04/21/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Parenting A Child With Asperger's Syndrome

It seemed like an innocent enough request: "Dad can you take my friends and I to Chinatown this Friday when we have the day off?" "Sure," I said. After all it would be good to get out and do something. As I thought about things more and more though, something didn't add up. Why Chinatown? My 14-year-old Asperger's son and his friends clearly didn't have an interest in Chinese culture. I heard the word "knuckles" in one of their phone conversations and deduced brass knuckles as being on of the things they wanted to buy. "Fine," I thought. The boys weren't the fighting kind and though brass knuckles are illegal, what's the harm?

In the car on the way, one of my son's friends who I'll call Drew said, "Are you just going to drop us off and we'll meet you in a couple hours?" "No, I'll be with you the entire time," to which Drew tried a few other tactics to try and keep me away.

At this point I've got to interrupt the story to express what every Asperger's parent I know feels, which is gratitude that my son actually has friends he can be with, that like him. Because of some of their awkwardness around social situations it makes it hard for a lot of kids with this form of autism to have friendships. Would my sentimentality become a liability? That remained to be seen.

So we get to Chinatown and I stay about 20 feet from the guys just to know what they're doing. They go into a back room that says, "Employees Only" at one point. I'm guessing they're buying fireworks and brass knuckles ... and I was right. They get some Airsoft BB guns and we all go home happy. I'm a little uncomfortable with the illegal items on the ride home, but I think, "What's the big deal, they're just boys being boys."

We get home, they go to the park, I make sure they all have safety glasses and I retire to catch up on some business at home. I get a call an hour later, and they want to come back to our house. Again, I'm just happy to provide a place for my son to learn social interaction. Within a half hour of being at home, I hear some loud noises in the back yard, and when I go outside I start feeling really crazy. All the boys except my son are shooting Airsoft guns with no safety glasses and firing off bottlerockets. My son's off to the side watching the chaos. "That's it! Everybody in the car, I'm taking you home," followed by some terse phone calls to the parents about the boys breaking the clearly stated house rules.

At the time I was really upset and feeling nuts. Was this all my fault? Did I do something to create this mess? Did I just get "played?"

The part that was particularly vexing to me was the ringleader, Drew, who I affectionately call "an addict in training." He had all the behaviors without the actual substance to be an addict. The manipulation, lies, covering his tracks, all were things I had been uncomfortable with, but now I could see where they lead.

"Do you see how Drew continually puts other people's lives at risk, with the things he does?" I asked my son. It actually turned into what I thought was a valuable learning experience. Not being able to recognize social cues, it's very hard to understand when people are lying or taking advantage of the Asperger's kid. Our son began putting two and two together. "It may not be a huge problem now, but two years from now when Drew gets behind the wheel of a car, it could mean your life. He'll say, 'I'm fine, I've only had a couple drinks,' and the next thing you know he's driving you into an accident." My son had some sober looks as he contemplated the possibilities.

It's been a month since the crazy day. My son still plays with the same group of guys at times, but he expanded his friends at our behest to include other boys. Though I'm not comfortable with him being with the Drew's of the world, for now I'm limiting my influence to what goes on at home and being in communication with our son about what goes on outside. I try to exert as little direct control on him as possible so as to let him learn things for himself.

The lesson from all this was where the weaknesses in our Asperger's son lie and what we can do to shore it up. Recognizing people that are harmful to him requires help and discussion. Some of the mildly troubled kids seem to be attracted to him because he's so level ... he balances out their wild side. He's going to form relationships with these folks. How to defend himself and stay away from their wake is going to have to be learned behavior.

We've been pleasantly surprised so far as to how much can actually be learned by Asperger's kids and how willing they are to learn. It's like a math problem ... person not able to be honest with you + your complete trust = problems. Friends + healthy filters on your trust = self-preservation. This is an ongoing issue, but I think the initial boundary setting had a very positive affect on all the boys.