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Watching for Signs of High-Functioning Autism in Your Child

“I’ve known for some time that something is not quite right with my child, and I’m starting to wonder if he has an autism spectrum disorder. What should I look for?”

Learn the signs, and act early. Find out if your son’s development is on track, and learn the signs of developmental delays. Skills such as taking a first step, smiling for the first time, and waving "bye bye" are called developmental milestones. Kids reach milestones in how they play, learn, speak, behave, and move (e.g., crawling, walking, etc.). Track your son’s development and act early if you have a concern.

Here are the milestones that parents should look for if they are trying to track the possibility of an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in their child (ages 2 months - 5 years):

Baby at Two Months—

What most babies do at this age:
  • Begins to act bored (cries, fussy) if activity doesn’t change
  • Begins to follow things with eyes and recognize people at a distance
  • Begins to smile at people
  • Can briefly calm himself (may bring hands to mouth and suck on hand)
  • Can hold head up and begins to push up when lying on tummy
  • Coos, makes gurgling sounds
  • Makes smoother movements with arms and legs
  • Pays attention to faces
  • Tries to look at parent
  • Turns head toward sounds

Act early by talking to your youngster’s pediatrician if your youngster:
  • Can’t hold head up when pushing up when on tummy
  • Doesn’t bring hands to mouth
  • Doesn’t respond to loud sounds
  • Doesn’t smile at people
  • Doesn’t watch things as they move

What most babies do at this age:
  • Babbles with expression and copies sounds he hears
  • Begins to babble
  • Brings hands to mouth
  • Can hold a toy and shake it and swing at dangling toys
  • Copies some movements and facial expressions, like smiling or frowning
  • Cries in different ways to show hunger, pain, or being tired
  • Follows moving things with eyes from side to side
  • Holds head steady, unsupported
  • Lets you know if she is happy or sad
  • Likes to play with people and might cry when playing stops
  • May be able to roll over from tummy to back
  • Pushes down on legs when feet are on a hard surface
  • Reaches for toy with one hand
  • Recognizes familiar people and things at a distance
  • Responds to affection
  • Smiles spontaneously, especially at people
  • Uses hands and eyes together, such as seeing a toy and reaching for it
  • Watches faces closely
  • When lying on stomach, pushes up to elbows

Act early by talking to your youngster’s pediatrician if your youngster:
  • Can’t hold head steady
  • Doesn’t bring things to mouth
  • Doesn’t coo or make sounds
  • Doesn’t push down with legs when feet are placed on a hard surface
  • Doesn’t smile at people
  • Doesn’t watch things as they move
  • Has trouble moving  one or both eyes in all directions

Your Baby at Six Months—

What most babies do at this age:
  • Begins to pass things from one hand to the other
  • Begins to say consonant sounds (jabbering with “m,” “b”)
  • Begins to sit without support
  • Brings things to mouth
  • Knows familiar faces and begins to know if someone is a stranger
  • Likes to look at self in a mirror
  • Likes to play with others, especially parents
  • Looks around at things nearby
  • Makes sounds to show joy and displeasure
  • Responds to other people’s emotions and often seems happy
  • Responds to own name
  • Responds to sounds by making sounds
  • Rocks back and forth, sometimes crawling backward before moving forward
  • Rolls over in both directions (front to back, back to front)
  • Shows curiosity about things and tries to get things that are out of reach
  • Strings vowels together when babbling (“ah,” “eh,” “oh”) and likes taking turns with parent while making sounds
  • When standing, supports weight on legs and might bounce

Act early by talking to your youngster’s pediatrician if your youngster:
  • Doesn’t laugh or make squealing sounds
  • Doesn’t make vowel sounds (“ah”, “eh”, “oh”)
  • Doesn’t respond to sounds around him
  • Doesn’t roll over in either direction
  • Doesn’t try to get things that are in reach
  • Has difficulty getting things to mouth
  • Seems very floppy, like a rag doll
  • Seems very stiff, with tight muscles
  • Shows no affection for caregivers

What most babies do at this age:
  • Can get into sitting position
  • Copies sounds and gestures of others
  • Crawls
  • Has favorite toys
  • Looks  for things he sees you hide
  • Makes a lot of different sounds like “mamamama” and “bababababa”
  • May be afraid of strangers
  • May be clingy with familiar adults
  • Moves things smoothly from one hand to the other
  • Picks up things like cereal o’s between thumb and index finger
  • Plays peek-a-boo
  • Pulls to stand
  • Puts things in her mouth
  • Sits without support
  • Stands, holding on
  • Understands “no”
  • Uses fingers to point at things
  • Watches the path of something as it falls

Act early by talking to your youngster’s pediatrician if your youngster:
  •  Doesn’t babble (“mama”, “baba”, “dada”)
  • Doesn’t bear weight on legs with support
  • Doesn’t look where you point
  • Doesn’t play any games involving back-and-forth play
  • Doesn’t respond to own name
  • Doesn’t seem to recognize familiar people
  • Doesn’t sit with help
  • Doesn’t transfer toys from one hand to the other

