Wednesday, January 9, 2013

My Kid with Asperger's Syndrome

Today's post is something a little different from my usual (and not because I don't have plenty of material for the next chapter of minor domestic disasters). Recently I was asked to do a guest blog post by teacher Danielle Filas, a woman who has taken her fearlessness, intelligence, creativity, and energy and applied them to the classroom. She and I became friends and roommates in college, and I'm happy to say that although we are now separated by several time zones, our friendship knows no distance. (Though I do occasionally pout that it is highly unlikely any of my boys will have the privilege of being in her classroom.) I was honored to be asked to write this post about Asperger's Syndrome, which Son #1 was diagnosed with at the age of four. I highly recommend following Danielle's blog, EduNerd, for thought-provoking insight on teaching, learning, and infusing education with passion and creativity. (Did I mention I'm bummed she doesn't teach my kids?)

I'm cross-posting here because I think that while my post was originally written to offer some insight to teachers, the information in it can be of use to anyone who knows someone with an autistic spectrum disorder.

My Kid with Asperger’s Syndrome

My oldest son is twelve, and he was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at age four. I’ve got plenty of stories about how this has affected his time in preschool and then in school, but I decided I would start by asking him what he thinks teachers should know about kids with Asperger’s. He thought for a second, and then said, “I think they should know that it makes them more emotional.”


People with Asperger’s are often thought of as emotionless: flat affect, no empathy. The truth (as I see it, anyway) is that the problem is one of communication. My son didn’t come with the wiring that allows him to automatically understand the meaning of nonverbal gestures, tone of voice, or body language. But he himself has all the feelings that those things express. And he empathizes strongly with other people. His difficulty with nonverbal communication makes him slow to pick up on the nuances. The contrast between his own feelings (like everyone else’s) and his ability to tap into the sea of nonverbal communication that we are all awash in every day (slow compared to everyone else’s) tends to make him anxious.

So he reacts differently than other kids his age might. On the last day of school before winter break, I came home to a message from the coordinator at his magnet middle school. My son had misplaced his lunch box, and was upset. The coordinator assured me that they would make sure my son had a lunch. I could imagine the scene: my son hyperventilating, probably crying, sure the problem couldn’t be fixed because his emotions were overwhelming his ability to problem-solve.

This kind of meltdown is fortunately less common with him these days, thanks to techniques his teachers have used throughout the years to not only help him get past difficult moments, but to keep them from occurring in the first place.

"Clouds" by C. Frank Stramer
The most important thing to know about an Asperger’s meltdown is that you have to let it pass before you can deal with the problem that triggered it. Period. No exceptions. (For an inside perspective, read this take written by an adult with Asperger’s). My son in non-meltdown mode is sweet, compliant, logical, and thoughtful. During a meltdown, he and all of those wonderful qualities have left the building. The best thing you can do is to provide a safe spot (maybe even just a chair in a quiet part of the room) for him to calm down. This includes keeping well-meaning classmates away, because even their attempts to soothe him (“Are you okay?”) can add fuel to the mental fire. He’s not throwing a fit to try to manipulate anyone, and yes, he really is out of his own control. My son describes it as “losing his thinking,” and that’s exactly what happens to him.

Unfortunately, my son has experienced a couple of spectacular fails in regard to this principle in his school years. His first grade teacher never could quite understand that if he had done something wrong, she had to wait until he was done freaking out over how horrible he was before she could impose a consequence for his behavior. She unwittingly made more than one meltdown worse than it needed to be, and he left first grade anxious about school in general. In fifth grade, when he had a meltdown on the playground and lashed out physically at his then-best friend, a well-meaning school administrator tried to get the boys to reconcile while my son was still freaking out. Instead, my son told the other boy that he hated him and never wanted to be friends again; he repented less than two hours later, when he had his emotions under control, but by then it was too late. It would have been much better to separate my son from the other student than to attempt a technique that may work well for typical students, whose emotions cool faster and may not completely overwhelm them in the same way.

