“I don’t feel the emotional bond with my son,” she said, her eyes shining with unshed tears. “My younger daughter keeps coming to me for something or the other. If I don’t pay attention, she pulls and tugs. She doesn’t give up. But with him, it’s different. I feel that the car is more important than I am.”
I watched him play with his toy car. He turned it around and kept spinning the wheels. His angelic 3-year old sister called his name – again and again. But he was oblivious. The heaviness in the air was so thick that it could be cut with a knife.
“What else do you notice about him?” I asked the parents.
“We don’t see any desire to play with us. We have to keep pushing him to join us. Sometimes he follows our instructions,” said the father. “He has shown some improvement. He now says a few words and shows more awareness. But why is there no consistency?”
He made no attempt to hide his exasperation. The mother could no longer hold her tears. Amidst comforting her and battling my own emotions, I heard Dr. Gutstein’s words echo in my mind: The growth seeking is missing.
Back in 2008 when I was training to be an RDI Consultant, I was in awe of Dr. Gutstein (I still am). I harbored a dream of sharing the dais with him, a dream which came true in 2015. We conducted whirlwind sessions of workshops in Mumbai, Bangalore and Delhi. The most revolutionary concept that Dr. Gutstein introduced during these workshops was Growth Seeking. This is the only thing that differentiates children with autism and neurotypical ones.
What is Growth Seeking? It is a child’s ability to perceive himself, expand himself and grow mindfully to be able to handle uncertainty. Neurotypical children, ever eager to learn, attune themselves to their parents, increase awareness and adapt to their surroundings consistently. But children with autism are wired differently. They find it difficult to function in a world which is not black and white. This is because they do not view their world through the eyes of their parents or guides. Growth seeking is a critical aspect missed in teaching children with autism.
Here is a video by Kennedy Krieger Institute which will further help you understand growth seeking.
Did you notice the difference in behavior between neurotypical children and those on the spectrum? Did you notice the lack of initiation, not responding to names and not looking at others in children with autism during the activities? All 3 children were self absorbed and did not reach out to adults to understand the situation around them. There was no ‘us’. This shows a glaring absence of growth seeking.
When parents interact with their typically developing child, they don’t even think about it. It’s an unconscious process.
I’m always awestruck while watching the back and forth in such interactions. I can’t tell you how many times I get so engrossed that I lose track of time and place.
If Anil is around, he nudges me to let me know that I’m staring – yet again!
The sad truth of life is that we value something only its absence. And this feedback loop is exactly what is missing in autism. We have to address this primarily while teaching children with autism.
Here is what a feedback loop looks like in neurotypical children and their parents.
And here is what happens during activities between children with autism and their parents.
Are you discouraged? Don’t be. Because this is not the end of the road. And it certainly is not your story’s end. You can empower your child to seek growth at any age. Trust me, I started doing it when Mohit was 17. And I will share with you how you, as a parent, can create an environment conducive for your child to seek growth.
But before that, I must say something critical.
Under no circumstances can you outsource this function to a professional. A professional will assist you, guide you, support you… but you know your child best. A parent possesses a God-gifted instinct, knowing when the child is pushed to the limit or when he can be pushed a little more. Only you, a parent, can provide consistent experiences where your child feels secure. A neurotypical child, before developing specific skills, builds the foundations of communication and development by attuning to a parent. It’s a parent’s role to promote this development. Because a child has autism does not mean this role changes. If anything, you must be twice as sharp.
You can rope in the services of specialists and caregivers for imparting skills and academics to children. But you, the parent, are the growth promoter.
With that said (and me feeling much lighter), let’s discuss how you can build an environment where your child seeks growth and reciprocates meaningfully.
It’s not your fault that your child is on the autism spectrum. There are myriad reasons why it occurred. So take care of yourself, because you are about to run a marathon. And you had better be mentally and physically prepared. All of us parents are.
A family once complained that their 3-year-old son was non-compliant. But we observed nothing on those lines when I worked with them. The parents were surprised.
“Do you talk about his non-compliance in his presence?” I asked them. They looked like they had been hit by a truck. In their silence lay the answer.
Most parents tell me that they know that their child understands more than it shows. But ‘action’ must follow knowing. Just because a child doesn’t speak, it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t understand. And just because a child doesn’t speak, it doesn’t mean that he has nothing to say.
For 17 years, I used the Zero-Second Rule with Mohit. I gave an instruction. If he did not answer immediately, pat came a prompt. He was never given enough time to respond.
We experienced a 180º turnaround when I started giving him time. I waited for up to 45 seconds. It seemed like ages initially, but Mohit started responding without being prompted. He began processing information and taking responsibility to communicate. Today, our communication is smooth. He shows a self awareness. It’s beautiful to watch his interaction with Anil, until they both gang up to tease me!
I have talked about activities for children to teach them to solve mental challenges in this article. When your child is working out a solution, be completely engaged with him. This video is an excellent example.
Notice how Tanay wanted to go to the slide but Priti showed him that she didn’t want him to, without words. Tanay took responsibility for coordinating with his mother. The ‘us’ became important. This is hugely significant in ensuring that the child references you in known and unknown environments.
Once you and your child experience success, encode these memories. Take pictures, talk about it, and share the joy. Spotlight the ‘us’ to your child. He will gradually start associating positivity and happiness with these memories. And every child, whether neurotypical or special, wants to relive happy memories. It is this happiness that helps children feel secure and seek growth.
After 21 days, here are some signs of success that you will notice:
1. Your child wants to be with you
2. Your child initiates interaction
3. You are not taking all the responsibility for interaction
4. Your child surprises you by observing and learning naturally
5. Generalization happens without ‘teaching.
Growth promotion not only empowers your children to seek growth and become self dependent, but also enables you to seek intrinsic growth as a parent, and an individual. You, the parent, are the only person who can create this environment for your child. In fact, he looks up to you for it. He/she may not say it, but your child needs you more than you know. Take your place in the sun as your child’s biggest support and his growth promoter.
Growth promotion a challenge I take up at the beginning of every year. But 2016 will be different, because you will join me in it. Won’t you? Together, with our children’s growth, we will promote our own.
Here’s wishing you a wonderful, blessed and happy 2016.