Your Youngster at One Year—

What most kids do at this age:
  • Bangs two things together
  • Copies gestures
  • Cries when mom or dad leaves
  • Explores things in different ways, like shaking, banging, throwing
  • Finds hidden things easily
  • Follows simple directions like “pick up the toy”
  • Gets to a sitting position without help
  • Hands you a book when he wants to hear a story
  • Has favorite things and people
  • Is shy or nervous with strangers
  • Lets things go without help
  • Looks at the right picture or thing when it’s named
  • Makes sounds with changes in tone (sounds more like speech)
  • May stand alone
  • May take a few steps without holding on
  • Plays games such as “peek-a-boo” and “pat-a-cake”
  • Pokes with index (pointer) finger
  • Pulls up to stand, walks holding on to furniture (“cruising”)
  • Puts out arm or leg to help with dressing
  • Puts things in a container, takes things out of a container
  • Repeats sounds or actions to get attention
  • Responds to simple spoken requests
  • Says “mama” and “dada” and exclamations like “uh-oh!”
  • Shows fear in some situations
  • Starts to use things correctly; for example, drinks from a cup, brushes hair
  • Tries to say words you say
  • Uses simple gestures, like shaking head “no” or waving “bye-bye”

Act early by talking to your youngster’s pediatrician if your youngster:
  • Can’t stand when supported
  • Doesn’t crawl
  • Doesn’t learn gestures like waving or shaking head
  • Doesn’t point to things
  • Doesn’t say single words like “mama” or “dada”
  • Doesn’t search for things that she sees you hide
  • Loses skills he once had

Your Youngster at Eighteen Months—

What most kids do at this age:
  • Can follow 1-step verbal commands without any gestures; for example, sits when you say “sit down”
  • Can help undress herself
  • Drinks from a cup
  • Eats with a spoon
  • Explores alone but with parent close by
  • Knows what ordinary things are for; for example, telephone, brush, spoon
  • Likes to hand things to others as play
  • May be afraid of strangers
  • May cling to caregivers in new situations
  • May have temper tantrums
  • May walk up steps and run
  • Plays simple pretend, such as feeding a doll
  • Points to get the attention of others
  • Points to one body part
  • Points to show others something interesting
  • Points to show someone what he wants
  • Pulls toys while walking
  • Says and shakes head “no”
  • Says several single words
  • Scribbles on his own
  • Shows affection to familiar people
  • Shows interest in a doll or stuffed animal by pretending to feed
  • Walks alone

Act early by talking to your youngster’s pediatrician if your youngster:
  • Can’t walk
  • Doesn’t copy others
  • Doesn’t gain new words
  • Doesn’t have at least 6 words
  • Doesn’t know what familiar things are for
  • Doesn’t notice or mind when a caregiver leaves or returns
  • Doesn’t point to show things to others
  • Loses skills he once had

What most kids do at this age:
  • Begins to run
  • Begins to sort shapes and colors
  • Builds towers of 4 or more blocks
  • Climbs onto and down from furniture without help
  • Completes sentences and rhymes in familiar books
  • Copies others, especially adults and older kids
  • Finds things even when hidden under two or three covers
  • Follows simple instructions
  • Follows two-step instructions such as “Pick up your shoes and put them in the closet.”
  • Gets excited when with other kids
  • Kicks a ball
  • Knows names of familiar people and body parts
  • Makes or copies straight lines and circles
  • Might use one hand more than the other
  • Names items in a picture book such as a cat, bird, or dog
  • Plays mainly beside other kids, but is beginning to include other kids, such as in chase games
  • Plays simple make-believe games
  • Points to things in a book
  • Points to things or pictures when they are named
  • Repeats words overheard in conversation
  • Says sentences with 2 to 4 words
  • Shows defiant behavior (doing what he has been told not to)
  • Shows more and more independence
  • Stands on tiptoe
  • Throws ball overhand
  • Walks up and down stairs holding on

Act early by talking to your youngster’s pediatrician if your youngster:
  • Doesn’t copy actions and words
  • Doesn’t follow simple instructions
  • Doesn’t know what to do with common things, like a brush, phone, fork, spoon
  • Doesn’t use 2-word phrases (for example, “drink milk”)
  • Doesn’t walk steadily
  • Loses skills she once had

Your Youngster at Three Years—

What most kids do at this age:
  • Builds towers of more than 6 blocks
  • Can name most familiar things
  • Can work toys with buttons, levers, and moving parts
  • Carries on a conversation using 2 to 3 sentences
  • Climbs well
  • Copies a circle with pencil or crayon
  • Copies adults and friends
  • Does puzzles with 3 or 4 pieces
  • Dresses and undresses self
  • Follows instructions with 2 or 3 steps
  • May get upset with major changes in routine
  • Names a friend
  • Pedals a tricycle (3-wheel bike)
  • Plays make-believe with dolls, animals, and people
  • Runs easily
  • Says first name, age, and sex
  • Says words like “I,” “me,”  “we,” and “you” and some plurals (cars, dogs, cats)
  • Screws and unscrews jar lids or turns door handle
  • Separates easily from mom and dad
  • Shows a wide range of emotions
  • Shows affection for friends without prompting
  • Shows concern for crying friend
  • Takes turns in games
  • Talks well enough for strangers to understand most of the time
  • Turns book pages one at a time
  • Understands the idea of “mine” and “his” or “hers”
  • Understands what “two” means
  • Understands words like “in,” “on,” and “under”
  • Walks up and down stairs, one foot on each step

