One of the characteristics that many people notice about us Aspies is that we tend to have an overdeveloped sense of ‘fair play’. This is the first look at how this may manifest itself.
Often – especially during childhood – this takes the shape of very rigid adherence to ‘rules’. I remember the genuine tears of my kids as other children would play a game ‘wrong’ or ‘with the wrong rules’. I also remember the arguments of ‘you can’t change that – it’s a rule of …. ‘!
This can lead to difficulties in many social settings. Aspie kids can be very good at board games or card games, so this is an excellent way to have them interact with other kids. However, it is important to make sure that everyone agrees to the rules of the game exactly the way the Aspie had learned it…..or the Aspie ‘inflexibility’ and ‘obstinance’ will start a temper tantrum will end the game and result in further ostracism of the Asperger child.
Of course, I do not think of it as ‘inflexibility’ or ‘obstinance’ at all. Instead, I see it as an issue of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. But then again, I am an Aspie… Whatever the cause, however, the problem – this barrier to social interaction – is still there.
So, how to handle it?
Aspie kids can handle ‘different rules’ in variations of games IF things are presented in the correct perspective. The key is recognizing WHY they are so opposed to ‘changing rules’.
Imagine yourself living in among a group of people whose language you did not understand. Then, you begin to discern some ‘patterns’ in behaviour. If you would indulge me in a personal story to help draw a parallel:
Two friends and I went down to visit another friend in a Spanish-speaking country. None of the three of us spoke Spanish, but we were staying with our bilingual friend and her family, so we were not worried. Except…through series of circumstances, our friend had to go to a different town and we were left with her non-English speaking family.
Much to their credit, they took awesome care of us. They took us places, showed us things, treated us extremely well. Except that when they would come and tell us we are going somewhere in the car, we had NO idea whether we were going out for lunch to a fancy restaurant, to a tourist attraction, to a beach, or – as happened once – for a 3-day stay at a beach villa. We had no idea how to dress, what to bring with us, when we’d be back.
After a bit, I began to notice some patterns – and these were my lifeline! It set up some ‘rudimentary rules’ we could go by. We clung to these – when you don’t know what is happening all the time, you feel very vulnerable!
Similarly, an Aspie child has a lot of difficulty understanding social communication. We take it for granted that people can read and understand our body language and facial expressions (even tone of voice) – and so we do not comprehend just how much we do not actually say when we communicate. We presume that much is understood from how we say something, not just the words we use to say it.
But Aspies cannot do this. It is difficult to explain just how difficult it is to comprehend ‘communication’ – one even often questions one’s ability to understand the spoken language. After all, ‘bad’ means ‘bad’ – but here it means ‘good’…. Without the ability to add body language, facial expressions and tone of voice to the word itself, the ‘rules’ of social interaction and even language can become incomprehensible. Add to this that for very long time, many Aspie kids do not even know that there is such a thing as ‘body language’ which others understand and they have to learn to look for!
It is like pointing to a picture while talking about an apple – and expecting a blind person to know we are talking about the red apple in the picture. The blind person does not even know there is a picture…..and does not understand how come everyone else knows the apple in question is red!
Perhaps this is only one of the ‘contributing factors’, but it is one that is easy to explain as to why Aspies cling to rules they actually know they understand!
And that is they key: understanding.
Activities like board and card games have very explicitly stated rules – rules that everyone understands before the game begins. Aspies and therefore not handicapped and can participate on an equal footing with everyone else. That means a lot.
So, starting to change the rules – that can bring up the whole overwhelming frustration right up! It’s as if the Aspie is being robbed of the one glimmer of understanding of how things are supposed to be. No wonder it upsets us to no end.
So, what is the solution?
When you teach an Aspie a game and explain the rules, make sure you explain these are the rules for THIS version of THAT game. Explain there are MANY versions – we play version …. (name it something the Aspie child can relate to). Then, you can say there can be versions of the game which have ALMOST identical rules, with just little variations – and that if they go to play the other version, everyone will make sure to teach them the NEW GAME! Because that IS what it is: each ‘variation’ is really a different game, with different rules: they are called the same thing because they are a ‘family of games’ that has ‘similar rules’. (You can even relate it to family name and first name – different people in the same family…)
This releases the tension of ‘changed rules’!
Instead, you are setting up the expectation of different rules because one is learning a ‘NEW’ (though similar/related) game. This is a completely different situation – and usually quite acceptable. Yes, there will be the inherent insecurity by the Aspie, wondering if he/she understands the rules of the new game sufficiently well to play with the others (and the Aspie may select to watch for several turns, precisely to make sure of the rules), but it is not turning the Aspie’s world upside down by negating their rare and precious understanding of at least some rules.
It is important to set this expectation up before encountering the situation, because once that meltdown has started, it is difficult to stop it. Release of ‘pent up frustration’ is difficult to get back under control, especially in a young child. So, making sure that the situation is properly framed before it occurs is very helpful.
No, this is not a magic wand that will make it 100% perfect every time – the Aspie may wish to get everyone to play by the rules they are familiar with, because they are more secure when dealing with the understood rules. But when parents, educators and caregivers understand this, it may affect the way they approach the resolution, so it is more successful.
My personal experience is that this approach usually results in a positive interaction with other kids and builds an Aspie child’s confidence in their ability to learn the rules of interacting with others. And as they become more confident in their ability to play successfully with other children, more social skills can be built – and this is a good step towards a successful and happy Aspie child.