Raising a “Quirky” Child

5 Tips for Raising a Quirky Child

While we want to celebrate what makes each child unique, there are times when we see our children standing out from the crowd and we worry they are standing alone. Our hearts ache when we see our children left out of play, gossiped about, or ostracized from the group because of the little quirks that make their personality their own.

As a parent, there is a fine balance between allowing our little quirky child to brave his own path, and helping him learn and understand the way people interact, why they act a certain way, and how we may better “fit in” at certain times. This is learning that is ongoing, as our quirky kids will experience new situations throughout their lifetimes. But as parents, we can often be by their side, helping them navigate the nuances of the social world.

20130829-200426.jpg1. Practice entering into a conversation or play scenario. Initiating a conversation with another child gets trickier the older your child gets. It’s often hard for a child to come up with a way to enter play. At your child’s level, role play some ways to join a conversation. Hi there… I love Legos, especially Star Wars ones! Can I play, too? Practice together, then let your child practice with another parent or sibling.

2. Be straightforward and matter-of-fact about social rules. After you witness an awkward encounter, talk with your child about appropriate ways of interacting. It’s great to say hello and smile when we see our friends, Aidan. We don’t want to hug or kiss them, though, because we need to respect their space. We save our kisses for Mom and Dad.

3. When you know a tricky situation is coming up, prep your child ahead of time. Give them some strategies on how to interact. It’ll be fun to see your friends on the soccer field, Sarah. Let’s smile and say “hi” when we get there.

4. Problem-solve with your child. From problem behaviors to extreme anxiety, the best solutions usually come from letting your child have their own voice. If they are part of the brainstorming, they will be that much more vested in a solution.

5. Give them a chance to express shyness or anxiety in a loving environment.  Everyone gets stressed or anxious by tricky situations. Let them know that you are there for them and will try to help them if they have a question.

Your child’s quirks may one day reveal themselves to be his strengths and individual glory. Celebrate him, support him, and love him for his gift to the world.

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Preparing for College and the Workplace

Part of my role as a Speech-Language Pathologist is to prepare my students for life AFTER school.  For those children with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome, this includes preparing for college and for the workplace.  The employment rate for these students is 55%, which is lower than those with intellectual disabilities.  As our kids start high school, the question of “What’s next?” is always at the back of our minds.

Students with HFA/AS don’t need vocational training in the traditional sense.  Rather, they should be supported in their strengths (e.g. art and video game creation) and supported in their areas of weakness (e.g. conflict management, executive functioning skills, social discourse).  That being said, it’s important that they learn work-management skills in order to be successful in future jobs.  There are some basic skills for success that we can support, both as parents and professionals.

To begin with, explore work and volunteer experiences during high school.  If your child has a fondness for animals, look into shelter work.  If your child loves books, the library provides endless volunteer opportunities stocking shelves and assisting with reading programs. If your child has a knack for computers, reach out to the high school computer lab teacher and ask if your child can help load new programs, troubleshoot problems, and assist those students who need extra help.  Besides the hands-on training that these volunteer experiences provide, your child will be learning many executive functioning skills: how to prioritize, time management (showing up for work on time), asking questions and communicating with bosses, responding to criticism or strict guidelines, following rules, and in general operating within the constraints that come with many employment situations.

It is also important that we support our students in extracurricular activities.  Like the work situations previously described, extracurricular activities allow our children to capitalize on their strengths and address some areas of weakness.  Joining chess club for your chess whiz, for example, allows your child to feel successful in an area of strength, while also pursuing friendships and relationships with peers.

As we progress through therapy, I have frequent conversations with my students about college, the work world, their dreams and goals for the future, and the different skills they will need to get there.  The same goal-setting and reality-checking can be applied at home.  Students with HFA/AS are often unrealistic about the future and the steps needed to achieve certain goals or dreams.  Focus on helping and supporting your child.  We aren’t trying to “change” them, but rather give them an understanding of their diagnosis and the best way to live successfully with their neurological differences. 

