Four Steps to Help an Autistic Child Who is Overwhelmed Without Making Things Worse
Jack was chasing our cats. I was in the kitchen cooking and he wanted to interact with somebody, something. He was also feeling tired and hungry, which means his ability to regulate his emotions begins to slip. Most times the chasing ends up peacefully when the cats find a bed to hide under or when Jack finds something more interesting. But this time, I saw a crouching cat under the table with my child swatting at him, trying to get him to run. And the thoughts in my head turned into must not's, can not's, and will not's. Very quickly, partial phrases like "he must stop," "cat is afraid," "he shouldn't be," and "he has to learn." I moved in to put my foot down, literally and figuratively. And that's where it went wrong. Jack got very angry, justifiably so, physical, and the whole situation deteriorated into a meltdown.
Second story. Jack was bowling with spoons. One of the spoons had broken its plastic handle, but it didn't have sharp pieces, so I told him he could have it. I didn't stay to watch his bowling, but went back into the kitchen to cook dinner. When I returned a few minutes later to give Jack a two-minute warning before dinner, I watched him bowl with the broken spoon. That thing was bouncing like rubber. It flung back towards Jack, dangerously close to him. I knew I had to stop him and take back the spoon. I also knew he was tired and hungry, and that he was really happy with his broken spoon. This was going to be difficult. In my mind, I quickly thought "sorry," "must keep him safe," "poor thing will be sad." He did cry, was justifiably upset, but the situation didn't escalate to angry, physical, meltdown.
What made the difference between the two situations? When I think tense thoughts, Jack catches those emotions and goes under. When I think compassionate thoughts, it de-escalates an upsetting moment. The thoughts I hold in my head when I interact with my child directly affect how he responds. Is that not amazing? Autistic children are that highly sensitive to emotions. They "catch" even the smallest tension or negative emotions. Autistic children absorb those emotions, which tips them off balance. The emotions cause an out-of-control feeling, a feeling that they are being swept away by a tidal force. And they are. They are no longer in control of their emotions or actions.
Emotions are like waves. I grew up on Florida beaches and I've been knocked over by waves many times. Some are not so serious, but some are terrifying. When you're swept under a wave, you can't breathe, you can't see, you can't hear, and you don't know which way is up. You are no longer in control. The same is true for autistic children caught in the waves of negative emotions.
When you interact or intervene with an autistic child, how can we help them without escalating the situation?
1. Before doing anything, take note of your thoughts
So much of our lives, we go through our day being able to think about what we want to think about. It's a massive perspective shift to recognize how much our own thoughts transmit to autistic children. I can let thoughts flit across my brain all through the day, but I have to remind myself to be aware of them. Especially when I start to think tense or anxious thoughts. Ones that don't even feel particularly tense or anxious to me will form a wave strong enough to knock over my child.
Throughout the day, then, take a minute to notice your thoughts. When you interact with your child, notice the intentions you hold in your head at that moment. Notice if any of them feel worried, judging, irritated, or tight.
2. Take long breaths
Before you take any action, breathe five long breaths. Breathe in through your nose, out through your mouth, then say your name in your head. Breathe in, breathe out, say your name. Feel your center. Feel your feet on the ground. Do this at least five times.
3. Give your full and compassionate attention to your child
Anxiety presents itself in different ways. Autistic children who are anxious may look neutral, angry, or very giddy. It may look like they're happy or willfully misbehaving. Take a minute to become mindfully present. Sit with your child. Focus your full attention on them. If your mind wanders to worry, stresses, other people, the past, or the future, bring your mind back to your child. Take long breaths. Bring compassion to the forefront of your thoughts. Look at your child with love, no matter how they're acting at that moment.
4. Reassure your child
The primary emotion autistic children feel when they are swept under the waves of emotion is fear, not aggression or intent to do harm. They may threaten harm to themselves or to others, flailing, hitting or kicking, but at that moment, they are very, very afraid. They are swept under. They can't see, hear, breathe, or tell which way is up. All the usual parenting tools, like discipline or rule-setting, cannot be done in this moment. In this moment, autistic children aren't even able to breathe. They need help.
You can't rescue a flailing swimmer. He will drag you under the waves and you'll both be in danger. You have to calm a flailing swimmer.
Reassurance doesn't mean stopping their emotions. Anger and upset are valid emotions. Children are allowed to feel it, no matter what kind of feelings it brings up in us. Trying to stop upsets feels to our children like we are denying or dismissing them. We are there to calm, not change their minds.
Reassurance doesn't involve physically restraining your child. Negative physical touch increases anxiety and fear. Like that flailing swimmer, our children will defend themselves, they'll fight back against negative touch or any touch. They aren't intentionally hurting. They aren't intentional at all in this moment. They are merely trying to breathe, trying to survive. Once our children are big, physical restraint becomes impossible, so it's neither a helpful nor long-lived strategy.
Reassuring your child doesn't mean time-out or isolation. Our children are swept away and can't rescue themselves. They need our calm, emotional attunement with them to bring themselves back to calm. Our balance helps them balance.
Reassuring your child is much more complex than the usual parenting methods. It's much harder. It takes lots of practice. Your child might be calmed by different things. You may have to experiment with quiet, music, water, pillows to squeeze or punch, darkness, silliness, distraction, or repeating a calm phrase like "I know, I know." You have to be willing to try many different things, many different ways, not giving up on yourself or your child, all the time knowing your child is reassured by your mere calm presence. When I don't succeed at reassuring my child, I go back to steps 1 through 3 to regain my own balance. And I remind myself that the single most important factor is the thoughts that I'm holding in my head that are affecting how my child responds. Make compassion your focus.
The thoughts we hold in our heads directly affect how autistic children respond. They catch our emotions and become overwhelmed. We can prevent and soothe out-of-control reactions by changing our thoughts in our heads from worry to compassion, by breathing deeply, by bringing our full and compassionate attention to our children in that moment, and by acting with calm reassurance.