A day out in the early morning sunshine. Home educating families like us - we know most of them well. But suddenly something different. I see you, my sweet one. I see you eyeing up the new child in the group. Checking her out. Sizing her up. Will she leave you in peace as you hope? Maybe her approaches will be welcome - sometimes it happens that way. She's older - perhaps she'll manage the intricacies of this meeting on behalf of you both, and things will play out smoothly. I watch, until I feel that things are going ok. I relax my guard.
Many children on the autism spectrum have difficulties with understanding the complexities of the very subtle, fast-moving and ever-changing social whirl of a friendly get together. Tiny slights, simple misunderstandings, and even innocent moves to engage the child can engender a surprisingly strong reaction. And because children with autism spectrum conditions may also find it harder than usual to work through their emotions, feelings about a particular incident can stay with the child for a long period of time afterwards.
The Hand in Hand tool of Staylistening gives us a way to support all children through their big emotions, and understanding how and why we can help (i.e. the brain science of emotions and emotional release) is invaluable for those of us parenting children on the spectrum. We have found with our son (8), who has Asperger's Syndrome, that we have had to use all of the tools a lot. It just feels like everything is more with him - so although the essence of each tool is generally the same, it always feels like it's magnified compared to how it plays out with our other two children.
With Staylistening for example, listening tends to take longer and feelings seem to be more concentrated somehow within an individual episode. And it's rare to feel like we've come to the end of the release before we move on to something else; it tends to become less effective (you see his focus wandering, no matter what you do), and at that point we bring things to a gentle close. Tears are much more rare for him than for our other children, and it's harder to keep them flowing before he shifts gear back to aggression. It has taken a long time to move past the aggression in any case, and on to occasional tears. A long long time. And as he is quick to aggression, so I have to be 100% alert and on the ball, ready to dart into a defensive position when the switch occurs. It's taken me more than two years of chipping away at his emotions, honing my skills, and dealing with my own feelings, to feel like my Staylistening with him is truly effective. And even now, when I try different things which I think might work in the moment, I make many advances which fall flat - even though they might have worked on previous occasions.
But the work, the time, and all the slip ups are completely worth it. Without Staylistening (alongside the other Hand in Hand tools), we were stuck - and so was our son. Now, when we get it right, it really can go right…
(Just a note about the story that follows: the older child mentioned here seemed to be having some struggles of her own, and this story is not intended to cast aspersions or to judge her behaviours, which clearly had something underlying them - I am fully aware that there are times where my own children push limits, and it is always when something is bothering them, so this is no reflection of where this young person was at in any way.)
I relaxed too soon. He's upset. He's shouting, saying 'She's not being nice, I'm not a scaredy cat, she knocked my hat…' - lots of random facts tumbling out at me. He's clearly struggling with something in this new relationship. I don't know what happened - I don't need to.
I listen for a moment until he pauses. I ask what he wants to do now. Come over, he says. Come over and tell her not to do it. I follow him over, wondering how this is going to play out. What is this new parent thinking, seeing what is going on here? That's not my issue, but it burns a hole in the back of my head nevertheless. My methods might not be to their taste. I try to leave that behind.
We reach the play fort. The older child doesn't see me, and leans through the window of the fort, snatching my son's hat. This is not going to be pretty. I ask her warmly to return the hat and she does just that.
Right now, I am clutching at the idea that knowing an adult is involved might ameliorate the difficulties between them. I am hoping that productive play will follow, in whatever form that might take.
My son however, remains tense and alert. He is no longer playing freely now, and instead stalks around like a threatened animal, hyper alert to the possibility of further engagement. I know then that I too must remain vigilant. I watch carefully for a good while to see what direction things will take. My son relaxes a little, begins to play with his sister and brother again; the older child is off playing with some of the other children. I relax a little and hope it has all blown over.
But it hadn't of course! The next thing I knew was that my son was running across the play park towards me, screaming something incoherent about 'I knew it was her' - I got down to his level and got ready to listen. He was screaming and, unusually, crying, and trying to tell me what had been going on. He sobbed/screamed a few things about 'hearing her breathing under the slide' 'I knew it was her' and some other things which didn't make much sense to me!
