Dr. Steven RichfieldA parent writes: Our 11 year old son is diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of high functioning Autism. He is bright and inquisitive, but has great difficulty picking up on social cues and understanding many aspects of friendship. We struggle to coach him in these areas but our explanations often don’t make sense to him. What are your suggestions?

Aspergers Syndrome presents children with a variety of social and emotional stumbling blocks. Due to difficulties understanding implied meaning, humor, and other inferential reasoning skills, children are often confused by the rapidly changing landscape of social interaction. Their tendency toward quick and literal interpretation of words can produce significant problems with establishing and maintaining friendships. Preoccupations with narrow, solitary interests can impede their capacity to converse on the range of topics that typically interest peers.

Parents of children with Aspergers Syndrome often help them make sense of their social world, but success can be fleeting and isolated to certain circumstances. Here are some coaching tips that may increase the success rate:

Think of the social world as a variety of “relationship road maps” that your child needs to perceive accurately and use talking tools to be able to follow.

On various pieces of paper, draw “roads” of how conversations flow depending upon environmental cues. Cues include who your child is with, where it takes place, what the other child says and the degree of familiarity your child has with a peer. For instance, if your son bumps into an acquaintance at a movie theatre, depict how the initial greeting may lead to a short period of questioning about the movie, and finally to a closing remark about the next time he might see the peer again. Be sure to emphasize that what is said is just as important as perceiving the available cues in order to keep comments on target and within the boundaries of the environment.

Refer to boundaries as the lines that keep people within the relationship road they are supposed to be on.

Boundaries are a critical piece of the social puzzle but are often ignored by children with Aspergers Syndrome since they are subtle and hard to distinguish. Make boundaries visual by depicting the kinds of statements and behaviors that are appropriate to the particular “road” (write them within the road) and examples of responses that are not (write them outside of the road). Explain how behaving within the boundaries protect the feelings of others and tells people that we are aware of what is going on around us. Depict how boundaries are more narrow when first meeting people but gradually widen as they become more familiar. Likewise, display how boundaries are narrow or wide depending upon the people present, situation and other circumstances.

Offer ways of understanding humor or typical childhood banter that uses available environmental cues.

Children with Aspergers Syndrome can easily get caught in the throes of strong emotional reactions to common antagonistic statements made by peers. The intention of such comments may be to entertain bystanders, self-inflate, or trigger over-reactions by the child in question. Yet, no matter the intention, if your child reacts with verbal or physical aggression, they are going to pay severe penalties. This makes it especially critical to coach anticipation skills that normalize typical peer baiting. Draw another relationship road that depicts some of the standard comments that kids say to each other in various circumstances. Add a thinking bubble that contains a self-instruction to help you child keep their cool.

Dr. Steven Richfield is a child psychologist in Plymouth Meeting, PA. He has developed a child-friendly, self-control/social skills building program called Parent Coaching Cards now in use in thousands of homes and schools around the world. His new book, The Parent Coach: A New Approach To Parenting In Today’s Society is available through Sopris West ( or 1-800-547-6747) He can be contacted at or 610-238-4450. To learn more about Parent Coaching Cards, read more parenting columns, or review the press kit to The Parent Coach, visit

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