My Son Plays With the Younger Boys on the Block

Q: Summer brings neighborhood children outside more often to play, which has its good and bad points.

My 13-year-old son is “on the spectrum” and has social issues. He is mainstreamed in a regular “low-functioning” yeshivah, as I wanted him to be in as regular an environment as possible.

What is most uncomfortable is that he doesn’t behave like a regular bar-mitzvah boy, and boys his age exclude him from play. If they do include him, he’s viewed as the “rachmanus.” He often plays with nine-year-old boys. The age difference doesn’t bother him; however, it does embarrass his siblings. They tell him to play with the older boys, but he doesn’t have a clue as to how to interact with them.

His actual learning level is much lower than that of his peers, so he can’t discuss what he learned in school this past year. Some boys are into sports, but that is not what we talk about at home, so he can’t participate in those discussions, either. He is excited to play outside, but does seem uncomfortable at times. I’m not sure if it’s because of his siblings’ annoyance with him for playing with nine-year-olds, or his own discomfort with the situation. He is not one to discuss feelings, because he is barely in touch with his feelings (this being part of his diagnosis).

His day camp experience seems to be okay, because some of his classmates from school are in his bunk and they share common experiences and some type of relationship from the past year.

As my son doesn’t express his emotions, I’m not sure if I’m blowing this thing out of proportion, and should just leave well enough alone. What are your thoughts?

A: It is difficult to grasp the emotional world of a child on the autism spectrum. As these children lack an understanding of many social nuances, it is difficult to know how much they realize that they are out of sync with others around them. That is why you find it difficult to gauge your son’s reaction and emotional responses.

However, role-modeling appropriate emotional responses can only be helpful for your son’s developmental process. You can initiate the topic of “improving” friendships. You can explain how people really appreciate eye contact with others, and the approximate physical closeness that peers expect from one another. You can ask your son to pay attention to the typical topics of neighbors’ conversations, and ask him to report these to you. You can then ask him what he feels comfortable speaking about with them. The types of questions boys ask each other can be discussed. If your son is too nervous to pay attention to what they are talking about, you yourself can listen and observe and speak to him about this.

The emotional support and encouragement you give your son is a gift in itself. The type of compliments that one boy gives another can be discussed. Saying, “That was a great catch!” or “Those new sneakers look great!” can be suggested as possible types of verbal communication with peers. If your child is cerebral and literal by nature, you can explain to him why these types of interactions are helpful, and how it makes people feel comfortable.

A parent needs to explain to siblings that being critical of their brother will not inspire him to be less anxious and will not encourage him to stop avoiding neighbors his own age. If any verbal intervention needs to occur, let it consist of complimenting him on his mature responses to peers, when observed.

If your son continues to play with nine-year-old boys, let it be in a teaching role, if possible. He can teach origami, help someone ride a bicycle or show ways to be successful in electronic games. In this way, he can improve his self-esteem and remind himself that he is indeed 13 years old.

Continued social-skills training needs to be implemented throughout the school year to improve your son’s ability in this area.