Fortunately, the highlights of my son’s education vastly outnumber these sad chapters. His second grade teacher was militant about making sure my son had an undisturbed place to calm down if he needed it. In fourth grade and up he had a break card that allowed him to go sit outside the classroom for a moment, no questions asked, if he felt that he was getting overwhelmed and needed to calm down before he hit meltdown stage. (The ironic part is that by fifth grade, just knowing that he had the option to take a break was almost always enough to calm him to the point where he didn’t need to actually take one.) Using self-checklists, where my son took a moment to monitor his own emotions and behavior, or talking to him directly about the things that can influence our moods (such as being hungry or tired), helped him to be more in tune with his own emotional state.

One of the best ways to keep him (and other Asperger’s kids) on an even keel is to make the school environment as predictable as possible. His teachers through the years have made smart use of calendars, schedules, and visual aids to ensure that my son knew what to expect out of each school day. (This is something I think most teachers do anyway for all their students, but Asperger’s kids eat it up.) The less uncertainty my son has about what is going on, the happier he is. Right now his favorite teacher is his algebra teacher, who structures his class the same way each day and makes his expectations clear. My son repeats one of Mr. R’s favorite catchphrases: “No surprises!” as if he has won the lottery. Having a generally stable environment helps him to “roll with it” when something unexpected does happen.

Jay's Thought Stream
My son is an individual, and his experience in school and with Asperger’s is unique. Each student you have with Asperger’s will also be a unique individual. They will be impressively capable in some areas and bafflingly behind in others. Their skills are real and their deficits are real. The little things you do for them, like making sure they have the right seating placement in the classroom, can make a huge difference. My bright, beautiful boy has grown into a thoughtful and responsible young man under the care of his teachers (and a moment to brag: he brings home excellent grades!). As a parent whose child has benefited from the help given by thoughtful teachers over the years, I want to say thank you for taking the time to read this; I hope it helps you develop great relationships with your own Asperger’s students. 

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Enjoying the View of a New Year

So it's about that time when those earnest New Year's resolutions start dropping like flies, we're all just getting the hang of writing "2013" on our checks, and regular life is taking over from where the holidays dropped us off. I can't say that I really made any specific resolutions this year; at age forty, I know all of the things that I should do (exercise more often, drink more water and less alcohol, write in months other than November [speaking of which, I made my word count in NaNoWriMo, thanks for asking!], read more good books, be less cranky, etc.) and I also know at times this year I will do well in some of those areas and poorly in others. The best I can do is try to make good choices when I can, one decision at a time.

What I found myself thinking, though, was how much better I felt at the start of this year than at the start of 2012. When 2012 dawned, I was still neck-deep in a series of commitments that I had started with enthusiasm in previous years but which taken together were overwhelming me. I knew an end was in sight, but it was many months away. In the meantime I was waking up with panic attacks nearly every day and spending much of my time being irritable and distracted. (Okay, much MORE of my time. I'm not exactly Ms. Warm and Fuzzy most of the time, but when your family starts to treat you as if you're going to go off at any moment like a carelessly handled tube of nitroglycerin, you know you have a problem.) I like being busy, accomplishing things, being responsible, and making a difference, but I had overextended myself so far that my life had become a to-do list, and I barely felt like I was staying one step ahead of what I needed to do.

This year, many of those commitments had been handed off months before. Admittedly, I woke up with a panic attack on December 26th thinking about all the undone tasks related to Son #1's rapidly approaching bar mitzvah, but it has been several months since a panic attack was my regular alarm clock. I've taken up some regular exercise (well, semi-regular over the holidays while the kids were home), given up Diet Coke, and revived this blog, which I had started the summer of 2011 in a burst of what I thought was optimism but which was actually desperation. I curbed my volunteerism at school somewhat, choosing tasks where I can help but where I don't have to call the shots. I've made some progress at getting the house in order, though admittedly a lot less than I had hoped to. I'm not exactly where I want to be yet (maybe not even in the same time zone), but I feel like the road I'm on is taking me there for a change.

It's nice to start a new year feeling happy about the steps I've made in the right direction instead of dwelling on the multiple areas in which I have failed. It almost gives me hope that this will be the year I find the floor of my garage, get rid of every unnecessary piece of paper in the house, succeed in getting my boys to put their dirty socks in the hamper every single time...and win the lottery. Okay, maybe not. But at least I'm starting this year in the sure knowledge that the light at the end of the tunnel I was stuck in at the start of 2012 was not, thankfully, an oncoming train. Here's hoping that your 2013 is full of positive potential too.