How parents can help their child face the challenges of Asperger's syndrome

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 September, 2014, 5:44pm
UPDATED : Monday, 29 September, 2014, 5:44pm

My nine-year-old daughter has been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome. Having the diagnosis is useful, so that we know she is struggling and not being defiant or disrespectful in the way she relates to people. But what can we do to help her?

Your daughter is lucky in a way. Many "Aspie girls" are slipping under the radar undiagnosed, and suffer unnecessarily because they are more able to mask their Asperger's traits with learned behaviour. A diagnosis is useful as it offers us insight into the difficulties the child faces, and gives us strategies to lessen the challenges for her, and those who live with her.

Children with Asperger's have one thing in common - they are uncomfortable with themselves. They are frustrated by their weakness in understanding and connecting with others socially. Many shrink their social world further to avoid humiliation and lessen their anxiety.

There is no medication for Asperger's syndrome, but your daughter can learn to manage some of the traits or the "mindblindness". But first we need to know what challenges she is facing. Without background information, I can only offer general advice on the three areas that probably affect her life the most: social interaction, communication, and restricted behaviour.

Limited social skills

Your daughter is likely interested in interacting with others, despite not knowing how to do it. She may seem socially awkward, have difficulty in participating in chitchat, and she may often be targeted as a victim in school and social environments. As she probably has some difficulty understanding social conventions and rules, this might lead to frustration, anger and depression.

She will benefit greatly if she can learn about social cues, how to detect them, and what the appropriate behaviour is in a given situation, in a safe environment without being ridiculed. To help your child, you need to accept the way she is. She might never be a social butterfly, or learn (even cognitively) what is socially acceptable at the rate you think she should.

I have found role-play and card games, such as TableTalk Conversation Cards or Teen Talk, the best way to increase children's receptive and expressive language.

They allow children to learn different ways to express themselves, and provide a framework to rehearse such skills until they feel comfortable in real-life situations.

Speech and language problems

A hallmark of Asperger's is that language use tends to be atypical and eccentric, although not significantly delayed.

An early and comprehensive treatment plan is the best investment for children with Asperger's. We can prevent many unnecessary hardships brought on because of the child's deficit in understanding and relating to others. A good plan can help your daughter, and make life easier to manage for the rest of the family.

In his 2010 book, Doing Therapy with Children and Adolescents with Asperger Syndrome, psychologist Richard Bromfield urges referring children with Asperger's for formal speech and language evaluation. "Language therapy helps the child in ways that go beyond talking. The sooner and younger language therapy begins, the better," he writes.

There is no medication, but your child can learn to manage the traits

If your daughter struggles to express herself using age-appropriate language, or uses language that is "formal and pedantic", finding a speech therapist experienced in working with children with Asperger's would help.

All-absorbing interests

A preoccupation or obsession with certain ideas and topics is another trait that makes it difficult for others to engage in meaningful conversation with children with Asperger's.

Many are teased for being "dictionary heads" or know-it-alls. Yet this characteristic can lead some to very successful careers, due to their ability to focus on particular ideas.

Consistency is a major issue for children with Asperger's, so select your therapist carefully. Ensure that the therapist and your daughter have the right chemistry. It is hard for children with Asperger's to say goodbye once they develop a trusting relationship with someone.

Their inability to show affection and their hunger to connect with people that they understand, make them vulnerable. Contrary to popular belief, their emotions are often strong.

Two boys I worked with disliked the last 10 minutes of our sessions, when we talked about empathy. A week before our last session, both of them (separately, as they didn't know each other) asked me to choose a story related to empathy.

When I asked about their choice, both told me it was because they knew I liked to share stories about empathy, and that I thought the emotion was important for them.

I was touched beyond belief. The incident strengthened my belief that as long as we have faith in children, they can exceed all expectations.

You can also learn how to curb your daughter's obsessions. Set time limits, but do show interest. Remember, this is the way she communicates with you about what matters to her.

Introduce her to activities or subjects that you enjoy. That will deepen your connection with her. Children with Asperger's crave connection. If you show respect and interest in what they do, they are more likely to try something new.

Parent training

The most important aspect of helping your daughter is to get the other family members involved. You need to learn how to manage her at home, as well as pay attention to the needs of her siblings.

Firm and consistent boundaries help children feel safer. Children with Asperger's respond well to routine. With clear rules, you can improve her "if-then" thinking, a life skill that can benefit all children.

As parents, we compare our children to others. We have expectations of their development, and we want them to succeed academically. To bring about meaningful change, we have to accept that our children are simply different, not better or worse.

You need to work with your daughter as a "whole person", and be brave enough to set your own timetable and move at her pace. Don't forget to look after yourself too as you are her main means of support. With planning, your daughter will be able to benefit from many of the traits that come with Asperger's.

Lora Lee is a registered psychologist and parenting counsellor working in private practice as an adjunct to her non-profit organisations counselling work at St John's Counselling