Responsive parenting and autism: turning things around with a pillow fight
author By Emilie Leeks,

Parenting in our pre-Hand in Hand days, we would never have considered going playful in response to 'rude' or upset behaviour. I don't think we're alone - it just wasn't the done thing in most of our childhoods I imagine, and it would have been seen as just reinforcing the 'bad' behaviours. What we now know, is that bringing some lightheartedness into a challenging exchange can be exactly what's needed to get us re-connected with our children, and to help them to release some of their tensions and stresses through laughter.

Hay Amners Em penguin

We have found this to be particularly effective with our autistic son (now 8) - sometimes he can get so mired in his challenging feelings, that he can't get to a useful release of emotion through tears. But by lightening his load through play, he can laugh away some of the struggles and concerns he is carrying.

To continue our short occasional series of posts on parenting in a responsive way with autistic children, here's an example of how we turned a difficult situation around by using physical play with our son - which led to lots of fun and laughter together!

Our oldest child (autistic, and 7 years at the time of writing) has been angry lately (we think he's got something big that he's trying to work through), and at breakfast on this day, he got very angry/upset over small things, e.g. I passed the milk (apparently I shouldn't have), or he was really panicking over seemingly small things (he felt he couldn't cut his strawberries right). He was also name calling ('stupid'/'stupid idiot') and then started saying to his little sister things like 'Don't look at me' and 'You're disgusting'. This all happened in a very short space of time, and I guess I was hoping that he would manage a bit of breakfast as he is often (like most of us!) grouchy before he eats. But it quickly became clear to me that he was looking for a limit to butt up against.

I asked him to stop and when he wasn't able to, I went with him away from the table. He was name-calling and shouting, and physically battling me, and then he fought his way over to a sofa and started hitting me with a cushion and I thought 'Aha! Maybe we have something here!' and grabbed another cushion. We then had a long pillow-fighting session which was very amicable (he wasn't trying to actually hurt me, which he sometimes did at that time!) and with lots of laughter - he liked it when I 'tried' to hit him but 'accidentally' hit myself instead and laughed and laughed and asked me to do it again. He also found it hilarious when I fell over when he hit me.

pillow fight Em dragon 2 (2)

He then added more cushions as shields, and then started to bury me under them - he started sneaking in to whack me with a cushion when I was buried, and I got exaggeratedly huffy or surprised when he managed to find me and hit me, which he loved. Finally, he built a tall (and very wobbly!) cushion tower and, tentatively (he tended not to be the most physically adventurous of children as a rule) climbed up, asked for help to get down (I was there for him but he didn't actually use me in the end), and then he settled on my lap for a long, quiet cuddle.

I often find it difficult to set a limit before breakfast - because I'm too hungry myself to deal with the fallout!! On this particular day, our son had come down later than the rest of us to breakfast, so I had already finished mine and was in a good place to listen to whatever he needed to release. In future I might try to at least grab a mouthful or two before stepping in with a limit on issues like this! I am also trying to get better about setting and bringing the limit, as sometimes I set a limit verbally but don't follow through quickly enough to 'enforce' it and then I start to get irritated myself.

Prior to this, I had been a bit concerned about our son so rarely getting to tears, and felt that I was often trying to steer him (unsuccessfully!!) that way so that he could 'make the most' of his Staylistening times, but Kathy Gordon and Patty Wipfler at Hand in Hand Parenting gave some great advice on the discussion board recently that really resonated with me, about not having an agenda. This was a real lightbulb moment for me - I think I would have taken this session in a very different direction potentially if I hadn't read those thoughts, instead of relaxing into following my son's lead and seeing where it would take me. I am also getting better about not being so worried about being 'hurt' which has been a bit of a thing for me - I'm pretty good at protecting myself but if he does manage to catch me, I am over-reacting a lot less, and am able to genuinely say 'I'm ok' on those occasions (thanks to Listening Partnerships!!).

I feel that what's going on with our oldest child at the moment is an ongoing project - I just get this feeling that it's like he's testing us to see if he really can rely on us, no matter what he throws at us. After a really thorough session, like I felt today's was, he's always very affectionate towards whoever has been listening to him. And I also feel like he conquered some fear he had by climbing and descending from his tower completely independently and only then was he ready for his cuddle!

Cuddles dragon


Further information

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

Listening Partnerships
- 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
- Special Time allows me to really enjoy my son's personality

- Staylistening helps our son get past his feelings about change
- A nearly-spoiled day out saved by Staylistening
- Listening helps with resolving a conflict

Setting Limits
- 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

- Playlistening helps the evening routine
- Playlistening helps us relax about name calling!

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

A word or two about Journeys in Parenting; a responsive parenting community

Emilie is a Hand in Hand Parenting instructor, and was a paediatric speech and language therapist in her former life. She provides support and coaching for parents via the Journeys in Parenting community. Emilie lives in Berkshire in the UK with her husband and 3 children.

Journeys in Parenting is a community group for parents, carers and parents-to-be, who want to find out more about parenting in a responsive and peaceful way. The community offers information, advice and emotional support for this hard work we do as parents. The vision of the group is to be a safe space, where parents are supported in guiding their families in ways which: are respectful to children; meet the parents' needs; and lead to a more peaceful planet for all.

To work one-to-one with Emilie , request a free 15-minute trial call here or visit the website for more details

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