"My child has Asperger's syndrome." "My child has a developmental disability called Asperger's syndrome." "My little boy/girl has an Autism Spectrum Disorder." "My child is different." "My child is not like other children." "I don't know how to say this, but my child is not like yours." "I like to say that my child is a child first and foremost - and that he also happens to have a disability."
How do parents introduce their child with Asperger's (or any Autism Spectrum Disorder) to a new person and ensure acceptance, not rejection? For Adam and Kristina, and for most parents (or even siblings) who have a family member with an Autism Spectrum Disorder, this is an ongoing dilemma, especially when they need to introduce them to new individuals. Many parents who have children with ASD end up socially isolated due to the inappropriate behaviors of their children and have no friends. That does not mean they do not want friends, just that making new social connections is much more difficult and problematic. There's always the worry that their child will say something rude (such as some of the things Max says to Alex), or that the stranger will not understand and will reject any social connection because Autism Spectrum has come into the picture.
In this episode, Haddie's tension over the introduction is almost palpable, even though she has prepared Alex ahead of time for Max's disability. Kristina and Adam are later embarrassed over Max's socially inappropriate questions to a guest. Alex, however, handles the situation beautifully. Those who are prepared ahead of time are able to process how they might handle uncomfortable questions posed to them by someone with Autism Spectrum.
Many people will excuse inappropriate questions when the person making them is young - disability or not. It's an entirely different situation when the person asking inappropriate questions is older, and the risk of alienating new people is much, much higher. Children who are "typically" developing will know better than to make embarrassing statements even when very young, unless they are trying to deliberately provoke someone; an individual of any age with Autism Spectrum will likely not appreciate the social ramifications of embarrassing or rude statements.
Parents who have children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder should start teaching the steps for appropriate introductions early. Children with this disability learn best through routines, so acting out introductions will teach them a variety of appropriate options of what to say, help them to make eye contact, know when to shake hands, etc. This will help the child learn valued skills for his or her future. Realistically, however, this may not solve the situation, since the child still has a severe impairment in social relations coupled with a healthy dose of curiosity (or fear) regarding strangers. It is important to do the instruction, but don't be surprised if the child erupts with some outlandish statement anyway. (It really helps to maintain a sense of humor. Let's be honest, all children - those with and without ASD - can be pretty funny at times). Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders are predictable when the situation is predictable, but unpredictable when the situation is unpredictable. It is the nature of ASD.
What to say to strangers about the individual's disability? It will all depend on the situation. If you have time to prepare everyone, then do so. Above all, be comfortable with your knowledge and ensure it is accurate. Don't embarrass the family member or the stranger. It will also depend on who the stranger is - if it's a doctor, give them everything you've got; if it's the school (teacher, aide, etc.), give them everything that will impact their educational program; if it's a new, potential friend, feel them out to see how they accept people with disabilities in general and go from there. If they are antagonistic toward those that are outside of the norm, educate them if you can; don't give them the time of day if you can't - they won't be a friend anyway. And if you're in public with your child melting down, screaming and yelling with a crowd around you, when everything is finally settled down, hand out one of two cards that you should always carry - one from the Autism Society of America that says, "My child has autism," with the description of the disorder on it; or, conversely, if met with people that are antagonistic and unfeeling, hand them your second card - a pre-printed, ready-made card that says, "My child has autism; what's YOUR problem?" and leave it at that.
Written by Sheila Wagner, M.Ed.