The Art of Asking for Help

I have many Aspie clients (i.e., clients with Asperger’s syndrome) who struggle with the value of asking for help because they don’t have the insight of how and when to do so. I’ve read Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) that school staff members have written that are filled with goals such as “child will increase their self-advocacy skills” or “child will ask for help when needed.” These goals assume that an Aspie child knows how and when to ask for help, but chooses not to. Though that may be true in some cases, in most instances it is simply a case of a child who has such difficulty problem solving in a situation, that he or she is presently unable to determine when, how, and in what way to ask for help as part of the problem solving process.

In helping my clients increase their self-awareness and their skills in problem solving, I’ve learned that they work best when given the following steps to work through toward the goal of asking for help. For many of you, these steps may seem like common sense. They are – if your brain is wired to work with other people. But for an Aspie child, the act of working with is a complex social process and a primary challenge. If you realize this, it will likely help you understand why the seemingly simple act of asking for help can be so challenging.

Here are the steps I’ve discovered:

1. Know you need it.
There are Aspies who lack the awareness to realize they need help. In their black and white way of thinking, they categorize things as “good or bad” and “right or wrong.” In such an absolutist way of thinking, there is little room to conceive that a solution is possible. This explains why Aspies get upset when they are unable to get things to work the way they want as a result of their efforts alone.

Not knowing how to do with, they default to doing the task alone. When they’re not successful, they conclude that it can’t be done. When they don’t achieve the desired result, they become upset by the conclusion: “if I can’t do it alone, it can’t be done.”

It is at this point that I introduce the concept that the task “can be done with help.” This first step is learned by the child when identifying the point at which he or she continues to do the same things without the desired outcome. That’s the point at which they can ask for help.

2. In what form do you need it?
Once a child has determined help is needed, the next step is to determine in what form help is required. Does he simply need information, such as a verbal answer to a question? Does she need to have something physically demonstrated? Does he need an actual hand in doing it? This is important for each child to know; otherwise, their request won’t be specific enough. Teachers are often biased toward their teaching style, whether it be auditory, visual, or tactile. Unless a child’s ideal learning style is addressed, help will likely be given in an inefficient manner. This will frustrate both the student and the teacher because understanding won’t improve after help is given.

For a student on the spectrum, knowing the way her own brain receives information best is crucial to the learning process. Help must be asked for in sensory terms in order to communicate to the helper in what form help is needed. Examples of sensory specific questions are:

- Can you tell me? (auditory)

- Can you show me? (visual)

- Can you do it with me once? (tactile)

3. Whom do you need it from?
When asking for help, it needs to be from a person who has what you need and will consistently provide help. A spectrum child will often ask everything of the person he’s most comfortable with, even when that person repeatedly demonstrates he or 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 is an accountant and knows nothing about WWII to explain the logic behind certain strategies, but when the parent doesn’t know, the child becomes angry at the parent.

The fact of the matter is, 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 Aspies toward learning to find the solutions beyond me so that they get used to working with others.

4. How to ask them for it.
In the modern age of communication, help can be asked for in a variety of ways. One could simply walk up to a person, e-mail, text a phone call, or any other manner of communication. Then, there is the style portion. I can remember a time as an adult when I walked up to someone and began asking my question. The person stepped back and said, “Well, good morning to you, too.”

This person was telling me that she required a greeting before my asking the question. After her surprise response broke my train of thought, I collected myself and gave her the greeting she wanted. She was then happy to answer my question.

It is exchanges such as these that those on the spectrum – like me – find frustrating and avoid. We want to exchange information that is concrete. In face-to-face conversations, others insist on adding “layers” to the exchange. These layers change from one person to another and can often make or break whether we get what we want.

Requirements such as pleasantries and other forms of chit chat serve a social purpose that eludes those on the spectrum, which is why they are dispensed with. In the modern era of e-mail and texting, many spectrumites won’t talk to their friends until they get home and can either e-mail or text. These forms of communication are the equivalent of the fast food drive-through, which encourages speed and brevity over social chit chat. Those on the spectrum prefer this over face-to-face exchanges because it is a better fit for their communication style.

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 are going to ask beforehand. I do this daily because it helps me make sure I convey exactly what I want, and it prevents me from becoming tongue-tied by social anxiety. Unfortunately, the fear of being corrected for imperfect use of social pleasantries is enough to deter a spectrumite from the face-to-face encounter.

5. Is it the right time?
Of course, it is possible that you may have the right question and the right person, but it isn’t the most convenient time to talk to them. The script would go something like this: “Hello, I have something I need some help with, is now a good time?” If the answer is “yes,” this represents success and you can ask for help according to step 4. If the answer is “no,” then you’d ask when would be a better time and then follow up at that time until you get the help you need.

After reading this, many individuals will realize that they go through these steps in their head in mere seconds. I’m getting better at it all the time. For the Aspies of the world, who find doing so challenging, this strategy can be surprisingly effective in helping them ask for help when they really need it.

Filed in: Education, Living with Autism

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