Passions and Relationship Building
In addition to strengthening your personal relationship with your child, her passions can be used to develop additional relationships with others. Because your child could discuss her passions endlessly, it will be important to try to connect her with others similarly impassioned. Your child may already understand that she cannot talk about her passions at school during classroom instruction. But there are other outlets that the school day can provide for social opportunities that build upon her passions. Such opportunities will require the cooperation of teachers, teachers' aides, and others to set up a structure within which the social interactions may occur.
Creating a Comfortable Environment
The lunchroom is often challenging and overwhelming for many children with Asperger's Syndrome. It is usually a large, open area filled with many, many children all talking at once. Sometimes there is music playing, silverware clanking, and a social protocol involving where and with whom one sits. Creating “lunch bunch” tables may be an appealing alternative for any number of kids. Your child may know of other children with similar passions, or his teachers may be able to help identify them, even if they are in other grades. The concept is to establish a welcoming structure and routine by assigning students to tables and lunchtime discussion topics based upon their mutual (or similar) passions. If possible, the tables could be moved off to one side of the cafeteria, away from the distracting noise and visuals, to help foster successful conversations.
Never withhold a passion as a reward to be earned or use it as a punishment as part of your discipline regimen. Your child will grow to resent having someone in authority controlling it instead of allowing him to control it. This does not foster a trusting relationship.
To start, an adult moderator may assist in regulating the conversation, helping the conversation through lulls, and modeling acceptable turn-taking during the discussion. The concept is not to segregate kids with differences to select tables; it is to provide structure during a typically unstructured time (during which some kids with Asperger's socially flounder). It is nonstigmatizing because the opportunity to participate is open to all, and, depending upon assigned topics, may come to be seen as “cool.” Other opportunities to connect socially while building upon passions include after-school clubs, the library, camps, scouts, and other extracurricular activities such as art lessons, horseback riding, martial arts, or swimming.
Communicating via the Internet
Too many people believe that in order for an interaction to be “social” it has to take place in person. How many people do you know in your life whom you rarely see but talk to by phone or communicate with via e-mail? Interacting with others using the computer is social! There are countless opportunities to make social contacts with others through topic-specific websites, chat rooms, message boards, e-mail and e-mail groups, and instant messaging. As was true of texting, you will, of course, wish to explain to your child visually, in writing, the rules, cautions, and expectations of using the Internet, including a list of topics that are not appropriate for discussion between children or from an adult to a child.
You may be quite surprised by the eloquent and articulate manner in which some people with Asperger's or autism communicate by e-mail — folks who might otherwise present as socially awkward during in-person dialogue. The reasons for their success include:
No pressure to respond verbally
No pressure to reply with immediacy, as in real-time conversation
No pressure to make eye contact
No external stimuli or visual distraction to detract one's focus
The luxury of as much process time as one needs
The opportunity to be particular in composing and editing one's communication prior to sending a message
No fear of being judged by others based on appearance
The pleasure of interacting with others with the same passions
If you or your child is computer savvy, you may even create a personal web page, blog, or website to connect people through mutual passions. A circle of friends may grow to international proportions. Additionally, if your child is interested, she should be encouraged to exchange e-mail addresses with friendly classmates in order to maintain social connections after school, on weekends, long holidays, and especially summer vacation. Kids who don't do well conversing by phone because they monopolize the conversation — or have very chatty peers who monopolize the conversation — really flourish when using e-mail to discuss common interests and passions. In fact, you may even glean information from your child that she might not offer verbally, in person, by sending her an e-mail.
One challenge your child may face in sharing his passion with his same-age peers, particularly as he enters his teen years, is if the passion is considered juvenile or “babyish.” For example, consider the teenage boy who loves The Powerpuff Girls cartoon series. His passion is genuine, and yet he should exercise discretion to avoid being “set up” as a target of ridicule because of the way others may perceive it. This is a common issue for many children with Asperger's who have passions that have been long-standing since childhood. Such passions may remain constant while the interests of his peers mature into more dynamic areas typical of teens.
Nowadays, many people — children and adults — are avid collectors of memorabilia devoted to their passions. It's becoming easier for the person with Asperger's Syndrome to justify indulging in his passions.
The challenge is to balance passions with your parental expectations of responsibilities and obligations. The strategy here is twofold. First, privately, gently, and respectfully counsel your child about the ways in which his passion may be perceived. It is important to validate that you “get” it and value it, but explain that others may not see it that way. Visually list the people who can be trusted to discuss the passion unconditionally and without judgment. Next, list places in which it is okay to discuss the passion with these people with some modicum of privacy so others will not overhear, such as your own or a friend's house.
Second, coach your child to practice “upgrading” the manner in which he presents his passion to others. This means putting a sophisticated spin on it, such as emphasizing how The Powerpuff Girls animation team creates the cartoons, or discussing a recent Internet auction in which a rare, limited-edition, foreign-market “Bubbles” figurine brought an amazing bid. Articulating this knowledge will go over better than discussing the nuances of a particular episode.