Aspergers101 for the Parent

As neurotypicals, disappointments come early in life. We learn quickly that all we desire is not all that is intended for us. We learn, through a trail of unrealized dreams, to be content with our lot or find another pathway toward our goal(s).

Having a child on the autism spectrum redefines the above lesson. Managing your ASD child’s crushing blow of disappointment comes with a different manual altogether. When it comes to disappointment through deceivers and manipulators…those with an Autism Spectrum Disorder are susceptible to exploitation. ASD is, at its core, a disorder of social functioning and cognition. Just saying old phrases like, “That’s life” or “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps” or “That’s how the ball bounces” makes no sense to them and sets them off into further confusion and strife. Their brain is wired differently so their expectations and heightened sense of right and wrong may bring on pain when the expected turns unexpected. Knowing how to help them is first to understand that your autistic child is wired differently and being lied to will take more than standard sayings to overcome. In other words, like everything else in parenting a child on the autism spectrum, it may take a well thought out talk but you can relieve your child’s mind….and yours by a few steps.

Their brain is wired differently so their expectations and heightened sense of right and wrong may bring on pain when the expected turns unexpected.

-Jennifer Allen

Manage their Expectations

In looking back on raising a son on the autism spectrum, this was and still is an everyday activity. Managing their expectations takes time, communication and preparation. My part as a parent has waned a bit as our son ages, as I am beginning to see how he attempts to prepare himself for daily potential challenges. This preparation begins with a comforting knowledge of facts. Let me give an simplified example but one that you can plug most any upcoming event into. Remember, this is just about managing the small unknown(s). We will get into the larger scenarios later.

Here is the situation: Church is going to be extra crowded on Sunday because it’s Easter Sunday. We then think of the challenging ramifications that overcrowding may bring and discuss solutions.

The Challenges Discussed:

  1. We may not be able to sit in the same pew/area we usually do
  2. There may be louder sounds with more children in the service
  3. It may take us longer to go eat lunch as crowds are larger during Easter Sunday at restaurants

So we go over the potential challenges and discuss the following choices to avoid disappointment, expectations or meltdowns:

The Solutions Discussed:

  1. Let’s leave extra early to get our usual seating -or- would we take the opportunity to sit elsewhere and see what that is like?
  2. With the onset of more crying babies, would you want to use noise-cancelling headsets? Go to foyer if it gets too loud? Other suggestions?
  3. Since it may take longer to get to a restaurant can you set in your mind it might take 30 minutes longer than usual to eat lunch? Would you rather forego crowded Easter Sunday restaurant crowds and eat at home?

The challenge/solution exercise helps to prepare your child for what disappointments might be just ahead. The less amount of surprises the better for a factual mind. This activity prepared our son throughout his young life and now we are starting to see him work through this for himself as an adult. This practice certainly helps prepare for the unexpected but what happens when they are promised something and it’s never delivered. Or a blatant lie is told to them and they keep trusting the source will do as they say but you realize they never will? In other words, how to you explain to the pure believer that the world is corrupt and sometimes people are going to lie to you. Most deal with this topic when their children are very young, but to the parent of a child with Autism it’s ongoing. You know they take everything literally and hidden meaning or ulterior motives is a concept most difficult to grasp. For the autistic brain it’s confusing, painful and sometimes paralyzing.

Life is NOT Always Fair

People with diminished mindreading, such as those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), might be at risk of manipulation because of lie detection difficulties.  “People with Autism/Asperger Syndrome have a tendency to be very blunt and direct — they can be honest to a fault,” said Tony Attwood, professor of psychology at Minds & Hearts, an Asperger’s and autism clinic in Brisbane, Australia. In addition, they have trouble detecting falsity in words and actions. “They often think other people are as honest as they are, which leaves them vulnerable and gullible.”

Preparing your child for the world, both good and bad, is a very personal series of preparations but when you add in the factor of Autism, it is a bit confusing and painful to attempt to prepare them for deceit. After all, how can they ‘read’ a person if they cannot recognize the simplicity of a bored facial expression? I suggest teaching this lesson as it comes along in life.

Life is NOT always fair. People will lie and act out untruths. This is a painful hard fact of life but know this is extra confusing and painful to those wired to process literally.

