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Won’t You Be My (ASD) Neighbor?

May09

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Hello,

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 SimonMy 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.

About the author

Amalah

http://www.amalah.com
Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.


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6 Responses to “Won’t You Be My (ASD) Neighbor?”

  1. DontBlameTheKids May 09 at 8:00 pm Reply Reply

    I don’t have any suggestions on how to deal with autistic friends in particular, but I can say that this happens even when there isn’t a “bad disease” present. I come from a large family, and there was always this stuff going on between the siblings. Sometimes I was excluded, sometimes we excluded someone else, and oh, yes, we often involved the neighbors. Looking back, I wish our parents had stepped in and talked to us about it. 

    So, as Amy said, just don’t let it happen on your watch. 

  2. Ak May 09 at 8:41 pm Reply Reply

    Not a full solution, but a small fix when in your yard and a rule for your kids: no jail. At 6-7, putting people in jail is more than a game and becomes an obsession. It is a way of excluding and creating almost mini power structures. You’ve got a 6 year old, they have a 6 year old, and the older brother may be a little socially delayed. I bet if the oldest was unable to play, they’d put the 4 year old in jail instead.
    Maybe elementary classrooms have a “no jail” policy. It is a pain to enforce because they try to break it LIKE EVERYDAY but it does force the kids to learn to play together instead of rule by majority.

  3. Ak May 09 at 8:43 pm Reply Reply

    EDIT *Many elementary schools

  4. Teresa scali May 10 at 2:13 pm Reply Reply

    Amy, When I emailed I was not expecting such a fast response. Thank you I will be ordering some books today. I have spoken to their mother and I am happy to say there is no more ” bad disease” talk. We have banned jail play from our house, but they tried to institute a similar type play. I have been trying to both direct, and let them solve problems on their own. 
    My boys still are a little stand off-ish to the older brother, but I am hopefull that the books will help. Plus we have been talking about how some kids play different, and that ok, and can be fun too. 
    Thank you to the other commentors. I was not thinking that the younger brother might just want to be in charge.  The dynamic in our house is the younger one follows his brother around, just happy to play whatever his brother wants. 
     Amy thank you for helping! I love your blog, I have taken comfort in many of your stories. I get hurt often too. I got stitches in my chin two weeks ago from slipping on grass! Stories of your children make me laugh, and sometimes cry. And your  advice is always spot on. 

    Teri

  5. Alissa May 11 at 10:38 pm Reply Reply

    Thank you for being concerned and for wanting to help your new neighbor friend.  I hope that my ASD son has friends with a mom like you!  That being said, the chance my boy will ever have people he considers “friends” is slim – he will talk an adult’s ear off, but somehow can’t seem to have a meaningful conversation with peers.  Even if he talks to them, he gets ignored or overlooked, so I spend a lot of time at play groups and on the playground suggesting things he could say, kids he could talk to, activities to do.  If the neighbor mom just got a diagnosis and is working and in the midst of family crisis, she may just not have the time to step in and help her son play – it’s not something that comes naturally, believe me.  Please feel free to step in and gently guide the neighbor boy in how to appropriately play with your kids.  They will be able to teach him and help him so much.

  6. Whozat May 13 at 2:15 am Reply Reply

    There’s an episode of Arthur in which one of the kids meets and befriends a boy with Aspergers. His mom explains it to the friend and gives him some advice about interacting with him, and things work out and they become friends. 

    The boy with Aspergers is an occassionally-recurring character on the show, and I’ve seen him in other episodes in which there’s no reference to it, but he’s exhibiting behaviors associated with it. 

    The name of the episode is “When Carl Met George” and I’ve seen it both on YouTube and on PBS Kids on Demand (or whatever it is that my Roku picks up). 

    (FWIW, Arthur also has episodes dealing with kids with asthma, peanut allergy and some other issues that I’m not thinking of right now.)

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