Here’s a question I got after a conference a few years ago, and the answer illustrates a really useful point for parents of kids on the spectrum – or of kids, in general. The parents asking the question had a son who’d been diagnosed with Asperger’s who was in the third grade.
Parent: My husband and I are trying to get our son “Freddy” to read, but it just doesn’t seem to be working. Freddy will actually just look at the book and turn the pages without reading, or he will tantrum, or he will sit silently glaring into space, but he will not read.
Me: Okay, you’re talking about times he’s supposed to be reading in school, so let’s talk about . . .
Parent: No, I’m talking about at home. We want him to be a reader, so every evening right after dinner we have reading time where my husband and I and Freddy all sit and read to ourselves.
Me: Mandatory reading right after dinner?
Parent: Yes, for a half-hour.
Me: Does Freddy get to pick his own books?
Parent: (Slowly) Well, sort of. We let him pick from some books we approve of.
Me: So, no Captain Underpants?
I will allow the rest of that conversation to quietly sink into oblivion so that I can talk about how to get your child to do at least some of the things you want them too (like reading).
This parent, aka “Parent,” wanted her son to read books, which is a totally appropriate and worthwhile goal. She came up with a plan, but her plan was really terrible. It was a plan that made her son feel helpless and trapped, and stuck him in a bad, bad mental place. And at that point she and her husband became the problem, not the child.
Somehow she had gone from, “I want my child to read,” to “I want my child to sit quietly after the sensory and social stress of dinner and read with adults like an adult, and I want him to read books that I consider to be ‘good’ for him during prime playtime while sitting with his parents instead of reading fun books while hanging upside-down over the edge of his bed during time he’s stolen by rushing clean-up so that his toy chest looks like a tornado hit it.”
How do you turn a situation like that around? You throw out the parts of the situation that make the child powerless. You give him choices that are fun and based on what he wants to do. You stop trying to make a third-grader read in the manner of a stuffy professor from a Victorian novel (“Since dinner is over, let us retire to the den and read scientific journals.”). And you start giving him chances to read for fun like a kid.
Giving Freddy, or any child, power over what he gets to read and when he gets to read it can make the world’s hugest difference. If he gets to go to the library (or the bookstore) and pick out any book he likes, he’s more likely to read it. And when I say pick any book he likes, I mean it. If Mom or Dad is standing there making disapproving noises over books of elephant jokes, or is trying to shove a copy of “Proust Adapted for the Very Young” into Freddy’s hands, the jig is up. Freddy needs to have real power to choose.
There are so many choices that parents absolutely have to make for their kids, and so many ways that kids have to fit in to systems that aren’t designed for the flexibility that kids on the spectrum so desperately need, that giving children actual, real, honest-to-goodness choices is a powerful thing.
Whether a child is verbal or non-verbal at the moment, whether the doctor gave a diagnosis of just plain Asperger’s or a diagnosis of autism that came with stern warnings as to the hopelessness of the situation, giving the child real choices and real power over him/herself can make a huge difference in whether that child sees the world as a place to explore or a scary monster to retreat from in as many ways as possible.
Children withdraw from pain, because they are human. It’s very important to remember that.
So I told this mother, who really did adore her son and who wanted him to thrive more than she wanted to breathe, that she and her husband should take every chance to find out what her son would really enjoy reading. That meant letting him read the dreadful, wonderful books kids read, and spending time actively helping him find books about his special interests.
Yes, books focused on his own interests, whatever they are, including but not limited to Grumpy Cat comics (yes, Grumpy Cat and Pokey have a comic book) or Spiderman books, or My Little Pony books, or The Pokemon Deluxe Essential Handbook. Or plumbing parts catalogs. Whatever would float his particular boat.
When I was about Freddy’s age, my own parents taught me to use the library card catalog by coaching me on how to look up my most favoritest interests, like Fred Astaire or kitties. Hey, it was 1973, all the kids were into Fred Astaire – or maybe not, but my folks didn’t care, all they cared about was teaching me. If Fred Astaire worked as bait, they were happy with that.
And OF COURSE I encouraged Freddy’s mom and dad to read to him every night, choosing books that he’d enjoy and that maybe they just might enjoy with him. And that their son’s teacher, the person in charge of the children’s section at their local library, and other kids would be good sources for titles of books that a kid could really get into. But you knew that, right?
I don’t know if this particular parent took my advice, but I know she loved her son, and I hope she was able to realize that life works better when you take away the unnecessary problems and pains (like making a child read edifying books during prime playtime) and just focus on what you really want. She really wanted her son to be able to read for learning and pleasure. I have a feeling she might have managed to swing it.