Can Children with Aspergers Learn to Become Great Communicators?
Unfortunately many people continue to believe that children who have been diagnosed with Aspergers Disorder are limited in their ability to develop effective social skills. If so than the next logical question might be where is this thereshold and exactly where does the limit in their potential exist? Another valuable question may also be where is the body of that that clearly defines this limitation. A better and more accurate approach might be to acknowledge that an individual's potential is limitless.
Recently I was asked a question by a mother of a child who has been diagnosed with Aspergers Disorder. The question which I believe was thought provoking and worthwhile was asked after I made the statement that children wiith Aspergers are extremely capable of developing effective social skills. The parent asked if their social skills development would be a separate issue from their ability to develop a strong sense of compassion and empathy for others and other individuals experience.
Through many years of working with children who would today be defined as having Autism Spectrum Disorder there is often a quality of what I we might call unhealthy attachment. Some children might negociate with others to get their needs met or relate to others for the purpose of getting what they want. This does not mean that they have no caring for others, however, they may lack a sense of empathy for another individual or experience. When I was a young therapist working with children with severe autism we were encouraged to control the enviornment at times so that the child would have to relate to us to get what they wanted. Our goal in addition to this strategy was to establish a trusting relationship with the child.
I don't believe that anyone knows the answer regarding what degree a child on the spectrum can develop compassion or empathy. We do have research findings that clearly demonstrate that “normal” individuals can develop a greater sense of compassion by practicing compassion meditation. Even in these circumstances the individual must have motivation to develop a deeper level of compassion for himself and others.
Although we may not know to what degree any individual might develop their ability to become empathetic or compasionate, we do no for a fact that any individual can improve their ability to relate to others more effectively. The question than becomes “what can we do to help chldren with Autism Spectrem Disorder or any other disorder who have poor social skills develop their ability to relate more productively to the world around them”.
What are some of the challenges we face while helping children develop more effective social skills? Issues related to perception, compulsivity and oppositional behavior may challenge parents or health care workers in their efforts to make progress toward meeting goals related to social skills development. Children themselves typically have no motivation to make changes in this area. I often jokingly tell parents that six year old children are not highly motived for personal growth. How many 40 year old individuals do you know that are motivated for personal growth if life circumstances don't challenge them. Children are interested in what gives them pleasure in this moment for the most part and have much less concern regarding their future than adults..They also lack knowledge related to the world and the skills in all areas which are essential for them to develop.
What can we do to help children relate more effectively to the world around them. The first thing is to remember that children are always watching us. Just as they learned to develop language (both appropriate and inappropriate) by watching and listening to parents and others in their enviornment they, will also learn to model complex communication patterns related to listening, appreciation of others space, and conflict resolution when this is repeatedly demonstrated. Through parents efforts at providing structure, clarifyhing personal boundaries, understanding emotions, and being taught how to express themselves in more appropriate ways they will eventually learn to develop more effective habits of communication and self-expression.
Children with special circumstances unfortunately need parents who have better parenting and communication skills that the average parent. If we are reactive and impulsive our children will learn to be impulsive and reactive no matter what their diagnosis. If we are patient and understanding they are likely to develop these qualities as well. The carrot is always better than the stick and we can work diligently to reward positive and successful behavior. Behavior modification and behavior charts can be extremely helpful in developing improved and compliant behavior which will later develop into positive habits. Children need accountability and need to learn that if their behavior that is not socially appropriate they will not be rewarded. This may sound harsh but the world can be harsh.
Our children need to learn to relate effectively and develop their full potential. The more they relate effectively to the world the more the world will relate kindly to them. Like the song says “If I am good to the river the river will be good to me”.
Does this sound like we don't want children to be themselves? In my view not at all. We all need guidelines and a gentle structure. Even as adults we need to impose this gentle structure upon ourselves. How many of us don't want to go to work but we do it anyway because we need the money and know will life will be tough without it. A degree of dicipline is how we take care of ourselves and avoid the stress related to not having a job or enough money to live the way we want. In addition how many of us have wanted to say sometning impulsively to our employer because we didn't want to risk the consequences of our impulsive behavior. As we develop the ability to develop improved self control and self regulation it makes it easier for us as adults go get along at home, at work, and in our community.
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