In high school, we begin to pull away some of the special accommodations, or at least encourage the student to begin addressing what they need to be successful.  After school, the world won’t compensate for them, so it’s important that they learn how to ask for what they need.  Self-advocacy becomes a crucial skill to be learned.  Your student can participate in their IEP or teacher meetings, and role playing at home strengthens their awareness of what their needs might be. For example, before their college entrance exam (like the SAT), role play what the setting is going to feel like, what their emotions might be, and how they might know the answers to the questions but the environment could be distracting.  Set up a plan to address some of these distractions or feelings, and problem-solve how they are going to handle the rest.

If you’d like to read more, there are many online resources (http://mappingyourfuture.org/collegeprep/, www.collegeautismspectrum.com/collegeprograms/html) as well as books (try “The Parent’s Guide to College for Students on the Autism Spectrum” or “Preparing for College: An Online Tutorial”) to help you help your child navigate this next phase of their life. 

Once your child is in college, the journey isn’t over.  The dropout rate for our kids is 40%, so these conversations and check-ins need to continue to happen.  It sounds like a lot of parenting, I know it sometimes seems exhausting, and at some point you’d like to just step back and let them fly.  But I know from experience that you are some of the most steadfast parents around.  Your kids grow up quickly in some areas, but slowly in other areas, so make sure you don’t send them off too soon.  The world will continue to be a better place for the contributions your children make to their school, workplace, and community.  And your role in making that happen is more important than ever.

Talented and Gifted

Can my child be in a Talented and Gifted program if he’s on an IEP?

Interestingly, I have fielded this question from several of my families the past year. Many children who need specialized instruction or assistance in one area also need accelerated or advanced curriculum in another area. An IEP (Individualized Education Plan) does not exclude a child from a Talented and Gifted program (called TAG here in Oregon, or GATE in California.)

As a speech-language pathologist, I spend most of my time focused on a child’s areas of need. His weakest skills in language and processing, his delayed articulation, or his poor executive functioning. I measure progress with data and reports from parents and teachers. I pore over discrepancies in test scores and reports from other professionals to try to determine precisely where the child is struggling. Parents often hop on board this process, providing me with wonderful detail about the interactions where their child’s social skills failed that day, which essay problems on the science test were giving their child the most difficulty, and what neighbors witnessed the behavioral meltdown outside as the child refused to get in the car. With many of the students, their ability to perseverate on a topic, or, as one teacher put it: “drone on and on and on about the same thing…” is often an area we focus on to increase conversational flexibility and theory of mind skills.

And yet…

Sometimes I will just listen to my students and marvel at their areas of STRENGTH. Oh-my-goodness, these are some of the brightest children I’ve come across. Whether it’s listing all the U.S. presidents (and their wives and children!) in order, detailing the process of spontaneous combustion and where it occurs in the universe, or creating an imaginary world full of characters, these students have gifts that need to be celebrated. And, in the case of some students, their gifts make them exceptional when compared to their peers, even in the academic setting. When I look to the future and try to predict what my students will be doing when they graduate and enter the “real world”, I see them in jobs capitalizing on these skills that they have. Which is why, yes, it is entirely appropriate for a student who needs accommodations and specialized instruction to also have opportunities for deeper study and research. It also reminds us as parents and educators that a child’s strengths should be celebrated… everyday, every chance that we get.

What’s an Aspergirl?

When they hear the term “Asperger’s Syndrome”, many people picture a male with eccentricities, sensory sensitivities, poor social skills, and areas of giftedness or hyperfocus.  “Aspergirls” – the term made popular by Rudy Simone, an adult female with Aspergers – highlights the subculture of females with Asperger’s Syndrome, as well as the unique characteristics displayed by female “Aspies”.  One of my favorite, original “Aspergirls” is Dr. Temple Grandin, who has done wonders for the subculture of Aspergirls by sharing her frank and honest personal experiences with the world.

Young females with Asperger’s Syndrome are often overlooked in the early years and do not receive a diagnosis until their teens or beyond.  They are often shy, introverted, and bookish, characteristics which are more socially acceptable in females than in their male counterparts.  Aspergirls usually have areas of strong interest, like males, but again these often manifest themselves in more socially acceptable ways, such as having an interest in fairytales, horses, or art.

