Brenda Dater

@brenda-dater | contributor
Brenda Dater

Mom of Son on the Spectrum Writes Letter to Parents of Typical Kids

Dear Parents of Typical Kids, I could have been labeled a helicopter parent for my oldest son, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome when he was 3 years old. When he started middle school eight years ago, I tried to arrange for neighborhood kids to walk or bike to and from school together. I knew that other parents were not making plans for their kids. But my son was completely unaware of others’ plans, and he wanted to be included and didn’t feel comfortable calling to make arrangements on his own. “Could the boys ride to school together?” I asked a friend. “I’m not sure what they’ve decided,” she responded. “Maybe we could try it for the first couple of days?” I offered. “I’ll ask.” After three days of trying, my son was on his own. He couldn’t speed up, and they didn’t slow down. It didn’t work for them to ride together. I get it. My youngest son is starting middle school, and he makes his own plans for getting to and from school with his buddies. I’m not thinking about which of his friends might need extra help from him at the start of the year. I don’t think the parents or children from eight years ago were uncaring people for not continuing to include my son when they wanted to ride to school at a faster pace. But it would’ve made me jump for joy if they had considered how to make it work for all of them. It’s hard to have such different needs from the majority of people around you. I had to remain more involved than other parents so my son could be part of the group. I was the mom asking other parents what their kid’s after-school plans were weeks before school began. I was the mom offering to host kids at my home so my child had a friend to interact with. I was the mom providing fun activities and endless ice cream to make my home the gathering spot. I was involved in social planning longer than other parents. And that can be confusing and overwhelming for other parents who don’t have a child who needs extra help. Please remember that I’m not bugging you because I want to micromanage my child’s social life. Eight years ago, I was teaching my child how to make plans with friends because he wasn’t able to do it on his own yet. Other kids ventured out into the world with less parental hand-holding, but mine still needed help to interpret and manage the increasingly demanding social world of middle school. I know it’s not your job to look out for my kid, but I hope you can imagine what it would be like if your child was the one struggling socially. I hope you can imagine that another parent or child reaching out could make all the difference between being included and being ignored. Here’s how you can help: 1. Ask the parent and child what they need. When my oldest son was in middle school, another family wanted to include him in a birthday party at a noisy venue. They asked my son and me how to make it comfortable for him to participate. They were direct and kind and left us with the feeling that it wasn’t a big deal to be accommodating. 2. Offer to try something. Sometimes parents are worried about committing their child to weeks or months of plans with other children. Offer to try something for a week and see how it works out for all the kids. 3. Give children choices about how to build community. Allow kids to choose how they’ll try to include all kinds of kids. It’s not an option to decline building a more inclusive community, but they can choose how to be involved in the process. 4. Give me the benefit of the doubt. If my behavior confuses you, please assume I’ve got a good reason to be anxious. Kids on the autism spectrum don’t always transition easily to new schools, people or activities. Before any major transition, there were an array of activities I did with my son to help him prepare and understand what the new setting would be like for him. It included touring the space, meeting with new teachers, looking at the website, talking to students who were already at the school, having go-to people set up for the beginning of the year and having a Plan B in case my kid got anxious. It may seem like overkill to you, but that’s what allowed my child to participate in a typical day at a typical school. I wish you and your kids a smooth transition to this next school year. Follow this journey on Brenda Dater’s website. Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images.

Brenda Dater

How We Gently Pushed Our Son With Asperger’s Out of His Comfort Zone

My 19-year-old son, Noah, was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome when he was 3, and I’ve felt uncertain about how much to push him out of his comfort zone ever since. Years ago, when the other 5-year-old kids in the neighborhood were riding bikes, our son was content with reading books and playing Pokemon. When Noah was sitting on his bike, he would grab onto my husband or me, clench his jaw and tell us he was done 30 seconds after getting on. I understood how impossible bike riding seemed to Noah. What was fun for other kids was not fun for him. But as Noah got older, I was concerned that he’d lose opportunities to play with friends if he didn’t learn how to ride. And so during the spring before middle school began, we tried one more time. Finally, he could see the benefit of learning to ride. He’d be able to get away from his annoying parents more easily. He could be with his friends. He could have more freedom and independence. At the same time, we understood the immense obstacles that stood in his way. He didn’t feel comfortable or stable when both of his feet weren’t on the ground. He had to think through each movement before doing it and would look down at his feet when he started to pedal. It was hard for him to pay attention to his environment; he might encounter potholes, stop signs and car doors in his path. So we came up with a plan. We made a list of all the small steps Noah would need to take in order to ride his bike independently. We took away the pressure of having to learn by a certain date or age. We let him know he could set the pace and duration of training; he might work on one step for four weeks and another for four days. And we celebrated each new success no matter how small it might seem to others. After four months of practicing for up to 10 minutes each day, Noah got on his bike and rode down the hill from our house and I literally jumped for joy. I have tremendous respect for the amount of effort my son has to expend every day to make sense of the world. Sometimes he’s exhausted and just wants to do what makes him feel calm and safe — being with good friends, playing with the dog, reading and playing video games. When he’s had enough time to do activities of his choosing, he’s more able to be flexible because he doesn’t feel as if he’s on high alert. And that’s when we can encourage him to try new things. What we consider before gently pushing our son out of his comfort zone: 1. Is this something he wants to do? If he’s motivated and interested, we can push a bit more. If he’s completely uninterested, we have to find a reason that resonates with him. 2. Is this something he needs to do? He didn’t need to learn to ride a bike when he was 5. But by middle school, it became more important. 3. Does he have an underdeveloped skill that would help him reach a personal goal? Noah wants to write a book but feels stuck. We talk about how people structure unstructured time and break down large goals into manageable pieces. We don’t tell him what to do but discuss what he thinks might be worth trying. 4. Is he fragile? We don’t push when Noah has already hit his limit. We try to help him remember how to lower his stress and anxiety and connect him to the support and structure that works for him. It helps me to remember that my son is on his own timetable. Comparing him to his peers leads me to push him for the wrong reasons. I can accept him for who he is and support him to try new things. As I wrote in Parenting without Panic, “We need to provide just enough of a challenge to stretch our child’s abilities in a safe environment. Too much challenge and our children feel they are failures. Too little and they assume we don’t believe they are capable of much.” Follow this journey on Brenda Dater’s website.