Growing up, I received a lot of feedback about my behavior, but it wasn't the kind of feedback that helped me make better decisions. I know that you want to help your kids make better decisions, as did my parents, but something was missing.
Lost in translation, you could say.
When I was 38, I discovered that my quirks, gifts and more than a few of my struggles were the result of Asperger’s Syndrome.
In my research, I’ve come across several articles suggesting what NOT to say to someone with Aspergers - or what not to say to parents of a child on the spectrum. However, all of these articles focused on what not to say to adults.
So, it got me thinking about what NOT to say to kids with Aspergers.
It can be easy to see your child as being the problem, as the one who needs to "learn a lesson" or be “more respectful,” “more caring” or “better-behaved.” But, how often do we turn that pointy finger around - toward our own hearts.
How often do we look inside and say - what do I sound like? How do I come across to my kid?
A pattern of harsh handling or impatience with children erodes our relationship and influences their self-perceptions. Not only will they believe what you say about them - but they will act on it.
I know that having a child on the spectrum can frustrate and confuse your many neuro-typical expectations. I know because I was one of those kids. There was no Aspergers back then, so my parents were just left feeling confused, and so was I.
Why didn’t they understand me?
Why did they say I had no emotion?
Why did they say I was rude?
I was just trying to be clear or accurate or helpful. I notice what remains unseen to you.
Whether you see an exaggerated response or understand the reality of a sensitive system, please know that kids on the spectrum do not intentionally try to ignore expectations or aggravate their elders. Even when you think you've said it enough, made it clear enough, or been gentle enough - sometimes we just perceive more than you can fathom.
We think and communicate about things differently, and all the behavioral training in the world won't fix what's NOT broken. The unique perspective of an Aspie is an integral part of our operating system, and a view which I believe needs to be respected.
If you want to understand and communicate with your child more effectively, here are my top five phrases to never say to a child with Aspergers ... or let's face it, any child, and some alternatives for what to say instead.
The first phrase to lose is -
1. You are too sensitive. / You are overreacting.
You don't even need to replace it - just stop saying it.
This is probably the number one phrase that will send an Aspie into a blinding rage, or a shameful sense of disconnection. Let's just assume the emotional and physical nature of Aspergers includes a hyper- awareness of the world.
What seem like ordinary sights, sounds, smells, and even movements to you can be incredibly difficult for a child with Aspergers to manage.
I heard over and over as a child, "You're too sensitive."
I am not too sensitive. I am highly intuitive and exquisitely adept at perceiving stimuli, and that includes your inner world of pain, stress, and worry and I experience this with an intensity that can short-circuit my central nervous system.
You can't hide your emotions from your Aspie child.
There is this myth that kids with Aspergers lack empathy. Only a neuro-typical could make that assumption. All of the Aspies that I know are extremely empathetic - to the point of it being physically painful.
We're also really good at separating and distancing ourselves from our emotions. We can look at a situation logically and analytically without the burden of emotion, but that does not mean that we don't "feel or notice the feelings of others."
We shut down (or meltdown) because we feel TOO MUCH.
View your child's tantrums as reaction to her perceptions and internal experience, rather than a choice she is making to be defiant, interrupt your peace or cause trouble. In those moments, safety, empathy and your calm presence are what move a child from melt-down to maturity.
My next suggestion is to stop saying -
2. You are so disrespectful. / You are just being defiant.
It is never constructive to be critical. If your child is being disrespectful, he likely feels disrespected. If he is being defiant, he may be attempting to retain his dignity.
I loved when Dr. Shefali Tsabary declared her love for the defiant child in her recent Oprah interview because it is true - the defiant child won't let you use your power to control them. Whatever hypocrisy kids sense, they will mirror it back to you loud and clear.
Defiance is a request to be seen and heard. It is a blanket of armor worn to protect the self.
Instead of assuming your child's intentions - can you inquire about the resistance by building a bridge with words like -
"I never realized how strongly you felt about this."
"I clearly was underestimating your passion."
"I don't like it when you tell me that I'm wrong but I respect that you have a different idea."
"We disagree. I believe we can work this out.”
Disrespect is not something we are born with, and defiance is not a symptom of Aspergers. These actions are bred from a sense of isolation, disconnection and/or feeling unheard.
Aspies will show you the respect and cooperation that you expect you when you walk and talk with honor, and without using blame, shame, judgment, guilt or fear to change behavior.
