Discipling an Aspie

I read an article recently that discussed ministering to those with Asperger’s Syndrome.

“The name comes from a pediatrician in Vienna, Hans Asperger, who in the 1940’s discovered that certain children have a unique set of character traits.  He began to study them, and he noticed they had some of the following characteristics in common:

-they tend to have a low EQ, meaning they lack certain social skills
-they prefer to be alone
-they are very intelligent (“little professors” he called them)
-they see things in black and white, meaning they take things very literally
-they do not easily process information
-they miss subtleties, do not easily intuit
-they are very sensitive to sounds, textures
-they have an odd sense of humor—quirky fits here
-they do not easily read faces, tend to avoid eye contact
-they are not so sensitive to feelings—they do not easily empathize
-they can melt down if given too many tasks at once

I immediately thought of my son, who is distinctly different from his brother and most of his preschool and elementary school peers in how he processes information. My son is not on the most extreme end of the Asperger’s Spectrum, yet, he’s there. I read these attributes to my husband as well, and we laughed. It explains a lot in our family.

My husband is by far my best resource in parenting my little Aspie because my little guy is in many ways just a smaller version of my big guy. The big thing we’ve talked about is accepting simply that he processes things differently than many other kids. And different is not bad.

Different: unusual, not common, not in step with the norm

Bad: of poor or inferior quality; defective; deficient; inadequate or below standard; morally reprehensible

This has been a very important point for me to get. DIFFERENT is not the same as BAD. Unusual is not the same as defective or morally wrong. Because I have a very different personality than my son, I value the norm. If I walk into a room of people in a social situation, I try to assess what is already going on and join in or support it if I can. And that can be a good thing—maybe I’m being polite and empathetic. It can also be a bad thing—maybe I’m insecure and trying to please people. Maybe I am proud and want them to think well of me. When my son walks in a room and is oblivious of others, it’s not necessarily wrong, but it is very different from me.

Once I fortify myself against the “different is bad” mentality that others project onto me and that my own personality tempts me to believe, then I can deal with my son’s strengths and weaknesses at a healthy level. What are the strengths of his personality spiritually speaking? What are the weaknesses?

The strengths I have come to recognize easily enough. He isn’t easily pressured by his peers. I wouldn’t mind so much if he looked around his 1st grade classroom and tried to blend in a bit better. But I recognize that long term, this will serve him very well. He won’t be hogtied emotionally like I was by the way others look at him. His personality traits will protect him, at least somewhat, from the kind of negative peer pressure that debilitated me when I was in junior high and high school. If he thinks he should or should not do something, he won’t be easily persuaded by the opinion of others. That is an awesome gift, and I admire it greatly after having struggled with that myself.

But his personality comes with weaknesses too. He often lacks empathy. And he can lock in so hard on a project that people become meaningless to him. I can’t just TELL him to be considerate, because it’s not intuitive for him. I have to model it and truly, proactively disciple him in it. I can’t just tell him the Golden Rule. I have to explain it in detail and then help him evaluate specific situations again and again in light of it.

The places we are focusing right now are the Greatest Command and the Golden Rule. People are more important than projects. That doesn’t mean that projects aren’t good or that he shouldn’t have opportunity to focus on his projects. We give him a lot of room there. But when the rubber meets the road, people are more important than projects. Our first priority is loving God. Our second is to love our neighbor as ourself. Which leads very nicely into the Golden Rule – how do YOU want to be treated, son? Ok. Then love your brother and treat him the way you want him to treat you.

I have learned so much in this journey with my son, yet I still can get very discouraged. It helps me to think how far we’ve already come – to think back on our miserable first year of preschool. I had experienced enough playdates with friends in the first 2 years of my son’s life to know he wasn’t exactly developmentally on target. But when we hit preschool, it was starkly obvious. There were 12 kids in the classroom—eleven 2-3 year olds remarkably similar in their ability to interact with peers and grown ups and one, my son, who was very, very different. The teachers helped me much that first year, patiently modeling for him again and again how to interact with other kids and grown ups, how to understand their expressions and repair with them when he had hurt them. And patiently modeling for ME how to redirect him and help him build the social skills that came normally for other kids but which he could not intuit for himself. They pointed me toward speech therapy, where a therapist modeled for me how to help him make eye contact and take turns in communication. In the five years since then, he and I have both come a long, long way.

