What You Need To Know
Max struggles to connect with others. He talks at people rather than with them. He has an obsessive interest in the weather and talks constantly about it.
Max is also socially awkward. He doesn’t look people in the eye when he speaks to them, and he seems unaware of the subtleties of verbal and nonverbal communication. When he gets anxious, it is not unusual for him to repeatedly tap his feet or hands. Those who know him view him as “odd” or as a “conceited geek” and, at best, tolerate him. He has no good friends.
Do you know someone like Max? Perhaps you recognize your child, your student, or your youth group member in the description of his struggles. A brief explanation cannot do justice to Max’s experience (or to others who struggle as he does), but if Max were evaluated medically he would possibly receive a diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome (AS).
How should you think about Max’s experience and diagnosis? And how can you help someone who has AS?
God, in the Bible, has many useful and hopeful things to say that will guide you as you relate to someone with AS. This article will approach Asperger Syndrome from the perspective of parents whose child has been diagnosed with AS, but these basic principles will help anyone who wants to understand AS from a biblical perspective.
What is Asperger Syndrome?
Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger first described the problem in 1944, but it was not until 1991 that the constellation of symptoms/experiences now known as Asperger Syndrome (or Asperger’s Disorder) became more widely known and accepted. In 1994 the American Psychiatric Association included the diagnosis in their Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)  The medical community places AS in the same family of problems such as autism, what the DSM calls “pervasive developmental disorders.”
Those with AS have a difficult time developing good relationships, particularly with peers, for several reasons:
- Nonverbal communication struggles—children with AS have trouble expressing and interpreting nonverbal forms of communication such as eye contact, facial expressions, body postures, and gestures. They may miss or misinterpret subtle nonverbal cues that signal anger, irritation, boredom, or amusement in others, often leading to misunderstanding and conflict in relationships.
- Verbal communication struggles—unlike autistic children, those with AS can express themselves verbally, but they struggle to use these abilities wisely in the midst of conversations. They are better at communicating information about things they know than entering into the give and take of normal conversation.
- Lack of social or emotional reciprocity—AS children struggle to understand and relate to the feelings of others. This does not mean that they have no feelings; but that they have difficulty entering into another person’s experiences, emotions, and thoughts.
Children with AS are also intensely preoccupied with their chosen interest(s) or activities. Max’s consuming interest in all things relating to the weather is an example. In addition,
AS children prefer sameness and routine, and because of this, struggle with any change in their schedule. Often children with AS use repetitive motor mannerisms such as finger or foot tapping or hand/arm flapping.
Other symptoms and behaviors seen with AS include the following:
- Sensory integration problems (an unusually intense reaction to certain sights, sounds, smells, tastes, or odors).
- Auditory processing problems (difficulty filtering out background noise).
- Motor clumsiness.
- Difficulty with multi-tasking or following directions.
What causes AS?
The short answer is, we don’t know. Most researchers link AS to faulty neurological (brain) development, but there are no definite brain-based or genetic markers that uniquely distinguish AS from other autistic disorders (or from normal). People with AS do have a consistently diminished capacity to understand the desires, ideas, and feelings of other people. They find it exceptionally challenging to “be in another person’s shoes.” So, what might seem like a simple case of selfish, willful disregard of another person’s feelings or desires may in fact be a brain-based weakness that makes it more difficult for the AS person to “look not only to [their] own interests, but also the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4, ESV).
Approaching AS from a biblical worldview
You don’t have to be an “expert” on AS in order to help someone with AS. What the Bible teaches about every person will enable you to reach out wisely, compassionately, and truthfully to AS individuals. You and your AS child are alike in some very important ways.
- Image bearer: The Bible teaches that every person is an image bearer of the living God (Genesis 1:27). Each person is created to reflect the character and purposes of God in the context of our world (Genesis 1:28; Psalm 8:4-8). Knowing that Jesus came to renew the true image of God (Colossians 3:10; Ephesians 4:24), which was marred by the fall of mankind into sin, should encourage you that God can and will work in your AS child, just as He is working in your life.
- Worshipper: Bob Dylan was right when he sang, “You gotta’ serve somebody!” The apostle Paul says the same thing in Romans 1:18-25. To be an image bearer is to know that God created you and requires you to worship and submit to Him. The essential question in your life is, who (or what) will you serve—the Creator or created things like power, control, comfort, money, sex, etc? Helping someone means encouraging him to orient himself toward God, submit to God’s rule and purposes, just as you do in your own life. This “levels the playing field” between you and someone with AS.
