By: Catherine H. Knott, Ph.D.
Are you stuck trying to figure out what to give your child with Asperger’s for a birthday or holiday gift? Wondering whether, if you give your child more gifts related to his or her passion, you are just encouraging traits that cause trouble for him or her in school?
Relax. Birthdays and holidays are not the time to try to fix other people. These celebrations are all about unconditional love – appreciating people for who they are now, regardless of the world’s expectations. And as parents we all know how to do that, because no matter how difficult or problematic our children appear to others, and no matter how exhausted we are at the end of the day, we still love our children just the way they are. So take a deep breath and do something that may prove surprisingly rewarding – give them what they ask for, as long as it is age-appropriate, within your budget, and represents positive rather than negative values (e.g. don’t give video games which glorify violence). And then go one step farther, even if it seems like a monumental task. Give them the gift of your time and understanding, because to your child, even a teenager, that is the best gift of all.
In the case of a child with Asperger’s, this can be a more challenging task than with other children, because you will need to meet them on their own ground; in other words, you need to show them that you take a real interest in their special interest. “What?” says the overburdened parent, “I don’t have the time or energy to learn about dinosaurs, or architecture of Medieval Europe, or crocodiles, or computer technology (or whatever the passion may be). But now is the time to make time, and to learn to speak your child’s language, to demonstrate your love for him or her. When Monty Roberts (author of The Man Who Listens to Horses) talks about gaining the trust and affection of a horse, especially a difficult or untrained horse, he talks about observing the horse, learning his language, which he calls “Equus”, and then speaking that language back to the horse through nonverbal communication that is meaningful for the horse. Our children are more complex beings, but similar to the challenging horses that Monty Roberts worked with, they need extra support to build trust and affectionate bonds with others. Because they have a harder time reaching out to others socially, they need someone to reach out to them who can speak their language, and understand what is most exciting to them. A parent is the very best person to fill that need.
This task is not as daunting as it may seem. Think about your child’s passion for a while, and you will find that you can find an interest of your own in some aspect of it. For instance, if you are an artist, you might paint landscapes for the dinosaurs, or pictures including medieval architecture. If you are interested in languages, then you can learn how computer languages are similar to and different from languages that we speak. Or perhaps you have a collection of stamps or coins or travel souvenirs; you could focus on collecting these items from countries where different types of crocodiles live (did you know that there are 23 different crocodilian species?). Well, you get the point.
But at a more serious and important level, you will be experiencing a twinge of happiness at the delight in your child’s eyes when you open a present that is a book of medieval cathedrals, or crocodiles of the world, or whatever his or her passion may be, and you exclaim to your child, “Now I can learn more about what you know so much about!” Finding your own aspect of his interest to appreciate is important, because you must take the time to demonstrate a genuine interest in his or her subject; the bright child with Asperger’s will see right through any pretence on your part. Then take the time to develop this interest alongside your child, sharing your aspect of this interest with him or her by making time for conversations, collecting materials relevant to the shared topic, proposing field trips or even watching documentaries on the subject together. As you share your enthusiasm with your child, his or her interests may broaden to include yours; or yours may broaden to include his or hers! In either case, you will be having more and longer conversations with your child, and sharing a growing mutual interest. You might learn a lot, not only about the subject, but also about your child.
What aspects of the subject does your child find really fascinating? One child was fascinated with horses at an early age, but seemed averse to riding them. It turned out that he had a strong aesthetic sense of the beauty of horses in motion; he later became a gifted artist. His family supported and encouraged his development as an artist because they understood the true nature of his interests early on. An older teenager developed a passion for learning about trees, but in fact what he loved most was the peaceful solitude and lack of criticism he experienced when he was alone in the forest. Studying trees when he couldn’t be in the forest was a way to reconnect to that powerful, peaceful experience. His family might have tried to create a more peaceful environment at home, or tried to criticize his social behavior less harshly if they had understood his interest better.
Discerning true needs and wants: giving the right gifts to your child and yourself.
How should you discern the true nature of your child’s passionate interests, before you go shopping? Spend time, even just fifteen minutes a day for two or three days, relaxing with a cup of tea or coffee while you sit near your child and quietly observe how he or she spends the time pursuing these interests. What does he or she focus on? Remembering that children with Asperger’s syndrome are often visually oriented, be alert to visual images which seem to please your child. If your child likes cars, for instance, and uses the computer to access images, is it the mechanical design of the cars, or comparing their relative speeds in races, or the landscapes that the cars travel through in video games that are most exciting?
Sometimes the passionate focus seems to transfer inexplicably from one interest to another, but that might be the moment of insight for you – the moment when you can see what is similar between the two different topics. For example, a child successively interested in dinosaurs, crocodiles, sharks, and medieval knights might really be most interested in fierce defensive behavior and protective armor. A teenage girl interested in Queen Elizabeth the First, National Velvet and horseback riding, and women explorers and scientists might be seeking stories of female empowerment. Remember that you can always ask your child directly what he or she most wants. Children with Asperger’s like life to be predictable, even, or perhaps especially, during the celebration times such as holidays.
Then consider your own needs carefully. If time for solitary relaxation and creative self-expression are high on your list, perhaps you can connect with your child and his or her interest by taking time to use your art to create images related to his or her interest area. If you need to get out more, perhaps scheduling some field trips to explore your child’s passionate interest in a topic, while allowing your child the choice of where to go, would create a happy time for both of you. Just planning the trips can be a source of conversation and contentment. Finding time to browse in a bookstore when family members have gift cards enabling each person to choose a favorite book or two is a favorite activity in our family. Take a few moments for yourself for silent relaxation, and after you’ve allowed the thoughts to settle, write down your needs, and prioritize them. What gift can you give yourself that is also a gift to your child?
Remember that the objective of giving these gifts, and the real goal of birthday celebrations and the holidays, is to open the channels of unconditional love, and to share that love through communication in a spirit of celebration, and new understanding.
Catherine Knott is an anthropologist and educator specializing in education, community, environment, and agriculture. She received her Bachelors Degree from Yale University, and her Ph.D. from Cornell University.