Finding Comfort in the Uncomfortable
Growing up with autism, my mom was a big part of my life. She wasn’t the bionic woman, but she was instrumental in identifying my boundaries and also pushing me out of my comfort zone. This can be a difficult part of raising a child who has autism, realizing the fine line between pushing them and traumatizing them. Parents have a unique relationship with their children, and this is no difference between a parent and a child with autism.
Figuring out when they are most comfortable is just as important as figuring out when they are extremely uncomfortable. Consequently, parents must know when the time is right to challenge or push their children out of the safety of their comfort zones, and also when it is not appropriate to do so. Encouraging children with autism to engage in uncomfortable situations by gently pushing them out of their comfort zones, as much as they can handle, is key to preparing them for the future.
Early on as a child, I was uncomfortable in a lot of social situations. Specifically, I struggled with interacting with other kids during playdates. Growing up on our farm, I was always happy being around the chickens, MY chickens. My mom realized it was crucial for my development as a child to have more social interaction with my peers.
She would only tell me about the playdate on the day of, which gave me some time to prepare myself for it, but not enough time to overthink or become too anxious about it. Honestly, at the beginning, they didn’t start out how my mom planned them. I remember taking my classmates by the arm or hand and leading them outside where I would close the door on them and lock it. Mom was very understanding, but she also set the boundary that the playdates were the time for me to spend with my friends, not by myself. She would always let them back in. Surprisingly the other kids were patient. They were great at accepting my habit, and eventually, it became a game for them where they would race around to the back door. I eventually accepted it as a game as well, which led to many other games and other important childhood interactions.
By mom committing to the playdates and sticking with them, it taught me how to allow other people into my safe spaces and comfort zones, how to be comfortable in a group setting and comfortable with the unpredictability along with it. My social skills also improved. It got to the point that my best friend Megan would come over all the time and it would feel weird when she left and wasn’t there anymore.
As I became more and more comfortable in social settings, my mom continued to push me out of my comfort zone. She switched the focus onto food and my fixation on not having any food on my face. It is important for me to always be clean. I can remember riding on the ferry with my mom, eating poutine and getting gravy on my face. My first and immediate reaction was to wipe the gravy off on a woman’s sleeve that just happened to be eating right next to us.
My mother was mortified. This is what inspired spaghetti parties. They were always on random nights, so I got used to unexpectedly expecting a spaghetti party at dinner time. She would invite some of my friends over when we had one. The catch: no utensils. We could only use our hands and faces and slurp the spaghetti down the best we could.
At first, I hated them and hid under the table. I couldn’t stand all the spaghetti and sauce all over my hands and face or the slimy and warm texture of it. My friends absolutely loved them. Eventually, I grew to really enjoy the spaghetti parties. They definitely helped me with dealing with the unpredictability of life and when things don’t go as planned. Although I still dislike having food on my face or hands, it also helped me become less reactive when it happens and more comfortable with eating messy foods.
In 2001 my mom moved us from Ucluelet to Port Alberni. This was a massive transition for me at the time I didn’t do well in new surroundings. My mom helped me through it by driving by the house every time we passed through Port Alberni. That summer I went to Camp Shawnigan for a week. She managed to complete the whole move during the week I was away at camp with the help of some of her friends. She let me know that when I came home from camp it would be to the new house.
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Moving houses while I was away at camp made the transition a lot easier for me. She was able to pack and unpack everything while I was gone, which was important because the texture of paper and cardboard causes extreme discomfort for me. Furthermore, she set my room up to the best of her ability and how it was set up before in Ucluelet. The boxes were all gone by the time I got home. It allowed me to be comfortable right away with all my belongings organized. It made the new house a lot less confusing and uncomfortable. For me, at that time, it was the best way to handle the big move. My mom did a great job of recognizing the comfort zone of my room and recreating it to the best of her ability. It was also very helpful that my best friend Megan lived two minutes away.
Comfort zones are important for children with autism. For me, it was places like my room or the walking track where I could do laps all day. My mom did a great job identifying the places where I was most comfortable, but she also addressed areas and situations where I was least comfortable. By doing this, she challenged me to find a way to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. In many ways, she helped me work on my social skills, got me out into new environments and helped me make connections with the people around me. She often did it in a gentle and fun way, such as those spaghetti parties with silly rules. By pushing my boundaries, she prepared me for the future and made me ready for the real world which is constantly changing and unpredictable.
Mat Cruickshank is in his fourth year of a Bachelor of Arts degree in English at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. His fiction has been published in Pulp Magazine. While attending school, Mat works as a Community Support Worker at Semiahmoo House Society in South Surrey. There he promotes inclusion, awareness, and understanding for people with developmental disabilities and works to support people in living their best lives
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This article was featured in Issue 75 – Helping Your Child with Autism Thrive