- Body/Spirit: God has created us as both material (bodily) and immaterial (spiritual) selves (Genesis 2:7; Matthew 10:28; John 3:6). This means that helping someone will involve spiritual issues as well as physical (or brain-based) issues. This does not mean you need to be a “spiritual professional” (like a pastor) or a “body professional” (like a medical doctor) to reach your AS child. Simply noticing where your child struggles to submit to God’s will and purposes, and where your child’s brain-based weaknesses contribute to that struggle will help her.
- Unique gifting: God affirms every member of the body of Christ as having unique gifts and an important function within the body (1 Corinthians 12). Ask yourself: “How might this person’s strengths benefit the body of Christ?” This avoids the temptation of assuming “different” is necessarily “bad.”
Being aware of these basic similarities will help you to minister in a balanced and holistic way—having compassion and patience for the body/brain-based differences characteristic of AS and encouraging the AS person spiritually, to make choices that honor God and others.
What You Need To Do
Helping your AS child means making biblically wise distinctions between spiritual/sin issues (the realm of the heart) and bodily or brain-based issues/differences and addressing each accordingly. What does this look like in practice?
ADDRESSING BRAIN-BASED WEAKNESSES
Remember that not everything socially “odd” is sinful! Your child does need specific help to improve his social awareness and interpersonal skills, but beware of jumping to conclusions about what is sin and what is not. What appears rude (standing too close, not making eye contact, being bluntly honest) may well be more about neurological differences than a failure to love others well. So you should respond with compassion, not rebuke.
Be attentive to the ways AS strugglers experience their world. Here are some sample descriptions from those with AS I have counseled:
- “I get overwhelmed in large groups.”
- “I don’t get jokes until later.”
- “I tend to see the parts, not the whole.”
- “I misread what people are thinking and feeling all the time.”
- “It’s hard to change gears in the moment.”
These comments don’t necessarily suggest sin in the person’s action or motive. Recognizing these brain-based tendencies will help you to relate more wisely, prompting you to ask more questions and to listen to honest struggles.
Identify potential environmental distractions. It is challenging for people with AS to respond to the many verbal and nonverbal cues in their environment. They may react strongly to touches, smells, sounds, tastes, and sights that wouldn’t upset the typical person. So it is wise to consider, as you relate to your child, “Is there something going on in her environment that is distracting her and making it hard for her to listen?” If so, remove or modify the distraction. If that is not possible move your child.
Break complex tasks into bite-sized pieces. This may keep a child who struggles with prioritizing and multitasking from becoming overwhelmed and angry.
Recognize developmental level. Typically, AS children lag about three years behind their peers in social and emotional development. A nine-year-old with AS may speak like an older child, but think and act more like a six-year-old in other ways. This will affect the way you praise, instruct, and discipline him. The younger the developmental age, the simpler and more concrete you need to be in your communication.
Use clear communication. Give simple directions in short, uncomplicated sentences. Avoid metaphor, slang, and figures of speech. Don’t use vague responses like “perhaps” or “we’ll see.” It is better to say, “I don’t know the answer to that question right now. Ask me again tomorrow.”
Seek training in social skills. This can be informal, in the context of your own family, or more formal, in the context of groups specifically geared toward helping children with AS improve their relational skills. (Look for more information on this in the “Frequently Asked Question” section below.)
ADDRESSING SPIRITUAL LIFE
Remember the ultimate goal. The goal of parenting an AS child is the same as parenting a non-AS child: to shepherd his or her heart in relation to the living God. Focusing on spiritual life involves more than addressing sinful behavior! It also includes teaching, instruction, and encouragement (“Here’s how I saw Jesus at work in your life today.”).
Encourage them to value the input of others. One particular area for growth in AS children is learning to receive and value the feedback and input of others. Since AS children struggle to see life from any perspective except their own, this requires great patience. But if an AS struggler can learn to trust those who love him and receive their feedback, offered with consistency and grace, it can be a productive way of learning. “Listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom in the future” (Proverbs 19:20).
Don’t ignore sinful behavior. A person with AS is still called to obey the first and second great commandments: Love God and love your neighbors (Luke 10:27). Don’t forget, the same sinful motivations we all have at certain times—envy, the desire for power or control, fear of failure, desire for success, demand for attention, love of comfort, and desire for pleasure (among others)—are going to be active in the heart of an AS child as well. Most likely they will be a part (sometimes a large part) of what underlies some problem behaviors.
