As a parent, a loving, emotional connection with your autism spectrum disorder (ASD) child is likely what you crave above all else. Chances are that you feel robbed of this as a result of your child’s diagnosis. I know this feeling first-hand. My son (now 19) was diagnosed at the age of five after a very long and difficult search for answers. The one thing I longed for the most was beyond my grasp. It was heartbreaking — I’m sure you can relate.
At that time, ASD was viewed as a “triad of impairments” – communication difficulties, behavioral challenges, and social impairments. While these challenges are certainly present, I’ve since come to see these as “symptoms” stemming from the fact that ASD is a neuro-developmental disorder. Said differently, these symptoms exist largely as a result of the “wiring” in a child with autism’s brain.
As a result of atypical neural makeup, your child experiences processing challenges that prevent his/her brain from functioning the way his/her typically-developing peers do. What exactly do I mean when I say “processing challenges?” By that, I am referring to the ability to take in — make meaning of — and act on incoming stimulus.
Stop and think about what this really means for your child. In today’s world, we operate at lightning speed. We’re almost always on the go — often task-focused and accustomed to wanting everything now! On top of that, our world is incredibly “dynamic” and ever-changing. For kids with these challenges, this spells trouble, both at home and at school.
If your child’s challenges show up in the realm of communication, behavioral, and social issues – and they’re expected to function in a crazy, fast-paced world – they’re at a disadvantage from the get-go. However, I intend to empower you, to give you hope, and to share some skills you can learn to build your emotional connection with your child. And for most of us, that’s the name of the game!
- Learn to Self-regulated Self-regulation refers to your ability to be aware of and manage your emotional inner state. You may be accustomed to talking about your child’s deficits as it relates to self-regulation, but less so your own! Here’s why it’s important. In our busy lives, it’s easy to fall prey to living on “auto-pilot.” Without this inner awareness, and the skills to mindfully manage your frustration and anxiety, you’re more vulnerable to “reacting” to circumstances, rather than “responding” to them mindfully. This means that you are at greater risk of losing your cool and whizzing through life, missing the good stuff with your child!
According to Stuart Shankar, a self-regulation guru and a distinguished research professor of philosophy and psychology at York University in Toronto, Canada, a child’s or adult’s ability to thrive — to complete tasks, form friendships, learn, and even love — depends on an ability to self-regulate. By gauging your mental state and reducing your stress on an ongoing basis through simple strategies (such as breathing or stretching), you can be more mentally available to your child. You will be able to find more opportunities to engage in a meaningful way – and to feel more powerful in your life.
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Self-care is also an essential component of self-regulation. Nurturing yourself, for even five or ten minutes a day, can have a tremendous impact on your ability to experience balance and connect with your child. Think of it this way…if your cup is empty, you have nothing left for your child and family.
- Shift your communication – less is more One of the most important things that I teach parents is that you can make it easier for your child to process information and to connect with you through how you communicate with your child. Let’s look at an example. If you ask your child to do something and he doesn’t respond, it’s natural to repeat yourself, get frustrated and react, or “over-talk.” For kids with ASD, listening to an over-talking parent is like drinking from a fire hose! It’s likely to escalate your child’s anxiety and cause your child to react in response.
The advice I give parents is to consider yourself on a “word budget.” Think about what you want to communicate, and say it in fewer words. This will make processing easier for your child. After you speak, give him or her time to think! Slow your rate of speech, so your child can really take in what you’re saying. You’ll be amazed at what a difference this can make in your ability to connect with your child.
Finally, think out loud to encourage your child to share their thoughts and feelings, rather than asking direct questions. “Look at the puppy – he looks so happy!” is an example of what I call thinking out loud. This will take some practice, but it will be worth it. It’s important to remember that true communication is meant to connect you and your child – not to get things done! The more you can use communication as an opportunity to embrace life’s simple pleasures together, the more meaningful your time together will be. Don’t give up if your child doesn’t chime in right away! You may not be giving enough credit for what he’s capable of. Be patient and keep at it!
- Don’t get hooked into power struggles Power struggles can rob us of a great deal of joy, and they are preventable. It takes two to create a power struggle. Consider the last time you had an argument with someone. You’ll remember that once things became heated, emotions escalated until both of you were seeing red!
As parents, we often feel compelled to get our children to buy into our views, and it’s all too easy to react out of frustration. This will likely backfire if your child is in a state causing his/her frustration to escalate in turn! (This is also when over-talking tends to occur). With improved self-awareness and self-regulation skills, you’ll be able to catch yourself before reacting, and avoid engaging in a power struggle. Quite often, a simple statement such as “It’s not time for that now, let’s go outside and play” will do the trick.
- Learn how to reduce the frequency and duration of meltdowns When your child is melting down, it’s natural to become upset and try to fix things. However, trying to problem-solve in the heat of the moment is counter-productive, and will likely extend an already difficult situation. Furthermore, a child in the throes of a meltdown can’t process effectively, so your valiant efforts to talk your child down will likely be futile.
Instead, sit quietly with your child and “hold the space,” which will help your child feel safe and allow him/her to calm faster. After the storm passes, you can share how proud you are of your child for calming down on his/her own.
- Learn to simply “be” with your child When you sit down to play with our ASD child, do you tend to have an agenda? Do you immediately begin asking questions? It’s human nature to want to “get” something from your child, especially given your desire for connection. I invite you to consider a different approach. It will require more patience, but it usually pays off in spades.
If your goal is to connect on an emotional level – to share thoughts and feelings – it’s often more productive to be quiet and to just “be,” observing what your child is doing. This is particularly true if he is accustomed to being prompted. Sit quietly and do your best to relax into the moment. Try “noticing” something or being curious about what you see. Without making demands, your child’s stress level will be lower, and he will be in a more relaxed state. He will be more capable of thinking creatively. I’ve seen some truly unexpected and magic moments arise out of the most unassuming circumstances. “Oh, I love your Lego house – I wish we could go inside…” Then – stop! Give your child time to think about what you’ve said. Silence can be golden, and can offer the most delightful and unexpected gifts. Your child may have far more potential than you imagine – it’s all a matter of how you tap into it!
This article was featured in Issue 51 – School: Preparing Your Child for Transition