Asperger Syndrome and Sensory Issues in Middle School
At this age, some Asperger kids have started to learn their own social strategies — how to imitate others, how to listen and hold back, etc. But the pluses are still outnumbered by the minuses.
Dr. Stephen Bauer offers this general description of the middle school and early high school years:
- Socialization and behavior are the big areas to work on.
- Teachers frequently under-estimate their difficulties.
- High school teachers don’t have time to get to know the kids and assume the problems are caused by laziness or self-centeredness.
- The cafeteria and gym are two place where conflicts and power struggles can occur because they are less structured.
Middle school kids move like packs of dogs.
Each group seems to have an alpha dog and a bunch of followers howling at their heels. The alpha dog might change from week to week, but the pack still rules. Asperger kids generally don’t fit into the pack. But how they want to! And this is where the trouble starts.
- The pressure to conform leads to teasing and persecution on the one hand or painful bait-and-switch games.
- Some lucky Asperger kids decide not to care what other people think and become delightfully outrageous.
- Many become withdrawn and depressed.
By early high school, the situation improves for many Asperger kids. Those without learning disabilities have by now discovered that they are good at schoolwork and get high marks. This bolsters their self-esteem.
The larger social world of high school means there are more friends to choose from. The nerds and geeks tend to draw together, and Asperger teens find this group quite a lot like themselves. Teen tolerance of differences is higher than in middle school, and many Asperger teens find others enjoy their eccentricities.
Tips for Handling Middle School
- Make sure your pre-teen knows that everyone finds middle school difficult. The other kids are dealing with their own fears and insecurities by grouping into a pack and teasing outsiders. Nobody is having a good time of it.
- Praise your pre-teen about all successes at school. Keep pointing out strengths. While this praise may not seem to be sinking in past the middle school insecurities, it will lay a foundation for confidence in high school.
- Talk about the pros and cons of conformity. Point out that rare talents don’t show up in conforming people. Point out that you can conform on points of behaviour (such as manners) without giving up you independent personality.
- Tell your kid to be passionate about the things he/she loves — to take time for hobbies and pet interests. These are more important than conformity.
- Help your kid find a club that he/she likes. Good candidates are the computer club, chess club, drama club, and school band or choir.
Bullying and Teasing
- Make sure your kid understands that bullying isn’t a lifelong thing. It’s something particular to school, especially middle school. You don’t want you child growing up thinking he or she will be bullied forever.
- Get the school staff on board. Most schools are very good at watching out for malicious teasing. Many schools now have programs that teach anti-bullying skills.
- Arrange that your kid gets to avoid the biggest problems. If the cafeteria is where trouble occurs, then arrange for your kid to eat lunch in the classroom.
- Listen. Let your kid talk it out. Point out that he or she is worth much, much more than any group of pre-teen bullies.
Feeling Young For Age
Many Asperger kids feel much younger than their peers. They often still play games appropriate for younger children and feel uncomfortable in activities where their peers are trying to be older than they are.
Feeling young for age isn’t a problem, as long as there are some younger kids around to play with. But entering middle school means losing the younger grades. This can leave an Asperger kid feeling isolated.
Sometimes teachers confuse young for age with lack of maturity.
They assume that the kid is refusing to act his or her age. These teachers sometimes berate Asperger kids for being poor role models or for being self-centered and wanting attention. Nothing could be further from the truth.
But the Asperger kid internalizes these messages. When pre-teen Aspies are pushed to be older than they feel, they sometimes act out. Acting out can take the form of silliness, inappropriate behavior, and a refusal to try. It’s their way of saying, “I don’t feel old enough for this.”
Anxiety in Middle School
Sensory issues in the pre-teen years almost always leads to difficulties with anxiety. Anxiety is the brain’s response to constant, overwhelming, and jarring information. It learns to live in fear.
Some specialists like to treat anxiety all on its own — as a problem distinct from Asperger Syndrome or sensory processing disorder. The treatment is often medication and counselling. But this is by no means the only treatment.
If anxiety occurs because the brain has learned to fear, then the best anxiety remedy may be to train the brain not to fear.
It is important to treat the underlying causes of the anxiety, not just the anxiety pattern itself — otherwise, the problem will still be there after the drugs stop working. Sensory processing therapy can be very helpful because it teaches the brain to listen more closely to the senses and removes the constant, nasty surprises of sensory overload.
Two new treatments reduce anxiety by targeting brain patterns.
One treatment is heart-rate variability (HRV) training. HRV trains the brain to regulate the heart-rate and breathing so that they work together in the rhythm of non-anxiety brains.
The other treatment is EEG neurofeedback. It trains the brain’s electrical wave patterns (brainwaves) to release the patterns of anxiety and return to the patterns of calm.