- Adult Awareness
This invariably seems to come first - from parents, teachers, relatives, other parents and doctors. Usually these adults have enough discretion to avoid talking about the differences in front of the child - particularly if the child is unaware of the problem.
- The Child's Personal Awareness
I hope that this series of posts has served to highlight an important truth - that the aspie becomes self-aware at a fairly early age. They won't know anything about aspergers itself but they will at least sense that they are different.
- Peer Awareness
It also doesn't take long for a child's peer group at school to begin recognising the differences and, depending upon the environment and levels of supervision, taking advantage of them and/or bullying.
To Tell - or not to Tell
There is a very real fear on the part of aspie parents with aspie children that to tell their child would be to change them. Our personalities are all heavily influenced by our experiences and unless we learn to cope with "who we are" by ourselves, there's a chance that we may never gain total independence.
The question is really whether it is possible to tell without losing this independence and without permanent damage to your child's self-esteem.
I can't pretend to know the answers to these questions. I didn't find out about my aspergers until my late thirties, by which time I was fiercely independent - most would say, too independent. It's too early to say whether the approach I've taken with my children was the correct choice or not.
I know a few people who were diagnosed in late childhood and early teens, who have major dependencies. Their self-esteem has never recovered from the implication (by parents and practitioners) that they were something "less than normal". Many of these people spent (and in some cases, are still spending) their teenage years as prisoners of over-protective or curebie parents.
When To Tell
It's my opinion that parents should let their child in on the "secret" soon after self-recognition and well before it becomes an issue. It becomes an "issue" when either the child becomes emotionally affected by their differences (eg: depressed) or when their peers not only perceive the differences but start actively taking advantage of them.
It is probably appropriate to tell your child around age six. This is young enough to avoid the self-esteem problems of unexpected revelation. Waiting until the teenage years to tell your child is possibly "cruel" and potentially self-damaging.
How to tell your Child
Of course, the most important thing about the actual telling is "giving them the correct message".
Here are my tips;
- Find a real-life Idol
Aspergers is a hereditary condition and as such, it shouldn't be too much of a stretch to find other aspies in your family - diagnosed or not.
Try to find someone who has qualities to be admired. If they have a mix of good and bad, then be sure to concentrate only on the positives. Your child is going to find the negatives by themselves soon enough.
Hopefully your Idol will be able to tell your child about mistakes they made, or things they learnt. Stories about embarrasing blunders that others have made can help to drive home the real meanings behind those confusing metaphors that NTs use. Certainly my own children will learn from my experience that "Bring a Plate" means, bring some food on a plate - not just a plate by itself.
If you can't find a related aspie to suit (or even if you can), you should be able to point to one of the many self-confessed or suspected aspies who can easily be found on the internet. Obtaining a book like "Different Like Me: My Book of Autism Heroes" is also a good starting point.
- Educate Others to be Positive
Again, the most important message you can convey is "different" - not "worse". Your child and people around your child need to know that he is "wired differently" and that as a result, his learning and interaction styles will be quite different. Probably one of the best materials for achieving this is the book "All Cats have Aspergers". This book can be read in under 30 minutes and provides one of the best guides to how aspies feel and behave. It's equally suitable for parents/teachers and classmates though I'm not convinced that it should be used in a classroom to highlight a child's differences - that sounds a little close to discrimination.
- Work "with" the Condition
Parents, relatives and teachers need to become "evangelists" for the child. There are plenty of positives which need to be highlighted and the child will need praise/rewards when they successfully negotiate the negatives (for example; when they successfully control a meltdown).
Your child's IEP should be tailored specifically towards Aspergers and in particular, it should use the strengths of the condition to assist in addressing the weaknesses. It is critical that you, your child and your child's teachers recognise these strengths. An example of this would be a greater reliance on visual and experiential learning - aspies remember events and sequences better than facts. It's well worth using historical and science programs on TV to your advantage in this regard.
Then there's the special interest. It's a major driver of aspie behaviour and learning. Allow your child to read and write about their favourite things. Don't worry that they're stuck reading only a single genre or series but instead seek to find more complex materials that bear a passing link to the special interest. That way, they'll keep learning and their special interest will drive that learning.
- Maintain Positives
Above all, you must always maintain the positives. Your child should be encouraged to give things a try but on their own terms. For example; they should be sent to get things from shops under minimal supervision. The only way that they're going to learn about human behaviour is to be exposed to it - both good and bad.
If your child makes a mistake during play or conversation, teach them how to "fix it", how to apologise and how to regain lost friends. You'll also have to teach them when to "cut their losses" with regard to unreliable friends. One of the worst things you can do is decide that having friends is "too difficult" for them and keep them locked up away from friends.