By Dr. Steven Richfield
Children challenged by the social interaction deficits of Asperger syndrome face daily trials and troubles within their family, peer, and extended social worlds. Difficulties with demonstrating empathy, understanding nonverbal behaviors, and producing reciprocal verbal responses are three primary inhibitions.
Parents witness these communication barriers and try to unlock and translate the social puzzle for their child. As discussion ensues, it becomes clear that the child with Asperger syndrome is mystified by emotion, and doesn’t use it as a compass for successfully relating to others. If this confounding circumstance describes you or someone you know, read on for some ways to help them become more emotionally attuned to others
As children with Asperger syndrome tend to be strong visual learners, use this pathway to identify and color code emotions. Display the “palette of emotions” by linking a color with familiar feelings, such as happiness, anger, fear, and sadness. Introduce different “shades” of feelings that are harder for them to decipher. Loneliness, shame, embarrassment, pride, surprise, confusion, and many others will need a color that displays the continuum of strong and stunning feeling vs. light and muffled expression. Encourage them to participate in this “color the feelings” activity so that they can better identify with the result.
Using the feelings palette as a foundation, identify past social puzzles, and link them with the appropriate color. Write a brief vignette of what happened to jog the child’s memory and explain, “Each color clues us to not only what the other person is feeling, but how we should respond to it.” Elaborate on the notion of color clues by identifying how a person with an angry (red) feeling is sending a clue that he or she wants to be left alone. Review the list of colors, add vignettes, and draw lines to the appropriate written response. For example, draw a line between the color of pride in an accomplishment with the response of “Say to the person: Congratulations for doing such a great job!”
Continue to add details to their relationship compass by demonstrating how emotions tell us even more about how we are to proceed with people. Stress how once a feeling is correctly identified, the conversation can flow in the direction of that color. This notion helps them understand the importance of not abruptly changing the subject “when a feeling is still flowing with color.” Provide examples of this conversational flow by having them observe others begin a conversation with a color and stick with it until it is clear that the feeling has faded out, and it is fine to change the subject. Look for instructional examples of this “flow to fade out” conversation in other places, such as television, car pool discussions, etc.
Hone the child’s compass by referring to the feelings palette as social situations provide a rich source for learning. Privately review these events and offer much praise for their movement toward more successful social understanding and interactions.
Dr. Steven Richfield is a clinical psychologist in Plymouth Meeting, PA. He has developed a child-friendly, self-control/social skills-building program called Parent Coaching Cards. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 610-238-4450. To learn more, visit www.parentcoachcards.com
Products by Steven Richfield: The Parent Coach