Category Archives: Building social skills

A tour of the Aspergian mind with John Elder Robison

I had the honour of hearing Naomi Tutu speak at a conference I attended recently inVancouver. Her message was powerful on several fronts: first, she called on each of us to be a ‘voice of courage’ in the face of injustice.  She also urged us to celebrate – not hide – our differences.

I was thinking of her words as I finished reading John Elder Robison’s latest book, Be Different: Adventures of a Free-Range Aspergian¸ on the plane on the way home.

Robison’s memoir, Look Me in the Eye, was one of the first books I read about Asperger’s after Ryan’s diagnosis, so I had high expectations for his second effort. I wasn’t disappointed.

LikeTemple Grandin, Robison has mined his own experience to help fellow Aspies, parents, and teachers better understand life on the Autism Spectrum. Today Robison is a successful author and businessman whose passion for electronics has helped him build a fulfilling life for himself and his family.

His approach won me over at first glance – here is a man who is celebrating the gifts that come with Asperger’s and sharing ideas for leveraging those gifts.  “Asperger’s was a disability – that’s what the books said. I’m still not sure I believe that,” he writes early on.

He then goes on to catalogue his first-hand experience of the brain differences that come with ASD and their benefits: his incredibly visual mind, his ability to remain calm and unemotional in taxing situations, his intense focus, concentration, and ability to learn quickly in areas of interest, his use of logic to solve social problems and his attention to detail.

But make no mistake, the knowledge Robison shares with us is hard-won. Before his Asperger’s diagnosis in his 40s, he spent at least some of his youth knowing he was very different from his peers (but not the reason why) and wondering if he was going to grow up to be a serial killer. “Learning I was a perfectly normal Aspergian male (and not a freak) was a revelation that changed my life,” he says.

Robison gives us a great guided tour of the Aspergian mind, reminding me of the wiring differences that explain some challenging Aspie behaviours:

  • Not responding when called: hyper-focus on internal thoughts, special interests, or sensory sensitivities
  • Negativity/pessimism: smaller range of emotions in a short time period, difficulty with perspective, planning for the worst to reduce anxiety, getting stuck on thoughts
  • Inappropriate responses to difficult situations: hyper-focus on internal thoughts, inability to read others

He wraps up his book with a theme that I’ve read about before – Aspergians identifying and using their special interests to find meaningful work after school. But Robison adds two other, equally important elements, to the equation – focus and hard work and resolve. And as a parent, that’s the challenge that lies ahead.

I hope Robison keeps on writing and I’ve got my fingers crossed that he will one day visitHalifaxfor a lecture or book tour. Maybe I’ll invite him myself. I’m sure we could fill a hall at SMU or Dal with parents and kids who would be eager to hear his story and his ideas firsthand.



Filed under Books & articles, Building social skills, Celebrating Difference, Non-fiction

Celebrating the wonderful world of Meems

Ryan just celebrated his 8th birthday and a good friend made him a spectacular t-shirt with the words ‘Meems Rule’ emblazoned on the front. He was still wearing the shirt today – three days after he received it – because the meem (omnipresent in our house) is Ryan’s signature invention.

The best birthday gift ever!

Ryan coined the term ‘meem’ when he was probably three-years-old and it’s been part of our family lexicon ever since. A meem is any kind of a happy face, but without a nose (this is important…happy faces with noses do not qualify.) Puffles are meems. Ugly dolls are meems. Monster Factory toys are meems.

I find it fascinating that a boy who is not supposed to ‘get’ faces recognizes and celebrates them in all their various forms. Yet another reminder that a diagnosis is just a collection of symptoms – not a definition of who a person is.

Preschool was sometimes tough for Ryan, but I remember one day hearing the kids in his class talking about meems and I had to smile. His little language was finding its way into their hearts and minds, just like it had in our own household. In Grade One the ‘meem mystique’ took hold once again – with the entire class creating and talking about meems. The word is still part of that classroom’s vernacular and even though they’ve all advanced to Grade Two I still hear them mention meems on the playground.

To me, a meem is a celebration of Ryan’s unique way of looking at the world. His experience doesn’t defy description – it just has his own personal definition.

After I wrote my post about Enough House, a neighbour wrote to me about Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche movement. Vanier deeply believes that people with disabilities are our teachers. They are here to transform us – not the other way around.  

Ryan’s meems have taught our household so much – they don’t judge. They love unconditionally. They right wrongs. They comfort and calm. They make us giggly and goofy. They even help us eat our peas and brush our teeth.

