Sharon Fuentes was at a presentation given by author and licensed professional counselor Neil McNerney about how parents should step back and let their children take more responsibility for their homework when it hit her: Many of McNerney’s techniques could help parents of children with Asperger syndrome.
So the South Riding mom of two — including a son, 13, with Asperger’s — walked up to McNerney after the program, introduced herself and said, “I’d like to write a book with you.”
McNerney agreed, to Fuentes’s surprise, and the two published “The Don’t Freak Out Guide to Parenting Kids with Asperger’s” in October.
Fuentes’s son, Jay (she doesn’t use his real first name on her blog, Mama’s Turn Now, or in the book to protect his privacy, so we have used his blog name here, as well), got the diagnosis in third grade.
“When I first found out about Asperger’s, everything I read was very clinical, and I felt very much alone,” Fuentes said. “My biggest goal is for people to understand they are not alone. . . . My second goal is, there’s so much talk about changing our children, and I don’t think we need to change them. We need to perhaps understand them better and change the way we parent.”
Since the diagnosis, Fuentes has wrestled with the same question all parents of children with special needs face: how much to help. When do you step in and do things for him, and when do you let him work through things on his own?
After hearing McNerney speak, Fuentes decided to take a more hands-off approach. She’s still there to help Jay when he needs her, but she tries to give him more of a role in decisions about his life. It has made a huge difference in Jay’s confidence and in her stress level, she said.
“The bottom line now is that my job is very different than it was when he was younger. My job now, as he’s starting to get older, is to give him the self-confidence to be able to advocate for himself.”
That was the basis for the book, which details McNerney’s method and Fuentes’s real-life experiences parenting a child with Asperger’s.
“That whole ‘fair’ thing? I tell him it’s not fair. I’m sorry. You have some challenges, but what are we going to do about it? What’s going to make it easier?” Fuentes said. “It’s very different when you start to think like that instead of just trying to remove all the obstacles.”
The book explains how parents need to keep their worries under control so that they can better help their children. It identifies five common characteristics of children with Asperger syndrome, and gives parents suggestions for how to approach, for example, a rule-follower differently from a child who has an overwhelmingly negative outlook.
The authors also identify types of parents, from those who are supportive to those who are perfectionists, and talk about how those qualities can affect their relationships with their children. The authors give an overview of therapies for children with autism-spectrum disorders and offer suggestions for working with educators after the child is in school.
“My view of parenting is a lot less about helping our kids, and more about leading our kids,” McNerney said. “Leading is showing them directions, whereas helping is smoothing their path. For kids with Asperger’s, parents tend to do a lot of helping. They need help, but I would love to see parents spend more time on leading them.”
Fuentes has applied the same “don’t freak out” techniques with her daughter, Gracie, 10 (again, using her blog name to protect her privacy), and found them helpful.
“It’s not like they’re doing everything on their own. We have rules and structure in our house,” Fuentes said. “But it’s giving them the responsibility, letting them know that they’re in charge. That’s a big thing, that you’re responsible for what you say and do.”
She has found that the more she has stepped back and let her children take responsibility for themselves, the more they want to do for themselves, and that they learn more from their mistakes.
“I can’t make them eat their vegetables. I can’t make them go to bed at night,” she said. “All I can try to do is give them the tools and hope that they use that.”