My son is showing some signs of Aspergers/dyspraxia. He’s doing well at school but finds it hard to make friends
Bill Goodyear is a specialist coach who helps people with learning difficulties such as Asperger's syndrome, Autism and Dyslexia. Formerly a principal for the National Autistic Society, Bill has over 25 years of experience in the field, a Master's in NLP and is the author of the book “Coaching People With Asperger’s Syndrome”.
Q. My son is showing some signs of Aspergers/dyspraxia. He’s doing well at school but finds it hard to make friends. How can I help him interact with other children?
Children who are experiencing some kind of developmental disorder tend to find social interaction more difficult than most, and tend to be slower in their development, so they do often find themselves left behind. Typically they tend to relate better to adults, maybe find one firm friend, who is often similarly marginalised, and for some this is enough. It is important to remember that social interaction is very important to most children, but may not even feel relevant to many children with Asperger’s Syndrome, so try to assess whether they are happy with their situation, and in any case remember to encourage what does exist already.
If there is a need to help your child make friends, it is best not to go for big unstructured groups, and much better to go for small groups, organised structured and some focus on activity that suits your child. So your strategy is less likely to succeed if you invite 15 children to a party at your house than if you invite one for a sleep over. Also, remember to let them develop a style that works for them – it may be enough for two kids to sit next to one another on computers, not talking for hours.
Being good at something is a great playground currency, so if football is important it may be useful to get some ball skills lessons so she or he can learn to be a really good footballer, although team games are generally very difficult for a child with a developmental disorder to manage well. Clubs and groups such as the cubs and scouts can work for some – uniform, ritual and leadership are all present in these organisations.
In the end, your child will develop a level of social ability, though it may be slower to develop and it may be less comfortable for him or her than you hoped for. If mixing and being with the others in the playground becomes a big problem (and it can), it is sometimes best to make the school find an alternative way to spend playtime than teaching him such things as ‘well hit them back’ (he will get hurt and frightened) or ‘just get out there and find a way to get along’ (he would if he could). If you are not comfortable with what is going on intervene in some way and remember that social ability comes from the child – all you can do is stage manage learning experiences, not teach the skills of socialisation directly.
And lastly, if bullying occurs, demand that the school step in at once to stop it in any way possible, as it can be the most destructive thing imaginable and the experience can dog a child through later life.
Q. Does main school integration work out ok for most kids with moderate learning difficulties?
Moderate learning difficulties are a very broad term. Main school integration is a very broad concept, so it is very hard to offer a clear answer. The biggest factor is the school – are they capable of meeting the child’s needs and does your child enjoy being there? Mainstream schools are usually good at re-assuring parents and continuing to do their best to cope and manage while they give the child time to develop the skills and attitudes needed to move forward. They are usually very good at including and very patient. However, they are also becoming increasingly quick to exclude and before that they sometimes fail to make all the provision they promise. The thing to keep your eye on is your child’s daily experience. If it is bad, it may be better to seek a specialist school, or a different mainstream school. Changes take time and a school career is a brief thing, so it is better to move sooner rather than later.
What mainstream does do is to leave intact a child’s view of themselves as a mainstream operator who can move ahead, get a job, a life and all the things that we hope for in our children. It also holds all options open in terms of exam success and further education. However, bullying, academic failure and bad relationships with teachers can destroy confidence, so these possibilities may not be of value. What a specialist school can do is to provide extra attention, a much higher guarantee of success and hence a greater chance of a happy and confident child. Private schools can also provide much of this, with a more able peer group and no loss of aspiration, though sometimes with a lesser level of specific skill and understanding and, of course, a financial cost, although local education authorities may be persuaded to pay for such a provision.
Q. The teachers just don’t understand – what can I do?
The brief answer to this is to refuse to accept second best for your child. If you feel the teachers do not have a grasp on how to manage your child and are not meeting their needs in some way, talk to them, make notes of that talk and the promises they make and if they fail to change their ways go to the SENCO and Head Teacher. If there is any doubt about your child’s special needs insist on them and get them to make a Statement of Educational needs, make sure your point of view is included and make sure they meet all the needs.
Build a file of letters, notes and meeting notes and make sure the other parties each have a copy of every document.
If this does not work within a term, go to the Local Education Authority and start to seek a school, which you feel, will meet his or her needs.
Fight in writing to seek funding for a place at the school of your choice and gradually include more and more senior people in the fight. Class teachers, SENCO, Head teacher, LEA special needs managers, Director of Education, Chair of the Education committee, your local councilor, your MP, the minister for education. Do not rest till you have a hand signed letter from the minister. Include organisations that offer help (IPSEA, CAB, NAS, etc) and never take no for an answer, and if you need to go to tribunal to overturn an unsatisfactory decision, do so, using legal aid and the most experienced lawyer you can find. Don’t give up – your child deserves as good a chance as any!