It’s hard to water seeds and wait for fruit with our children, and it’s certainly hard when discipling a child with aspie tendencies. The exhortations in Scripture to persevere and endure are precious to me in this journey. Stay engaged. Repeat instruction as necessary. And never give up. Different is not bad, and it’s OK that I have to teach this son things that come naturally to many other kids.

1 Corinthians 13:7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

James 1 2 Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. 4 Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

9 Responses to Discipling an Aspie

  1. Denise :) January 23, 2012 at 3:21 am #

    I taught in a private school for six years and for four of them (my first and then last six) one of my students was a darling young man with Asperger's. He and my son became good friends and so I saw him (and his folks) both in and out of school quite frequently. I had to laugh when I read the list as well, because they certainly described him perfectly. He taught me a lot about patience and grace and seeing things differently. I both loved and liked him. He and my son are still good friends and I always enjoy an opportunity to chat and catch up with him. James 1:2-4 is my theme verse! 🙂

  2. Denise :) January 23, 2012 at 3:22 am #

    Oops — I meant last three, not six! 🙂

  3. Melissa B. January 23, 2012 at 3:22 am #

    Wow… I really needed to read this. I'm at my wits end with my 14 year old who is bipolar and has several learning disabilities that are very similar to fetal alcohol syndrome (we adopted him when he was 5 months old). I've never had my patience tested so much. Thank you for the reminder that different is not bad.

  4. Lindsey January 23, 2012 at 5:20 am #

    Wendy, I appreciate your post (as I appreciate many, many others), and I suspect parents who have kids with development delays appreciate it more than I do. I do have a question, though, and it's one I'm sorting out myself as my own kids are getting older (well, my oldest is five): when does discussing your child's strengths and weaknesses online, or just discussing your child at all, cross the line? On my blog, I still post pictures of my son, recount some of his funny comments, and post his artwork. I wonder how he will feel about that later and I wonder when I should stop.

    I'm curious what your thought have been on that topic. It's a common enough phenomenon online these days. I don't really think you've crossed that line here, but just curious. I suppose it's related to the off-line question of how to respond to comments that imply: “Your family has it so together!” I don't ever want to be a fake or give people impossible standards to live up to, but I also don't want to speak disrespectfully of my kids sins or weaknesses (and again, I don't think you did here).

    Just musing.

  5. Wendy January 23, 2012 at 5:45 am #

    Lindsey, it's a question I think about a lot. Pastors I respect check with their family members before sharing a story or issue, and I think that's a good rule of thumb. Also, I try not to use their or my name, so if someone googles their name, no stories from the blog are associated with a search. It's not fool proof, but I think those are both good practices.

  6. Anonymous January 23, 2012 at 8:35 pm #

    Good stuff. I agree with your viewpoint. But I'm wondering how you might explain this to a hardcore fundamentalist who believes all psychology is useless and even unbiblical. For them the DSM is just an excuse to excuse someone's sin. (I personally don't agree and have been helped greatly by “secular” cognitive behavioral therapy.)

  7. Flyaway January 24, 2012 at 2:12 am #

    The description of the character traits for Aspergers sounds very much like the description of the character traits for an engineer. We have many engineers and scientists in our family. Maybe that is why we are resistant to peer pressure!

  8. Cindy Girard March 16, 2012 at 3:49 pm #

    I just came accross this post as I was trying to find something else. We left a church a number of years ago because they were blaming our sons' behaviour on our poor parenting and marriage. It hurt us so much emotionally and spiritually. My husband ended up leaving the family. I have two boys on the spectrum. They are now 17 and 15. They are great kids, but we went through many very painful years. I reccommend the book “the Explosive Child.” It explains that many “difficult” children have developmental delays in the areas of flexibility, change, and managing emotional response, etc. It is fantastic, logical, and if it doesn't help educate the hard-core anti psychology person, I am not aware of anything that will. Good luck

  9. Wendy March 16, 2012 at 3:58 pm #

    Cindy, thank you for sharing that resource! I am fortunate in the support I've found at my church — they pressure me toward unconditional, grace-filled love, not conforming my child to external standards. It has blessed me greatly. I'm sorry to hear of the problems it caused your family but am encouraged that it sounds like the three of you made it through. I will definitely check out that book.