Act early by talking to your youngster’s pediatrician if your youngster:
  • Can’t work simple toys (such as peg boards, simple puzzles, turning handle)
  • Doesn’t make eye contact
  • Doesn’t play pretend or make-believe
  • Doesn’t speak in sentences
  • Doesn’t understand simple instructions
  • Doesn’t want to play with other kids or with toys
  • Drools or has very unclear speech
  • Falls down a lot or has trouble with stairs
  • Loses skills he once had

Your Youngster at Four Years—

What most kids do at this age:
  • Can say first and last name
  • Catches a bounced ball most of the time
  • Cooperates with other kids
  • Draws a person with 2 to 4 body parts
  • Enjoys doing new things
  • Hops and stands on one foot up to 2 seconds
  • Is more and more creative with make-believe play
  • Knows some basic rules of grammar, such as correctly using “he” and “she”
  • Names some colors and some numbers
  • Often can’t tell what’s real and what’s make-believe
  • Plays “Mom” and “Dad”
  • Plays board or card games
  • Pours, cuts with supervision, and mashes own food
  • Remembers parts of a story
  • Sings a song or says a poem from memory such as the “Itsy Bitsy Spider” or the “Wheels on the Bus”
  • Starts to copy some capital letters
  • Starts to understand time
  • Talks about what she likes and what she is interested in
  • Tells stories
  • Tells you what he thinks is going to happen next in a book
  • Understands the idea of “same” and “different”
  • Understands the idea of counting
  • Uses scissors
  • Would rather play with other kids than by himself

Act early by talking to your youngster’s pediatrician if your youngster:
  • Can’t jump in place
  • Can’t retell a favorite story
  • Doesn’t follow 3-part commands
  • Doesn’t understand “same” and “different”
  • Doesn’t use “me” and “you” correctly
  • Has trouble scribbling
  • Ignores other kids or doesn’t respond to people outside the family
  • Loses skills he once had
  • Resists dressing, sleeping, and using the toilet
  • Shows no interest in interactive games or make-believe
  • Speaks unclearly

What most kids do at this age:
  • Wants to please friends
  • Wants to be like friends
  • More likely to agree with rules
  • Likes to sing, dance, and act
  • Shows concern and sympathy for others
  • Is aware of gender
  • Can tell what’s real and what’s make-believe
  • Shows more independence (for example, may visit a next-door neighbor by himself)
  • Is sometimes demanding and sometimes very cooperative
  • Speaks very clearly
  • Tells a simple story using full sentences
  • Uses future tense; for example, “Grandma will be here.”
  • Says name and address
  • Counts 10 or more things
  • Can draw a person with at least 6 body parts
  • Can print some letters or numbers
  • Copies a triangle and other geometric shapes
  • Knows about things used every day, like money and food
  • Stands on one foot for 10 seconds or longer
  • Hops; may be able to skip
  • Can do a somersault
  • Uses a fork and spoon and sometimes a table knife
  • Can use the toilet on her own
  • Swings and climbs

Act early by talking to your youngster’s pediatrician if your youngster:
  • Can’t brush teeth, wash and dry hands, or get undressed without help
  • Can’t give first and last name
  • Can’t tell what’s real and what’s make-believe
  • Doesn’t draw pictures
  • Doesn’t play a variety of games and activities
  • Doesn’t respond to people, or responds only superficially
  • Doesn’t show a wide range of emotions
  • Doesn’t talk about daily activities or experiences
  • Doesn’t use plurals or past tense properly
  • Is easily distracted, has trouble focusing on one activity for more than 5 minutes
  • Loses skills he once had
  • Shows extreme behavior (unusually fearful, aggressive, shy or sad)
  • Unusually withdrawn and not active

A word about the importance of further research:

We need to know how many kids have Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) so that realistic plans can be made to support these youngsters and their parents. Knowing the number of kids who have ASDs is the key to promoting awareness of the disorder, helping teachers and health-care providers to plan and coordinate service delivery, and identifying important clues for further research. If service providers are not prepared to meet the needs of children with ASD, it takes a toll on families.

Families living with ASD have unique stresses. For example:
  • Annual medical expenditures per youngster with an ASD range from $2,100 to $11,200.
  • Intensive behavioral interventions for a youngster with an ASD can cost from $40,000 to $60,000 per year.
  • Many parents report having to stop work to care for their child with an ASD.
  • The cost to individual families extends into lost productivity and other financial problems for communities.
  • The nonmedical costs of special education for a youngster with an ASD are about $13,000 per year.
  • Therapies are expensive and families spend time on long waiting lists.

