Ask any parent and they will tell you that children can be difficult. For parents of children with Asperger's Syndrome, there are added complications. Children with a diagnosis of Aspergers Syndrome can have social impairments, such as limited understanding of verbal and non-verbal communication. Parents may have to make special allowances.
However, there are some things to understand and some tips that might help. This is by no means a tailor-made guide to parenting. Some strategies that work brilliantly for other children may have no effect on your child. Knowing what works for you and your children will come through experience. And keep in mind that sometimes breakthroughs will come at unexpected times!
The first thing to consider is your child’s age. It is important to take into account both their actual age and their age in terms of abilities.
What you may consider to be a simple task, maybe completely alien or incomprehensible to your child.
If your child is an adolescent, it is important to keep in mind not just their issues but also issues that affect all adolescents. Teenagers prioritise being ‘normal’ and fitting in with friends, so a diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome can feel like a disaster at this stage of life. The most important message to reiterate to children at this age is to be happy in themselves. It is also good for your child to have an awareness of their strengths and weaknesses. A skill or an activity that your child enjoys and has a talent for can actually act to calm your child in times of distress. By having an awareness of any weaknesses, you and your child can work together to help them acquire new skills.
It applies to all parenting that telling a child ‘No’ without any further explanation is not a good idea. Due to relative social impairments of Asperger Syndrome sufferers, clarity of communication is especially important. It is important that your child understands why certain behaviors are undesirable, and what alternatives would be more appropriate. The most important thing is to ensure that your child is not just repeating your own words back to you without actually understanding. Remember that your child is keen to please you, and they will sometimes act in accordance with your expectations, regardless of their own thoughts and feelings.
You may also want to decide which information presentation method is best for your child. Many individuals with Asperger Syndrome find it easiest to process information that is presented in a visual form. The creation of charts, calendars could be extremely worthwhile. You could consider using email. Emails present information in a clear way and they can also be viewed multiple times. This could save you repeating yourself! You could also employ social stories. These are short descriptions, usually with visual aids, that inform children what to expect in certain social situations and why. These can be extremely useful and can also be revisited if need be.
It is important to have set rules and boundaries for your child. It is even more important that everyone who has contact with your child sticks to these rules. There is no use setting a bedtime if mum, dad, granny, grandpa, and the babysitter all have different ideas of what time it should be. Set rules that everybody agrees on and stick to them. This also avoids the ‘good cop – bad cop’ parenting dynamic, which is not only confusing but more than a little unfair to the ‘bad cop’.
Asperger Syndrome and its symptoms are relatively unknown to the general population. If people are unaware, certain behaviors could be difficult for them to understand. For example, if your child starts to feel anxious in a supermarket and decides to leave in a rush, it may look suspicious to bystanders and shop security. Similarly, some Asperger's individuals find it difficult to explain their actions coherently, this can be heightened in stressful situations. Appearances can be deceptive in such situations and tensions can escalate quickly, especially if this is paired with communication deficiencies. A good idea is to have your child carry a card or information sheet that states they have Aspergers and explains a bit about their condition. This could easily be tucked into a wallet. This is a quick, easy method of educating strangers about your child’s social impairments.
Asperger Syndrome can be a lonely, isolating condition for both sufferers and carers. A good support network is very important for both parties. For parents, this can include family, friends, designated support workers, and even online communities. There are some fantastic sites offering help and advice at the click of a button.
Support is also important for your child. Teenagers are notorious for discounting the advice of their parents. They may also be too embarrassed to ask for certain kinds of advice. I don’t know many teenagers who are happy to talk to their parents about their crushes! It can be helpful to have other adult role models to who your children can turn to. These role models could be sports coaches, aunts or uncles, older cousins, or supervisors from activities your child is interested in. Whilst it is important that your children don’t learn to rely on these role models too heavily, your child will really value a second opinion and advice from someone they look up to and trust.
Having friends of a similar age can also be extremely helpful and comforting. However, other children may not understand and can distress your child unintentionally. Meetings and playdates with peers should be supervised for this reason.
As this blog has focused on ‘coping’, it may seem overly negative (and for that, I apologise). But on a happier note, children do behave well too! When these little miracles occur, make sure to praise your children. Positive reinforcement is also vital, and when your child goes out of their way to behave in a particular manner, it is valuable for them to know that you both noticed and appreciated it. Everybody deserves a thank you now and then! If you decide to reward your child, pick a reward that reflects their interests or hobbies. This is more motivating than a generic reward, and it will encourage your child to achieve more goals.
Remember that it is ok to feel overwhelmed. It is ok to ask for help if you feel like this or need help in certain situations. Both you and your child need to keep this in mind. Struggling in silence will not help anyone.
Some days are particularly trying and can feel like repeatedly running into a brick wall. A good idea is to set a word or gesture that can be relayed when either you or your child need a break. This is helpful if you feel a conversation is going in circles, or if one or both parties are becoming tense and emotional. It can be beneficial to calm down, organise your thoughts and think about the situation on your own. You know the feeling, after a disagreement when you think up fantastic points that you wish you had said at the time? This gesture allows you to do just that! Time to gather your thoughts in a tranquil manner allows for perspective and avoids unhelpful arguing in the heat of the moment and a clear presentation between both parties of how you felt, why, and how to avoid this next time.
Finally, do not waste time trying to be the ‘perfect parent’. There is no such thing. It is more important to try and understand your child, and do what is best for them. All we can ever do is try and by doing that you are already being a great parent!
Written by Livvy Jefferson