Different people are affected by Asperger Syndrome differently, and to varying degrees – it is more of a ‘continuum’ than an ‘on/off switch’. I am by no means an expert – but I have some experience in living with it, and raising kids who are also Aspies. The following will not work for everybody, but it did work for one of my kids. Perhaps it may help another family, too – if not to improve skills, then at least to build an understanding.
Many Aspies are quite capable of speaking their mind, but have difficulty writing. Previously, I have noted several factors that could be at play. Here, I would like to look at only one of these: how to hold on to that thought long enough to write it down.
Whether it is some problem with short-term memory, a non-differentiation in the prioritization of our 7-or-so ‘attention slots’, or if it is due to different causality, the practical result is that many Aspie kids say: ‘there are so many ideas swirling in my head, I cannot hold on to one thought long enough to write it down’.
This problem could be related to ADD – a condition which often occurs along with Aspergers. And it is something that can be incredibly frustrating. The child knows the answer, but there is some kind of a breakdown in the communication between the brain and the hand… To an outside observer, it looks like nothing less than obstinance!
The earlier it is discovered that a child has this aspect of Aspergers, the easier it is to correct. As is so often the case, the smarter the child is, the longer they can ‘mask’ the problem by ‘leveraging their core competencies’. (Ooooh, I do love it when I talk bureaucreteese – while I don’t have to! I amuse easily.) This can be a good thing: if the problem is mild, this can be a way the child ‘owns’ the problem and develops perfectly tailored coping mechanisms.
My son’s problem, however, was not mild. Even though he did well, hiding his problem for quite a long time, half way through grade 2 he simply ‘got stuck’. And even when we discovered it, it was completely new to us. Nobody seemed to understand why he would sit at a desk for an hour and manage to write less than 3 words.
In grade 1, he tackled his inabiltiy to learn to read – and leapfrogged his peers, reading ‘The Lord Of The Rings’ on his own during the summer. He had mastered the mechanics of forming letters – this also had been a struggle in grade 1. (He had gone to a Montessori pre-school, where he learned to iron washcloths instead.) So, we had been optimistic that we were ready for grade 2!
And now, this – to us – unprecedented and inexplicable inability to write even the siplest sentences. The teacher was great, and even took a seminar to see if she could learn about this – but by this point, we had never even heard the word ‘Aspergers’, or what it means. It took us a long time, but we finally worked out a way to get written work done.
- My son and I would sit at the table, he would read the question, and say the answer out loud.
- I would write the answer in large, clear letters on a notepad.
- I would place the notepad on the table, and he’d get ready to write his answer.
- Now I asked: “What is the question?” – He’d read it out loud again.
- “What is the answer?” – He’d say the whole answer again.
- “What is the first word?” – He’d repeat it.
- “What is the first letter?” – He’d repeat it and write it.
- “What is the second letter?” – He’d repeat it and write it.
- “What is the third letter?” – He’d repeat it….
And so on.
Except that, at the beginnig, by the second letter, he would forget what it was. And what the word was. And what the question was. So, we’d go back to reading the question, answering it, reading what he had written, and forcing him to realize what the next letter was.
It was hard, and it took a long time. Especially in the beginning – it could easily take us an hour to write 4 sentences. But, he was doing it! And over time – long time – he built up the capacity to hold on to more and more information, before needing to go back and re-checking it.
At first, on the advice of the teacher, we had instituted a ‘reward system’. She was one of those teachers who really care – and I don’t know if I could have done it without her. And, because I did not give my kids too many sweets – she suggested that some very small candies or raisins could be used as ‘earned rewards’ – say once a sentence or a particularly long word is completed.
The reward system was working. Not that it would make the work easier, or that it would motivate him to write faster. It did not work in that way. But, as hard as all this was on me, it was even harder on my son: he had just spent a full day at school – good and bad – and now we were sitting at the table for hours, working. That is a lot for a 7-year-old! The ‘reward’ was exactly that – it allowed him to graphically see his progress! As my pre-measured ‘pile’ of ‘rewards’ on the table was shrinking, so was the amount of work still ahead of him.
That is something neat: Aspies like rules. They are much more likely to reach their potential in a highly structured environment, where the expectations are very, very clear. In a way, the ‘rewards’ were a little bit of ‘structure’, a measure of how much work is still expected from him. Anyhow, he seemed calmer, and more ‘focused’.
Soon, I started finding the ‘rewards’ in his pockets when I would do laundry. This puzzled me – so I asked him about it. His answer? “Well, I don’t really like to eat when I’m doing my work, but you looked so happy giving me the treats that I did not want to spoil it for you!”
After this, we switched from edible rewards to other non-edible ‘markers’: marbles, poker chips, pebbles, or even coins from his piggy bank. He got to pick what we would use that day, and helped count out the ‘markers’. Once he had earned them all, we would put them back into their baggie, and into the ‘marker box’. He liked that.
It was slow going. After about a week of this, we both noticed that we would almost fall into a rhythm of question-answer-write. And that really was the point when we both noticed beginnings (very, very beginnings) of progress! Just to vary it – for fun – we started calling it out in the rhythm of that song soldiers sing to keep beat, with the question-answer called out loudly.
My son loved it, and called it ‘writing with shouting’. He explained to me that when we were ‘writing with shouting’, the sound scared away the other thoughts, so he could sometimes hold on to three or even four letters before needing to go back to see what word it was he was writing! He would be excited by this, and ask for us to ‘do the writing with shouting’.
Excited by this progress, I reported back to the teacher how well we were doing. Perhaps I was a bit hahazard in how it all tumbled out of me, but I was very excited and happy to tell her. I did not get the reaction I expected. She looked aghast, and started crying. When I asked why, she said:
“The poor child! He’s trying so hard! And you took away his treats and are shouting at him instead!”
I explained better. So, why exactly does ‘relief’ make people want to punch my arm?
In conclusion, it did work – but it was a long, hard road. The performance level at school rose faster than my son’s skills, so it could be downright discouraging at times. But, we stuck with it – there was about a 3 week period when we worked 3-4 hours a day at it, and there was not a single day when we did not spend at least 2 hours ‘writing’ – without or ‘with shouting’! And we beat it!
Eventually, we would not need to go letter by letter. Instead, we went word by word. We got there during grade 3…. But the habit of having me write the answers down, and then writing them down himself with the notepad in front of him ‘for when he needed it’ – we continued that until the end of grade 5. And, if the schoolwork really piled up, I would sometimes (with the teachers’ permissions) script for him. One needs to be flexible when the workload is greater… and other learning must not be neglected. Eventually, his writing skills have caught up with the amount of work required of him at school.
It took a ‘few’ years, but we beat it! It was not the last problem with ‘writing’ that we encountered, but it was by far the most effort-intensive to overcome. But it was worth it!