Three friends show up at your door to surprise you. It’s dinner time. You haven’t cooked enough but you still manage to serve a decent meal. It ends up being an enjoyable, laughter-filled evening!
You’re on the way to a presentation and your car breaks down. You take a rickshaw or hail an Über to get to the venue just in time for your presentation.
You don’t give these situations much thought, do you? Why? Because you are an expert problem solver.
You know how to plan and deal with uncertain and unexpected events. There are multiple ways of solving problems. There may be different perspectives, each of them valid. These grey areas of life don’t have right or wrong answers. They have ‘good enough’ solutions.
Things that come so easily to us, that we take for granted, are the most difficult for students on the Autism Spectrum. Grey-area thinking creates stress and anxiety in their lives.
Why does your child like to take the same route to school every day?
What happens when an unexpected situation forces you to change his schedule?
Why does he like to eat the same food every day?
Why are changes difficult for him to take?
It’s because he likes to stay with what is predictable and known. He is comfortable with black and white, but not grey.
Dear Parent, if you were to name one thing you want for your child on the autism spectrum, what would it be?
“Happiness.” Right? I hear you.
As parents, we have a question at the back of our minds constantly: After us, what?
For us, happiness means-
a) Our children living independently
b) Having friends and fulfilling relationships
c) Being engaged with jobs or meaningful employment.
This would make us happy and relieved, isn’t it?
Savor this feeling for a while. Take a few moments and imagine your child living independently, having friends and being suitably employed.
Now let’s return to the present.
What does your child’s day look like?
He probably goes to school for a few hours. The rest of the time goes in being driven from one therapy to another.
Yes, your child has progressed in terms of developing some language. But does he have friends? Can he solve problems? Can he deal with uncertain situations?
What is the world ‘out there’ like?
Success is determined by being able to navigate the above grey areas of life.
To achieve the above mentioned a, b and c, your child must be able to plan, have a flexible mind and show self control.
Does this sound daunting? Stay with me.
Even neuro-typical children are not born with these skills, which fall under ‘executive functioning.’
This is the base for dynamic intelligence.
The good news is that every child, including a child with autism, can develop dynamic intelligence.
Foundations to solve problems, to deal with uncertain situations, to plan and prepare for this, are laid down before the child goes to school. These are laid down by parents interacting closely with their children, through guided participation.
A typical child learns to navigate the world, solve problems and take frustrations in his stride, through such dynamic interactions.
Unfortunately, guided participation does not take off naturally between parents and children with autism.
The foundations are not in place. This is not due to any fault of the parents or the child.
It’s just because the brain is not integrated or connected the way it is in neuro-typical individuals.
The advance in neurological studies regarding plasticity calls for a ‘re-do’ in development. And it proves that dynamic thinking can be developed at any age.
There are a few steps that you can take today to build the ability in your child to address everyday situations, and set him on the path to independence:
Okay, your child could be hyperactive. He does not follow instructions. He appears to be in his own world, and does not play appropriately with toys or peers.
The logical step would to ‘teach’ him all the above.
But this does not address the root cause. It just scrapes the surface.
In reality, developing connectedness is the foundational step that can address all the above issues.
Create a back and forth interaction by establishing a pattern first.
This could be any simple activity with clear roles for you and your child.
Move away from the role of an instructor and become a co-participant.
It could be a simple activity of picking up toys together. You could be the basket holder and the child could be the retriever.
Or it could be playing ball together. Toss a ball back and forth and establish a pattern.
Here’s an additional idea for younger children.
Notice something important. I’m not trying to force the child to take an action. I hold his hand gently yet firmly, am engaged with him, and yet am giving him time to process things and take action.
Make the task fun. Give children with autism up to 45 seconds to process information.
In our enthusiasm to do our best for our kids, we sometimes do too much.
I’m guilty of this too.
Simplify. Remember, less is more.
Keep the room clean and simple, so that you can focus on establishing a connection with your child.
One of my families faced a problem working in the bedroom. At every given opportunity, the child would end up jumping on his bed. Getting him back was an ordeal.
It’s better to be aware of such distractions, and get them out of the way. In such a situation, work in another room which is clutter free.
Observe your child in free play. What distracts him? Cars, blocks, remotes?
Keep these out of the visibility for a while. It will be difficult initially, but it brings the focus back to your relationship.
We are not here to teach a skill or an activity. We can teach these later.
Right now, your focus should be on helping your child to develop fluid thinking. You should focus on scaffolding – transferring your thinking abilities to your child.
For example: Start with rolling a ball back and forth. Make it fun for both of you.
Once the pattern is established, pass the ball a little differently. Toss it instead of rolling it, change your position, and wait for your child to orient his.
These are known as ‘just noticeable differences‘.
In the video above, watch how I first establish the pattern. Once the child understands, I move the position of the beanbags. See how he understands the pattern.
Establish the pattern first, then add variations.
Note that it takes him a few minutes to understand the value of ‘us’.
When you work on establishing a pattern, and then introducing perceivable differences, the brain works at an integrated level.
It’s incredible how integrated the brain becomes when we engage in such simple play activities.
Do this every day. You will witness a marked difference in less than 7 days.
It’s about your child being an active learner. He has to notice things and become aware of things around him.
The two prerequisites for this are:
Be invitational without words. Use gestures, eyes and facial expressions. Let him realize what he has to do.
By giving an instruction, you are over compensating and not letting his brain work. It’s the easy way out, and counterproductive in the long run.
Your child needs time to become aware of what is going on around him.
It’s like waking up a sleepy brain. Give it time.
Let your child take the responsibility. Instead of quickly fetching the ball for him, wait.
Does he even realize that it’s rolled away? If yes, does he take his responsibility of retrieving it?
Trust me, later on in life you will bless yourself (and me) for doing this.
The adage, ‘practice makes perfect,’ applies here too.
The more exercise your child’s brain gets, the better connected it becomes.
Your child will become an active, curious learner, and a good apprentice to you.
He will feel competent and want to try out new things.
Highlight these events for your child. Photographs work wonderfully here. Our smart phones and iPads are a boon for this.
Take pictures and share them with your child. Create a folder which he can go back to whenever he wants. He’ll feel proud about being a thinker and problem solver.
He’ll have positive memories to go back to.
Static skills will take your child through school. But learning to solve problems and being regulated will take your child through life.
When this is addressed, you can eliminate every road block in your child’s life. Isn’t that what you want to do?
Recently, I received an email from an English Literature teacher with a student who is twenty years old and is on the Spectrum.
Obviously, static skills did not pose a problem as she had gotten so far. But the student complained against the teacher as she (the student) was not satisfied that there were ‘no right or wrong answers’ in that particular class.
The teacher wanted to emphasize different perspectives, but this youngster could not get it.
Imagine how much smoother life would be if the child understood that everything did not have to be black or white.
That happiness that you want for your child is within your reach, dear friend.
It lies in the ‘grey’ area realm of life. Focus on your child becoming an active, dynamic thinker for life, by following the 5 pointers above.
I’d love to know where this journey takes you.