Q. I have a 13-year-old boy with a diagnosis of Aspergers Syndrome. It has always been a challenge to bring him up, but of late it has become much harder since he has become a teenager. He has no friends, finds school very hard socially (though seems to be doing okay academically) and although he doesn’t say as much I think he feels very alone. I worry a lot about him and the future. How can I help him?
A. Asperger syndrome (AS) is an autism spectrum disorder which results in children having particular difficulties in social relationships (often finding it hard to empathise and read people) as well as social communication (often missing subtle communications such as humour, tone of voice, etc).
In addition, children and young people with AS tend to have restricted or repetitive interests, can find change harder than most (preferring rigid routines) and some have particular sensory sensitivities (for example, finding noisy rooms more distressing than other people). Children with AS are at least average or above-average intelligence and many can cope with and do well in mainstream school.
Adolescence can be a particularly difficult time for a child with AS, when fitting in peer groups and making friends becomes centrally important. Getting on with peers the same age can be very hard for teens with AS and this can cause them to “cut off” or to become more isolated than before. Being acutely aware of this, they can often become depressed at this time and may need more support than the average teenager in managing all of these issues.
As his parents, there are a lot of different things you can do to help. The long-term aim is to help your son find his niche in life and friends who accept him for who he is. Helping him mix with other people who share his special interests and hobbies can be a good start. Lots of young people with AS find mixing with teenagers the same age the hardest, where fitting in and knowing the social code is at its most pronounced.
However, it can be easier to get on with younger or older teens or even adults who may be less judgmental, particularly if they share the same interests and hobbies. If your son is interested in chess, for example, he is more likely to find his niche and a more accepting social group within a chess club that includes lots of different age groups.
You can also support him making friends by persisting in exposing him to new social opportunities that ideally match his interests and facilitating him making contact with or visiting any potential friends. If he is open to the idea, you can also coach him in the social skills needed to make friends. For example, you can discuss with him the skills of approaching new kids, such as waiting for a good time to talk and making sure to first ask about what they are interested in before launching into his own special topic. Or you can help him learn to judge other people’s emotions in social situations, as well as learning strategies to appropriately express his own feelings.
There are lots of very good social skills workbooks and books for teens and young adults with AS that look at these very topics. These include The Social Success Workbook for Teens by Barbara Cooper, which looks at skill-building activities for teens with AS and other social skill problems, and Succeeding in College with Asperger Syndrome – A Student Guide by John Harpur, which is suitable for older teens.
In addition, there are some good Irish support organisations such as Aspire (aspireireland.ie) or Autism Support Ireland (autismsupport.ie) that contain useful information and details of available services. For example, Aspire runs drama classes for children and young people with AS which may be suitable for your son.
Another important source of support is your son’s school which you should consider contacting to discuss your concerns. The fact that he is doing well in school is an advantage, and they might be able to support him making friends and even identify possible peer groups within the classroom or after-school groups where he might be more likely to fit in and enjoy.
If you have not done so already, it might be useful to sit down with him and discuss what AS means and to listen to how he feels about the diagnosis and how he wants to approach the problems he encounters. This is a delicate conversation, but if handled well can help him understand how he is different and the challenges this brings, but also the benefits or particular strengths he has. You could also point him in the direction of some of the positive role models of people with AS who have made a great contribution in society. Many creative geniuses such as Albert Einstein or WB Yeats are considered by some experts to have been on the autistic spectrum.
Once again, there are many great books which describe the experience of having AS that you could read with your son including personal accounts written by teenagers such as Freaks, Geeks Asperger Syndrome by Luke Jackson or comprehensive professional accounts by leading experts such as The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome by Tony Attwood. In addition, there are many forums and blogs on the internet that promote a positive view of AS for teenagers and allow them to gain mutual support.
Parenting a child with AS is challenging at the best of times and the teenage years bring new worries and concerns such as making friendships, career or living independently in the future.
While it is easy to feel alone, it is important to realise that many parents have gone through what you are experiencing. I recommend you make contact with the support organisations listed in this article. In general, parents rate the advice, support and information from other parents bringing up children with AS as the most valuable.
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times, January 2011. John writes in The Irish Newspaper Health+ every Tuesday.