Researchers have used different ways to estimate the prevalence of ASD, and each method has advantages and disadvantages. Here’s a summary of each method:

1. Administrative Data: Looking at service records from Medicare and agencies like the U.S. Department of Education. Relatively low cost, BUT underestimates prevalence because not all kids with ASDs are receiving services for their conditions.

2. Population Screening and Evaluation: Screening and evaluating a sample of all kids in a population. Can provide high accuracy, BUT can be costly and time-consuming, and might reflect a bias based on who participates.

3. Registries: Voluntarily including oneself (or one’s son or daughter) on a list of individuals with ASDs. Relatively low cost, BUT time consuming and includes only people with a clear diagnosis and families who know about the registry and are willing to be on the list.

4. Systematic Record Review: Cost-effectively provides estimate of the prevalence of ASDs from large communities and identifies kids who might not have a clear ASD diagnosis already; BUT, it relies on the quality and quantity of information in records.

Key findings from the most recent research:
  • A small percentage of kids who are born prematurely or with low birth weight are at a greater risk for having ASDs.
  • About 1 in 88 kids have ASD, although some estimates say it is closer to 1 in 50.
  • About 10% of kids with ASDs also have been identified as having Down syndrome, fragile X syndrome, tuberous sclerosis, or other genetic and chromosomal disorders.
  • Almost five times as many boys are being identified with ASDs as girls (1 in 54 compared to 1 in 252).
  • ASDs tend to occur more often among children who have certain genetic or chromosomal conditions.
  • Both genetic and non-genetic factors play a role in whether or not a child will have an ASD.
  • Kids born to older parents also are at a higher risk of having an ASD.
  • Kids who have a sibling or parent with an ASD are at a higher risk of having an ASD.
  • More kids are diagnosed at earlier ages—a growing number of them by 3 years of age. Still, most kids are not diagnosed until after they are 4 years of age.
  • More kids than ever before are being diagnosed with ASDs, but they are not being diagnosed as early as they could be.
  • The emotional and financial tolls on families and communities are staggering, and therapies can cost thousands of dollars.
  • The largest increases over time have been among Hispanic and Black kids. Some of this may be due to better screening and diagnosis.
  • The majority (62%) of kids identified as having ASDs do not have intellectual disability.
  • When taken during pregnancy, the prescription drugs valproic acid and thalidomide have been linked with a higher risk of ASDs. 

More resources for parents of children and teens with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's:  

==> Launching Adult Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Guide for Parents Who Want to Promote Self-Reliance

==> Unraveling The Mystery Behind Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Audio Book

==> Highly Effective Research-Based Parenting Strategies for Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

==> Parenting System that Reduces Problematic Behavior in Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

Teaching the Anxious Student on the Autism Spectrum: 25 Tips for Parents and Teachers

Teaching students with Aspergers or High-Functioning Autism (HFA) who also experience social anxiety in the classroom WILL be challenging. School can be difficult for these special needs students without the anxiety issue, but it is especially difficult for the anxious child on the spectrum. 
If you are a parent or teacher of an anxious student with the disorder, knowing how to encourage and foster a good environment for learning is paramount.

There is no one sign that indicates that an HFA student has social anxiety. However, some common signs include:
  • appearing very anxious when the center of attention
  • being constantly alone in the playground
  • clinging
  • crying for no apparent reason
  • devoting an excessive amount of time to the computer
  • experiencing severe anxiety about tests and quizzes
  • freezing for no apparent reason
  • frequent claims of illness so as to avoid going to school
  • having no friends, or having only one friend
  • hovering on the edge of groups
  • not joining in
  • poor eye contact
  • refusing to go to school 
  • saying very little or even nothing during class
  • speaking very softly
  • throwing tantrums or experiencing meltdowns
  • unwillingness to participate in class activities (e.g., show and tell, debating, reading aloud, raising their hand to answer and ask questions, etc.)

If you have a student in class who is experiencing social anxiety, here are some ideas for assisting him or her:

1. Allow HFA children to take a "break" (e.g., go get a drink) if they seem to become overwhelmed

2. Allow the child to arrive late if it makes the transition easier.

3. Allow the him or her to sit with classmates that he/she is familiar with or is friends with.

4. Assign a "lifeline" peer to the HFA youngster who can help answer his/her questions if called upon in a group setting.

6. Develop and follow a regular predictable classroom routine.

7. Embarrassment is a concern for all adolescents, but is multiplied in teens on the spectrum experiencing anxiety. Modifications and adaptations should be in place with subtle non-intrusive methods to allow the teen to maintain a sense of dignity and responsibility. Blatant, harsh criticisms of these adolescents will perpetuate their fears of failure and feed into their cycles of anxiety and avoidance.

8. Encourage completion of activities and assignments, yet allow extra time when needed.

9. Encourage friendships between kids on the autism spectrum and friendly, outgoing classmates.

10. Encourage the child to keep a written log of assignments and due dates.

11. Ensure that you have a zero tolerance rule for bullying and discrimination of any kind. Have consequences in place for children who embarrass or humiliate other kids to prevent this behavior in the classroom (e.g., during speeches, any youngster who snickers during another child's speech would have marks deducted from his/her own grade).