Next time you want to say -
3. If you would just…! / Why can't you…?
Step back, and remember your child is doing the best she can at that moment.
Nothing makes a child, who is struggling to meet the expectations of adults, feel worse than when you assume she isn't trying to --
do what she's told
As a kid, I always heard, "She's so smart but doesn't apply herself." But no one investigated why I wasn't applying myself. They just assumed I wasn't.
Kids on the spectrum may need lots and lots of repetitive practice and support to accomplish certain tasks. They are also helped if you make your requests visual and break things into smaller steps.
Aspie kids are visually oriented - so remember to "show them what needs to happen and don't tell them." Don't give directions from another room across the house and expect them to be followed.
Many Aspies cannot process verbal instructions. They need to be shown the steps - over and over - for the patterns of expected behavior to take hold.
It is never helpful to presume that your child is not "not trying" or that she could "do it" if she would "just try harder." Your child may actually be struggling with some aspect of the requested action and not able to manage moving from point A to point B.
Help your child reflect where she could make new choices and evaluate the outcome to understand her strengths and weaknesses. Use words like -
“Let's try again.”
“This is a challenge. What could we do instead?”
“I bet there's more than one way to do this. Do you have other ideas?”
“Let's keep these instructions out - that might help.”
“Let's make a list of what worked and didn't work this time.”
I know the reactions sometimes can baffle you, but the next phrase you want to stop saying is -
4. Why would you say that? / What's wrong with you?
Remember to help your child with social interactions rather than interrogating him about his blunders. Kids are doing their best to understand the nuances of the social would without us making their mis-steps the "problem."
If you ask your child why he did what he did, you will either get a blunt response inciting your anger or your child may shut down and give you NO answer, possibly frustrating you even more because you don't understand.
You don't want to burn the bridge to understanding with communication that makes your child feel inadequate, inferior or embarrassed.
The child who laughs when a friend gets hurt or gives unsolicited advice or makes insensitive remarks in an emotionally charged situation does not mean to appear as though he lacks empathy.
Sometimes the discomfort and awkwardness of not knowing what to say, or a passion for problem-solving logic, makes Aspie kids react in ways that seem unkind or uncaring.
"Putting your foot in your mouth" is embarrassing for anyone. If your child responds with an inappropriate remark give quality feedback about what to do next time. Inquire about your child's reactions or point him to notice what is important.
“It seems like you're having a hard time right now.”
“That was unexpected.”
“I'm not sure your friend understood what you meant by that. Let's try telling him again.”
Be straightforward –
“It looks like you were surprised when your sister fell off her chair. I bet that hurt. Let's ask if she's OK.”
Inappropriateness is not a lack of empathy. Don't assume your child doesn't feel for another simply because his expression is not delivered in the ways you are used to.
And finally, you can stop saying -
5. Look at me.
Maintaining eye-contact has been long been touted by discipline experts as "sign of respect."
It’s just not true. Especially for an Aspie, making eye contact can feel like an anxiety-ridden test of strength with no clear purpose.
No clear purpose is just what an Aspie needs to defy your request every time.
First, eye-contact has nothing to do with respect. I had always looked at people's mouths when they spoke. It happened unconsciously, and when I would catch myself looking at their mouths, sometimes I would try and re-direct my focus to the person’s eyes.
No one ever commented, and I never shared my secret gaze with anyone. I had NO idea why I did it until I learned that avoiding eye contact was common for kids with Aspergers.
Looking in someone's eyes tends to distract my focus, but mostly it feels uncomfortable. And when I feel uncomfortable, my anxiety goes up, and my verbal communication skills go down.
So, please stop asking your kids to look at you. It may be driving them to a state of reactivity where the ability to understand and follow what you are saying is compromised.
If your child struggles with making eye-contact, have her use the bridge of the nose - between the eyes - as a focal point.
Trust that you child will look where it feels right and safe to do so and that looking at you doesn't mean she hears you.
The sensitivities and quirks that are so common to this syndrome have their blessings and their downsides, but always deserve your respect. I know that it can confuse and worry many parents who think their children will never "grow out of" those rigid or frustrating behaviors.
Your kids are doing the best they can with the resources they have available, their brains will seek patterns that reinforce the learning messages you are sending. Remember, it's about being conscious - not perfect.