-Jennifer Allen

When they pin their hopes on a promise made to them and clearly the person has been unable to live up to that promise, a lesson awaits. Let’s break it down to something simple.

Scenario: A neighbor, with good intent, promises to hire your job-seeking son for the summer months for lawn care. “Please don’t get another lawn care job. You are hired…I promise you!”. The neighbor goes on to say…”I will pay you $25 every week and call you when you can get started. I’ll call you in a couple of days.” The promise of work is a done deal to the ASD teen. He plans his summer around this job. He holds the phone in anticipation of the call. The call never comes. The neighbor won’t answer his door nor return any of the calls. Summer is almost over and confusion soon gives to the first awareness of unrealized promises. “But he said he would call!”, “He promised”, all these are painful truths and most difficult to explain to the Autistic child but here comes the important lesson that you must help them learn. Life is not always fair and sometimes people do not do what they say they will do. Sometimes the face and/or the words may be a mask. Perhaps the neighbor had good intentions but something fell short in his life whereas he couldn’t hold up his promise to you. You may never know why he told you one thing and did another but you can control how long you hang on believing and wasting your time. Let’s give this a three-strike rule. Give your child a concrete method they can plug in to quit expecting the person to follow-through with the empty promise. Believe me, time can keep marching and they, painfully, will keep hanging on to the promise. You can pick how many tries but we’ve come up with the 3 strike rule our son can now count on.

3 Strike Rule

If a friend or a place of business states that they will call you back by a certain date/time and they don’t…try the 3 strike rule before moving on.

  1. Assume they will call you back when they say they will. If the first time comes and goes. Call them, they are probably busy and time escaped them. If they don’t answer, leave a message.
  2. Give it a few days, if you still haven’t heard back, reach out again. Perhaps via email as well as phone message. If no response, leave polite message and wait.
  3. If over 10 days has passed and still no response either by email or phone. You may express your attempt to reach them and leave the door open but at this point, you’ll need to assume they will probably not respond and you should move on. You’ve done everything you can at this point and know opportunity lies elsewhere!

The 3 Strike Rule gives a concrete plan to not keep bothering a person or business and helps your child know the problem is not with them but sometimes other people cannot hold their promise for reasons they may never know. It’s nothing personal, but there is a time to move forward.

The challenge associated with lie detection and ASD traits should not be surprising, given that such judgments are fundamentally social in nature and that ASD is at its core a disorder of social functioning and cognition. We, as parents, must manage their expectations and then show them how to live on past what feels a crushing disappointment.

This has not been one of my favorite blogs to write but a necessary one. We must prepare our ASD children as much as possible for life and as they age into adulthood, offering a guide to overcome an empty promise is a bridge they must get across. Being a listening ear and noticing the signs of depression or confusion is part of the training. Allowing them to talk and offering something as simple as the 3-step rule for moving on is as significant as first realizing that the ticking clock in the back of the classroom is immobilizing them from kindergarten studies. Helping them find the obstacle and then showing them how to remove the obstacle, step by step, sends them forward. Isn’t it a lesson for us all?

by: Jennifer Allen

Further Reading…

There was an actual study, should you want to read more, on the topic of deception toward someone with Autism Spectrum Disorder that I found interesting. It was published by the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health and looks at people with ASD (or ASD traits) may be particularly vulnerable to manipulation and may benefit from lie detection training.  The link to the study is below:

Can you spot a liar? Deception, mind reading, and the case of autism spectrum disorder

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  1. My son is going thru a major stage of disappointment. He is 18 years old. He is still grieving our move from our old house to our cottage. And since moving to our cottage, we’ve built a new home and moved our cottage. It’s almost too much for him. He feels he is going insane. And I am at the end of my rope…. I have no idea how to help him deal with these losses. On top of that his grandmother passed last year and we are in the middle of Covid. Any help would be greatly appreciated. He has pretty much retreated to his room, has become totally anti-social, negative and nasty.

  2. Thank you! My son has ASD and is going through this very thing right now!

    1. Author

      You are most welcome Mary! Hope it helps….we just went through this as well. Keep it factual and with steps seem to help alot. We wish him well!

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