12. For younger kids on the spectrum, make the student your special helper to give him/her a role in the classroom.

13. For younger kids on the spectrum, read storybooks about self-esteem and bullying. For older kids read novels or watch movies with the same content.

14. Have a preset time each week that the child can talk with you or another staff member about how he is feeling and his fears.

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

15. Help the child confront feared situations with gentle encouragement.

16. Identify a "safe place" that the child can go to if feeling overwhelmed, and have a signal and exit strategy for these situations.

17. If an autistic child misses a lot of school due to social anxiety, allow gradual reintroduction at a pace that the child is comfortable with.

18. If possible, decrease homework load.

19. In your interactions with the child, speak softly and calmly.

20. Modify instructional methods if necessary (e.g., explaining an assignment one-on-one with the child).

21. Pair children for activities rather than allowing children to choose pairs, to prevent the child with HFA from being left out.

22. Promote self-esteem by offering praise for small accomplishments and rewarding participation even if the child gives a wrong answer.

23. Regular meetings between parents, teachers, counselors and other school staff are important for planning classroom strategies for the special needs child.

24. Team with parents to develop calming techniques and relaxation strategies.

25. The child may require social skills training or instruction in relaxation techniques delivered by a special education teacher or other team member.

Note to Parents: If your child experiences social anxiety in a school setting, feel free to copy, paste, and print this article for your child's teachers.

==> Parenting System that Reduces Problematic Behavior in Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism 

Teaching Children on the Autism Spectrum the Social Etiquette of "Play"

"Any suggestions on how to teach my child [on the autism spectrum] how to play with other children his age without causing arguments and upsetting them. He has to have things go his way or he gets very controlling and nasty."
Young people with High-Functioning Autism (HFA) often have trouble with social interactions. Understanding what someone is saying and being able to react to it quickly and appropriately is critical to being part of a conversation. But some kids on the autism spectrum can’t do that without help.

These kids also tend to have difficulty taking and waiting for turns, playing by the rules, and reacting appropriately if they're not winning. But that doesn't mean that the youngster who is different socially can't be included. Your son or daughter can learn the social etiquette of play, how to avoid and resolve conflicts, and how to show some empathy.

Techniques to help teach your child how to get along with peers during "play":

1. Play with your son or daughter in a “peer-like” way. Kids with HFA learn crucial skills through play with other kids, but they also learn a great deal through play with their mom or dad. Those kids whose moms and dads frequently play with them have more advanced social skills and get along better with peers. This is especially true, however, when the mother or father plays with their youngster in an effectively positive and peer-like way. Observational studies indicate that the parents of the most socially competent kids laugh and smile often, avoid criticizing their youngster during play, are responsive to the youngster's ideas, and aren't too directive.

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

2. Provide your son or daughter with opportunities to play with peers. There is no substitute for the experience kids on the spectrum get from interacting with peers. Kids who have had many opportunities to play with peers from an early age are clearly at an advantage when they enter a formal group setting (e.g., daycare, public school). These young people especially benefit when they can develop long- lasting relationships. Kids - even toddlers - who are able to participate in stable peer groups become more competent over time and have fewer difficulties than kids whose peer group membership shifts. In other words, kids develop more sophisticated social strategies when they are able to maintain stable relationships with other kids they like over long periods.

3. Reflect a positive, resilient attitude toward “social setbacks.” Exclusion by peers is a fact of life for the HFA child. They have different reactions to these rejections, ranging from anger to acceptance. Some come to believe that “my friends are out to get me," or that peers are just generally mean, in which case they are likely to react with aggression and hostility to mild slights by peers. Others may assume that these rejections are caused by an enduring, personal deficiency (e.g., "there’s something wrong with me") and are likely to withdraw from further peer interaction.

Socially competent kids on the spectrum, in contrast, tend to explain these rejections as temporary or in ways that recognize that a social situation can be improved by changing their own behavior (e.g., "I'll try to be nice to my friends next time"). Sometimes these kids recognize that the situation itself led to the rejection (e.g., all three kids wanted to ride bikes, but there were only two bikes, so one child was left out).

Moms and dads of these socially competent kids endorse interpretations of social events that encourage resilient, constructive attitudes. Rather than making a statement like, "That's a really mean kid!" …they may say something like, "Well, maybe he's having a bad day." They make constructive attributions like, "Sometimes children just want to play by themselves," rather than expressing a sentiment such as, “Those kids are not being very nice if they won't let you play with them."

These parents avoid negative statements like, "Maybe they don't like you," and offer instead suggestions like, "Maybe they don't want to play that particular game, but there might be something else they would enjoy." Such positive statements encourage these children to take an optimistic view of others and themselves as play partners. They reflect an upbeat, resilient attitude toward social setbacks and the belief that social situations can be improved with effort and positive behavior.

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

4. Use a problem-solving approach. When problem-solving, moms and dads can help their son or daughter consider various solutions and perspectives. As parents know, there are often no easy answers to most of kid’s problems with peers. Therefore, it is helpful for these kids to learn how to think about relationships and weigh the consequences of their actions for themselves and others. Kids who are encouraged to think in terms of others' feelings and needs are more positive and prosocial with peers. Also, kids whose moms and dads talk with them more often about emotions are better liked by their peers.

