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Coaching of Children with Aspergers or Special Needs

By Dr. Steven Richfield,
Child Psychologist and author of The Parent Coach

Coaching your child with Aspergers or other special needs to handled social and self control problems.

A parent writes, "Our children with Asperger Syndrome have social and self-control difficulties. Can you offer additional advice on how to help them cope more effectively with the world around them?"

It is not uncommon for parents to find themselves at a loss when trying to coach life skills to their special needs children. Part of the problem is that those responses that are so obvious and intrinsic to our behavior patterns have not yet been firmly established in the child. This can set in motion a response cycle that leaves the child feeling unfairly criticized and parents feeling powerless to help. In my experience, parents are in the best position to provide such coaching as long as they approach the child with realistic expectations and helpful ideas.

When children are hampered by Asperger’s Syndrome or other neurologically based problems, the world may often appear as a vast puzzle that overwhelms their senses and confounds their thinking. Abruptness, inconsistency, and sudden disappointment can trigger immense emotional reactions that are disproportionate and extremely troubling to those around them. Attempts at conversation may be feeble and one-sided because it is so difficult for them to assess empathy and perspective-taking. The ability to infer what other’s expect of them is often very limited by their narrow focus. Given these limitations, parents can help them “fit the pieces of the puzzle together” by employing some of the following coaching tips:

Explain how conversations are like taking turns at telling something about yourself. Conversational tools include volunteering information without being asked, pausing to allow other’s to speak, asking questions that are related to the topic being discussed, and bringing up subjects that have been covered in the past. Suggest that they observe how others blend these elements together to form satisfying conversations. Write out the tools on individual index cards and have them refer to the cards as they practice having such conversations where you provide the context and act as a peer. Once they develop some proficiency, try recording the discussions so that they can listen to their success and identify areas for improvement.

Prepare them for the sudden and unexpected by highlighting those specific events. Life is often filled with twists and turns that more rigid children find hard to navigate around. Explain how common these events are in everyone’s life and point out their occurrences. Suggest that these are “thinking side tests” in that they challenge us to think and not act upon our feelings. Introduce the concept of “say-it-to-yourself solutions’ that help maintain self-control and clear thinking. For example, if a parent’s possession is misplaced, use it as an opportunity to express the solution, “I know I left it somewhere in the house. When I have the time to thoroughly look for it, I know I’ll find it.”

Enhance their powers of inference by using television and real life observations. Explain how the ability to infer meaning essentially means picking up on clues and figuring out what is going on in a situation. Facial expression, body posture, tone of voice, eye contact, and other clues should be identified and referred to when watching television and/or observing others from a distance. When appropriate, suggest that you watch a show together with the volume muted and attempt to infer what it going on between the characters. Another variation is to watch the first half of a show, turn it off, and discuss what may have happened during the final sequences. Look for other “inference tests” involving movie previews, shapshots, and commercials in order to increase your child’s “Inference Quotient.”


Dr. Steven Richfield is a child psychologist in Plymouth Meeting, PA. His column appears monthly. He has developed a child-friendly self-control/social skills building program called Parent Coaching Cards. His new book, The Parent Coach: A New Approach To Parenting In Today’s Society is available through Sopris West (sopriswest.com or 1-800-547-6747) He can be contacted at www.parentcoachcards.com or 610-238-4450.

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