Disappointment is all around us, unfortunately. It is not something that we can avoid. How it is manifested in our lives is unique to each person. We cannot always have what we want, when we want it. As a parent, we often do things to help our children avoid experiencing disappointment, but there will be times that we cannot shelter them from it.
Because we cannot control everything in our world or in our children’s world, and because it is inevitable that our children will encounter disappointment, it is critical that we help empower our kids with skills to cope with it. I have worked with many children and teenagers with autism who have never been taught how to cope with being told, “No, you cannot have that right now,” or cannot handle it when the wifi connection for their tablet or computer is too slow or does not work. As a result, they end up engaging in challenging behavior when things do not go their way. Disappointment will eventually rear it’s uncomfortable head for all of us, so it is really important we set our kids up for success by teaching them how to cope with it. Here are some tips to help your child with autism deal with disappointment:
Teach breathing and mindfulness
Using visuals and verbal prompts you can teach your child to focus on guided breathing when he or she is becoming uncomfortable. It is better to teach these kinds of skills before he/she starts to show anxious behavior and then, once it can be done well when calm, you can teach him/her to use it when experiencing something more uncomfortable. It is also a good idea to infuse short mindfulness activities into your child’s daily routine. There are lots of resources online that are geared to teaching kids mindfulness. The key is to make sure that your child is able and willing to participate. These should not be very long when you first begin. Over time, as your child learns to sit and attend to a guided meditation, you can gradually increase how long he or she sits and do it on a given day. When I first started doing this with my kids, it was for three minutes tops—now they ask to do a “meditation” and will sit for up to 15 minutes and attend to the guided meditation.
Expose your child to novel situations
For some children with autism, variability and changes in the environment may be anxiety-provoking. When I talk about exposing your child to these things that may be anxiety provoking, it is important to remember to start very small and gradually increase the expectation. For example, one five-year-old boy that I work with would whine and fall to the floor if the toy he was playing with was not played within a particular way. In order to help teach him to become more flexible, I would intermittently change the way he was playing with the toy for a second and then give him back control of the toy. Over time, he began to tolerate changes in how the toy was manipulated and even began to play with it in different ways himself. The key was that I exposed him to novel ways to play with things in a safe way that was not too demanding.
None of what I described above would have been possible if I had not reinforced instances of toleration. As with any new skill, when it is emerging it is really important to provide reinforcement for it. So, whenever he would tolerate the toy being manipulated in some novel way, I would praise him and then give him back the toy. He learned that by using his words he could control how it was manipulated in most cases, but also that he could tolerate changes in how he was used to manipulating it.
Make it fun
One of the ways I work on teaching flexibility to some of the kids with autism that I work with is to contrive little games here and there that are fun. For example, one of the little boys I work with enjoys kid’s songs and I will sing with him throughout his session. Every once and a while I may change a word or two in a familiar song and we will continue singing it with some minor tweaks. Initially, he would shake his head and say “no,” but now he tries to find absurd ways to change a song and make it fun. It all goes back to my last point about reinforcement, making myself a reinforcer or at least something that is fun and that he likes to be around for the most part, makes it likely that he will tolerate those kinds of changes. Over time, it is important to let the child practice changes with other people as well.
Teach your child to notice his/her own success
A daily journal that your child can use to write down his/her success on a given day is a good idea. If it is something that we are including in a teaching program, a self-monitoring system would be a great addition to teach the child to notice when they do well and when they might need a little more practice.
Flexibility is one of those really important skills that not everyone thinks about including in a good teaching program. This is unfortunate, because if your child with autism is able to tolerate changes and be more and more flexible in his/her interactions with others, it will greatly improve his/her quality of life. These are just some of the tips that I recommend when attempting to your child with autism to become more flexible. Would love to hear your thoughts on this very important topic!
This article was featured in Issue 57 – Conquering A New Year