5. Talk with your child about social relationships and values. Kids on the spectrum who have more frequent conversations with a parent about peer relationships are better liked by other kids in their classrooms and are rated by educators as more socially competent. As a part of normal, daily conversation, these parents and kids talk about the everyday events that happen in school, including things that happen with schoolmates. Often these interactions take place on the way home from school or at dinner. These talks are not lectures, but rather conversations enjoyed by both parent and youngster that (a) communicate to the youngster an interest in his/her well-being, and (b) serve as a basis for information exchange and genuine problem solving.

Obsessions in Kids on the Autism Spectrum

"Why is my 6-year-old son (high functioning autistic) so engrossed in Minecraft, and how can I tell if it is an unhealthy obsession rather than just a fun time activity for him?"

The intensity and duration of the child’s interest in a particular topic, object or collection is what determines whether or not it has become an “obsession.” Children with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) will often learn a lot about a thing they are obsessed with, be intensely interested in it for a long time, and feel strongly about it. There are several reasons why these kids may develop obsessions, including:
  • they can get a lot of enjoyment from learning about a particular subject or gathering together items of interest
  • those who find social interaction difficult might use their special interests as a way to start conversations and feel more self-assured in social situations
  • obsessions may help children cope with the uncertainties of daily life
  • obsessions may help children to relax and feel happy
  • obsessions may provide order and predictability
  • obsessions may provide structure
Many children with Aspergers and HFA have sensory sensitivity and may be over- or under-sensitive to sights, sounds, smells, taste and touch. This sensitivity can also affect children’s balance ('vestibular' system) and body awareness ('proprioception' or knowing where our bodies are and how they are moving). Obsessions and repetitive behavior can be a way to deal with sensory sensitivity.

Although repetitive behavior varies from child to child, the reasons behind it may be the same:
  •  a source of enjoyment and occupation
  • a way to deal with stress and anxiety and to block out uncertainty
  • an attempt to gain sensory input (e.g., rocking may be a way to stimulate the balance or vestibular system; hand-flapping may provide visual stimulation)
  • an attempt to reduce sensory input (e.g., focusing on one particular sound may reduce the impact of a loud, distressing environment; this may particularly be seen in social situations)
  • some adolescents may revert to old repetitive behaviors (e.g., hand-flapping, rocking if anxious or stressed)

Reality to a child on the autism spectrum is a confusing, interacting mass of events, people, places, sounds and sights. Set routines, times, particular routes and rituals all help to get order into an unbearably chaotic life. Trying to keep everything the same reduces some of the terrible fear.

Many children with the disorder have a strong preference for routines and sameness. Routines often serve an important function. For example, they introduce order, structure and predictability and help to manage anxiety. Because of this, it can be very distressing if the child’s routine is disrupted.
Sometimes minor changes (e.g., moving between two activities) can be distressing. For others, big events (e.g., holidays, birthdays, Christmas, etc.), which create change and upheaval, can cause anxiety. Unexpected changes are often most difficult to deal with. 

Some children on the spectrum have daily timetables so that they know what is going to happen, when. However, the need for routine and sameness can extend beyond this. You might see:
  •  a need for routine around daily activities such as meals or bedtime
  • changes to the physical environment (e.g., the layout of furniture in a room), or the presence of new people or absence of familiar ones, being difficult to manage
  • compulsive behavior (e.g., the child might be constantly washing his hands or checking locks)
  • rigid preferences about things like food (e.g., only eating food of a certain color), clothing (e.g., only wearing clothes made from specific fabrics), or everyday objects (e.g., only using particular types of soap or brands of toilet paper)
  • routines can become almost ritualistic in nature, having to be followed precisely with attention paid to the tiniest details
  • verbal rituals, with a child repeatedly asking the same questions and needing a specific answer

Children's dependence on routines can increase during times of change, stress or illness and may even become more dominant or elaborate at these times. Dependence on routines may increase or re-emerge during adolescence. Routines can have a profound effect on the lives of children with Aspergers and HFA, their family and care-takers, but it is possible to make a child less reliant on them.

Obsessions versus Hobbies—

Most of us have hobbies, interests and a preference for routine. Here are five questions that can help us distinguish between hobbies/interests versus obsessive behavior:
  1. Can the child stop the behavior independently?
  2. Does the child appear distressed when engaging in the behavior or does the child give signs that he is trying to resist the behavior (e.g., someone who flaps their hands may try to sit on their hands to prevent the behavior)?
  3. Is the behavior causing significant disruption to others (e.g., moms and dads, care-takers, peers, siblings)?
  4. Is the behavior impacting on the child’s learning?
  5. Is the behavior limiting the child’s social opportunities?

If your answer to any of the questions above is 'yes', it may be appropriate to look at ways of helping your youngster to reduce obsessive or repetitive behavior. Think about whether, by setting limits around a particular behavior, you are really helping your youngster. Is the behavior actually a real issue for him, for you, or for other people in his life?