Oh to have the powers of a meem! Every now and then I hear Ryan apologize for some transgression (usually minor) and I catch myself – am I correcting him again? Am I asking him to alter his behaviour again? Is it really necessary? Is it really important?

At times like these it is abundantly clear that I still have a lot to learn from Ryan and his menagerie of meems. But that’s okay. I’ve got the will and Ryan is clearly going to show me the way!



Filed under Building social skills, Celebrating Difference

Asperger’s and the art of conversation

The ebb and flow of conversation comes naturally to most of us. We take turns trading ideas, instinctively knowing when to talk and when to listen. The process seems so simple that it’s hard to believe there’s a list of unwritten rules that is often baffling to people with Asperger’s syndrome. For AS kids, learning the rules can be tough — but it can be done.

Last week, Cindy Wheeler, a speech pathologist based in Halifax offered our parent group some examples of how she helps children on the spectrum improve their conversational skills. She said some children have a tough time sticking with a topic, or their mind seems to inexorably drift to a preferred interest, leaving companions feeling frustrated and ignored.

Aspies often have 'special interests' which can hamper back and forth conversation

As well, some children miss social cues that indicate how the other person is feeling about the conversation. Wheeler offered the example of a little boy who is obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine. His preoccupation with the character is so powerful that he rarely talks about anything else, even when prompted to change the subject.

“He just doesn’t see that this is an issue,” said Wheeler, adding that he didn’t flinch when she yawned and looked away during one of his monologues about the little blue train. The first step in changing this pattern was to decide what would motivate the boy to learn the art of conversation.

“Motivators are very important,” said Wheeler, adding that most kids on the spectrum seem reluctant to take part in skills training unless they are working toward a goal.

In the little boy’s case, the motivator was obvious: Thomas. Wheeler explained to the boy that if he worked hard at talking about things other than Thomas, he would be rewarded with some kind of Thomas treat. With the incentive in place, she started with simple word association. Wheeler would say a word and the boy would say a word, trying his best to steer clear of Thomas. The idea was to reinforce the need for turn-taking in dialogue.

Visual cues were also used to keep the boy on track, including a small, toy pig. Whenever the boy would start dominating the conversation, the pig was placed on the table — a signal that he was hogging the conversation. At one point, the sudden appearance of the toy surprised the boy. He stopped what he was saying and announced: “I’m hogging the conversation!” It was a small breakthrough on the long and sometimes confusing road to better communication.

Other visual cues include cue cards with pictures. “It needs to be scripted and overt,” said Wheeler, noting that when Thomas crept into the conversation, she had to raise her hand and tell him, “Stop.” Another tool at her disposal: field work. Parents are often prompted to ask their children to pose a question to a friend at school, then report back at the end of the day.

Some recommended reading: “Teach Me Language: A language manual for children with autism, Asperger’s syndrome and related developmental disorders,” by Sabrina Freeman, and “Spotlight on Social Skills” series.

Special thanks to Cindy Wheeler for taking the time to meet with our group.

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Filed under Building social skills, Education

Social stories: Saying goodbye

Here’s another example of a social story.  Last year Ryan went through a big change at school, so I tried to prepare him for the changes and let him know that while some things would be changing, others would be exactly the same.

Saying goodbye

When I was in Grade Primary, Mrs. Wallace was my Learning Centre teacher. She was lots of fun.

Then I said good-bye to Mrs. Wallace and Ms. Choyce came to the Learning Centre. She was great too and we had lots of fun together, like during the Olympics when we put up flags from countries and cities all over the world.

I learned a lot from Ms. Choyce. We did different activities every week and I learned about breathing and being a good friend. I even did yoga, which I’m going to do with my Mom and little brother over the summer.

Next year when I come back to school, I will have another new Learning Centre teacher. Her name is Mrs. Paul. Ms. Choyce is going to a new school closer to her house.

Sometimes, when I think of something changing, or someone leaving, I feel sad. But it’s like when Mommy goes away on business trips, it feels upsetting at first, but once it happens I realize I’m okay.

Saying good-bye to Ms. Choyce may feel sad, but if I miss her, I can look at this picture and remember the fun we had together. I can even send Ms. Choyce a note on email if I need to talk to her. I can also hug the teddy, since he is staying in the Learning Centre to keep me company next year.

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Filed under Building social skills, Managing Anxiety, Social stories