By Brian R. King, LCSW
Autism Asperger’s Digest | Online Article April 2013
Seeking the help of others is at the heart of being a member of any community. For many individuals on the spectrum, however, asking for help is seen as an invitation to stand out or to appear weak or incompetent. Why do spectrumites (people with autism spectrum disorder) develop such a negative attitude toward something so essential to human relationships? There are several reasons:
> Learned helplessness. Spectrumites are so used to being helped, rescued, and corrected that they begin to resent it. The excessive helping becomes an indication that the individual isn’t trusted to do it himself.
> Communication issues. It is so difficult to find the words to express the help needed that the individual simply chooses to go it alone and spare himself the frustration of trying to explain to another, who often lacks the patience to help him find the words.
> Learning style. Those on the spectrum tend to disproportionately prefer one learning style to another (visual, auditory, or kinesthetic) whereas the traditional student is more eclectic. A student on the spectrum who is unaware of his learning style won’t know to ask for help that is conducive to his learning style; therefore, he learns to perceive assistance offered in a different style as unhelpful and even more confusing.
> Assumption. The worst culprit of all is the person’s assumption that others don’t need or ask for help and will judge the spectrumite when he asks for it.
Is it a wonder that spectrumites often have to reach the point of complete exasperation before even thinking about asking for help? Here’s the reality. There isn’t a single person on the planet that is good at everything. We need each other to accomplish the goals of life. I have Asperger’s Syndrome, ADHD, dyslexia, dysgraphia, and more. In spite of that I run my own business and have authored four books. What’s my secret? I ask for a lot of help from my wife, friends, and colleagues. I’ve spent decades creating and maintaining a support system that helps me succeed. This is something you need to do whether you’re on the spectrum or not.
I’ll admit that I can be very stubborn at times. However, in the end, the value of allowing others to share in creating my success has made my life richer.
Well-meaning parents and professionals may think asking for help is as simple as raising your hand or asking a question. But asking for help isn’t a single action, it’s actually a multistep process:
1. Recognize that you need help.
There are spectrumites who lack the awareness to realize they need help. With their black-and-white thinking, they’ll categorize things as good or bad, right or wrong. Thinking this way allows little room to conceive that other options exist, including the option of asking for help.
Not knowing how to accomplish a goal with the help of others, spectrumites default to doing the task alone. When they’re not successful, they conclude that it can’t be done.
It’s at this point that I introduce the concept that the task “can be done with help.” If the person wants the result bad enough, asking for and receiving help becomes an acceptable option.
2. Determine the type of help you need.
Help must be asked for in sensory terms to communicate to the helper how to best match the recipient’s learning style, or it won’t be helpful. Questions such as “Can you tell me (auditory)?” “Can you show me (visual)?” and “Can you do it with me once (tactile)?” are examples of sensory-specific questions.
3. Ask the right person.
A spectrumite will often ask everything of the person he is most comfortable with, even when that person repeatedly demonstrates she doesn’t have the necessary knowledge or skills in that area. For example, a child who knows everything about WWII will ask his parent who knows nothing about it to explain the logic behind certain strategies. When the parent doesn’t know the answer, the child becomes angry. The child asked the right question of the wrong person.
It is important to help the child identify the key people and resources needed to help him find the answers he seeks. I’m always leading my three spectrumite children toward learning to find the solutions beyond me, so they get used to working with others.
4. Figure out how to ask for help.
We have more methods than ever for communicating with each other. One could simply walk up to a person, send an email or text, or make a phone call. In addition to the method, the style of your approach matters a lot. I can remember a time when I walked up to someone and began asking a question.
The woman stepped back and said, “Well, good morning to you, too.”
She was telling me that she required a greeting before my asking a question. I collected myself after her surprise response broke my train of thought and gave her the greeting she wanted. She was then happy to answer my question.
Requirements, such as pleasantries and other forms of chitchat, serve a social purpose that eludes those on the spectrum, which is why these conventions are often avoided. Many spectrumites prefer the mediums of email or text to phone calls because of the speed and brevity of the conversation. This greatly reduces the social awkwardness of face-to-face or phone conversations.
In the event that a face-to-face exchange is unavoidable, it is necessary for those on the spectrum to think out and rehearse precisely what they’re going to ask beforehand. I do this often because it ensures I convey exactly what I want and prevents me from becoming tongue-tied by social anxiety.
5. Decide if it’s the right time.
It is possible that the spectrumite may have the right question and the right person, but it isn’t the most convenient time to talk to him. The conversation would go something like this, “Hello, I have something I need some help with. Is now a good time?” If the answer is yes (success!), skip to step 4 and ask for help. If the answer is no, ask when would be a better time and then follow up at that time until you get the help you need.
Asking for help is as much art as science and working proficiently with these five steps requires practice, practice, practice. I highly recommend finding someone with whom to practice these steps. For the spectrumites of the world who find asking for help so challenging, this strategy can be surprisingly effective in asking for—and getting—help when they really need it. I’m getting better at it all the time.
Brian R. King, LCSW, is a Relationship Strategy and Parent Coach who trains parents and educators to use innovative communication strategies to connect more effectively with their children/students on the autism spectrum.
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