In a setting which relies heavily on spoken and written words the Asperger’s child is at a disadvantage. With a growing awareness of Asperger’s and its nuances youth ministries need to adjust some of their practices to make it more accessible to those who have traits of or a diagnosis of the disorder.
There are three main interrelated general areas of functional liability in children with AD:
- Visual-spacial processing and sensory-motor integration
- Information processing and organizational skills
- Social skills and pragmatic language development
These areas will need to be discussed in greater detail by youth ministries as this is largely misunderstood people group that are not being effectively impacted with the Good News, not for a lack of want but likely from a lack of understanding and awareness on our part. For the time being we’ll simply provide an overview of these three areas of difficulty and leave it up to you to contextualize in your ministry setting.
Visual-spacial processing and sensory-motor integration
Examples of visual-spacial skills include the ability to walk a narrow beam or to run while accurately throwing a ball to another person. Most of us take these skills for granted. You probably think nothing of the fact that you know the relative size of things. When going to pick up a stack of books, you know that they will be heavier than the single book you just put down, and you’ll adjust your motor movement to account for that difference. You take for granted that you can find your way from one place to another in a large building. For youth with AD, the visual-spacial and visual discrimination skills required to accomplish all these activities are often impaired, contributing to a natural clumsiness and frequent experiences of getting lost.
Visual-spacial processing impacts learning in many ways and this has a direct impact on discipleship efforts, given that we primarily teach about our Christian faith like a classroom subject. Students with AD find tasks such as handwriting, taking notes, and filling out forms and worksheets difficult at best and often impossible. Given the difficulties these children have in visual spacial processing and coordinating sensory-motor integration, seemingly simple tasks are not simple and can impede their ability to grow and develop spiritually as their peers. The problem is not one of failing to understand the task or not having the knowledge to complete the task (i.e., bible study); rather, the problem is that these youth have a specific disability that interferes with the processing of visual-motor and visual-spacial information.
Information processing and organizational skills
Processing the many forms of information that you encounter daily is dependent on a complex set of interconnections between multiple parts of the brain. In students with AD this process is impaired, leaving them unable to easily or quickly make sense of simple day-to-day tasks (like homework or chores), or individual expectations (grooming or managing relationships). The information goes in, but once it enters the labyrinth of the mind it becomes jumbled and their ability to organize, recall, or use the information is hindered by their cognitive processes. Imagine trying to relate a parable of Jesus to a student with AD. This can often appear on the surface to be oppositional in nature but upon further inspection it is simply the result of a complex cognitive process that has gone off the track.
Social skills and pragmatic language development
In the development of social skills and day-to-day language that conveys social meaning the AD child struggles. This is partly due to the first two issues addressed above. The student’s difficulties processing information and accurately comprehending the actions of others, along with spacial, motor, and organizational problems combine to create pain nd anxiety for the child. Normal social interactions occur on so many levels at the same time, some overt (verbal messages) and some covert (hidden messages, tone of voice, nonverbal, gestures, body language, etc.). Youth with AD do not fully grasp these nuances, missing social cues and implied meanings that others understand. Aspies often take things at face value, interpreting statements literally, often missing sarcasm, subtly humor, or even threats.
Just because a child has AD does not mean they will skip being a teenager. The student is just as likely to go through the normal variations of mood and personality as any teen; they just go through adolescence with more baggage. The good news is that, developmentally, most of these teens are slower to become aware of adolescent issues of sexuality, drugs, or rebellion, but these issues will eventually come up The social culture that our youth are a part of is difficult at best, and many of these teens are not prepared to deal with the pressures they face daily. We have a tremendous opportunity to show the love of Christ to Aspies and their families by entering into the potential messiness of their day-to-day living and getting our hands dirty. The message this sends when we seek to understand is that they matter. They matter to us and more importantly, they matter to the God who created them.