I know that in the past I would have tried to calm him down ('ok, ok, take a breath, calm down'), get the full story ('hang on, I don't understand - what exactly happened?'), distract him ('come on, let's go somewhere else and do…'), or put forward the other person's side ('I'm sure she just meant…'). None of which would help to relieve him of the tension caused by the situation. All those methods would do would be, at best, to get him to push the emotions down, and lock them inside - only for them to pop up again at some other time! And I still use some of those methods at times, such as distraction - because life isn't perfect, and I can't always listen fully for whatever reason, and that's ok too. But on this occasion I was ready for it!
I focused my mind on the way he was feeling at that moment, and responded to that, without trying to reassure him too much - my aim was to go with the release that seemed to be happening for him, and see if he could shed some of the hurt the situation had caused him. I didn't need to know the details of what happened, and I didn't need to get him to quieten down - he was doing exactly what he needed to do in that moment to process the challenge he had just faced, and all he needed was a warm listener by his side.
After a few minutes of him crying like this, he suddenly said 'And I was stuck - didn't you hear me? Didn't you hear me call you??' - his words turned into a screech of anguish as they emerged. Again, I think in times gone by I would have remonstrated with him about this in some way - maybe trying to put across my point that I was talking and sometimes my mind is elsewhere and I don't hear every little thing and and and… But I just said with lots of warmth 'I'm sorry I wasn't there for you' 'No, I didn't hear you' and 'That must have been hard'.
The other thing I distinctly remember doing, because I've had a lot of practice at it, was as soon as the upset turned towards me, I quickly got to my feet and made sure I had my hands in a position where I could defend myself. What tends to happen for our son, is that his underlying fears drive some aggressive behaviours, so if he realises that he could turn his upset towards you, he might end up coming for you physically. And indeed that was what happened - he hit out at me (which I blocked successfully - it's very important to try not to allow yourself to get hurt if possible, otherwise the child feels a layer of guilt which is very challenging for them to work through), and pushed against my outstretched hands. Again, I have learnt to see this as a positive release, and I push back against him but with no ill feeling or need to get him to stop.
He raged a little more at me, then went back to tears as he turned his attention back to the other child's 'wrongdoings'. He cried a little more and then things eased - he moved into sullen 'Well, I don't like her, and I don't want to see her ever again' kinds of expressions, rather than full on screaming and raging, and I felt that was the point to move on to something else. I suggested (as our youngest was getting tired) that we should just have a short while more and then head home, which triggered him to get out his pens and sketchpad before we left, to show to a familiar family.
He can really dwell on things that haven't gone well, but afterwards as we walked back to the car, he started talking to me about why she did those things (like snatching his hat), and it ended up in a discussion about how people only do things like that when they feel bad, so she must be feeling bad. He participated actively in the conversation, and added to it in his own words, and was accepting of the fact that people don't always get things right and that we hope she gets whatever she needs to feel better again. He doesn't particularly want to see her again, but there was no animosity towards her as we spoke, which is a pretty big deal around here!
This kind of respectful, responsive, connected parenting is not the easy road. It is a lot of work for every family, but so worth it. Using the Hand in Hand tools is different for every child, and will be different from one child on the spectrum to another. I hope that my posts about using the tools with our son will help others in a similar situation to see how they might use the tools effectively with their own children. The points I make regarding using the tools with our son will also resonate with other families who do not have a child on the spectrum, but who might have a child working through similar challenges relating to, for example, social situations, anxiety, or aggression. I hope they help you to think about how you might apply the tools in your home.
- Listen book - a fantastic way to get an in-depth foundation of the basis of Hand in Hand's work, and the practical tools which we use
- The Opposite of Worry book - if you have a child who you think might be experiencing some anxiety, this is a wonderful read to help our understanding of fears and anxieties, and what we can do to help
- Do children manipulate their parents? - more on what underlies children's big emotions
- Anxiety or Aggression? When Anxiety in Children Looks Like Anger, Tantrums, or Meltdowns - some useful ideas here on what to do when children are anxious (and how to bring them back from being flooded by emotion, so that we can get them to a point of experiencing useful emotional release)
- 20 Things to Say to Your Child Instead of "Don't Cry" - fantastic ideas of what to say when your child is experiencing big emotions