Focus on developing skills that your youngster can use instead of repetitive or obsessive behavior. Try to understand the function of the behavior, then make small, gradual changes and be consistent. Here are some ideas to help you:

1.     Coping with change: If unexpected changes occur, and your youngster is finding it hard to cope, try re-directing them to a calming activity, or encourage them to use simple relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises. You could use praise or other rewards for coping with change. In the long term, this may help make your youngster more tolerant of change.

2.     Explore alternative activities: One way to interrupt repetitive behavior is for a youngster to do another enjoyable activity that has the same function (e.g., a youngster who flicks their fingers for visual stimulation could play with a kaleidoscope or a bubble gun;  a youngster who puts inedible objects in their mouth could have a bag with edible alternatives that provide similar sensory experiences such as raw pasta or spaghetti, or seeds and nuts; a youngster who rocks to get sensory input could go on a swing; a youngster who smears their poop could have a bag with play dough in it to use instead).

3.     Intervene early: Repetitive behaviors, obsessions and routines are generally harder to change the longer they continue.  A behavior that is perhaps acceptable in a young child may not be appropriate as they get older and may, by this time, be very difficult to change. For example, a youngster who is obsessed with shoes and tries to touch people's feet might not present too much of a problem, but a teenager doing the same thing - especially to strangers - will obviously be problematic. It will help if you can set limits around repetitive behaviors from an early age and look out for any new behavior that emerges as your youngster gets older. Making your youngster's environment and surroundings more structured can help them to feel more in control and may reduce anxiety. If anxiety is reduced, the need to engage in repetitive behavior and adhere strictly to routines may also, in time, be reduced.

4.     Pre-planning: You may be able to help your youngster to cope with change, or activities and events that could be stressful, by planning for them in advance.  Change is unavoidable, but it can be really difficult for many children with the disorder. You may not always be able to prepare for change a long time in advance, but try to give your youngster as much warning as possible. Gradually introducing the idea of a new person, place, object or circumstance can help them cope with the change. Try to talk about the event or activity when everyone is fairly relaxed and happy.  Presenting information visually can be a good idea, as your youngster can refer to it as often as they need to. You could try using calendars so that your youngster knows how many days it is before an event (e.g., Christmas) happens. This can help them feel prepared. 
Your youngster might also like to see photos of places or objects in advance so they know what to expect (e.g., a picture of their Christmas present) or a photo of the building they are going to for an appointment. Using social stories could also be helpful. These are short stories, often with pictures, that describe different situations and activities so that children with Aspergers and HFA know what to expect.  Pre-planning can also involve structuring the environment. 
For example, a student with HFA might go to use a computer in the library at lunchtime if they find being in the playground too stressful – or if a youngster has sensory sensitivity, minimizing the impact of things like noises (e.g., school bells) or smells (e.g., perfumes or soaps) can help them to cope better.  It is possible that more structured environments may reduce boredom, which is sometimes a reason for repetitive behavior. You might prepare a range of enjoyable or calming activities to re-direct your youngster to if they seem bored or stressed.

5.     Self-regulation skills: Self-regulation skills are any activities that help your youngster to manage their own behavior and emotions.  If you can help your youngster to identify when they are feeling stressed or anxious and use an alternative response (e.g., relaxation techniques or asking for help), you may, in time, see less repetitive or ritualistic behavior.  Research has also shown that increasing a child’s insight into an obsession or repetitive behavior can significantly reduce it. This includes children with quite severe learning disabilities.

6.     Set limits: Setting limits around repetitive behavior, routines and obsessions is an important and often essential way to minimize their impact on your youngster's life. You could set limits in a number of ways depending which behavior concerns you. For example, you can ration objects (e.g., can only carry five pebbles in pocket), ration places (e.g., spinning only allowed at home), and ration times (e.g., can watch his favorite DVD for 20 minutes twice a day). Everyone involved with your youngster should take the same consistent approach to setting limits. Have clear rules about where, when, with whom and for how long a behavior is allowed. You could present this information visually, with a focus on when your youngster can engage in the behavior. This may help if they feel anxious about restricted access to an obsession or activity.

7.     Social skills training: Teaching social skills (e.g.,  how to start and end a conversation, appropriate things to talk about, how to read other people's 'cues') may mean someone with Aspergers or HFA feels more confident and doesn't need to rely on talking about particular subjects (e.g., a special interest). 

8.     Understand the function of the behavior: Obsessions, repetitive behavior and routines are frequently important and meaningful to children on the  spectrum, helping them to manage anxiety and have some measure of control over a confusing and chaotic world. For others, the behavior may help with sensory issues. Take a careful look at what you think might be causing the behavior and what purpose it might serve.  For example, does your youngster always seem to find a particular environment (e.g., a classroom) hard to cope with? Is it too bright? Could you turn off strip lighting and rely on natural daylight instead?

