by Guy Shahar
Published: 29th March, 2018
Should we intervene to help autistic children to become more able to do things flexibly? If so, what are the most effective ways?
When it comes to some of the apparently inflexible requirements of autistic children – around food, clothes, routines and so on – parents are often faced with a dilemma. Do we intervene and try to promote a greater tolerance of a wider range of situations – but risk making the child feel pressured into behaving in a way that denies who they are and merely suppresses their anxieties; or do we accept them as they are, including these requirements – but risk thereby unnecessarily entrenching these rigidities and condemning them to a life of trauma to be intensely triggered every time they encounter a minor imperfection?
It’s not an enviable responsibility to have. My feeling is that both – in the right way – are necessary. But the motivation is everything. It is critical to know why we want to enable our children to be more flexible and to accept them.
If I want to help my child to change because I am worried that his inflexible behaviour is socially unacceptable and may incur the judgements of others, then I am putting these judgements above the interests and integrity of my child, and he will necessarily feel that in how I treat him in relation to this, seriously undermining trust between us. If on the other hand, I choose to let her be, without any intervention, as a means of taking a stand on accepting who she is and not “pushing her” to do things she is not comfortable with, then I am also letting her down and denying her the possibility of a life of greater resilitence with a much lower level of anxiety. The simple fact is that anxiety is not a part of who she is, and she can be helped to deal more effectively with it without fundamentally changing her essence. In fact, if that is done and she gets such an opportunity, this in itself automatically facilitates the exposure of much more of her essence.
I recognise this process in our son, who, at the age of one, was in an almost constant state of meltdown because the world rarely conformed to his extremely precise expectations. At that time, it seemed inconceivable that he would ever develop any degree of happiness or openness, and that his life would be one of barely interrupted distress. It has been through facilitating his ability to tolerate the unexpected and accept changes and challenges with the confidence that he can overcome them that he has had the opportunity to become a very content and loving child, despite the adversity he is still subject to.
And this may be the most effective motivation for helping a child to cope with what they consider to be adversity. It can give them the feeling not only of being loved (extremely important) and properly understood (equally important), but also – critically – that the adult who is clearly on their side can also be trusted to soothe them and guide them towards being able to lead a more fulfilled and contented life.
And intervention doesn’t mean applying any pressure to behave in a certain way or risking confrontation. Those would be totally counter-productive. It needs to be a gentle, positive, connecting and fulfilling experience for all involved.
The possibilities of making such changes were introduced in our earlier article on Pushing the Boundaries of Autism. This new article expands on how that might be achieved.
As with most of what we suggest in these articles, effective meaningful change cannot be expected before an environment of Containment has been established around the child. This is a non-negotiable first step. It is only when a child feels consistently safe, respected and deeply understood that there can be any openness to considering the idea that things might be okay even if they can’t find the gloves that they absolutely need if the temperature goes below a certain number of degrees.
We achieve this by ourselves becoming able to remain calm in such situations, with our own underlying conviction that everything is okay – the essence of containment. Autistic children (and adults) are often able to intuitively perceive and even feel the emotions of others (as discussed in our article on Feelings), so changing our behaviour alone while we still feel stress beneath the surface has great limitations.
Further, like all children, but perhaps much more so, they take their lead from us – looking to us to understand how safe their world is by observing how we feel about it. If they can see (or feel) that we are tense and/or uncertain, that is a clear indication that the world is not a safe place, else why would even the adults strong enough to look after me themselves be nervous? If, on the other hand, it is clear to them that that we are consistently calm and not frazzled by whatever is going on around us, this is a powerful signal that there isn’t so much to worry about after all, though it may take some time of this for it to be even partially internalised by the child.
It’s not easy to achieve this state while living a busy life with many challenges, and we may never get all the way there. However, the effort and the changes that we are able to bring about are very worthwhile (and beneficial for us as human beings too). Different people will have their own ways of working towards it. In our own family, Heartfulness has been invaluable from this perspective, and there are even parts of it which our son is now really enjoying. Children are not able to do the full practice, but it is even possible to see a shift in his condition after a 2-minute relaxation exercise, and he himself reports that it makes him feel nice and is the only thing that can stop his incessant thoughts.
The effort required to become like this is not inconsiderable, but when we consider that the results can be that we are able to communicate more easily with our child, that he can trust us to understand him and soothe him and will therefore be much more likely to listen to us in what would otherwise be intensely stressful situations; then we see that the effort to become able to contain ourselves (and therefore him) is not only deeply rewarding for us both, but can actually save us an immense amount of effort and stress in the long run. The return can be enormous.
In parallel to a calm, contained environment, we can also think about ways of optimising our communication with the child about their inflexible requirements. How and when do we intervene to soothe their anxiety?
