HELP FOR PARENTS OF CHILDREN WITH ASPERGER'S & HIGH-FUNCTIONING AUTISM

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Help for Asperger’s & HFA Kids Who Are Overwhelmed by Social Situations

A common experience among children with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) is being overwhelmed in social situations. A child with social anxiety faces sensory overload as well as extreme feelings of nervousness around people. As a result, he or she feels uncomfortable participating in many everyday social situations. Children with social anxiety usually interact easily with parents, siblings, and a few close friends. But noisy crowds, meeting new people, going to new places, or engaging in new and unfamiliar activities can be highly stressful. Instead of enjoying social activities, children with social anxiety dread them — and avoid some of them altogether.

Social anxiety can affect an AS or HFA child’s life in many ways. For example, it can keep him or her from reading aloud in class, volunteering an answer in class, or giving a presentation. He or she may feel too nervous to ask a question in class or go to the teacher for help. Social anxiety not only prevents these “special needs” children from trying new things, it also prevents them from making the normal, everyday mistakes that help them improve their social skills still further.  Social anxiety may also prevent the AS or HFA child from chatting with classmates in the lunchroom or on the playground, joining an after-school club, or going to a party.

What can parents do to assist their AS or HFA child in expanding his or her social circle?

Many moms and dads report that they simply wish it was easier for their youngster to make friends and to be less inhibited in social situations. If your youngster is experiencing social anxiety that is interfering in his life, there are several strategies you can employ to address this problem.

Here are 20 ways to help your AS or HFA child feel more comfortable in social situations: 

1. Most kids enjoy sleepovers as a special activity with their friends. However, some children on the autism spectrum report feeling afraid of going to others' homes for sleepovers. Many feel this way due to social anxiety and fears of separating from the parent. Parents can start to help their child feel more comfortable by encouraging sleepovers at a relative's house (e.g., grandparent, aunt, etc.). The youngster should be encouraged to talk about her specific fears about sleepovers so that mom and dad can help her deal with each of these fears directly. Also, moms and dads can encourage their AS or HFA youngster to invite friends to their house first for a sleepover so that she can become used to the activity.

2. Allow your youngster to feel and express his emotions – including anxiety – without the fear of reprisals.

3. If your child’s social anxiety is extreme, you may want to ask your physician about medication. This may be given for just a short time as your child learns ways to get comfortable in situations that have been difficult.

4. Build your youngster’s personal strength through praise and finding things at which he excels. Also have him do jobs around the house so he knows he is contributing to the household.

5. Parents can encourage their youngster to set up "play dates" with other children. Before the youngster leaves school for summer vacation, mom or dad can encourage her to get a list of all her classmates' phone numbers. The youngster can have a special address book or small notebook where her classmates can sign-in their name and phone number. During those summer days when there are no activities scheduled, she can refer back to the list of school friends' numbers to invite a friend over to play.

6. Don't continually reassure your anxious youngster. Let her learn by doing things on her own. Teach her to answer her own questions, and show you believe in her.

7. Exposure therapy is a good method for overcoming excessive anxiety around people. Starting with situations that are not too threatening, you might arrange for your child to practice surviving social encounters (e.g., asking a cashier how much something costs, saying ‘hi’ to the greeter at Walmart, reading a poem to everyone at the dinner table, etc.).

8. Keep your own fears to yourself, and let you youngster know it's safe to explore the world around him.

9. Dance, Boy/Girl Scouts, sports and other clubs are excellent places for AS and HFA kids to meet peers with similar interests. Parents should engage their youngster in a discussion of his interests and help him join a club to develop a hobby (e.g., music, art, model building, karate, etc.). (As a side note, it has been my experience that a lot of kids on the spectrum tend to love karate!)

10. You may want to ask your child to keep a diary of her thoughts as she goes through the day. Sometimes recording your thoughts about uncomfortable social encounters – and what you imagine other people may be doing or saying at the time – will help you develop a new perspective.

11. Set expectations for the anxious youngster the same way you would for any other kid; however, understand the pace may be slower, and it may require more work to get there.

12. AS and HFA kids are better able to enter a feared situation – and are less likely to avoid it – when they have a skill to help them relax before entering the feared situation. There are many relaxation CDs for autistic kids to help them learn the skill of progressive muscle relaxation using positive imagery. Through the use of the CDs, these kids can learn to relax themselves in numerous situations that cause them fear.

13. Host a neighborhood get-together, a cookout, a playgroup with both parents and kids, or a music group. These are ways to help AS and HFA kids practice being around peers and other grown-ups.

14. Set consequences for inappropriate behavior, but don't confuse anxiety-related behaviors with “misbehavior.”

15. Scripting is another method to help alleviate social anxiety. Your child can prepare, in advance, a script or some responses to use when placed in an awkward situation. This will help make those situations less threatening.

16. Work together with the other adults (e.g., spouse, teacher, coach, etc.) in your child’s life so he gets a consistent message across settings.

17. Let your youngster know that it is perfectly normal to feel a little hesitant about certain social situations, or meeting new people for the first time. Also, it is natural to feel a bit nervous about raising your hand in class to ask the teacher for help, giving an oral report to the class, or talking to a total stranger. This anxiety is normal, and it will go away the more your youngster practices the situations that he is most anxious about.

18. Role play social situations that have been difficult. For example, some anxious children refuse to call their friends due to fears that they will not know what to say. Role play these and other situations with your youngster (e.g., your youngster can be taught to say something like, "It would be great if you could come over to my house sometime next week! Do you want to get together to play, go swimming, or have dinner?").

19. Acknowledge and praise successes in social situations. Tell your youngster how proud you are of her specific successes. Let her know that you enjoy watching her have so much fun with her peers. Applaud her achievements in trying new things (e.g., making a phone call to order pizza for the first time, ordering for herself in a restaurant for the first time, etc.). Tell your youngster exactly what you like about her behavior, and you will likely see this behavior increase. Also, acknowledge “attempts” at social successes, whether the attempt was successful or not (e.g., “I noticed you tried to talk to your friend, but she was preoccupied with something else and didn’t hear you. Good job. Maybe try again later.”).

20. I’ve saved the best for last: Social skills training may be the greatest method for dealing with social anxiety. Your child can take classes or receive specific training to help him overcome certain fears (e.g., making good eye contact, walking in the school hallways between classes, coping with unstructured time such as lunch, etc.). Assertiveness training and learning positive body language can also be taught in social skills classes.

Over time, the coping methods listed above can help your AS or HFA child control the symptoms of social anxiety – and prevent a relapse. Remind your child that she can get through anxious moments, that her anxiety is short-lived, and that the negative consequences she worries about so much rarely come to pass.

Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management

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