupational Therapies for skill development

Issues with Sensory Integration

This issue effects children all along the Autism Spectrum. With Asperger’s, the problems may be more subtle or they may appear more subdued because the child will develop coping mechanisms on his or her own. This is a difficult area for others to understand.
Perception is different from person to person. We can all be startled by a bright flash of light or a loud sudden noise. No one is comfortable wearing a shirt made of sandpaper. But what the child with Autism perceives as bright or loud or irritating may be greatly different than the norm. His or her tolerance may be much more limited.

The senses most affected are sight, hearing, and touch. Wool socks may feel like fire on the child’s ankles. The inability to block out background sound can make it impossible to concentrate on spoken words. Seemingly imperceptible to others, a flickering fluorescent bulb can be as distracting as a lightening storm. The sound of a vacuum can incapacitate the child as completely as a jolt from a Taser. The feared vibration of an electric toothbrush might be what’s behind  nightly bedtime ritual tantrums.

These children may also have inner ear balance and direction issues, which can turn a ride on a Merry-Go-Round into a nightmare of disorientation, car rides into misery, and the approach to an escalator all chaos and desperation.

They may also lack a sense of their own bodies. They don’t know exactly where their fingertips leave off and the rest of the world begins, or just how far they can reach or how steep the next step, especially if those steps are moving as they are on that escalator.

The child with cognitive ability may over time learn to modulate their sensitivity, but in the moment learns to avoid the things that cause him or her pain. He or she might learn to ride the escalator with eyes closed, which is not usually appreciated by parents. Car rides might be refused. In shop class, the young teen can do little but fail if the whine of the whirring saw renders him or her senseless The young toddler may strip off the nylon outfit that feels as if it is slicing up his or her skin. The child might lose a wristwatch rather than feel the band intolerably pressing his or her wrist. He or she may learn to hate housecleaning, associated as it is with the blood-curdling roar of the vacuum.

Recommended Approach: Occupational Therapist Delivering Directed Sensory Integration Therapy

Obsessive and/ or compulsive mental and physical activity that interferes with normal functioning

This often shows itself in a child’s need to control his or her play, but it may also manifest in the child’s need for the people around the child to act the same way and follow the same routines.

He or she might also become that little professor or philosopher, absorbed with one subject or one idea. It’s a trait that can be very useful on certain jobs, but can turn even a little child into a social pariah. For boys, the focus can be something more socially tolerable like baseball statistics but it could just as easily center on series of serial numbers, or types of vacuum cleaner belts. For girls, the obsession may often appear more socially acceptable than those that absorb boys, as it will often focus around living creatures such as horses or entertainment figures.

Recommended Approach: ABA-Based Behavioral Intervention

Peculiarities in speech, mannerisms, and affect

This is what we may think of as classically Aspie or nerd-like. The little child may use words that are pedantic, speak with odd inflection, or even speak with an accent that has no homeland. He or she might also lack the ability to vary tone, use inflection, or modulate volume to appropriate levels (the child who needs to learn how to use his or her inside voice). The smart child may learn to mimic the speech of others, which can be a very exhausting mask to maintain. And in other cases, he or she will learn that it is simply best not to say anything at all.

Recommended Approach: ABA-Based Behavioral Intervention, Speech and Language Therapy.

Difficulties with interpreting and or responding to nuances and figurative speech

Children with Asperger’s are often thought to have little if any sense of humor. Some may be challenged with metaphor, but mostly it is believed that they learn speech as a literal tool, attributing to it no more flexibility than found with numbers. Eventually, they have intelligence enough to translate the nuance and figurative speech as one would a foreign language.

One has to be careful to remember that just because the child with Autism understands something, it doesn’t necessarily mean he or she is going to acknowledge it by way of reaction or expression. He or she well get your joke but just doesn’t feel compelled to laugh.

Recommended Approach: ABA-Based Behavioral Intervention, Speech and Language Therapy.

Differences in this last area can be huge from child to child.

Many, if not most child with Asperger’s or HFA prefer nonfiction to fiction; yet others develop a passion for the rhythms and sounds of language. Some with very high cognitive capabilities may in practice actually become stronger storytellers by way of their methodically and consciously learning to mind the perspective of others.

What’s important is that we learn to avoid all assumptions in our dealing with children, especially the assumption that anything is done without a reason and also, the assumption that any level of achievement is impossible. If we allow ourselves, these children will surprise us about who they are and even teach us a little about ourselves and our own social relations with the world.

Father playing with his little girl at home Father playing with his little girl at home