Won’t You Be My (ASD) Neighbor?
I am really hoping you can guide me in a situation that is very new to my family. I have two sons 6 and 4, and a daughter almost 2. We have recently moved to a new neighborhood. We love it, and the best part is there are two boys, brothers, 9 & 6 that live one house away. The kids have been spending a lot of time playing outside, and getting to know each other.
Here is where the tricky part starts. The first week, only the older son could play, the younger brother was sick. The younger brother has now been playing with them, and there is a whole new dynamic going on. The older brother has Aspergers, very recently diagnosed. When my boys were playing with just him, everything was going well. Now that the younger brother is playing too, there have been some problems.
I have overheard the younger brother telling my boys not to play with his brother, because he is weird, or mean, or has a bad disease. To see my children listen to him, it breaks my heart. And if they all do play, the older one ends up in “jail” a lot. Meaning they don’t play with them. The older brother is sweet, but I can see where he my sometimes make my children nervous. He gets very in depth in his play/ character. He has grabbed his younger brother very hard, more than once. When my husband or I talk to our boys we encourage everyone playing together.
I have spoken to their mother, and she is working with a counselor, due to all of the new situations they are facing. They also were going through a family emergency when we first met. Plus, both of their parents work, so this week an aunt was visiting, and watching the kids. From what I understand the boys were testing their boundaries with her. Both children are sweet on their own playing. And I just want my kids to understand the older ones’ needs.
I hope I covered everything.
Thank you, thank you, thank you,
No. Thank YOU. Really. From the bottom of my heart, I really, really appreciate you caring for this boy and his family enough to notice and ask for advice. As the mother of a child with a host of sensory/Asperger’s/ASD-like social quirks, I can’t tell you how much it means to me that other parents are aware of the challenges kids like him deal with, and want to HELP, rather than exclude.
First of all, as heartbreaking as it probably is to watch, don’t feel like it’s your responsibility to “fix” the dynamic between the brothers. If they’re in your house or yard, you can absolutely speak up when you hear him order your children to exclude his brother. “Guys, remember that the rule in our house is that we play nicely with everyone.” If you’re close to their mother it might not hurt to selectively tattle a bit on the younger one — especially if you see any outright bullying, or the “bad disease” talk, which sounds like some poor communication on someone’s part in the wake of the diagnosis.
That said, siblings of special needs children face their own challenges — this boy might feel like his brother gets all the special attention, that his “typical” development and accomplishments aren’t celebrated while his older brother gets praised for “dumb” things, like using utensils or looking someone in the eye while talking. He might also get bothered/pressured at school by other kids who use the “weird” label about his brother and wonder if he’s “weird” too…and let’s be honest, he’s probably tired of his brother’s intense and repetitive play scenarios and has learned he won’t protest or bother anyone if he just gets stuck in “jail.” It doesn’t make it right, but I do kind of understand where this behavior is probably coming from.
To help your children understand this boy and why it’s important to include him, I would definitely recommend reading them some children’s books about Autism and Asperger’s. Here’s where I fail a bit, because I don’t have any specific recommendations — the books we’ve read have been written to/for the special needs child directly, and I haven’t really needed to explain my son’s diagnoses to his brothers yet. Ezra, my middle son, is basically the opposite of your neighbor — his big brother is his quirky hero who can do no wrong, and he’s endlessly patient and already sort of quietly helps him out with the challenging stuff. (My youngest is less patient with Noah’s intensity, but he’s still a toddler. He’s not patient with ANYBODY.)
But a cursory Amazon search reveals quite a few highly-rated titles, aimed at young children, that explain a friend’s special needs in a positive, matter-of-fact way. Just going from descriptions and user ratings, consider a A Friend Like Simon, My Friend Has Autism, What It Is to Be Me! and Since We’re Friends: An Autism Picture Book. (Note that Asperger’s as an “official” diagnosis has gone away since the release of the DSM-5 — it’s now more broadly referred to as Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD. There are a handful of older Asperger-specific titles out there, but just know that going forward, new books will likely use the new labels.) I should probably join you and order a few myself.
If you find any of these books — or recommendations from the comment sections (HINT HINT) — useful for your sons, perhaps you can pass them along to your neighbor. She’ll hopefully be super-touched that you cared enough to educate your children, and maybe they’ll end up being useful for the younger brother, or for other playmates who might be struggling to understand the older brother’s unique style of play. A new diagnosis is a lot to deal with, so I guess I have to advise being patient with BOTH boys for awhile. It can take time and a LOT of trial and error to find the right therapies and strategies to help a Spectrum kid, and it’s a never-ending balancing act to consider needs of a neurotypical younger sibling who may be acting out. I wish them all the best, and am grateful that someone caring like you moved into their neighborhood, truly.