Helping Children with Asperger's Reduce Anxiety and Stress

Behavioral Interventions to Help Children on the Spectrum Learn New Skills

Diane Yapko

It's one of the first days of the school year in Mrs. Reed's fourth-grade class. Not yet used to being cooped up after summer vacation, the children are noisy, fidgety, bordering on rambunctious. They refuse to settle down, even after repeated requests from her. Finally, she raises her voice and asks sternly, "Do you all want to miss recess and stay indoors today?" Everybody in the class immediately quiets down---everybody except Aaron. To her question, he immediately answers with a loud "Yes!" Some children look at him angrily, others snicker at his cluelessness. The rest of the children understood that Mrs. Reed wasn't expecting an answer from them---of course she knew they didn't want to skip recess. But Aaron assumed that if a question was asked, a reply was expected. After all, what was the purpose of asking a question if you already knew the answer?

At first, Mrs. Reed thinks Aaron is simply being provocative "Fine, then," she says angrily, "You'll stay in during recess." And he does, but instead of yearning to go outside with the rest of the kids, he spends the time rereading his beloved Star Wars book, which he's practically memorized. He knows the minutest trait of every character, but still gets pleasure from reading the book over and over again.

Aaron, who has Asperger's syndrome (AS), has great difficulty intuitively understanding the intentions or feelings beneath the literal meanings of words. To him the world is a baffling place---he can't fathom why the other kids treat him the way they do, or what he might be doing that garners such consistently negative reactions.

Let's take a closer look at how he experiences recess. The typical cacophony of excited 9-year-olds getting ready to go outside is deafening to Aaron---the screeching noise of chairs being pushed under desks, the unruly commotion of children milling around as they line up to leave the class overload his senses. Beyond that, recess itself is filled with social stress, uncertainty, and anxiety. Who will he play with? Will he be able to find Joshua, who also likes to talk about Star Wars, or will Josh be off playing soccer with those other kids again? Can he join in the soccer game, as he's tried to do so many times before, or will the kids once again tell him he can't play?

It's scary just to think about asking to join in, because there seems to be no rhyme or reason to their decisions. And when they do allow him to play, he spends most of the time informing the others that they aren't following the rules, only to find out that the rules have changed that day and that they're mad at him for wanting to play the game the way they did yesterday. It seems foolish to Aaron that rules are routinely changed. What's the point, then, of having rules, he thinks?

Fortunately for Aaron, their initial exchange about recess alerted Mrs. Reed that he has special needs. She realized that she needed to be aware of the words she used with him: to avoid irony, sarcasm, or humorous exaggeration that he might take literally. When he came up with a concrete response that seemed inappropriate or "off," she learned how to look at it from his perspective or to rephrase a question, comment, or instruction instead of simply assuming he was being insensitive or belligerent.

As she began investigating how she could help Aaron, Mrs. Reed learned a technique called Social Stories, developed by educator Carol Gray, for helping AS kids understand perspective by making the distinction between thoughts and speech. When she wanted to make sure Aaron understood a puzzling situation, she drew stick figures with speech bubbles (what they were actually saying) and thought bubbles (what they were actually thinking) above their heads. Sometimes she'd create a stick-figure "group," in which one person was thinking one thing while other people were thinking something else, and then they'd discuss the different contexts in which this occurs. Using this tool, she was able to show Aaron how to begin to recognize perspectives other than his own.

While many AS children can manage to learn these skills with constant practice and reinforcement, the skills never come naturally. To be able to "fit in," children with AS must work hard to do what others do automatically. Fortunately for Aaron, Mrs. Reed's extra effort and persistence made a difference, and he was able to learn a number of new skills that school year. Even at the end of the school year, Mrs. Reed was still finding ways to make learning memorable for him. She used pictures and schedules to help him develop a sense of independence, which wasn't coming naturally to him.

As Aaron left the classroom on the last day, he went up to Mrs. Reed and said, "Good-bye, have a good summer." She guessed that his mom had coached him to say those words that morning, but that was okay. She knew she'd made a difference that year, and that Aaron was different, too.

This blog is excerpted from "School Daze" Want to read more articles like this? Subscribe to Psychotherapy Networker Today!

Topic: Children/Adolescents | Anxiety/Depression

Tags: asperger's syndrome | autism | counseling | kids | learning | psychotherapy | therapist | therapy | networker | play | Asperger's | social skills | learning style | spectrum | Anxiety | stress

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