Acknowledging Your Challenges

Before we get to the fun stuff, allow me to acknowledge the challenges and angst you face as an autism Mom (or Dad). Having a child on the spectrum is a journey like no other. To illustrate, yesterday in conversation with an autism Mom we began sharing stories. Here are the bullet points from one of my (most harrowing) grocery store experiences:

“Strung out Mom races through bustling store with overflowing cart – entirely overwhelmed son sits in front of cart sporting freshly bruised eye from bike incident – in aisle 9, child is denied access to “x” and angrily snaps Mom’s sunglasses in two – the second “snap” heard is Mom’s reaction to sunglasses crunching under foot – Mom then seen fleeing grocery store, abandoning full cart with screaming young child in tow (note bruised eye) – blubbering Mom shares choice comments with disapproving onlooker. Get it? If you’re an autism Mom, I suspect you do.”

Worry? Oh, I did my share. I worried myself sick… literally. In my family, the burden was squarely on my shoulders. I love my husband, but it wasn’t “in him” to do the (gazillions of) things I did. You could say there was a bone of contention between us. Eventually, I buried that bone in the backyard, beside Lollie, my son’s beloved pet rat. RIP resentment. I learned the hard way that resentment is like taking poison and expecting the other person to get sick. No matter how resentful I became, it wasn’t going to change anything. My resentment was only hurting me.

Worry is much the same. Do we have cause to worry? Yes, we do. Worrying is an indication that we want the best for our child, and that we’re giving, caring Moms. And that is an understatement. However, it becomes a real problem when worry consumes us, to the point where we can’t see or enjoy what we do have! I recently read something interesting about the origin of the word “worry.” In ancient English the word worry means “to choke or to strangle.” Pretty much sums it up, right? When I worry (and I do) I try to practice self-compassion, and acknowledge that I am deserving of love and self-respect regardless of the outcome. And so are you. So, for a moment, let’s set our worries aside, and do something productive.

Get Present

One of the things I encourage my clients to do is to “just be” with their child. I know, I know… the eyeballs are rolling. But really, as cliché as it sounds, when was the last time you just hung out with your child, letting the little kid in you come out to play? I’d like to share some uber-simple, and super-productive nonverbal activities you can try with your child… yes – I’m going to say it – over the holidays!

So put down your phone or your to-do list, and let’s get to it!

If your child is very young, or if you find it difficult to keep him/her still, try this. I guarantee you remember “row, row, row your boat.” Sit on the floor, with your child facing you and offer your hands, with your smiling facial expressing saying, “Let’s do something fun!” Gently take your child’s hands, and rock forward and backwards. Once he gets the idea, begin singing the words to the song, moving in time to the words. Take your time. Let your facial expressions do the talking! Invite your child to move with you. Next, move from side to side. Pretend you’re about to tip over as you sway one way or the other. Let your inner goofball come out to play! Stop after after a couple of minutes or while things are going well, so you can end your interaction on a good note. (This is a trick that may just leave your child wanting more.)

If your child is able to help you do a little decorating, here are some fun nonverbal activities to try (more on why this is so productive in a moment). 

1. Take a couple of tree ornaments and with your child in close proximity, simply say, “Hmmm, I wonder…” as you try out the ornament in different places on your tree. If you get no response, give your child a little more. “I don’t know where to put this…” Do you see how this becomes an invitation for your child to offer his/her thoughts? If you want to take it further, pretend to hook it into the pocket of your jeans, or onto a lampshade. Get silly! We grown ups can be way too serious! (If your child’s immediate response is “Let me do it!” put up a hand as if to say “wait” and ask him to point to where it should go.

2. Are you making any holiday treats? If so, invite your child to taste-test something you’re making. Take a bite yourself. Share your thoughts! Again, prepare yourself to get silly. Your child will know it’s delicious. Pretend you think it’s disgusting, only do it without words. “Bleggghhh!” Wait for your child to respond, and watch him study your expression. Roll your eyes, and smile as if to say, “Kidding!” Then, “Mmmmm..”

3. Take a flashlight walk in the evening with your child. Stop (yes, really) and look at the lights in your neighbourhood. Use a thumbs up or thumbs down to share your thoughts. Here’s an example. “Oh, I love the red lights on this tree (showing a thumbs up). Then simply say, “And you?” Give your child time to respond. W – A – I – T. If there’s no response, say, “I’d love to know which colour you like best.” Don’t be discouraged if your child doesn’t respond. Really… don’t. Try it again the next night, and see what happens. You may be surprised.

So, why is working on nonverbal communication so productive?

Children affected by ASD typically have difficulty processing nonverbal communication, and often have difficulty making eye contact. Therefore, they will rely on the spoken word to communicate. On the other hand, typically developing children process many different channels of communication seamlessly as a “package” (gesture, facial expression, sound, body language etc.). So why focus on nonverbal communication if it’s difficult for your child to process it? Neuroplasticity – your child’s brain will change with experience just beyond his current threshold of understanding. That’s exciting! With practice, your child’s ability to understand nonverbal communication will improve! By using exaggerated expressions, sounds, gestures and body language, we can elicit curiosity, encouraging your child to reference (look at you for meaning). Your child is capable of becoming much more socially adept. I’ve seen it over and over again. And if you love to be a goofball like me, you’ll have fun at the same time.

We often forget that our words are just one channel of several in the realm of communication, and as a result fall into the trap of just “talking.” Worse, we’ll save “rich communication” for our typical family members only when we really want to get a point across! Need an example? Consider your facial expression when you last said, “Honey, I noticed you didn’t get around to putting away the …” Gotcha.

In my world, it’s ALL about positively shifting your child’s development, which is both incredibly exciting, and entirely possible. And guess what? You’ve got the power to do it.

Have a safe and Happy Holiday, and take some time to play. Those few minutes may produce your most cherished holiday memory… with more to follow.

Let’s Talk!



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