Wednesday, March 16, 2005

The Beauty of Innocence

I know that having children with Asperger's syndrome can seem awful hard sometimes. It's hard to watch your child not have friends at times, it's painful to see them struggle socially. But one of the many positives that I've enjoyed with both of my boys is their prolonged innocence. I admit, that's a double-edged sword for them, in that being too innocent is one of the things that cuts them off socially from their peers. BUT, having said that, I have completely enjoyed the way my boys have stayed innocent for maybe two or three years longer than their peers.

For instance, parents of children on the spectrum know that their ability for joint focus is delayed -- our children either never develop the ability to have shared interest, or that ability is delayed a couple of years. So, when Will was 3, he was not pointing to a big yellow school bus trying to get me to see it. He was not excited about seeing new things. And yet, two or three years later, he began to do these things, slowly.

I can remember taking Will to a movie, and realizing that he thought everything on the screen was actually happening. We had to prep him before the movie began, saying "Don't worry -- remember, none of what is going on on the screen is real, it's all just pretend play". He is over that particular problem now. But I did take him to see the most recent version of the "Peter Pan" movie that came out last year, and he enjoyed that movie more fully than any neuro-typical kid would. If there was a fight scene between Peter and Captain Hook, he booed Captain Hook and cheered Peter when he was winning. He was impressed by the magic of the scenes. He has that ability to imagine, and create, and be awed by new things -- he is not jaded like many of his neurotypical peers.

Now that Will's almost nine, we enjoy so many of the things other parents only enjoy with their six or seven-year-olds. He has a more child-like outlook on life. That will change soon enough. But for now, I'm enjoying the child in Will to the fullest.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

How Did Your Day Go?

Every day I ask Will questions about his day. Not only do I want to find out if he had a nice day, but I need other information as well. I always ask him about how recess went, and you other ASD parents will understand that this is because recess is a minefield for our kids. Will actually does want to have friends, but he makes the usual mistakes of wanting to control the situation at recess, and wanting to do a lot of pretend play (not always cool in the third grade). So, when I ask him what he did for recess, it's an opportunity to modify the recess situation -- if he's having trouble keeping friends, I'll ask if he's making them play things they don't want to play. I try to encourage him to do different things each day, so he doesn't fall into a rut.

Once early on in the school year, I asked my daily questions about recess, and just knew that something wasn't quite right with the boys Will was playing with. A red flag went up, and I contacted the school. Sure enough, there was some low-level bullying going on, and Will wasn't aware. The school handled it well (although not the way I would have handled it). The interesting thing is that the parents of those boys were SO nice -- eventually every single parent of every boy made an effort to befriend us, include Will in activities, or make up for the bad behavior in some way. It was really a positive experience, especially considering how negative it seemed early on.

Will also has a situation with his speech teacher, where he can invite two "buddies" up to her classroom for lunch, and the speech teacher observes Will's interactions with the other children, and tries to help him interact. I think he really enjoys this experience, and I think that the other children that go with him enjoy it as well.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

As Many Organized Activities as Possible

When Will was diagnosed almost four years ago, I remember not wanting to do ANYTHING like a party. I was feeling extremely inhibited because of Will's diagnosis and behavior. It was just so hard to attend a party where everyone elses children (or so I thought) seemed so normal, and Will was off in a world of his own.

Since then, we have begun to sign Will up for quite a few activities. We have tried soccer, basketball, and summer camps (the latter with a therapist). Will is currently enrolled in baseball, cub scouts, and a social skills class. I think that's plenty of activity (I'm not a young mother, after all!). But each of those activities provides a new way to practice social skills, AND it provides a different set of kids to interact with.

I admit, soccer was painful. Trying to understand the rules AND pay attention to changing activities was just too much for Will. I think with time and maturity, Will would have caught on eventually, but I think the other boys would have possibly resented it if Will constantly missed a chance to kick the ball to his team, so we opted out of that one. Will didn't mind leaving soccer, but baseball -- that's a completely different story. We find that interesting, too -- this sudden interest in baseball. Our older son HATED baseball. He played for one season, and never did hit the ball. It's different for Will, because he is MOTIVATED! Motivation is a great tool, and just because we may think that Will isn't the best player on the team doesn't mean that HE doesn't think baseball is wonderful. So for that reason alone, we are keeping it up. The guys on the team are really nice, and that feeling of being on a team is irreplaceable. It's worth it, even if we parents are really TIRED of activities!