Imagine a child is screaming because different coloured foods on their plate are touching each other, and a parent suggests at that moment that it’s okay: there’s nothing wrong with these foods touching; that everybody else has this situation on a regular basis and if it’s okay for them there can’t be anything fundamentally wrong or worrying about it; that it doesn’t change the taste of the food, which is the important thing, and so on. That sort of intervention – even if delivered with great calm – is only going to aggravate the child’s distress, for multiple reasons.
The child does not need a rational explanation at that time. It does not address the root cause of the distress and cannot penetrate the stress hormones soaring through their body. It can only add the further profound anxiety resulting from being fundamentally mis-understood.
In the moment of such stress, as well as great patience, there is a different sort of support that the child needs. They need both an empathetic understanding of what they are going through, and an underlying conviction that they will be okay at the end of it; that they do indeed have the inner strength and resources to overcome the intensity of these situations (this is containment again). Neither of these concepts needs to be, or can really be, articulated with words. If we possess them, they will manifest automatically, and anyway will be ‘loudly’ sensed, and this may be the most powerful way the child can be supported
Even after an intense incident of a restrictive requirements has passed, explanations don’t have as much value as they are often credited with. Even with so-called “high-functioning” autistic children, the rational is likely be very much in their comfort zone, where they access an abstract conceptual understanding that avoids the necessity to feel or experience what is going on inside them (this is also explored in more a little depth in the Feelings article). It might provide some immediate temporary comfort (or distraction), but is unlikely to contribute to the emergence of any long-term resilience.
It might even be easily rebuffed by some children. The thing about discussions based on reason is that they can go on forever. A resourceful child can find many ways to use reason (watertight or not) to prolong the discussion and postpone indefinitely their acceptance of what we are trying to convey. We can either accept this and stop, or push harder, prompting them to push back harder, leading to unnecessary and destructive conflict.
In such cases, it would be helpful for us to remember that even though the discussion may appear to be taking place on a rational level, it is anything but. We, for our part, are using the convenience of reason to push something onto the child that they don’t feel is right, and they are using it to reject this assault (as they see it). They do so because our use of reason is not addressing what is really going on for them. What they are actually rejecting is our lack of understanding of them and our inability to reassure them (to contain them).
Further, reasoning about what has happened can force the child to revisit the moment of stress and relive the painful experience of it. This will inevitably lead to their defences going up again, which will justify and entrench the resort to inflexibility.
We need to find other ways to reach them.
Ways to Communicate
With this in mind, it would be good to find an approach that addresses the root issue without drawing attention to a particular event, or even to the child’s own general situation.
Personally, I find that my son is very interested when I tell him stories about myself or things that have happened to me in the past. It is usually not too difficult to find a situation that has happened to me that is similar enough to the one that has just happened to him and which leads me to the same insight that I would like him to have.
I try to find situations that are as close as possible to the one I want to address with him, but not identical, which might put him on the alert. At heart, the essence of the message is always along the lines of everything’s okay even if not all of my requirements are met – I can cope without much suffering – there is no underlying threat to my well-being and so on.
He often either asks questions, apparently lost in the details of my experience, and sometimes doesn’t respond at all, but it is not unusual for this to be followed by a period of greater calm, understanding and tolerance.
One very interesting approach to addressing any sort of anxiety in a child that we learnt during our stay at the Mifne Clinic was through symbolic play. This might mean acting out a similar (though not identical) situation using their toy animals or people to arrive at a similar conclusion. This has the added benefit that the child can participate in finding a solution or identifying from an external perspective that there is nothing really wrong, in a way that wouldn’t be possible when discussing their own situation, in which they are intricately involved. No reference to the situation we are actually addressing needs to be made, and lessons do not need to be laboured. They are absorbed subconsciously. This can be a powerful activity and it is outlined in more depth in our book.
It is important to remember when using these approaches that we should not have an agenda or be anxious to change the child or to achieve anything in particular. What we are doing is offering and making available the best possibilities for enabling and empowering them to manage their uncertainty and anxiety about change. With some children, it may help them immediately. With others there may be an effect after weeks or months. With others, we may not see a change, but the work we do while they are children may lay a foundation for them to have a better adult life than they otherwise would have done. And with some, there may be no change at all, but even in that case, we will have offered them the best possibility that they could have had for an easier life. If we are attached to a pre-defined result, it can only undermine this process.
These are not the sorts of approaches that are to be used in the heat of a situation of intense anxiety with the expectation that they will instantly turn things around. They are not designed to get us or our children out of a difficult situation. The have the much more profound long-term goal of fostering a state of reassured calm and natural resilience based on an inner-faith that there is nothing to worry about. The idea is to help the child to uncover and have access to the deep reserves of strength within them, and thereby live more emotionally balanced and fulfilling lives.