One of the things I have learned about being the parent of a child on the spectrum – is that it is just that, a spectrum. Whilst people talk about varying degrees of autism, or where the child sits on the spectrum, I have found that an ASD child can move from one part of the spectrum to the other, dependent upon stress or anxiety levels, puberty, change or environmental factors – or any one of a myriad of reasons often not understood by neurotypicals.
Most of us recognise that our ASD children are extremely sensitive to outside influences, whether that be light, sound, heat, cold, food or clothing textures. But this can also carry over to energy and emotion levels.
Have you ever walked into a room where somebody is having an argument – and you can just ‘sense’ something is not right? For a child on the Autism spectrum, those ‘senses’ are extremely heightened. So much so that they can often anticipate the feelings of stress long before anybody else can and feel the emotion before others do. The problem is they often have great difficulty in making sense of the emotion.
Recently I was counselling a parent who has a child on the spectrum. She called me because she was at her wits end with her child who, up until recently, had been making great inroads. This year had been quite extraordinary. Her child had made one or two new friends, he was making some progress at school and he had not had any meltdowns at school for almost three months. Then all of a sudden he seemed to regress. He was having daily meltdowns and time-outs at school, he seemed to be going backwards in his academics and his behaviour at home was, while not uncontrollable, was certainly not the happy boy he was a few months prior.
We talked about a lot of things – and looked at all sorts of environmental issues, food, issues at school with kids. Then all of a sudden she said “Its bad enough with all this going on, my mother is very ill and will probably not live until Christmas”. When I asked her if her son was close to his grandmother she said “Oh yes, very close, but he doesn’t seem to get that this is not about him, he needs to learn to have compassion for others!”
It was right there that I understood what was going on. This little boy’s usually controlled, safe world was changing. He is more than likely feeling the emotion and sadness of everybody else around him, but does not have the understanding of his emotions or the vocabulary ability to express his deep feelings. He would also be seeing a change in his mother, who was, understandably, very sad a whilst seeing her own mother so ill. Her sadness would be difficult for him – because there was nothing he could do to make it any better for her. His behaviour is more than likely a reaction to his confusion about not only his feelings, but the reactions of everybody around him.
Nothing an ASD child does is random. Every action has a reason behind it. However, that reason is not always as clear as we think it is. But that is where we come in. Our role as parents and as teachers is to help our children learn to understand emotion, to recognise the normality of it, and then teach them how do deal with emotions appropriately. If your child on the spectrum is experiencing more than usual meltdowns or being more anxious – then it is a time to start asking some difficult questions and look beyond that which is most obvious. Is there something happening at home or at school? Are you more upset or anxious than usual? Is there more stress or emotion in the house than usual?
Whilst children on the spectrum can often be accused of having little empathy for others, in my experience in fact I found the opposite to be true because often they feel the emotion before others do and many times it was trying to make sense of the overwhelming emotion that caused the behaviour. That is why it is so critical that we, as the caregivers, look at behaviour of our children on the spectrum more holistically, you might be very surprised to find that children diagnosed with ASD are actually more sensitive than you give them credit for.
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