Aspergers Children and Problematic Thinking Patterns: A Guide for Parents and Teachers
An explanantion of Theory of Mind
Imagine not understanding what others are thinking and feeling, not being able to empathize with them. This is the world of the aspergers child.
Aspergers syndrome is a disorder similar to high-functioning autism. Children with aspergers disorder face difficulties with language skills and social interactions. They also may demonstrate a narrow range of interests, motor clumsiness, sensory issues, and cognitive difficulties. Not all children diagnosed with aspergers syndrome demonstrate all these problems, but the charactertistics they do exhibit significantly impact their lives and how they get along in the world.
A big problem faced by the asperger child is Theory of Mind. Also known as mindblindness, Theory of Mind is the ability to make inferences about what others are thinking and feeling. Parents and teachers do not teach Theory of Mind; it is something you just automatically understand. The child with aspergers syndrome is unable to attribute or infer what others are thinking or feeling. His/her understanding of a situation is limited to his/her own perspective. For example, most the time we can make good guesses about someone's intentions, and from these inferences, we have the ability to determine how to react appropriately. The child with aspergers syndrome cannot make these good guesses, and they experience difficulty with social communication. Lets examine Theory of MInd and different problematic thinking patterns.
This cognitive problem happens because the asperger child sees the world in polar opposites; in other words, situations are all one way or the absolute opposite. For many asperger children situations are black and white, and there are no shades of gray. For these children, no other viewpoint exists but their own, and they cannot understand that others may have a different perspective because the asperger child feels his/her viewpoint is the only correct way to see the situation.
When the child is experiencing this thinking pattern, trying to use logic, reason, or provide explanation just doesn't work and seems to actually make the child more frustrated and angry. It may be best to speak with the child at a later time when s/he is more calm. During the discussion, bring up the topic and suggest other possible solutions. Write down all possible ideas-- both good and bad-- and then list pros and cons. By writing it down, you are visually showing the child other viewpoints and how to look at situations from other perspectives.
Many children with aspergers syndrome like rules a lot, in fact, they fail to understand exceptions to the rule. They believe all rules should be followed at all times without exception. Rule-bound thinking becomes a problem when the child with aspergers syndrome sees others break the rules. Then s/he becomes extremely frustrated, and a tantrum happens. The rule-bound thinker often is the tattler and damages relationships with peers by his actions.
Encourage the rule-bounder thinker to ask for guidance when s/he has questions about rules or how someone has acted in relation to the rules. When you see the rule- bound thinker getting frustrated intervene.
For more on children and aspergers syndrome see:
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The truth-bound thinker tells the truth, no matter how much it hurts others because this child does not understand the other person's feelings; afterall, what could be wrong with telling the truth? This is not odd behavior for a three or four year old child, but by the tween years most children have the ability to recognize their comments could hurt another peson's feelings. Consideration of the other person's feelings does not even enter the mind of the asperger's child.
Encourage the child to keep opinions about others to themselves. This skill can be developed through role-playing or developing a social story.
The asperger child who gets stuck on a topic demonstrates perseverative thinking. In a classroom when a child continually asks questions on one topic for an extended period of time and the teacher has difficulty continuing the lesson because the child has so many questions, we see perseverative thinking. The child's thoughts are stuck on one topic and s/he asks questions about that specific topic endlessly.
Sometimes people confuse perservative thnking with obsessive-compulsive disorder, but with obsessive compulsive disorder the thoughts are disturbing to the individual because they are unwanted. With perseverative thinking the child finds the thoughts pleasing and often the thoughts are about special interests.
To curtail this problem, interrupt the pattern of thinking. The parent can create a distraction like playing with the dog. The teacher can say, "one more question and let's move on with our lesson."
Not open to other viewpoints, the rigid thinker is inflexible. The child becomes stuck on one viewpoint and cannot see things any other way. For example, the child that has learned to do an assignment one way cannot understand that other ways exist to complete the assignment. When asked to do the assignment in a different format, the child cannot do it because in his/her mind only one way exists to complete the assignment. Because of rigid thinking the asperger child may have trouble completing assignments, but also in social interactions may become argumentive with others.
Rigid thinking is something that will have to be addressed over and over again during the span of years. Asperger children must be prompted to give attention to other viewpoints, but first you must ackowlege their viewpoint. To understand other viewpoints even exist, the child must be encouraged on an ongoing basis.
Often asperger children strive for perfection, and when they do not achieve it, they become extremely frustrated. For example, the child who is learning handwriting and erases a paper over and over because the letters are not formed exactly right demonstrates perfectionist thinking. Because the letters don't appear perfect to him, the child cannnot copy the full sentence because he's busy erasing. During play, the perfectionist child may have to line game objects up perfectly, and this becomes more important than actually playing the game.
To stop this thinking pattern prevent it from starting or interrupt it. Before beginning the assignment or game, remind the child it's ok to make a mistake. If the child has already begun the task, suggest taking a break or create a distraction like suggesting the child goes to get something for you. Find a way to disturb the child's thinking pattern.
When the asperger child becomes overwhelmed because an upsetting situation seems incredibly terrible, catastrophic thinking happens. The asperger child believes a bad situation will go on forever and s/he cannot accurately judge the severity of problems because of black-and-white thinking. Reactions to situations can be intense because the child feels the situation is catastrophic. What is a relatively small problem becomes huge.
During an episode of catastrophic thinking, try to encourage the child to express their feelings, empathize with his/her feelings, and recognize you might have to give the child time and space to recover. After an acknowledgement of the child's feelings and a bit of reassurance, the child may feel a bit more secure and recover quicker.
Problematic patterns in thinking are not easy to change, but the asperger child's social communication skills will improve when s/he learns to control these patterns of thought. Parents and teachers need to aid the asperger child in developing better social comunication through discouraging problematic patterns of thinking and introducing children to new ways of thinking about situations. Dealing with problems in thinking is a process, but with repetition and practice aspergers children do learn new styles of thinking.
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