Parenting with autism

Carol Harrison from Devon, UK, whose dad was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome in 2001 when she was 15, reviews two new books for young people from Jessica Kingsley Publishers:

Something different about Dad – how to live with your Asperger’s parent written by Kirsti Evans and illustrated by John Swogger. 2010, London, Jessica Kingsley Publishers. ISBN 978 1 84905 114 9

My parent has an autism spectrum disorder – a workbook for children and teens by Barbara Lester. 2011, London, Jessica Kingsley Publishers. ISBN 978 1 84905 835 3

At the moment, there are few resources which talk about having a parent with Asperger’s syndrome or an autism spectrum disorder. Two new books seek to fill the gap.

Something different about Dad –how to live with your Asperger’s parent written by Kirsti Evans and illustrated by John Swogger

This book is, perhaps ambitiously, aimed at children aged seven to 15. It deals with having a family member with Asperger’s syndrome. The book has a cartoon strip style and is centred on one family, with various members narrating, along with the book’s author and illustrator. Not having read many comic books, I found the style difficult to follow, especially when a new character began narrating. However, the visual approach has benefits, especially when explaining sensory overload by cramming the page with images and text.

The book explains Asperger’s syndrome surprisingly simply and points out that, though people with the condition don’t look different, they do behave differently. It breaks down Asperger’s traits into four areas – imagination, communication, the senses, and emotions and relationships – and explains a little about each. It is realistic, positive and informative.

The book uses stressful situations to illustrate some of the problems of living with Asperger’s. It explains why having Asperger’s makes certain situations more difficult and gives practical suggestions. It also mentions the importance of personal space and taking time to relax and de-stress.

Towards the end of the book, the son expresses his frustration with his dad’s Asperger’s. Growing up in this situation can leave children feeling hurt and angry, and this book offers practical solutions. It also highlights that having a parent with Asperger’s has its advantages, such as their reliability and helpfulness. It concludes with a family holiday which, due to a better understanding of Asperger’s, was a very positive experience.

Though the images make the book appealing and engaging for children, the attempts to connect with the audience using ‘youth’ language (like ‘wikkid’) and interests (like ‘My School Musical’) felt forced, outdated and patronising. The interesting content and simple style are sufficient to engage most young readers.

The book’s strength is its understanding of Asperger’s, demonstrated in its representation and explanation of the condition. Initially, some solutions felt a little one-dimensional (as if implementing a family calendar will solve all problems), but the closing chapters address some emotions which are not so readily resolved. Focusing on one family minimises the diverse effects of Asperger’s on individuals and families. While some of the situations mentioned rang bells for me, others were less familiar. Young readers may find it difficult to relate some scenarios to their own situation.

A young child may have difficulties with the more complex language and concepts, but these could be overcome by reading with an adult. An older child or teenager, who is sufficiently interested in the topic, would be able to forgive this book its faults and use it as a springboard for their own research.

My parent has an autism spectrum disorder – a workbook for children and teens by Barbara Lester

This book is aimed at children and teenagers who have a parent with an autism spectrum disorder (ASDs – the term preferred by the author). The author brings personal experience to the subject; not only has she worked with people with ASDs, but her own father had one.

Unfortunately, the book doesn’t start well, with most of the About You chapter devoted to rather unengaging chapter outlines. This is a temporary blip and the subsequent introductory chapters are more interesting. The majority of the book focuses on specific areas of life which can be affected by ASDs. Though this divides some highly interconnected topics, it keeps the chapters short (three to five pages) and simple. Each chapter compares how children with and without ASDs may feel and behave in certain situations, before describing typical behaviour of an adult with an ASD. Personal and generic examples illustrate the issues. Rhetorical questions and the author’s own feelings help the reader to explore their experiences and emotions.

The penultimate chapter on Telling Friends recognises some people are very private about their ASD, but that openness can lead to support. The final chapter looks at some strengths common to many with ASDs, such as logical thinking, good memory and honesty. It provides positive famous role models. It helps the reader recognise and admire their parent’s strengths.

Each chapter is followed by a short and thoughtful worksheet. Varied questions encourage family members to think about themselves, the severity of any ASD-type behaviour they may display and to explore feelings. Posing similar questions to the reader, parent and other family members helps identify differences and promote mutual understanding. The problem-solving ideas offered recognise that both sides may need to adapt their behaviour, but accepts that someone with an ASD may sometimes find this impossible. Space is given for readers to express their feelings.

Recognising that ASDs can run in families, the book allows for difficulties with imagination and empathy. Idioms are in quotation marks with explanations. It sensitively raises the possibility that some readers may have an undiagnosed ASD.

This is an excellent book. The style is simple and engaging. The author has a comprehensive grasp of the theory behind ASDs. Her first-hand knowledge shines through, but she avoids assuming her experiences are universal. She is realistic that ASDs can evoke negative emotions. The examples used highlight that ASDs can have different and even opposing traits.

Unless read with an adult, this book would perhaps be better suited to older or keen readers. Some (but by no means all) of this book’s value would be lost without the co-operation of the ASD parent.

Early on, the author states, “I’m writing this book to my younger self – I could have used the advice back when I was growing up.” I echo this sentiment.

Which book would I recommend? The contrasting styles of these books would suit different people so, if possible, browse through them before choosing one. I think that Something different about Dad is better suited to younger children, visual learners and those only just starting to think about Asperger’s. My parent has an autism spectrum disorder would work better for older children or teenagers, enthusiastic readers and those ready to think in depth about problem-solving skills. Personally, I think the 15-year-old me would have appreciated the second book.

Both books would be best used as part of a broader process of discussing with a child or young person the effect of Asperger's in their family.

In a world with few resources for children and young people about having a parent with an ASD, these are welcome additions and I hope to see more books like this available in the future.

First published DPPI Journal, Issue 74: Autumn 2011

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