As a professional, who works with adolescent teenagers, struggling with mental ill health, I come across many children on the spectrum. The pendulum swings between the Savant and the Psychopath. Yet what is most prevelant to both labels, is the limited social ability! In Asperger children you often meet the cerebral genius, the professor or the consultant, and with high functioning Autism, you discover the genius of the gifted artist!
We live in a socially driven world and these children are often subjected to rejection, ridicule and being socially outcast, by their peers. Some are rejected by their family members because they are so different and stand out. Trying to force these children to conform to rules that restrict or repress their true expression can have a devastating impact on their mental well being. Which then goes on to becoming a mental illness, where these children become reclusive, and internalise their rejection. This then is demonstrated through self harm, anxiety, depression and obsessive compulsive disorders. Although many are medicated, is medication the right remedy.
I personally don’t believe medication can be of much help, when the child has latent creativity, repressed from peer and family rejection, emotional trauma’s convolute the problems they are experiencing. However, I do appreciate how some of the medications help to reduce the crippling anxiety and for some, hearing voices, has on their development and quality of life. I believe social skills training is the key to freedom for these affected children, enabling and empowering them to develop their talents and latent gifts to express themselves.
These children are different, neurologically and socially. Characteristically, they have very individual diagnostic profiles with symptoms falling in the areas of communication, socialization, and restricted interests. Most notable is the impairment in communication and social interaction, a far-reaching challenge which impacts daily activities and relationships at home, school and work.
Though they want to be accepted by their friends, Aspergers children tend to be very hurt and frustrated by their lack of social competency. Their inability to connect to others is made worse by the negative feedback that Aspergers children receive from their painful social interactions such as bullying, teasing, rejection, etc. The worse they perform socially, the more negative feedback they get from peers, therefore having a negative impact on how they feel and perform. Due to this consistent negative social feedback, many Aspergers children and teens feel depressed, anxious and angry, which just compounds their social difficulties by further paralyzing them in social situations.
Social problems typically occurring in Aspergers children and teens include the following:
- Asperger’s children take things very literally. This may mean that it becomes difficult for them to follow a lot of what their peers are talking about.
- Neurotypical peers may get the Asperger’s child into trouble because, while often bright in some subjects, he is gullible when it comes to social behaviour.
- Some children and teens with Asperger’s learn that they have to ask a question to start a conversation, but then, instead of listening to the answer, they ask question after question, in effect drilling their peers and making them feel uncomfortable.
- Their difficulties reading social cues cause them to irritate peers. Difficulties in reading social cues range from (a) trouble understanding the zones of personal space, causing them to stand too close to others, to (b) a lack of basic conversation skills.
- They have passions, certain things that they focus on, but they may have a hard time talking about anything else, which is often annoying to peers.
- They may not understand social banter, and so they become easy targets for bullying and teasing.
As the years go by, are you seeing your Asperger’s youngster rapidly becoming reduced to a person who is surviving on:
• Feeling like a mistake
• Hate and self directed harm
• Low self-esteem
If this is happening with your child, then alarm bells should be going off. You know changes need to happen!
Social rejection has devastating effects in many areas of functioning. Because the Asperger’s child tends to internalize how others treat him, rejection damages self-esteem and often causes anxiety and depression. As the child feels worse about himself and becomes more anxious and depressed – he performs worse, socially and intellectually. Thus, the best treatment for Asperger’s children and teens are social skills training.
A major goal of social skills training is teaching the child about the verbal and nonverbal behaviors involved in social interactions. Unfortunately, many Aspergers children and teens have never been taught such interpersonal skills such as “small talk” in social settings, the importance of good eye contact during a conversation, knowing when to speak – and when to listen.
In addition, many of these children have not learned to read body language or the subtle cues contained in social interactions which further alienates them from forming a connection or bond, with their peers and the social environment at large.
Children who do have Aspergers or HF Autism tend to demonstrate savant skills in either cerebral activities, (A number of professors exhibit genius abilities) or creative arts, (many famous artists exhibit these qualities) and these gifts can often go unoticed and unrealised, due to their self worth being damaged by the social environment and the internal emotions experienced from bullying, teasing and rejection.
As a society we need to stop forcing our gifted children into a box and allow them to express their genius skills, and latent creativity. Bullying and rejecting people that err off the side of what society believes is normal, only compounds the problem and further damages a beautiful mind.
These gifted children need the school programmes to be more inclusive and include social skills to help support the learning needed for these youngsters. Excluding them only compounds the problem. After all, we teach children creative art yet some of these youngsters are already born with more talent in art, than their tutor! Compassionate engagement and inclusive interaction is a must on today’s diverse cultural world, acceptance of each other and our differences is necessary if we are to survive as a species. Change needs to happen in the school curriculum for all the eccentric and gifted children that attend the educational environment, they too need support and teaching, only in a different genre – socially.
Children with Asperger’s and HF Autism are neurologically wired differently, but this doesn’t mean they don’t have any emotionally capacity. On the contrary, their emotional capacity tends to be muted, traumatised and damaged, from peer rejection. By addressing and empowering children to embrace the diversity of our children, equipping them with social skills to help them overcome the said social impairments like this, we can only envision a future where the world that we inhabit today will be enhanced through these gifted children’s talents and intellect.