by Guy Shahar
Published: 4th May 2017
We often hear how children with autism have certain needs, like the need for routine or certainty or quietness around them or literal language so that they are not confused by figurative expressions, etc.
It is widely assumed that such needs are hard-wired into the autistic brain – that they are integral elements of the autistic condition. It can sometimes be judged that to question this is akin to a refusal to accept that the child has autism, and is thus a rejection of the child. Any attempt to support an autistic child to step through such needs risks being seen as a crude attempt to condition the child – against their fundamental nature – to conform to a selfish parental conception of what the child “should” be.
However, my own experience suggests something fundamentally different. I do not see these sorts of needs as a part of autism. Why then are they so common amongst autistic children? Because they are a manifestation of anxiety, to which the autistic child is naturally highly prone due to their overwhelming sensitivity.
If autistic chlldren are treated first and foremost by establishing a relationship of trust with them and providing a safe environment for them in which they can grow without being constantly knocked off course by emotional stress, then that anxiety subsides. When it subsides, the manifestations of it subside.
I have drawn the comparison many times with the effects of stress on a non-autistic adult. If, for example, we find ourselves in demanding and cut-throat environment at work and an unstable relationship at home and have financial and other worries, there is not much scope for happiness. We are likely to flare up at the slightest provocation that we might have laughed off in other circumstances. If we then find a better job which also pays much more, and the relationship stabilises (and perhaps spring arrives), we can feel rejuvenated and recapture the lightness and happiness that we once knew.
The only difference between this and someone on the autistic spectrum is that the latter has such heightened sensitivity, that the slightest adversity overwhelms them – especially when it relates to less than kind behaviour between people – and they are unable to close off the pain it causes, not having the ability to shut down their connection to their hearts that most people have.
So, when their environment is regulated – when they get loving attention from those who look after them and really feel loved, understood, cared for and safe that an eruption of negative emotion is not around the next corner – then the needs and behaviours that seem to be a part of autism subside.
They may continue by default, but this is likely to be out of habit and out of not having learnt an alternative way of being more than out of the anxiety that had previously driven them. What is different is that change is now possible where it wasn’t before.
And that is when we can step in and lovingly show them (with lightness and a sense of adventure, without any pressure whatsoever) that it is not scary to take a different route to school now and again – it might even be a delightful new experience; that it is not confusing or worrying to hear a figurative description of something – it can actually be quite fun to try to understand what the person was trying to say in this funny way; that it can be interesting to explore a different combination of foods sometimes, and so on.
The motive for this is not in any way to impose an external measure of acceptable behaviour on the child. Rather, it is to empower them to live a life less constrained by unnecessary limitations, and to explore flexibility in a positive and fulfilling way. It is giving them the possibility of living a happier and richer life, which is the best we can offer them.