You can deal with sinful behavior in a variety of ways appropriate for your AS child. Sometimes you need to take immediate action (e.g. removing a child in the midst of a tantrum to protect other children). But you should also discuss with your child later why the behavior was wrong and what might have motivated it. Then it is important to encourage your child to ask forgiveness from Jesus and others (1 John 1:9; Matthew 5:23-24).
Seek opportunities for service in the body of Christ. AS children and adults are important members of the body of Christ and they should be encouraged to participate in the various ministries of the church. This deliberate “outward face” counters the social inertia of AS that often leads to isolation. Educating ministry leaders about AS is an important aspect of promoting involvement of AS individuals in the life of the church. Not all ministries of the church will be an appropriate match, but seek places where your child’s creativity, intelligence, and passionate knowledge of favorite subjects can be of benefit to the body.
I hope that this overview of AS helps to explain the struggles that your child has, but also gives you a hopeful framework for ministry to him that is sensitive to both his brain-based developmental differences and his spiritual life before God and others.
My 10-year-old child has AS. What are some ways I can help him when I see him doing something wrong?
1. Keep calm and be aware of your facial expressions and tone of voice as you speak with your child. Remember, AS children have difficulty reading both verbal and nonverbal communication. An angry scowl or a harsh tone of voice will only upset your child more.
2. Ask questions. Your son has particular reasons for his actions. Asking questions will help you to understand the deeper reasons for their actions—and you may find out that the motivation was not sinful at all (Proverbs 20:5). Of course, if your child is in the midst of a full-blown tantrum this will not be the time to ask questions, but to take calm, deliberate action (like picking him up and leaving the grocery store rather than attempting to reason with him).
3. Don’t overwhelm him with words. This is particularly true if he is in the middle of a tantrum. When things are calmer, find out why your child fell apart, ask simple questions that will uncover your child’s motivations, and then explain how to maintain control in straightforward, concise ways.
4. Don’t have the same expectations for obedience that you might have for a non-AS child. Be sensitive to what your son is capable of—otherwise you might exasperate him. Just as you parent a 12-year-old differently than a three-year-old, so you also have to tailor your parenting to your son’s abilities and level of maturity. He is called to love God and others, but the specific contours of that obedience will be different for him because of his abilities and developmental age.
Can you give me some specific ideas on how to help develop social skills in my eight-year-old child who has AS?
Helping your child develop better social skills is very important, but remember how hard this is for her. Ask God to give you and her patience. Training an AS child in social skills will vary depending on the age of the child, but a lot of the basics will be the same, no matter what the age. Here are some practical, concrete things you can do that will help her:
1. Teach her simple rules of social engagement. Many of these things we take for granted. You may not remember having to formally learn them. But for an AS child who does not have the innate ability to relate socially it is important to be very proactive. What might some of these “rules” look like?
- When someone greets or talks with you, try to glance at their eyes as much as you can.
- Stand no closer than 36 inches away from someone when talking with them.
- When someone compliments you, respond with “thank you.”
- When approaching a group of children, here are some things you could say to help you join them: “Hi, what are you playing?” “That looks like fun. Can I join you?” etc.
- Discuss appropriate ways of greeting different people. For example, a kiss might be appropriate for an immediate family member, but a handshake would be appropriate for a stranger.
2. Learn to take turns in conversation. Practice the “back and forth” of normal conversation, which includes asking questions or making a comment based upon what a person has just said.
3. Recognize and rate emotions. For a younger child, simple pictures of a smiley face (happy), a sad face (sad), a scowling face (mad) can be used to identify emotional states within themselves and others. For older children, using pictures in magazines and books or play-acting different emotions in front of a mirror may help.
4. Use books and movies as launching points for discussing what characters might be thinking or feeling in a particular situation. This will help your daughter to recognize another person’s state of mind, something that does not come naturally to her.
5. Schedule social experiences that are brief and more structured. A parentally supervised one-on-one play time with a peer is likely to be a better experience than a group birthday party. As your child matures socially, she can work her way up to longer social interactions.
6. Use resources that are specifically designed to help develop social skills. Two examples are Carol Gray’s books, Comic Strip Conversations and The New Social Story Book.
7. Try enrolling your child in a social skills group. This is a more formal option, but it will put your child with other children who are struggling and they can work on learning social skills together.
Neither of these resources is written from a Christian perspective, but they are full of helpful, practical suggestions that discerning believers can adapt for their own use:
- The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome, by Tony Atwood. Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2007.
- The O.A.S.I.S. Guide to Asperger Syndrome: Advice, Support, Insight, and Inspiration, by Patricia Romanowski Bache and Barbara L. Kirby. New York: Crown Publishers, 2001.