The biggest problem a lot of parents of neurodiverse children have isn’t truly their child, but that they can’t understand their child’s behaviours or where they come from because they simply cannot see the world from their point of view. (Ironic really that so many autistic people are accused of having “mindblindness” when often their neurotypical caregivers experience that same mindblindness regarding their autistic children.) I have three children, my eldest daughter is nine and is diagnosed with Asperger’s. She is essentially a little me, I can easily empathise with her and see where all her behaviours are coming from, why she is displaying those behaviours and how, if necessary, to help her navigate her emotions and behaviours. My seven-year-old son (under assessment for PDA and ADHD) is a different kettle of fish altogether, I often find myself looking at him and thinking, “Wow! Where did that come from?!”
Recently I was speaking to an autistic (naturally!) expert in autism and he gave me some wonderful tips for helping me understand my son’s more baffling (to me anyway!) behaviours. I will share those tips in this blog in the hopes that they will help other parents who are left scratching their heads over their children’s behaviours.
Understanding the child’s point of view:
The most important tool in any parenting toolkit is probably empathy. Empathy is what helps us soothe a screaming baby at 3am, even when we’re exhausted ourselves; it’s what makes us cuddle a teething toddler instead of getting cross with their endless noise-making; it makes us run to our children when they fall and helps us to understand how a teenager is feeling when they have their heart broken for the first time. It is undeniably a very important part of human bonding, but what happens when a child and parent have very different worldviews? This upsets empathy and makes it very hard for parents to see where the child’s behaviour is coming from and so, a behaviour borne of anxiety will be called “naughty” or “stubborn” and parent and child end up locking horns, seemingly trapped in what the parent sees as an endless “power struggle” and the child sees as “unfair”.
In order to understand your children’s behaviour, you need to see the world from their perspective. An example from my own life of what I found baffling behaviour is my son ignoring me and then screaming at me, hitting himself and kicking furniture when I tell him to come and get his dinner. To help me understand what was causing this behaviour I drew an iceberg with the observable behaviour written in the tip of the iceberg, above the water. Below the water, in the body of the iceberg, I wrote all the thoughts and feelings that might be occurring “below the surface” of my son and around the edge of the iceberg, in the water, I wrote ways that I could help him navigate these feelings to make dinnertime a little less stressful for him (and us!).
Using this model has really helped me see why my son gets so upset when I ask him to come for dinner and has made it possible for me to change our routine in order to make life easier for our entire family. I have used this model several times to understand a whole host of behaviours that my son displays which I previously had trouble understanding and have found it incredibly useful at gaining deeper insight into what is going on in his mind.
Giving the child the tools to understand and regulate their own emotions:
It goes without saying that the role of the parent in helping children regulate their emotions is incredibly important but it is also essential that children learn to identify their own emotions and know how to react to these feelings in an effective way by themselves. For neurodiverse children, this self-awareness and control can be a little harder to attain than for neurotypical children so it is vital that the parent provides the child with all the necessary tools to do this.
I have spoken about emotions and effective ways to deal with them with my children from the moment they were born, I have always told them how I am feeling and how I am managing those emotions as most children learn best by mimicking what they observe.
My eldest daughter is very good at recognising how she is feeling and always has been. In her bedroom, she has a tent with nothing at all in it so she can go and sit in there when she is feeling overwhelmed by too much sensory input. She also has a “Sensory Basket” which contains lots of things to feel, chew, smell, listen to and look at, including fidget toys etc. so that when she is in a sensory seeking mood she can use those toys to fulfil her needs.
She has another box in her bedroom called the Happiness Box, which contains laminated (so they can’t be destroyed when she’s angry or upset) photographs of her favourite things, people, places and biggest achievements; drawings; certificates; a few small souvenirs from special trips and holidays; a music box which plays her favourite tune and other small items to remind her that she is loved and important when her depressed or anxious brain is telling her otherwise.
She also has ear defenders and drawing/art supplies dotted around the house as she finds hiding away with ear defenders on creating pictures and books a great way to handle anxiety attacks.
My son finds recognising and dealing with his emotions a little harder than my daughter does and needs a fair amount of support to identify what he is feeling, why he is feeling it and what he can do to change it.
In the iceberg diagram above I mention the “I feel; I choose” board, this is a tool which has really helped my son to understand himself and regulate his own emotional response to situations. He usually needs reminding that it is there when he starts to feel intense emotions but once he’s been reminded of it, he finds it fairly easy to change the labels to the appropriate emotion and action.
Each card made for the board is laminated with a Velcro sticker on the back so it can be added to or removed from the board as often as Dylan needs and all the emotion cards have a simple picture and single word to describe different feelings while the action cards mostly have pictures of real things from his life (picture of his favourite teddy, his trampoline etc.) to help him quickly identify what may help him.
My youngest daughter is only three, pictured below is the most useful tool she has for recognising and regulating emotions:
With good emotional understanding from both the parent and child, a happier home can be created and obstacles overcome. It is taking me a long time to recognise why my son behaves the way he does but I like to think that we are getting there slowly and hopefully one day I will be able to have the calm and happy home I dream of!