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What Makes the Conversation Difficult
Talking to a teenager about Asperger's syndrome, especially one who has the diagnosis, is not an easy feat for any parent. Since children with Asperger's syndrome to not respond to social cues the way normally developing children do, you will need to approach this conversation with caution and care.
Teenagers with Asperger's syndrome are generally intelligent but struggle to recognize verbal and non-verbal cues in any given conversation. For some teenagers, making eye contact during a conversation can throw them off topic and keep them from paying attention. For others, a flat affect might characterize the conversations they have with others, making them seem emotionless and "off". Other teenagers might be so focused on their own interests they do not wish to talk to you about Asperger's syndrome. And some might feel uneasy talking about the disorder that makes them so different from their peers.
You will need to think of creative ways to approach this conversation, so it is best to have a plan rather than going into the conversation blindly. Be prepared for a variety of reactions, from indifference to a million and one questions, many of which you may not be able to answer, such as "Why me?" or "Will I get better?"
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Developing a Plan
Coming up with a concrete plan for how to explain Asperger's to an adolescent is your best approach to this conversation. Since many teenagers with Asperger's do not respond well to change, you will want to figure out how to work the conversation into their daily routine as much as possible. Perhaps there is a time when you sit down with your teenager, such as after school or at dinner, when you will be able to approach the subject and explain the diagnosis.
Write down exactly what you want to say so you do not get thrown off topic by any questions or concerns your teenager raises during the conversation. Points to discuss include what Asperger's syndrome is, how the disorder affects all areas of your teenager's life (social, emotional and physical), and how you will help your teenager prepare for a future with Asperger's syndrome. Talk to your teenager about the limitations faced with having Asperger's syndrome, such as trouble developing social relationships and clumsiness in physical coordination. Assure your teenager that these limitations can be overcome with hard work and support from family and friends. Encourage your teenager to ask questions but do not take it personally if they don't have any. Tell your son or daughter you will be there to provide support in the form of listening and helping in any way you can.
Be prepared for a child who does not want to talk about Asperger's. You may want to utilize some of their own interests in the conversation. You can make comparisons where possible to help your teenager under Asperger's more clearly. For example, if your teenager is interested in trains, you should try to figure out ways to work train comparisons into the conversation. If this is not possible, you need to gently redirect your teen every time he or she changes the subject to keep them focused on the current conversation.
Other teenagers might be extremely concerned with their diagnosis and have many questions for you. You want to be as prepared as possible for questions, such as "What does it mean to have Asperger's" and "Do other kids think/behave/act like me?" Letting your teenager know they are not alone is a good first step to starting the conversation and helping them know they are not the only person in the world who deals with Asperger's. Tell your child having Asperger's is no different than having another disability or disease, such as diabetes or a learning disorder. Asperger's does not mean your teenager is weird or strange, just as a child with diabetes is not weird or strange. The disorder provides your teenager with a different realm to learn from and you should explain that they will need to use a different set of skills to learn things.
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Having the Conversation
There are several things you can do to make explaining Asperger's to your teenager an easier task, such as:
- Turn off all electronic devices, such as cell phones, television and video games, to prevent any interruptions while you are speaking to your teenager.
- It might be best to have Mom and Dad present for the conversation (given both are present in the child's life). This way you and your spouse can help each other keep your teenager on track and answer any questions the other cannot. Having both parents present also demonstrates a united front and can make your teenager feel supported and loved through the conversation.
- Be honest about the diagnosis and what it means for your teenager's future. Sugarcoating or lying about things will only serve to defeat the purpose of explaining the diagnosis. Talk to your teenager about support services currently being utilized and how these services will likely continue into their adult years. Discuss living arrangements, such as continuing to live at home or living with a roommate who can be of assistance.
- Soothe any worries or concerns your teenager might have about the future, especially with regards to dating and having a social life. Talk to your teenager about any expectations they have regarding a social life or dating. Some teenagers might be fine with having a few close friends while others could feel upset by a lack of many peer relations. Assure your teenager it is the quality of friends over the quantity and having a few close relationships is something many people aspire to. Talk about safe sex and pregnancy, since Asperger's will not prevent sexual activity from occurring (nor should it). Assure your child many teenagers with Asperger's grow up to become successful adults who enjoy dating and meeting friends on a regular basis.
- Ask your teenager how he or she feels about having a diagnosis of Asperger's syndrome so you can get a feel for how to continue with the conversation. A teenager who is okay with being an Aspie will need less guidance and reassurance than one who is upset or worried by the diagnosis.
- End the conversation if you notice your teenager becoming extremely upset or agitated with what is being said. You can always choose to finish the conversation at a later time and there is no point in upsetting your child.
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A Worthwhile Challenge
Explaining Asperger's to a teenager can be a challenging feat for any parent to take on, especially if you do not know much about the disorder yourself. Learning as much as you can will not only help you but will help you better serve your teenager. If you are uncomfortable with the idea of explaining a disorder you are not familiar with, you can enlist the help of a trained professional, such as your teenager's doctor or therapist, to help you talk to and explain this diagnosis to your teenager.
Reminding your teenager they are like any other person, despite Asperger's, is the most important point you can make. As a parent, simply being there is key to helping your teenager deal with Asperger's.
Cigna: Asperger's Syndrome. http://www.cigna.com/healthinfo/zq1008.html
Author's Own Experience