Parents often ask me when they should talk to their kids about Asperger's or autism. I don't think there is a hard and fast answer, but in my opinion, the time to discuss brain differences is when the teen years are close. Before then, most kids won't be able to grasp the idea of why and how their brain is different from other people's. Any attempt to "label" them runs the risk of being counterproductive and damaging to their vulnerable self-esteem.
So what should a parent say to a young child with Asperger's? And how can they guide their child through the difficult early years in a way that most helps them grow into a happy, productive adult? Here are a few tips derived from my own life as a free-range Aspergian and my experience raising my son Cubby, who's now a fine young adult Aspergian himself.
1) In the early years, the most important task is developing communication skills.
In today's interconnected world, the ability to communicate effectively is the most important skill you can give a child, after he masters the basics of hygiene and behavior. Study after study has shown that kids with autism who receive intensive therapy -- 20 to 40 hours per week -- have far better outcomes as adults as compared to kids who are left to develop on their own. There are many cases of five-year-olds who could barely hold a conversation developing fully normal speech as adults, thanks to early intervention. There seems to be a critical window of time prior to age 10 during which kids can pick up these vital skills far more easily. If the window of opportunity is missed, the result may be lifelong communication impairment and significant disability. Some kids with autism prefer to relate through speech, while others choose written communication. Ideally, you'll help your child build his strength in both areas.
2) Find your child's unique strengths, and build them up.
Young children are diagnosed with autism or Asperger's when they can't accomplish or perform a task as well as their peers can and an adult takes notice. The child may not be able to make friends, or she may fail at school or something else. Besides a diagnosis, these failures lead to weak self-esteem, frustration and alienation. How can you combat those emotions in a child?
In my opinion, the surest antidote to failure is success. If you can help your child find what she is really good at, you will have given her a wonderful gift that will last a lifetime.
To do that, kids should be exposed to the maximum range of experiences. For example, I was technology-minded, and my parents took me to museums, bought me books on science and helped me experiment with chemistry sets, radio kits, home-built cars and all sorts of scientific toys until I found my strengths -- electronics and mechanics. My skills in those areas led me, as an adult, to my work, to my hobbies and even to my friends.
There's no way to know what your kid may like unless he sees it. It's sort of like offering strange but tasty foods: you can ask all day and get a no, or try it and get a yes and a smile. Once you find their gift, encourage it however you can and give it room to flourish. You'll be amazed with the results.
3) Teach your child the art of peaceful coexistence.
Parents talk an awful lot about helping their kids make friends, something all of us aspire to do. However, there is a social skill that's even more important, and it's actually easier to learn: how to not make enemies.
In my book "Be Different," I describe several strategies that will help an Aspergian achieve this all-important goal. For example, kids must learn to listen first, and then respond to what other people are saying and doing. They can't barge in and try to take over the group, as much as they may want to. Kids need to learn to look and act like the group they want to be part of. That may mean dressing a certain way, or even sitting in a particular place in class. When you learn to blend in, people like you better, and life goes a lot smoother.
Young people with autism have no instinctive understanding of social rules. They must be taught, explicitly, how to behave in common situations. I write about using Emily Post as a guide, but for young children, more basic instruction is needed. In particular, adults should recognize that people with autism have fundamental difficulties seeing the other person's point of view, which makes manners especially difficult to grasp.
All my life, Asperger's has made it tough for me to understand other people. That left me isolated and alone for much of my youth. Fortunately, that situation did not last forever, because "difficult" is not the same as "impossible." Once I knew what was different about me, I charted a course of self-improvement and change, the results of which are simply astonishing. From that perspective of adult success, I wrote "Be Different" to help today's young people benefit from the lessons I've learned. With that insight I hope they go on to even greater success than me.