Saturday, March 12, 2005

The Importance of Prep Work

Today is a birthday party for a friend of Will's. The party will be held at the local baseball practice auditorium. As you may have guessed, so far baseball is not one of Will's strong suits. The funny thing is that he LOVES the game. So he and his friends will be playing wiffle ball at this baseball practice place, and Will's Dad and I are naturally concerned that Will is going to feel comfortable, not have any outbursts, and understand the logistics of the game.

We have spent the hours before the party playing baseball. This is no small feat, considering that there's a snowstorm outside, so the baseball practice has to be held INSIDE. We found a nerf-like foam ball, and a plastic bat, and we've been holding a mini-baseball game in our kitchen, with our basement door as first base, the refrigerator as second base, the dishwasher as third base, and the entry to the family room as home base. It has been awesome! We've been going over game rules, building up Will's confidence (he's hitting a mean ball lately!), and going over the social nuances of what will happen at the party.

Parties are historically a nervous situation for us as Will's parents. Do we stay through the whole party? Do we leave? Will he do OK socially? Will all the noise and confusion bother him? That's why we do so much prep work with Will. We try and anticipate what will happen at the party, and recreate it at home for practice purposes. You can't do this with every social situation (how does one recreate a laser tag scenario at home?), but you can try your best. We just hope that it makes the party more fun and less anxiety-ridden.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Clothes DO Make the Man!

There is a boy a year or two older who attends the same school as my son, and he also attends my son's social skills class. This boy looks just like any other boy in his grade, in fact, he may even look a little cooler than some of the other boys in his grade, because his clothes are stylish and are appropriate for a 5th grader. His haircut is stylish, he is well-groomed and clean. I've talked with him, and he is definitely a kid with Asperger's, but somehow that just doesn't seem like anything other than a character trait.

I am very aware that many of our Asperger's kids have special sensitivities to tags in clothing, or different fabrics, and that these sensitivities may make them feel more comfortable in sweatpants and specific kinds of shirts. But, I HIGHLY RECOMMEND that we all as parents try and get our children to wear the most up-to-date, current styles as possible. This is one instance where something as trivial as what one wears is actually an important way to make life smoother for our children.

I had two other children before my son with ASD was born, and I was determined to not let those two children be swayed by clothing labels. We bought ALL of our clothing at Target, Walmart, or similar places in an effort to avoid the NEED that some teenagers have to only purchase GAP, Abercrombie & Fitch, or other high-end label clothes. I have swung completely the other way with Will. If the other boys are wearing football jerseys, then that's what I buy for Will. If they are wearing K-Swiss shoes, then that's what I buy Will. I specifically go to my son's school and LOOK at the other boys close to his age to see what they are wearing, to make sure that I'm dressing him appropriately. I try to avoid sweatpants, jeans that have turned into floods when he gets too tall, or funny-looking shorts.

Often our Asperger's children are going to stand out in a crowd -- sometimes in a very positive way because they can be so bright academically, but sometimes because of their formal way of speaking, or their obsessive interests -- but if we as parents can help them to come close to matching their peers in their clothing, I think we can help our children feel more closely aligned with their peers, which in turn will help them socially.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Social Skills Classes

We have spent a lot of time trying to figure out what social skills opportunities there are out there. We've lived in two different states since Will was diagnosed, and had social skills opportunities in both states. The class Will is in currently is run through a program that is paid for by the state, but soon that funding will be cut, and we will have to pay a fairly large copayment.

We have also tried a class through a learning center like Sylvan learning centers. It was a fairly relaxed class for a small group, run by a psychologist. We opted out of that class so that we could start a program that was specifically geared towards kids who are on the spectrum.

Both classes have their advantages and disadvantages. The state-funded program is geared towards ASD kids, and so the therapists are schooled in ASD tendencies, and have an understanding that other programs may not have. It's a nice place to go, where the kids can feel comfotable with their friends. There is lots of group work, social skills development, singing, sharing, and cooperative play. My only concern is that the program may not be as individually geared towards my son as I would hope.

The learning center program is less intense, and much more relaxed, but the psychologist met with the parents regularly to ask what our concerns were for our children. Then the psychologist running the social skills class would work specifically on the concerns we expressed during the psychologist/parent interview. The class may not have been as specifically designed toward ASD kids, but it was a smaller group, and the kids really learned to like each other.

Look into whatever groups you can find through the state, but don't discount other opportunities as well, especially ones that aren't necessarily labeled as being for ASD kids.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Teasing -- it can be good for you!

This morning Will was teasing his Dad -- not getting ready for school when he had been asked to do so, avoiding it by alternately hiding, then being affectionate with Dad. Six months ago, Will wasn't so sure about how to tease Dad, and sometimes still he is unsure of when we are kidding with him or when we are serious. He gets upset with his sister if his sister jokingly tells her parents "I hate you!" We have to turn to him and say "Will, is she SERIOUS or is she KIDDING?" He then realizes that she's smiling, she's not mad, she's not being mean, she's just joking with us.

