Welcome back to the Bravermans and a new season of Parenthood! Our season premiere has arrived, and it is a joy to be a part of this "Ask the Experts" feature on the Parenthood website once again. This will be an exciting year for Max; a new brother or sister will be arriving! Also, he will be starting the year in a new school in general education classes, and he (and we) will learn a lot about public education's response to those with ASD. Since inclusive programming is my specialty, I look forward to watching how both he and the school system cope with the challenges inherent in a public school setting for those with Asperger's syndrome.
In this season opener, Max is true to form; he exhibits his concrete thinking and total honesty by acting as a "social cop." As someone with Asperger's syndrome, Max is completely without guile or hesitation when he sees a potential threat to Alex - and thus wants to protect him whether or not it's his place to do so. Hence, the warning to Alex regarding the possible presence of alcohol at the senior party, the listing of statistics regarding number of deaths as a result of drinking and driving, the recitation of sobriety statistics and the proclamation of Alex's alcoholism to others. Unfortunately, because he does not appreciate how socially inappropriate all of these announcements are, Max puts Alex in a bit of an embarrassing situation.
To his credit, Alex reacts quite well to Max's social gaffe, but many would not have done so in the same circumstances. Max, of course, has an incredible intelligence (which should be encouraged), and he also knows many details about obscure topics. But it can be highly embarrassing for someone to come up to you and say, "You need to stop smoking; smokers die every day from lung cancer" or for a classmate to be asked, "Did you know that Jonathan's mom and dad are divorced and Jonathan is now homeless?"
Avoiding embarrassment is a social skill that many with Asperger's do not fully understand. Everyone has personal topics that they share only with those whom they fully trust, since such topics can be painful when others are made aware of them. Max doesn't understand or pick up on this at all. What you see is what you get with Max. He doesn't take the time to process the ramifications of what he says to others. In the course of my professional career, I have met many little "social cops" who are intent on everyone following all the rules, and proclaiming every detail about hazardous subjects they discuss or encounter to everyone around them. This can be quite cute when the child with Asperger's is very young, but it's not cute to anyone when it comes from a pre-teen or older.
Max's total honesty is endearing, and his clarity of perception is one of his strengths. We should all be so honest with ourselves and everyone else! But realistically, total honesty is not always welcomed. When he tells his peers that they are not following the rules at school, recites statistics regarding certain dangers relevant to their infractions and relates every instance of rule-breaking of his peers (and perhaps, of himself, as well) to the teachers, his peers will take a decidedly negative view of him.
This can be a deal breaker when building friendships. Max is coming into a new school this year, and his family has high hopes that he will make some friends amongst his new classmates - what all parents want for their children. To help Max achieve this goal, his parents and teachers - in conjunction with his social skills group - should make sure they tackle this issue and provide direct instruction coupled with a positive behavior plan that can teach him to better judge his statements and the effects they can have on others.
In other words, Max needs to learn how to couch his statements, how to discern the difference between "personal" versus "private" comments and how to understand why someone might not like their private worries, concerns or habits trumpeted to anyone else. He also needs to understand the meaning of the word "embarrassment" and to get a sense of which subjects often embarrass people if discussed in public. Lists of specific topics to avoid discussing in public settings can even be made (such as bathroom topics, family personal concerns, worries, financial situations, divorce, losing a home, etc.). This can help Max determine the difference between "public" topics and "private" topics. But this is a difficult skill to teach, so the sooner this process begins, the sooner Max will start to self-monitor his statements.
All of us dedicated to watching the Braverman family have high hopes that Max will fit in at school and build lasting friendships this year. Along with the many new social opportunities he will experience, Max will also be called upon to exhibit a much higher level of social understanding - an abstract and daunting task indeed for those living on the spectrum. Ultimately, Max will need to be able to better judge what statements he can make to others and not react strictly as a "social cop" to people with whom he interacts.
Questions to ponder for this season:
How will Max react to the new baby? Will the baby's crying bother him?
How will Max's teachers respond to his idiosyncrasies?
Will Max make friends this year?
What about Max's intelligence - what will the teachers do to make sure that he's challenged in his academics?
Written by Sheila Wagner, M.Ed.