How Our Subtle Messages Can Impact Autistic Children

by Guy Shahar

Published:  21st February, 2020

In the course of family life, as we are growing up, we learn and absorb ways of behaving and communicating from our parents and others, and then we replicate this in our own families when we are older.

The process happens unconsciously (which is why we can sometimes be surprised to find that we have behaved in a way that reminds us of our parents), and we are rarely aware of the messages that we are living and imparting through these behaviours.

An Example

This happens in the smallest of ways, but consistently, so it is repeatedly reinforced.  Let’s take an illustrative situation to explore for the purposes of this article – one example might be getting children ready for school in the morning.  If this was a stress-filled event in our own childhood (it generally is for most families), then we are likely to feel and behave accordingly when it’s our turn to be the adult.

It might take the form of urgently reminding the child to speed up and of warning them in apocalyptic terms of the consequences of not being fast enough.  It might mean that we do a mixture of trying to help them along by ourselves doing as much as we can of the work that they would normally be expected to do, and incessantly nagging them to do the rest.  It will almost certainly mean a stressful and emotionally over-stimulated start to the day.

This happens because we are thrown back to the stress such situations created in us when we were young.  When this stress is evoked, we find ourselves in a state of panic and fear (or whatever is the respective emotion for each of us).

How Does This Impact Autistic Children

Children tend to be more sensitive than adults to such conditions in others around them.  They can more easily involuntarily imbibe this stress into themselves, even if they don’t fully understand it, and it can destabilise them well into the day.  They can also draw conclusions from the stress around such situations about how they are not doing well enough, how they’re completely hopeless at managing things by themselves (which will, of course, further undermine their attempts to co-operate and deepen the morning cycle…).  It can easily feed into a pattern of low self-confidence that can in turn feed into many other areas of their lives.

It is often, and tragically incorrectly, assumed that autistic children are oblivious to others’ emotions going on around them, as they might not react to them in any discernible way or show any outward signs (that we would recognise) of being affected by them.  But while they sometimes might not be able to identify and explain or even fully understand what’s happening, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t very deeply affected by it.  It can often be the case that the impact of such messages are felt even more strongly in autistic children due to their sensitive nature, and they can carry it with them much more deeply through the day and beyond.  If a child is already struggling with their focus (often as a result of the anxiety of people around them in all sorts of situations), this is going to give them an unnecessary additional handicap.

And this is all the result of what can happen in a relatively relaxed family.  There are families where the anxiety is translated by the parents into blame, recrimination and criticism, and where children are offered devastating definitions of themselves (“You are so slow!”, “You just can’t do what you’re told, can you?”, “You are so selfish!”, “You are useless!”, etc).  The results of this will obviously be even more disastrous.

So What Can Be Done Instead?

It may seem counter-intuitive, but one thing that can really help is to give the child more responsibility for what happens in the morning.

When things are going so badly wrong every morning and basic things aren’t being achieved, why on earth would we give the child more responsibility?  Surely, they should show some aptitude and interest first?

But the point is that they are not given the opportunity to show, or even discover within themselves, this aptitude and interest.  By not trusting them and doing everything ourselves for them, we’re taking away their chance to find these things, and telling them loudly and clearly through our actions that they do not have the aptitude.  And they believe us.  What we’re actually doing is progressively destroying their confidence, day by day, and taking away from them any opportunity to grow and work on their personal development.  How then can any interest follow?  It would apparently guarantee disappointment.

Imagine how things could be different if we tell them and, crucially, show them that they do have the aptitude, even if they might need a little help fine-tuning it, and that we trust them to use it.

What we’re actually doing by trusting them with more responsibility is replacing the negative messages about how they’re not good enough and can’t achieve basic things with positive ones about how they can.

What Results Can We Expect?

I chose to explore this example of a morning routine because this is specifically something that we’ve recently been doing with our son at home.  The results in terms of lateness for school have been marginal.  We are still often late, perhaps a little less late and a little less often, but the school will almost certainly not have noticed any dramatic improvement in punctuality.  It’s early days and things may well improve on that score.

But even if they don’t, that wasn’t the principal reason for doing this.  There have been other dramatic results that are far more important.

Our son is now more focused in the mornings, rarely lost in his imagination as he used to be (understandably – it was an obvious way to escape and protect himself from having to deal with all the anxiety going on).  He feels more connected to and involved in what is going on around him, and to us as well.  He’s much more interactive and communicative about what’s happening now rather than about a programme or story he remembers.

