Parenting is probably the most difficult vocation on the planet, and most of us come to it completely unaware of how difficult it's going to be. There are endless skills needed to even begin to somewhat successfully navigate the perils of raising a child. These of course are compounded when one of the children has a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder, ASD/Asperger's. One of the issues making it so much more complicated is the notion that a child diagnosed with ASD/Aspergers is getting "special treatment" - as Sydney complains about Max on Parenthood when he gets to have snacks before Thanksgiving dinner.
This accusation can come from a more typical child like Sydney who spends time with the child diagnosed with ASD/Asperger's, a sibling, a grandparent, or even a random stranger. While there are times when the accusation is unwarranted, there are other times when it probably is a correct assessment of the situation. The tough part is knowing whether you are doing something that's helpful or harmful to your child with ASD/Asperger's when you are the parent conferring special treatment.
In my clinical practice, I watch families come in every day who struggle at home with the consequences that sometimes result from "special treatment." Usually there aren't any problems making general accommodations around a child's difficultie - such as turning down the volume to accommodate sensitive hearing, avoiding large crowds, or perhaps even buying things that are associated with the child's particular fixations. We have struggled with this in our own home, too, with our son Frankie. In our case, we found that we need to be very careful - sometimes by making the accommodations we're unintentionally reinforcing and sustaining rigid behaviors that are ultimately anything but helpful for Frankie.
Parents often tell me that they're unable to stop buying objects like compact discs, plastic food, or even plumbing supplies since their children with ASD/Aspergers have learned they can demand these objects or "have a meltdown." The parents begin to "give in" to "avoid" the behaviors. The special treatment persists, which is not going to help the child diagnosed with ASD/Aspergers function more effectively in the "real world." The same kind of cycle can be established by giving in to feeding special foods at special times, or allowing a special accommodation around entertainment.
But we've also recognized that Frankie is different, and, just like our typical son, has different interests and talents that can be cultivated to be part of the group. Frankie is really good at board games and teaching people to play board games. So we have board games available when we have guests over. Or, like Max keeping score during the Braverman family Thanksgiving football game, when we play sports, Frankie will sometimes referee. These are accommodations that lead to further integration, interaction, and social acceptance and competence, and they don't distance the child with ASD/Asperger's from other more typical children.
These parenting approaches aren't always instinctive but we can learn from one another. Many of us have "been there, done that," and we can listen to the professionals who are there to give us strategies for how to do the best job we can in the demanding vocation of parenting. As those of us raising children with ASD/Asperger's struggle with helping our children grow and learn to be part of a world that's often unforgiving of their eccentricities and rigidities, we can always ask ourselves if the path we're on and the behaviors we allow are going to help our children function and be productive and fulfilled in the world. That is, after all, what we all want for our children, whatever their struggles may be.
Written by Roy Q. Sanders, M.D.