9.     Visual supports: Visual supports (e.g., photos, symbols, written lists or physical objects) can really help children with Aspergers and HFA.  A visual timetable could help your youngster to see what is going to happen next. This makes things more predictable and helps them to feel prepared. It may lessen their reliance on strict routines of their own making. 
Visual supports like egg timers or 'time timers' can help some children with an autism spectrum disorder to understand abstract concepts like time, plan what they need to do, when in order to complete a task, and understand the concept of waiting.  Visual supports can also be useful if your youngster asks the same question repeatedly. One parent wrote down the answer to a question, put it on the fridge and, whenever her son asked the question, told him to go to the fridge and find the answer. For kids who can't read, you could use pictures instead of words.

10.   Make use of obsessions: Obsessions can be used to increase your youngster's skills and areas of interest, promote self-esteem, and encourage socializing. You may find you can look at a particular obsession and think of ways to develop it into something more functional. Here are some examples:
  • A child with a special interest in historical dates could join a history group and meet others with similar interests.
  • A child with knowledge of sport or music would be a valuable member of a pub quiz team.
  • A strong preference for ordering or lining up objects could be developed into housework skills.
  • An interest in particular sounds could be channeled into learning a musical instrument.
  • An obsession with rubbish could be used to develop an interest in recycling, and the youngster given the job of sorting items for recycling.

More resources for parents of children and teens with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's:

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

==> Launching Adult Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Guide for Parents Who Want to Promote Self-Reliance

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

==> Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism: Comprehensive Handbook

==> Unraveling The Mystery Behind Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Audio Book

==> Parenting System that Reduces Problematic Behavior in Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism



•    Anonymous said… Mine is 17 and still obsessed. I think we have every game, plus the cards, and watch the cartoon. HELP!
•    Anonymous said… My 14 year old- obsessed with Pokemon. Sets him noticeably apart from his peers, and is definitely an issue. frown emoticon
•    Anonymous said… my 25 year old son with ASPERGERS is obsessed with stunt riding.. he is getting good at it. came 12th in the british stunt championships last year. wink emoticon
•    Anonymous said… My Aspie son was too at that age. Rest assured, he will move on to other things but with just as much obsession! Whatever makes them happy.....
•    Anonymous said… My lad of 21 now he has aspergers.was mad on pokemon and digimon.
•    Anonymous said… My son is obsessed with this too!
•    Anonymous said… My teenager( Aspergers) at age 6 was obessed with Spongebob. We would turn the Television and he could repeat the episode without pictures or words. I think that they just love different things and have a likeable interest. My normal 6 year old is obsessed with Sonic. He is at the top of his class and this is the 2nd 9weeks weeks of report cards. He wants every character. At least it is a good thing and not something bad.
•    Anonymous said… Pokemon was created by an autistic man, so I can see why they can become an interest.
•    Anonymous said… Sounds familiar our 12 year old loves pokemon magic the gathering mine craft and Spider-Man
•    Anonymous said… This is an excellent article! Our 7-year-old grandson is obsessed with Minecraft. We have to curb his enthusiasm for discussing Minecraft every single minute of the day, or we would go completely batty! We tell him that although he loves Minecraft, not everyone shares his interest, and it's important to find out what other people's interests are, and not to monopolize conversations talking about his interests only.
•    Anonymous said… When our Aspergers son got into Pokemon it was actually a HUGE help for him socially. Since all the kids were into it, he actually had common interests and they could all talk Pokemon. We saw a lot of social growth during this phase so the obsession was actually very healthy for him.
*    Anonymous said...I have a 9 year old son. He was assessed two years ago by a Dr. at Stanford University. I went in there thinking he would come out with a diagnosis for ADHD Inattentive at the bare minimum, but instead we walked out an hour later being told he was only dyslexic. I still don’t understand how that one was the official diagnosis because I really don’t see a connection with him. He doesn’t have troubles reading, and he never complains about the letters looking different. Fast forward to today. At 9 years old his mannerisms are starting to really stick out from other kids his age. You can’t really play it off as him being a “little” boy because he is acting sort of immaturely for a 9 year old. He is also very in tune with remembering dates to when certain people were born. When certain musicians first played a rock and roll song and when movies we’re first released. He then compares that to something like when he was born. “Mom you know that movie, (movie title) came out on November five, 1987”. (He says “five” rather than saying “fifth). Then he says, “that means it came out 27 years before I was born!” Mind you, no one inquired about the song or asked him anything about it but he’s correct on the dates and feels the need to tell you about it. He’s also obsessed with space and Roblox right now and loves informing you on all things associated with them. With all his knowledge of dates and times in history, he absolutely struggles in school. He’s in speech because he has a little trouble speaking and pronouncing sounds. He’s also in “Learning Lab” getting extra one-on-one help with school work with a school resource teacher. Ask him to write an essay about a certain topic and he can’t form thoughts and write them down. The teacher wants a intro. paragraph, main body and a conclusion. He writes random sentences that are not cohesive and go way off track. Have him read a one page, age appropriate news article written for kids and he can’t answer a 5 question quiz afterwards of what they just read. It’s very interesting how he can be so correct with recalling dates off the top of his head but his short term memory is so much different. I just feel like something is going on with this wonderful child of mine. He’s so quirky and ridiculously sweet, I love him to bits but I’m concerned about him. :-/

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