Responsive parenting and autism: using Playlistening to help with off-track behaviour towards a younger sibling
author By Emilie Leeks,

Tunnel amners Em penguin tiger

Oh, how things have changed since writing this! Our whole family dynamic has shifted hugely since we started using the Hand in Hand tools - things are so much more peaceful, joyful and calm than they once were, for all of us, and a big part of that has been learning to be more playful! Specifically in relation to our autistic child, we have found playfulness to be a wonderfully useful tool in our belt - it can help bring things back from the brink of overwhelming feelings, and boosts connection between family members. Continuing our series of posts on responsive parenting with autistic children, here's an example of how we got from challenging feelings to laughter with our son, and what a difference it made to his day!


Our oldest child's (7 years at the time of writing) behaviour towards his younger sister (then 4 years) can seem quite vicious - much more so than it is towards our youngest child (then 2 years) - and it's something that we are working hard on right now. He might hit, kick or push her for some very small reason, which might be something as innocuous as she 'looked at him'. On this occasion, he ended up hitting her for walking past him - even though she was nowhere near him, apparently she was in his way. My other half got in between the two of them but our oldest managed to reach round and get another hit in. Luckily I was free too, so I came over to them and let our son move away a bit, and then lightly said 'Uh-oh!' which is enough in our house to lead to giggles and some chases if the time is right - fortunately I had judged it well on this occasion and he grinned and raced off, and I followed.

We ended up on our sofa, doing lots of tumbling about together, punching pillows, and fighting to get out of blankets. At first I said 'If you want to punch something, let's punch a pillow, and I had fun punching the one he was holding, and then he did the same to me, and it just grew from there. There was some little incident in the middle of all this where I said or did something pretending to be a bit stupid (I can't remember exactly what it was), and he really latched onto that and laughed and laughed so hard. In fact we both had loads of laughs in this session - we were falling about together laughing a lot of the time, which is quite significant to me as I find rough play quite a challenge in itself. One thing I do remember was that he hit me with a balloon, and I repeatedly fell in a very exaggerated way with lots of screams and shouts, and he loved that!

Sometimes a warm limit followed by a Staylistening session seems to help our son a lot, but on this occasion he hadn't reacted to the limit of being kept away from his sister and it just felt ripe for some Playlistening - this is something we have been working hard on with him recently, and although it can be hard for him to get to laughter, we feel we are really breaking through and understanding much better what it is that gets him going. It was interesting to me that he didn't seem as rough or aggressive as Playlistening often ends up for him. It was quite good natured in fact! Because he's so strong now, I've been so nervous of physical play with him, and have worked on that a bit in my Listening Partnerships. I've been realising that on the times where he does 'get' me (obviously I try to protect myself but I don't always manage it!), I've been able to think 'What's the worst that can happen?' and 'Does it really hurt?', and that has really helped me.

Later that day we went swimming. Our oldest is notorious for being the last ready, and for needing constant reminders of what he needs to be doing. On this day, he was the first one ready - before and after the swim - and before we'd even asked as well! He also tried some challenging activities by himself in the swimming pool, and also accepted my suggestions of tricky things to try. After the swim, as soon as he was dry and ready, he offered to take the costumes to give them a rinse - and went and did it completely independently (well, his little sister tagged along, but that was her idea - but noteworthy, as he actually let her!!). He seemed much more flexible, less rigid, and showed more initiative, smiles, laughter and independence.

A few weeks ago we were feeling quite desperate with our oldest - he is currently awaiting assessment for possible autism [he did ultimately receive that diagnosis], and had been getting increasingly aggressive, and seeming not to care if he hurt someone. Luckily, I happened to mention it to a Hand in Hand instructor, who explained that if we were working on allowing more emotions, he would indeed be bringing more emotions! This enabled us to see his behaviours in a more positive light, and to work on it all with more enthusiasm, and the changes we've seen in the last few weeks have been nothing short of miraculous - he is being less aggressive, more helpful, and, best of all, is laughing so much more! I feel like we've got our boy back!

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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
- Responsive parenting with autism: a book review - The Opposite of Worry: The Playful Parenting Approach to Childhood Anxieties and Fears (Lawrence J. Cohen)
- Helping a child share big feelings about missing Mum

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!
- Responsive parenting and autism: turning things around with a pillow fight

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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