He feels empowered to make a difference, and actively looks for ways to do things better.  This is not possible when there’s a feeling of impending doom around him – it simply doesn’t give him the space for it.  And if a child doesn’t feel that they can do something, what incentive do they have to try very hard?  Now he has the confidence that he can cope and that he’s got what it takes to do what he needs.  This, in turn, facilitates his efforts, and the cycle becomes a positive one.

Most importantly, he feels good about himself.  It can’t feel very pleasant to be a passenger in life riding on the uncomfortable wave of others’ anxiety.  He now feels the achievement of being able to participate and take responsibility, and has a new faith in his own potential – not only to manage the morning, but to cope and thrive in other situations too, and to actively seek out other ways he can participate and make a difference to the practical side of family iife.  And, of course, the process of getting ready for school in the morning is no longer a drain on the rest of his day, but rather gives him a strong, positive and calm foundation for it.

So, on that basis, we have to call the experiment a great success, regardless of the impact on the time of arrival at school.

The Importance of Tone

The timing of when to introduce this is important.  The child needs to buy into it from the very start, out of their own wish to develop, without any pressure from parents – otherwise this simply isn’t the right moment for it.  It’s not something that should be rushed into or suddenly imposed – it needs to follow a child’s will to expand.  If that is not there, it would be better not to offer it yet, but to focus instead on really noticing the negative subtle messages that we are giving them and work very hard to soften and then reverse these, so that the child has the space to develop the self-belief that will eventually lead to their wish to live more independently.

The way that it is presented is also critical.  Clearly, it’s impossible to get true buy-in from a child if it’s described in negative terms like “from next week, it’s all your responsibility and if you’re late you’ll only have yourself to blame.”  This would obviously ensure the failure of the endeavour before it’s begun.  If, on the other hand, it’s presented as an exciting and positive prospect, and it is observed that you have noticed that the child is capable of doing more and more by themselves and this would be a great way to enable them to take the next step, become more grown up, practice independence, and that they’ll be supported through it, the chances of success are so much stronger.  Then see how they respond and judge what to do.

The same goes for when this is in operation.  For the reasons described above about how such conditioning happens in the first place, it can be extremely challenging for parents to let go of their own anxiety when things don’t go perfectly from the very start, and to find a healthy way to guide the child and help to keep them on track through gentle, positive and encouraging reminders, rather than stressful urgings.

It’s important to keep acknowledging progress that they are making, whatever it might be, which they might otherwise not notice.  It will reinforce for them the purpose and benefit of what they are doing and enable them to appreciate what they have enabled in themselves.

If things seem to be slipping with the timing, how should we deal with it?  The temptation would be to conclude that the experiment had failed and that we have to go back to just doing everything for them.  But this would be equivalent to telling them that you had faith in them and they failed, and would reinforce their sense of inability.  It would only reflect a serious lack of patience on our part.  Instead, we could simply sit together – as partners, not as an authority figure and an problematic individual – notice what’s going really well in the new way of doing things and identify what might not be there yet.  Then we could work out together what might be stopping progress and how we might easily move closer to that, always calm and with no sense of a major issue.  If the child feels that this is a process of continual improvement and their achievements are celebrated along the way, it can only be a positive and empowering experience.

It is helpful to prepare ourselves very well before the launching this, and again at the start of each morning, to ensure that we don’t slip into old ways.  It’s also helpful to put things into perspective.: we might be a little later for school one morning, but in the grander scheme of things, there’s so much more to be gained.  If we are especially worried about it, we can explain to the school what’s happening and why, and prepare them for the fact that there might be a temporary spike in lateness while we introduce this.  Having them on side, or at least understanding, can make a huge difference to our own anxiety levels.

It’s a tremendous effort for a parent to make such a seismic shift in how they approach these things and to truly trust in their child when evidence appears to show that such trust would be misplaced, but the resultant confidence and empowerment of the child is well worth it.

Beyond the Morning Routine

We’ve discussed just one way that we unknowingly give subtle messages to our children and what sort of thing we can do about it, but each family’s life is different, and approaches similar to this can be introduced into all sorts of other areas of life too.

It’s not about the morning routine – it’s about finding ways through daily life to give our children the opportunity for fulfilling self-development and growth by replacing the subtle but extremely powerful negative and disempowering messages that we inadvertently give to our children with positive and empowering ones that build their confidence, show them that they can be trusted and demonstrate to them that they are far more capable and have far more potential than either they or we ever suspected.


Transforming Autism is a new UK Registered Charity (1173134) dedicated to the very best and most effective early intervention to relieve anxiety, provide affirmation and understanding and create a very strong foundation for the future for autistic children. We’re raising money to launch our first face-to-face services. You can find out more about them here, or click here to make a donation to help make them possible.

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

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