Hi, I’m Craig Kendall, the author of The Asperger’s Syndrome Survival Guide. In today’s issue we will discuss…
Asperger’s Children and Inflexibility –
Tips for Parents
Life Academy – This is part of a series of articles on coping with life with Asperger’s Syndrome written by a young woman with Asperger’s syndrome.
What do people with Asperger’s have a more difficult time with than anything else? Trying new things. You’ll hear it over and over again from families with a child who has Asperger’s syndrome or high-functioning autism. “He’ll only eat two foods. He only wants to wear his orange sweatshirt and green pants. We have to wash them when he’s asleep. He starts screaming if we go a different way home. He won’t even do something he likes if he wasn’t planning on doing it.” On and on. Let’s take a look at why it’s so hard for people with Asperger’s to try new things and what can be done to help them.
Importance of Routine to a Child with Asperger’s Syndrome
People with Asperger’s syndrome live in a world of uncertainty, a world that doesn’t make much sense to them. In order to feel a sense of safety, they develop elaborate routines to help anchor them. Following a routine eliminates the worrying about what comes next that can take so much energy out of a person.
The World Feels More Intense to a Child with Asperger’s Syndrome
Everything feels more intense to a person with Asperger’s syndrome. Things that most people could probably brush off with a shrug or not even notice, gets on our nerves. The siren of an ambulance, the ever changing weather, sights, smells and sounds — all these leave a measureable impact on someone with Asperger’s syndrome.
These stimuli are jarring and hard to recover from. It takes all of the energy the person with Asperger’s syndrome has to recover from. Since we have such a good memory, we remember all of these things the next time you suggest to us to going out to a place where we don’t usually go. Or if it’s a place we’ve gone and had a negative experience, we remember that the ambulance screamed, or the crowds were too big, or there was a scary toy monster that made a lot of noise all of a sudden in the toy store (or the equivalent for an adult).
We might be so afraid of those things happening again, we’ll start screaming out of fear. A lot of people with Asperger’s syndrome don’t have very good emotional regulation skills. Not only do every day stimuli feel more intense and painful, but we often don’t have the coping skills to deal with the intense emotions that these things produce. It’s a recipe for disaster.
New things? Forget it. The amount of anxiety produced by not knowing what we’re going to run in into, the possible overwhelm, and the lack of ability to cope with these stimuli makes this virtually impossible for us to do without trauma.
So what can you do?
Maybe you’re an adult with Asperger’s syndrome inching to break free of the chains that anxiety has over you and explore the world. Or you’re a parent, and there are lots of you out there, who simply wants their child to be able to cope with the normal every day changes and surprises of life. Here are a few things to think about.
1. Start slowly
Identify areas in which you want to work. Trying to go into new stores, for example, or wear different kinds of clothing. Change one thing in the routine. Start with an easy, low stress store, and work your way up. Add more gradually after a feeling of mastery has been achieved with the previous attempt. Never add more before the person is comfortable with the current difficulty level.
2. Plan rewards to look forward to
This is very important. PLAN REWARDS TO LOOK FORWARD TO. The brain is full of so much anxiety about the new thing that you need to do something to subvert it.
So how do you do that? Combine something the person is interested in or even passionate about it with the new thing.
For example, I have trouble going into most buildings because I got to a point where I was overwhelmed to the point of trauma by all the overwhelming sensory stimuli inside them. After not going into any stores at all for several years, I started with chocolate stores. Why? Because once I felt safe and secure enough to try again, my excitement for chocolate and the visual distraction of the chocolate in the store would distract my brain from the anxiety, and I would be okay.
Do this enough times, and it will lead to enough confidence to start branching out.
Hide candy or treats in new clothes. Make a trip in the car on a different route a scavenger hunt of some kind. Promise a favored food for eating an unfamiliar one. Play soothing or favored music on the way to or during a doctor’s appointment. Allow use of a GameBoy or mp3 player in other unfamiliar environments.
The idea is to have something that can distract the brain and replace anxiety with excitement, or at least some degree of calmness.
3. Visualize, visualize, visualize.
The most important thing you can do to help someone get ready for something new is to have them visualize it. Before I do anything new, the night before, I close my eyes and visualize how I will feel (calm and confident), I imagine walking through the doors of the store calmly. I imagine things that might bother me and reacting calmly to them. I walk myself through everything I am going to do and I visualize reacting calmly. This primes the brain for success. It helps override the anxiety response.
If you are dealing with a child, write a social story about what he will do and use emotion words like calm and confident, if he knows what they mean. Read it to him several times or have him read it. Include things that might bother him, and model positive ways of reacting to and dealing with these stimuli. (Leaving if necessary, covering one’s ears, telling an adult, taking deep breaths, thinking about something happy, thinking of the reward ahead, etc.) In this way, you are starting to teach your child coping skills.
4. Have a safe and comfortable environment for your child to come back to.
Don’t plan anything stressful after the event. Let your child zone out with video games or whatever relaxes him. If he knows that he will be able to do something that makes him feel comfortable after the event (therefore returning to emotional baseline), he might be comfortable enough to risk stepping out of his comfort zone for a short time.
If you try to incorporate elements of each of these things into your plan (and it should be a plan, not a spur of the moment thing), then you or your loved one should find it much easier to be able to expand their world. Remember, it’s not supposed to be easy, we’re just aiming for possible. But with possible eventually comes the promise of a new routine and a more ease in doing the activity.
And, of course, the best tip for parents or anyone with a loved one with Asperger’s syndrome or high functioning autism is to learn as many tips and techniques as possible. And a great source of knowledge are the books by Craig Kendall on Asperger’s syndrome.