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Sunday, November 6, 2011

... an ode to all the small dictators

I love a strong personality ... I'm a fan of the small people who refuse to go quietly, who turn a room upside down, who tell you in no uncertain terms that if it's "your way or the highway" then they're "on the road again ...." I'm not sure what this says about me, but I definitely have a gigantic soft spot for all the crabby little kids who just want to be in charge of their world - they tend to grow up to be interesting adults.

When you pair a strong personality with a communication disorder like autism, you can end up with a lot of spectacular show-downs. The child has definite ideas of what they want their world to look like, how they want people to behave, how they want situations to turn out, but they don't have the communication and social skills to do it in a "civilized" way .... so you get loud tantrums and melt-downs over seemingly trivial events. Adults around them often respond by becoming more unbending, drawing the boundaries in closer, giving less leeway and requiring a higher degree of compliance to every rule. Paradoxically, the tighter the rules, the farther out of bounds the behaviour can go.

To save sanity on all sides, I'd like to share an approach I've found useful:

First, do a little research by observing typically developing children (especially those who are strong-willed and opinionated). Really listen to the content of what they say; pay attention to how much time they spend talking about what they will do, what they won't do, what they might do, why they can't follow your direction right now, why they want to try a different way, why they need to dress like a cowboy this week ..... You'll discover that language is the civilizing factor, and that typically developing children are frequently allowed to bend and break the "usual" rules (without having to resort to negative behaviour), if they can give a plausible reason or simply fatigue the adults with verbal negotiation, and that the best verbal negotiators are generally viewed as the most socially mature (even though they might not follow the rules as closely and carefully as their quieter peers). It's normal and developmentally typical for young children to try to modify the rules of their world - they step up in social maturity as they learn what strategies work and what ones don't.

Next, you need to find out the perspective of your child with autism - no information is more important when you're trying to find solutions to difficult behaviour, but figuring it out can be very difficult when a child is young and has weak communication skills (even the most verbal ASD child will suffer language break-downs when the topic is emotionally charged). This is where drawing techniques are invaluable. Get big paper (or a big chalk board or a big white board) - you'll need lots of space for adding details. Then sit down (or stand, or take breaks between laps around the room) and draw a "starting scenario" - maybe it's the physical set-up of the child's classroom:

... maybe it's the situation that was happening when the upset occurred:

Put in the information you know, or can guess (in the above picture, you might know that the number fell off the calendar just before all h*** broke loose, and your guess is that this caused the distress). Then start to talk and draw: you add details, let the child add or delete details (either verbally or with drawing), use the drawing as a visual focus that allows the child to let you know what they thought was going on, and what they thought was dangerous, scary or out-of-control (eg. what did they think would follow the number falling down?).

If your child seems comfortable with the drawing discussion, you can try to see what was going on at the "moment of impact" (note: initially this may be too much, pay attention to your child's response and prepare to pull back if direct drawing of the negative event is over-whelming). Draw out a vignette of the negative behaviour:

Then add a thought bubble and see if your child can help you to fill in the "unseen" pieces (what were they thinking? what were they feeling?). This is the key information that will direct your search for workable solutions.

Once you have an idea of what happened from the child's perspective (and what's important to them in that situation), you can draw out some possible alternatives for "next time", and see what the child thinks of them - would they be more comfortable if they were in charge of the classroom numbers? would circle time be easier to manage if they could sit a bit back from the group? is it just too much to manage when they see the poster of Elmo in the cloakroom? Make a solution together, respecting the child's wishes and opinions.

When there is a stand-off between a neurotypical adult and an ASD child, both sides have a problem: for neurological reasons, the ASD child is inflexible and has great difficulty shifting and changing their approach - on the other hand, the adult is capable of flexibility, change and accommodation. You don't want to "break" the child's will - they will need every ounce of mental strength they possess to meet the challenges of life. If they are stuck hard as stone, then you need to be like water: flow around the rigidity, find another way to deal with the problem, gradually shape more adaptive and socially acceptable responses. It's interesting to note that giving over to some of the child's wishes actually leads to greater flexibility overall - ASD children are more likely to accept "unchangeable" rules (like everyone has to leave the building when the fire alarm goes off), if they learn they have some power to modify less critical ones.

... and enjoy the stories ... find the humour in the chaos ... love the intellect that concludes that while causing a ruckus yourself won't get you out of "language impossible" circle time, biting the kid next to you is a fool-proof way to get to your quiet spot ... looking at events through the lens of autism is enlightening and I guarantee that the world will never look quite the same again.

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