Even after 8 years of parenting our autistic son, we still often forget that he can be particularly challenged by events and celebrations which on the surface look like they should create nothing but delight and pleasure. The anticipation, the change to routine, the tremendous excitement, and the social expectations, amongst other factors, can cause emotions to run especially high. Continuing our short series of posts about parenting responsively with autistic children, this story from a wonderful member of the Journeys in Parenting community highlights just how important it is to follow a child's lead when they're in the middle of big emotions - it may take time, but they will come out the other side.
Our wonderful autistic son J really struggles with birthdays and Christmas. He absolutely loves getting presents and being with family, but finds the anticipation, excitement and occasional disappointment far too overwhelming.
When J was six, we were on our way to my parents' house for Christmas Day. We'd had a tough month - his birthday and an illness had led to a period of some very challenging behaviour which ultimately led to his referral for an autism diagnosis. One of the worst days had been a day out with Grandad, and this was the first time we'd seen him since.
J had been very quiet during the 15 minute journey, and when we arrived he refused to get out of the car. It was all just too much. No tears, no shouting, just quiet refusal. My husband and youngest son went indoors and I sat in the car with J, gently set a limit, reminding him that we would go in, but not until he was ready.
This was a time when he used to visualise his feelings, sometimes as big angry creatures, and he liked to imagine fighting, and ultimately defeating them, but I always ensured that he took the time to feel them properly first, to acknowledge that they were just doing their job and to process the message they brought him. I asked him to try and describe the creatures. The details were sketchy but this process helped him to access the feelings they represented and he cried. Very, very hard. At that time, he found cuddling too much, but I Staylistened, reminding him that I was close and that he was safe. I think he found it comforting to be in the car, close but in our own spaces -predictable, familiar and together.
I love the point during this process where the 'tide starts to turn' - there's sometimes a noticeable moment where the crying shifts from painful release to a sense of relief and healing. This time there was a huge sigh, a yawn and a shudder as the last of the tension was released, and through the tears he told me that the creatures were flying up into the sky and exploding like fireworks.
Although he'd released the feelings, I felt that he wasn't ready to go in yet - time for a little Playlistening to fill his cup.
He loves it when I join him in his imagination, so together we watched the fireworks, making crazy banging, whizzing, popping noises, giggling and squealing, and soon he was eager to go indoors.
We had the most perfect Christmas Day, and every moment I felt enormous gratitude for the Hand in Hand tools that helped my Dad to see my beautiful boy at his delightful, joyful, best.
That was the last time we saw my dear old Dad. He died suddenly, five days later. And I still feel immense gratitude for that last, perfect day we all had together.
The following is a list of posts on our own personal experience of parenting responsively with our son - I have divided them under the Hand in Hand tools where appropriate, so that if you are working on a particular tool you can find resources quickly and easily:
- What an autism diagnosis means for us
- Facing up to a possible autism diagnosis
- Talking less - to feel more
- Using group support to work through strong feelings around my son's birth
- Special Time allows me to really enjoy my son's personality
- Setting a limit allows my son to work through frustrations - working through frustrations can be a big challenge and sometimes we need to set a limit to allow the big feelings out, before a child can think clearly. On this occasion, my feeling was that our son needed to 'come back' from the edge rather than release, in order to be able to move forwards
And these were written before my Hand in Hand days, but may help to give a picture of where we were at:
- Needing a hug - all about things getting tough for me one day, and how our oldest responded
- The thanks you get - hearing my son accepting my apology for not being the calmest mummy!
- Evening routine brainstorm! - taking time out to plan for predictably difficult times
- Staying Calm!! - how avoiding blame and recrimination helped our son realise a mistake
- Blood, apologies, and compassion - again, how compassion comes out of staying calm