My brother Jasper and I are 10 years apart. I’m 17 and he’s 7. My parents tried for many years to have more children after me. When my baby brother was finally born it felt like a dream come true.
Six months ago Jasper was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. My parents hired a special therapist to help him, but I want to help too. I’ve been trying to learn more about Asperger’s. I know it’s a neurobiological disorder of development and from what I can tell my brother is high functioning. The problem is that he can’t seem to relate to other people. He lacks basic social skills that other kids have naturally. Jasper gets invited to play once or twice and then doesn’t get invited again. He’ll see a toy that catches his eye and then he goes off to play by himself, which turns off other boys. He also refuses to play ball or other outside sports like everyone else. When he is around other kids, I see him take over the group by going on and on about science facts, not noticing the other kids looking bored and losing interest.
I feel so bad for him. I know he’s not trying to be selfish. He’s just trying to relate as best he can and is often misunderstood. Sometimes my parents scold Jasper and it breaks my heart. He’s always been very special to me and I want to protect him the best I can. I’m going to talk to his therapist as to how I can help but I also wanted to reach out to you. How can I help Jasper socially so he can make some friends?
It is common that children with Asperger’s have difficulty learning social skills that come naturally to their peers. They often need social behaviors to be taken apart for them, piece by piece. These teachings need to be given with loving patience, even when they need to be repeated over and over again. Children with this disorder require much more direct instruction and repetition about social rules and expectations than a typical child requires.
Specific training for common, everyday social interactions — reinforced by countless repetitions — is a very effective intervention for individuals with Asperger’s. This includes instructing Jasper on how to approach another child, start a conversation, take turns in line, say appropriate greetings, use an appropriate tone of voice, and use appropriate rules of proximity (i.e., knowing how close or how far away to stand or sit next to another person).
It’s an invaluable lesson for Jasper to learn to use polite phrases such as “please” and “thank you,” establish and maintain appropriate eye contact, share and take turns, listen to others, and share conversations fairly and equitably. It would be helpful, too, for Jasper to learn how to observe other people’s feelings. For example, “Your friend Asher is sad because his toy truck is broken. Look at how his mouth is not smiling.”
The “what-if” exercise might be helpful as well. This is where you ask Jasper step-by-step what he’d do in certain social situations. For example: “What if a friend didn’t want to play with dinosaurs and wanted to run around outside instead? What are your options? You could play by yourself, get angry and go home, or you could try to play outside.” Review with him the consequences of each choice. “In the first choice, you would get to play but would be all alone. In the second choice, you wouldn’t get to play and would also be alone. In the third choice you might have fun and gain a friend as well.”
It may be more difficult and take a little more prowess to address Jasper’s skill deficits such as perseverating on a topic (even though the listener is no longer interested), making off-topic comments, interrupting or refusing to compromise, not recognizing that other children may not have the same level of interest in his interests and that he may need to talk about them for only short periods of time, as well as recognizing when to shift the topic of conversation.
While these skills may come more naturally to other children than they do to Jasper, that doesn’t mean that he can’t learn them over time. Although it may be difficult for both of you at times, Jasper is extremely lucky to have such a devoted big sister.
Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has an office in Pasadena. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her website, patticarmalt-vener.com.