The lack of a diagnosis, however, means these girls are often dealing on their own with sensory overload, social confusion, and feelings of insecurity and frustration.  As Rudy writes in her book “Aspergirls”: “If there is no diagnosis then there is a vacuum – a hole in which to pour speculation and fill with labels.”  With diagnosis comes support -whether from therapist and professionals, within an IEP program at school, or from support groups with like-minded girls and families.

I highly recommend reading “Aspergirls” by Rudy Simone if you would like more information about your child or children you work with.  The book was frank and blunt, and Rudy gives practical advice to young girls, women, and their parents.  If your daughter exhibits characteristics of an “Aspergirl”, there are many things you can do at home.

1. Praise and encourage.  Aspergirls are often very emotionally vulnerable, and they need heaps of positive reinforcement.

2. Seek out information online.  Resources like Rudy Simone’s website: www.help4aspergers.com and www.aspie.com offer a lot of helpful information.

3. Find a support group in the area.  Social skills groups run by speech-language pathologists work on pragmatic language skills and peer relationships.  Two groups I know about in the Portland area include: www.artzcenter.org and www.campyakketyyak.org

4. Support your child’s areas of strength.  Those are the areas where they will shine.  As Rudy wrote: “Life is about making a contribution, not about being popular and fitting in.”

5. Create a soothing, quiet environment in your child’s room at home.  Soft music, comfortable pillows, and soft lighting help ease the sensory overload.

6. Help your child maintain a healthy diet and get exercise.  These can help with intestinal issues and alleviate depression and anxiety.  You want to help teach your child what they need to manage their Asperger’s.

7. Love your child for who they are.  You can support them and guide them, but you can’t change them. Forcing them to be someone different will only result in hurt, loss, and alienation as they grow older.  Help them fit the pieces of their life together.

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Eye rolls and sighs

I spend an unusual amount of time trying to convince middle school boys that I can help them.  Ah, middle school.  A time when the social complexities can make your head spin, and the students that have a hard time keeping up are left clueless on the side of the crowd.

As a speech-language pathologist, I work to build social communication skills for many students.  For the child who has difficulty making eye contact and can’t think of anything to say, or goes on-and-on about one topic without understanding that you really don’t want to hear any more about cars, imagine the path they take through the hallways of your local middle school.  It is a frightening image for a parent.  Long gone are the cozy walls of the elementary school where your child’s one teacher understood his or her nuances, building a rapport with your child to give him structures and guidance.  Welcome to middle school, where texting and instant messaging spread jokes, gossip, and the latest news faster than teachers or parents can even keep up.

As parents we can set our children up for as much success socially as possible.  We can teach them to say hello politely, to inquire about others (“What could you say to Jimmy when you see him?”), and to make sure to listen when someone else has something to say.  However, there comes a time when a child needs more help, more instruction than what a parent can provide.  And, frankly, these middle school students with social engagement weaknesses are no more interested in listening to their parents than their more typically-engaged peers.

That’s when you seek out some help.  Michelle Garcia Winner is a favorite expert in social communication challenges that students may face.  You can follow her blog here: http://www.socialthinking.com/what-is-social-thinking/michelles-blog.  Besides working individually at school or privately with an SLP, many of these children do best when exposed to social language groups, where they can work on language within the context of a peer group. 

Parents can be a support, recognizing their child’s strengths and acknowledging their child’s weaknesses.  Every student needs activities to be involved in outside of school, whether Boy Scouts, martial arts, or a computer club, in order to build peer relationships and encourage growth.  The self-confidence that comes from excelling at something can carry a child through some of the toughest middle school times.  Martial arts and Boy Scouts are two activities that I recommend to my families.  They build social skills and allow opportunities for engagement with peers while maintaining a very strong structure and consistent expectations and guidelines, which these students often need.

The best thing about a middle school student, with the eye rolls and sighs and the “Why are you sooo lame?” exasperation, is that they won’t be in middle school forever.  And hopefully, with a little guidance and lots of patience, we can help them enter high school with even more tools under their belt.