My husband and I are horrible teases. We've always teased each other, and we are constantly teasing our children. That has come in handy when Aspergers entered our family life. Our oldest son likes to joke with people -- "You can't say anything to me that my mother hasn't already said!" This is probably true. But our children are allowed to tease us as well. This makes a nice give-and-take situation that simulates a bit of what they experience in school. So, if you have a child who is called a "dork" because he's a smart but quiet kid, and his mother and father call him a "dork" at home (all the while giving it a positive, intelligent connotation), then he does not view that teasing as so bad. Especially since we label all of us in our family as "dorks". The teasing that we provide at home has the benefit of somewhat desensitizing our children to the teasing that goes on at school, so that it doesn't seem so hurtful, but rather a part of daily life.

It's fun and fulfilling to see that Will is beginning to tease US. He feels like he is part of the group. And he knows the rules -- we do not tease someone if they are particularly sensitive, we do not tease in a hurtful manner, and part of teaching Will how to tease is also teaching him when to back off, just as it would be with any kid. It's going to be a long process -- this kind of socialization takes years -- but I think that it will go a long way to helping him through his teenage years if we prep him now by knowing HOW to tease and how TO BE teased appropriately.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005


Something we had to work on with both of my sons was the use of the current "slang". This is hard to do when you're a parent, and you're not "jiggy wid it" [my teenagers would be cringing like crazy if they heard me say this . . .]! But our Asperger's kids have such pedantic, formal language skills -- we need to practice using the current "slang" in our homes so that it becomes part of their vocabulary.

You can pick up on the "slang" that's current by watching TV, but what's commonly heard in Los Angeles or New York is probably NOT what's being said at your child's elementary school. I think that this is when you start becoming a detective -- you attend school functions, volunteer at the school, and do little things like pick up your child at school at the end of the day and arrive 15 minutes early so that you can overhear the conversations that other kids have. Of course, you try to listen in (covertly) to conversations your child may have with friends who come over, to pick up on new phrases that the kids think are cool or funny.

The point is, this kind of slang should become PART of our children's vocabulary -- not an overwhelming percentage. Sometimes Will is drawn to a certain phrase, thinking it's cool, and use that particular phrase too much. We try and remind him that any words, used too much, can become monotonous. Eventually, this kind of use of current phrases will not seem so forced, and will gradually become part of your child's vernacular.

Most of all, parents can do a lot of good if they kiddingly use the current slang at the dinner table. Joke around, use the phrases that the kids are saying -- nothing's funnier than hearing an old person say "jiggy wid it"! [p.s. -- "jiggy wid it" is very outdated, according to my teenagers! Apparently I'm not very "with it" in my phrases -- time to go listen in on more conversations!]

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Singing as an integrative tool

Is your child resistant to singing? Ours has been in the past. Everything ran smoothly along as long as we were singing what HE wanted to sing. But, of course, we didn't all want to sing [as much as we loved it] the Sponge Bob, Square Pants theme song! Unfortunately for Will, there is always a very diverse group of people in his mini-van, all vying for a different spot on the radio. In any given road trip, we could be listening to Chopin, Earl Klugh, Dashboard Confessional, the Flogging Mollies, The Beatles, hymns, John Mayer, Shaka Khan, or Green Day!

We've all had to learn the words to songs we loved, songs we hated, songs we were tired of, and songs we tolerated. I think it's part of any lifestyle that ANYONE should learn this skill. But there is something about music that can teach kids on the ASD spectrum about give-and-take in an almost effortless manner. This kind of teaching also utilizes age-appropriate information. At some point, the Sponge Bob Square Pants theme will be out of date, and the words to a Green Day song (or some other current band) will be more appropriate. It may even give your ASD kid a leg up on the other kids -- if he/she has teenage siblings, they can help in teaching what bands are "current", and the ASD child can figure out what he likes and be that much ahead of his peers.

**NOTE -- In the teaching of "current" band information, parents will have to be incredibly vigilant about knowing what lyrics are being taught, and what lyrics are appropriate for a young child to know. It's very hard to weed through songs and bands that are out now and find the few that tend to not have strong language/explicit language included -- but it IS possible. Just keep in mind that ASD kids are rule-oriented, so if you teach them a rule of "no bad language, no sexually explicit lyrics", they will generally hold to that concept like a bulldog -- one of the many positive things about ASD kids! **

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