Ask Dr. Mike: On Autistic Children and Teens Dealing with President Trump’s Style

Ask Dr. Mike: On Autistic Children and Teens Dealing with President Trump’s Style

Several of my child and teen clients with High Functioning Autism or Asperger’s Disorder have struggled to understand and embrace President Trump. The disconnect has had less to do with political beliefs than it has with Trump’s communication style.

Generally, individuals on the autistic spectrum have executive functioning weaknesses where they tend to see and understand things in rigid, black and white or all-or-nothing terms. Interpreting social cues or nuanced communication – verbal or non-verbal – can also be difficult for those on the spectrum.  They are also inclined to take things literally, and ambiguous and figurative ideas or speech is harder for them to make sense of or grasp.

Developmentally, this is even more the case for children or teens on the spectrum because executive functioning challenges are greater for those who are younger than for adults.

And so, President Trump’s unique speaking style where his statements vacillate between grand and absolute, and more conversational and less clear — and laden with non sequiturs — can be particularly confusing and upsetting for children and teens on the spectrum.

I have had to help several of my young clients make sense of many of President Trump’s black and white, grand statements.  From, Madonna being “disgusting” this past week, to undocumented Mexican immigrants being “rapists and murders”, and a lot of things said in between.

Most recently, a teen client of mine had a difficult time returning to college after winter break because of his fear of is being away from home when “Trump gets us all killed.”  That client was upset by the many social media articles he had read that compared President Trump’s statements and behaviors to fascism Hitler’s rise to power.  And reflecting on the discourse about the presidential inauguration crowd size and the notion of alternative realities, a child client of mine shared with confusion, “It doesn’t make sense; when a reality ceases to be a reality it can no longer be a reality.”

I offer the following tips to help parents of children and teens with High Functioning Autism or Asperger’s Disorder.

Limit your child or teen’s exposure to the media.  Whether your child is 12 or 19 years old, spending too much time on Facebook, Twitter and watching the news will likely only increase their upset.  The news, in my opinion, is still figuring out how to accurately report on President Trump.  It seems that Trump’s supporters take him seriously but know to not always take him literally, whereas most of the media seems to always take him seriously and literally, then reactively gets confused and upset with what he’s said or done.

The latter also seems to be what happens to a lot of children and teens that I have spoken with who are on the spectrum.  Instead of allowing your child or teen to be constantly connected to social media or the news, I recommend parents monitor their child or teen’s use of technology, and perhaps schedule when he or she can be connected to it.

Additionally, help your child or teen to get involved in something meaningful.  Technology is a safe and comfortable place for many of us to be, and that is often the case for children and teens on the autistic spectrum.  But when children are overly invested in virtual reality, they run the risk of being out of balance in other areas of their lives.

For those who are upset by Trump, get involved in something constructive rather than just watching the news.  Several of my teen clients participated in the Women’s March on Washington, and benefited positively by getting involved with like-minded people. If your child or teen adheres to more conservative political beliefs and President Trump still confuses him or her, there are other outlets.  A pro-life teen client of mine on the spectrum who has been confused by President Trump’s statements attended The March for Life and reported feeling more connected afterward. That real time experience – away from virtual reality — helped him to better manage his negative thoughts and feelings.

Model a positive outlook for the moment for your child or teen.  Whether you support President Trump and his platform or not, if you have a child or teen on the autistic spectrum who has been confused or upset by some of the things that have been said, remember that he or she will be watching you and listening closely to how you respond.  Children internalize their parents’ messages and learn how to be in the world from what their parents say and do.  Thus, I recommend that parents try to model a neutral and supportive position for with their children. By showing your son or daughter that you accept Donald Trump as your president – even if you don’t agree with everything he says and does – your child or teen should begin to feel safe enough to normalize how he or she both thinks and feels about the president, and his or her confusion or upset in turn should diminish.

Manage moments of upset for your child or teen.  If President Trump does something that upsets you, try not to speak about it negatively in front of your child or teen who is on the autistic spectrum.  If your child or teen reacts to something President Trump says or does in in an overly rigid or literal manner, it’s best to help him or her to put those moments of upset into a more accurate and manageable context.

Politics is something that everyone has difficulty comprehending from time to time, so it’s especially important for parents to be sensitive to their children on the spectrum who may have even greater difficulty.

Dr. Michael Oberschneider, Psy.D, is a clinical psychologist and the founder and director of Ashburn Psychological and Psychiatric Services, a private mental health practice based in Loudoun County. He is a regular contributor to the Tribune.