Of all the things I imagined I would have to teach my child, how to talk to kids his own age wasn’t one of them. One of the biggest issues facing people with Asperger Syndrome is reading and understanding social cues. These cues include anything from tone of voice to body language. Subtle changes in facial expression are lost on them, a friendly clap on the back can be mistaken for aggression, or they take sarcasm seriously.
My son got in the car one day and asked me, “What’s ‘hanging out’ mean?” I was thinking my pre-teen, of all things, should know what hanging out is. Now, I find myself in the unique position of trying to explain “hanging out” and why people do it. It wasn’t the only time I found myself trying to explain the alien behavior of the people around him. I’ve had to correct his use of words that others have told him mean something incorrect. I’ve had to act unsurprised on the outside while reeling with shock inwardly at his naivety about the inappropriateness of things people have talked him into doing. I’ve had to console him when he realized that someone he thought was his friend was only coming over to steal his video games. He would cry and ask me, “Why would he do that? He’s my friend!” I would have to explain the harsh reality that tons of people in this world only pretend to be a friend because they want what we have.
Over time, I learned about using social stories to teach the lessons the rest of us take for granted. Social stories, when used correctly, can teach a child just about anything he would normally pick up in regular interaction with other kids. Since social interaction was almost nonexistent for my child until recently, he did not pick these things up. He does not know how to greet another person appropriately. Until just this year, his standard greeting would be, “Hi, I’m Trent. What operating system do you use?” While most adults and just about every child he encountered stared at him blankly, I would find myself explaining that kids with Asperger’s have a particular obsession; his is computers, and he wanted to know what kind of computer software people used. We have worked on this particular skill since he was able to talk, and, after twelve years, he’s finally getting it.
Children with Asperger Syndrome cannot read the facial expressions of others, nor do they know how to use their own face to express emotions. The result of this is sometimes a very monotone voice with a flat look that may come across as disconnected with the world around them. The truth is these kids very much want to be part of what their typically developing peers are doing. My son tells me that his favorite thing about talking to people is, “When they listen and when they say what they mean.” Since reading body language is difficult, he prefers people to say exactly what is on their minds. If they are confused by something he has said, he would rather them say, “I don’t understand,” instead of just scrunching up their brow. Most times, he doesn’t even recognize that their expression has changed, and people tend to think he is being rude when he doesn’t respond. It leaves him feeling confused at what just took place and why it went badly. He is also adamant that people not give him generalizations, such as, “in a little while,” or “later today.” He will press for a specific time, and, while this can be a good thing at times, it can also end badly when you don’t do what you are supposed to at exactly the time you said.
He has learned to ask people what is on their minds when he isn’t sure. If there is a long silence in conversation, or if he catches himself in a monologue instead of in dialogue with another person, he will ask, “Are you interested in what I’m saying?” When we talk to people, usually, we can tell by the way they may shift their weight from foot to foot, or glance at their watch, or look away while we talk that they are losing interest with the conversation. Not so with people who have Asperger’s. They can learn to read these cues, but it is difficult for them, and it takes years of practice to master it.
Another way to teach social skills to children with Asperger’s is through peer support groups. My son’s school has set up a group like this for him. Other students, his peers, learn about his particular social needs. They meet twice a week, once with my son present and once with just the Speech Therapist. These kids are there to help him understand pragmatics, or social language. Kids have their own unique way of talking to one another. Imagine if you are submerged every day among people, and everything you hear them say is like being in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language. This can cause acute frustration just making it through a school day, not only because you don’t get what people are saying to you, but also because, sometimes, they ridicule you for it. The resulting anger, frustration, sadness and alienation can manifest itself in behaviors such as yelling out, saying inappropriate things, emotional outbursts and not making any friends.
My son likes his peer support group very much. He says, “They’re nice and they help me. It’s better than the adults. They’re more comfortable.” He receives the social lessons that are so crucial to surviving in this world better from his peers than he does from a clinician or adult he sees as having all the power. When he can rely on the people around him to nudge him and give him hints at how to navigate the world, the result is a much happier child with less of the negative results of social alienation.
Of course, at times, my son likes to retreat into his own world. He is obsessed with computers and electronics of any kind. When I don’t understand how he can spend so much time researching how many terabytes are in a gigabyte, he’s content to explain by telling me, “It’s an Aspie thing, Mom.”