Aspergers Kids & Social Skills: Home & School

Angela Ver Ploeg, came to work as a school psychologist in Alaska in 2000, after years of similar work in Ohio and Tennessee. She has a Master's Degree, and an additional Educational Specialist degree. Van Ploeg has immersed herself in the world of kids and teenagers with Aspergers (High-Functioning Autism), and in learning about their daily lives at school and at home. Her intensive study of Aspergers has made her both an expert and an innovator in the treatment programs she recommends to moms and dads and educators. Her insights about the unusual traits of Aspergers are complex and often profound, but her suggestions for families have an encouraging simplicity and practicality.

When asked about the kids she sees with Aspergers, Ver Ploeg says that often they experience many problems. For example, a very bright youngster was brought to her who was being expelled for the last six weeks of school - and it was the third year in a row in which he had incurred expulsion. For these kids, frustration often mounts because they do not cope well with stress. Many of the stresses they face involve their inability to read social cues as well as other kids do; and consequently, they make social mistakes and are often bullied. But instead of seeing kids with Aspergers as indifferent to their social ineptitude, Ver Ploeg says that kids with Aspergers as young as eight years old suffer an agony of loneliness. One eight year old told her, "I can't make friends. I don't have friends." It is only later, as these kids grow older, that she sees them make an adjustment, and adapt to the lack of a more complete social life. She is certain that at every age they care very strongly for others, even though they often have great difficulty expressing their feelings.

The School Environment—

Schools can exacerbate these problems, or they can help alleviate some of the difficulties that kids and teenagers with Aspergers face. Ver Ploeg tells the story of a young boy who was one of 800 kids in a gym - being supervised by one teacher. A large group of boys started bullying the boy with Aspergers, teasing him about why he was hiding in the corner. Finally he picked up a chunk of broken concrete and threw it at them. He was punished, and sent to her office for counseling. But no one sent the bullies to her office. Clearly, that particular school was unhelpful, and probably should have dealt with the incident very differently. Ver Ploeg says that a simple hall pass, allowing the youngster with Aspergers to remove himself from what must have seemed a threatening and confusing situation, could have solved the problem on that day. Hall passes provided as an outlet for times of social stress, offer a simple, practical solution.

Some smaller schools, such as some of the small rural schools Ver Ploeg works with in Alaska, have fewer problems because they practice an ethic of inclusion. Because all the kids and educators know each other (and perhaps in part because of local cultures emphasizing community), there is more acceptance. Kids get used to someone behaving differently, and use expressions such as, "That is just him" (or her). In these kinds of schools with inclusion settings, bullying is addressed by the whole group. Kids may even explain the situation to each other. The inclusion provides the acceptance that fosters healthier relationships.

School Programs for Aspergers—

The best school programs honor all kids' needs, including the kids with Aspergers, and that may mean, for the Aspergers kids, bypassing much of the regular curriculum and focusing on areas that are interesting to them, and intellectually stimulating. If school is fun and challenging for these kids, and they have opportunities to share their special interests, they will do better both academically and socially. Because many kids with Aspergers are also very bright, the school may have to make extra efforts to meet their needs academically. Ver Ploeg took one youngster to a high school algebra class every day for an hour when the youngster was still in elementary school. Social skills training can be even more of a challenge for the regular school, but several approaches can work well, including teaching problem-solving methods, weekly social skills training sessions, and video-taping kids and letting them see themselves, so that they can gradually make adjustments to their social behavior. Sensory integration issues may also be important for many kids and teenagers with Aspergers; for them to adjust fully to the classroom, it often helps to allow these kids to move away from a bright window, or to wear headphones, or dark glasses. Moms and dads should be fully involved in learning about their kid's needs in school, and should meet with school personnel during the IEP and as part of any counseling programs offered to Aspergers kids and their families.

The Home Environment—

The home environment can also help or hinder the youngster or teenager with Aspergers. Ver Ploeg says she has seen some wonderful homes, where kids find both unconditional love, and firm boundaries that provide a necessary structure to their lives. She illustrates her point with a story about a family she knows. When she talks to the father, he says of his son, "Oh, we think he is wonderful - sure he's different from other kids, but he's our boy." This family is very structured, sticks to a schedule with their son's activities, and warns him if changes are coming up. They drive him to regular after school classes for physical activities such as swimming. The family members pour a lot of energy and love into this youngster, but at the same time, provide him with lots of structure. It can be a challenge for families to be so supportive, but the effort pays off. Some home environments are so well adjusted for the youngster that the Aspergers is not noticed.

One of the most important ways that the moms and dads can be supportive - and bridge the distance between school and home - is to organize play dates when the mom or dad can be present to help facilitate social interactions when needed. Visits from friends seem to work best for kids with Aspergers when a mom or dad is involved and provides highly structured activities that all the kids will enjoy. For example, volunteering to be a scout leader is one way to ensure a regular flow of such activities in a structured social environment.

If moms and dads, educators, and school personnel can find ways to honor and respect the special needs and the special abilities of kids with Aspergers, these kids will have a good chance of finding their way in the adult world as well. In the schools, honoring and respecting must take the form of ensuring acceptance for the youngster's differences, as well as supportive programming for those different needs and abilities. In the case of the moms and dads, Ver Ploeg stresses the importance of unconditional love for the unique youngster they have, and providing a structured, consistent environment. The crucial early interventions must help these young kids to love education, and to think about their future. While many go through a rough period during the teenage years, with support they can often emerge into a future with a shining array of possibilities.

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