Robert wanted a girlfriend. For a teenager, that’s no surprise. For a teenager with Asperger’s Syndrome, however, it presents challenges even beyond sweaty palms and cracking voices.
Asperger’s Syndrome is an autism spectrum disorder that affects social and communication skills. Robert, like other people with Asperger’s, is a black-and-white thinker, so he took a very black-and-white approach to his goal: he watched what other boys at his high school and on TV did with their girlfriends. He noted that these boys made comments about their girlfriends’ bodies, so after choosing the girl he wanted for a girlfriend, he did the same thing.
Which is how he met Kari Dunn Buron.
Buron, an autism resource specialist for several schools around the Twin Cities at the time, learned that Robert had scared the girl and she had called the police. Yet Robert was clueless about what had gone wrong. “I was meeting young men who all had Asperger’s and were in sexual offender programs or had similar charges against them, and as I interviewed them I realized they really had no idea what effect their words had on the girls,” says Buron. “I wanted to come up with a plan for teaching social skills in a format that they would understand.”
Buron’s epiphany led to the creation of her new book, A Five Is Against the Law (Autism Asperger Publishing Company, 2007), which uses a simple five-point scale to explain degrees of behavior and how each degree might affect other people. For example, a “one” is very informal social behavior; this can include waving at a friend or simply saying hello. From there, the scale moves to a “two” (reasonable behavior), a “three” (odd behavior), a “four” (scary behavior), and the worst, a “five” (hurtful or threatening behavior), which is potentially against the law. Buron based her scale on a learning theory created by Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge in England. Baron-Cohen suggests that people on the autism spectrum are “systemizers,” which means the best way for them to learn is by using systems (like the one-five scale) in order to understand things.
“Social interaction once you pass third grade is very subtle; a slight glance or someone’s very insignificant flick of the eye could mean a lot in communication, and individuals with autism have a disorder of social communication and understanding,” explains Buron. “So this book attempts to address that problem by using a strength of their learning, which is systemizing, rather than trying to talk about how their actions made another person feel, which is social concepts. That’s the weakest teaching channel for autism.”
A Five Is Against the Law uses interactive worksheets and activities to help teens and young adults with autism navigate social behavior in a systematic manner. One straightforward exercise involves the student and a teacher or parent making a list of different behaviors (for example, staring at someone, swearing at them, or touching) and then separately assigning that behavior one of the numbers from the scale. The student and the adult then compare answers.
“I created the five-point scale as a system these students could use to learn about social boundaries and social information in a very black-and-white way,” says Buron. “Social information is so gray because people are variable, and that’s why these guys weren’t getting it.”
On top of taking kids through the ins and outs of unwritten social rules, Buron’s book also advises them on how to reign in behavior when it creeps toward the three-five range on the scale. According to Buron, the best way to avoid uncomfortable social situations is to plan ahead – that can include something as simple as knowing breathing tricks to relax the anxiety that creeps in at stage three to working with an adult to hash out an appropriate way to ask a girl out. “The book takes subtleties and puts them into a systematic scale to help these kids have an ‘a-ha!’ moment,” says Buron. “It helps them understand that perspective is important and theirs was off, so it scared someone unintentionally.”
Buron, who is already at work editing a textbook on autism education, says teachers and students alike have been happy that an “underaddressed” aspect of autism has been brought to light in a format that caters to their specific learning style. “The book has only been out a few months, but I’ve gotten really good feedback from teachers who said they immediately recognized it as something that might work with their students.”
Monica Wright is Minnesota Parent’s assistant editor