Today is the last day of the autism awareness month, I hope to have shared a little more on how autism effects our lives and how we work as a family. I am in no way a parenting expert, have all the answers and nor do I claim that this is how autistic children should be raised - this is just our experience. I have found parenting difficult and therefore wanted to share about what has worked for us.
Parenting is so more challenging then I ever thought. I had no idea how hard it can be but at the same time, how rewarding and magical it can also be. I think I approached it with lots of preconceived ideas about how I was going to parent my child and what types of children I would have. Well a lot of that got thrown out of the window, as life does not always go to plan and things did go as smoothly as I had anticipated. I find it hard that I cannot control them but have to accept them as individuals with their own paths, yet at the same time be responsible for them. I think in some ways this is a good thing, as I have learnt and grown as a person so much and in other ways in drives me crazy. I think parents can come under so much judgement, from other parents, as well as themselves. I know I have been guilty of judging myself by what I think, someone else is thinking about me... Sometimes, we just need to be kinder to ourselves and accept our limits. I love my children so much that I just get cross with myself when I cannot deliver what I think I should and get frustrated that their behaviour does not represent how much hard work I have put in - Basically, I need to trust God more that He has given me my children and whatever my shortcomings and failures may be, they can and will be used as opportunities to challenge and shape our lives. God is ultimately in control and He loves my children more than I can fathom.
Disciplining children is one of the areas I have found hard. Mainly because whatever I tried with my son, it never worked - by this I mean, produced the quick results I had hoped for or seen in other children. The conventional methods of disciplining by smacking or using time outs just did not work for our son. Sometimes this would make the situation so much worse then it was to begin with. This is due to sensory needs I was completely unaware of. We do not use these methods now. I read tons of parenting books and went on a parenting course when he was younger to make sure I was using said methods correctly - they just didn't work. We tried lots of different strategies. Whether this be positive, relaxed, strict or a mixture. I am strong willed but I found this area so challenging as my son was so wilful. I found it difficult that he seemed so bright in some areas but completely oblivious in others.
When we discovered he had autism, we had to completely change our views on what was and was not acceptable. I believed that any unacceptable behaviour should be met with a heavy consequence and then they would no longer do said behaviour. As my sons brain works in a different way, this did not work for us. We had to focus on the big picture - what do we need to achieve. We learnt that it is unfair to discipline for a sensory meltdown but to have empathy for him instead, he wasn't doing it out of choice. Understanding his condition, finally allowed us to see life from his point of view and to have empathy for him. It helped us realise that the behaviour we saw/disliked was just the tip of the iceberg and that there is a lot more going on underneath, than we could see. We learnt/learning why he was/is in meltdown and therefore would plan to avoid this or manage him through it, by finding coping strategies. Basically, our focus shifted from discipline to training. Rather than punishing, we would try to anticipate what was coming and help him to make the right choice. There would be a lot of emphasis on the 'right choice'. He is not a naughty child and wants to follow the rules. Although his speech was really good, his understanding was not. We needed to make sure he fully understood what was expected of him. If he did not, then no amount of discipline was going to change the outcome - his brain is wired differently. This is not a quick result method and it takes time, patience and consistency. I have had to learn to side step emotions to analyse the situation, to best help him. Its not easy.
There are of course times when he knowingly makes the wrong choice and we want him to learn there is a consequence to making a wrong choice. If there is a natural consequence to the offending action we will do that ie destruction = tidying up or paying for it to be replaced, unkind to someone = doing something nice for that person. The consequence needs to make sense, as it is then easier for him to reconcile the 2 actions. He does not necessarily happily do the consequence, which is when we might revert back to using the 'first' and 'then' method. We also take away computer time - normally in 5 min instalments. if we took it all away then they would feel there is no point in behaving anymore. We use this method for all our children and hope that it will grow with them as they age and understanding increases.
I remember having a very long chat with an educational psychologist about not saying sorry. I found this a hard concept as everyone expects your child to say sorry if they have done something wrong - especially when they are under 5. My son normally would not be sorry, for his thinking would be 'I wouldn't do it if I didn't mean it' or that his actions were justified, in his sense of justice. He has a very strong sense of justice. Therefore this could be a battle. Forcing them to say sorry when they do not understand why, just teaches them to manipulate others rather than to understand the concept of actually being sorry. The argument being, he needs to learn and understand first rather than just appease others with a word. Otherwise he will learn to just say it without meaning, learn that it is over once said and move on but I want more for him, to learn the concept. I will often just say sorry on his behalf and now that he is getting older, he is learning the concept and I feel he does mean it when he says it or he may show it by giving an unprompted hug.
We often use social stories to help train him. Social stories are a visual story detailing what will happen and when, written in third person. It helps him to understand what to expect or social concepts. This takes away some of his anxieties and helps us to avoid meltdowns for new situations. I use social stories to help explain why he needed to go to school, why he should do as his mother asks (was worth a try), what will happen when he goes to certain places - as he says 'your just telling me what to do but in a different way'. Presenting the information in this way helps him to understand. He doesn't need them as much now but they are still useful. His school are great at providing them and we can use them as a reference. We have also used the 5 point scale and visuals to try and get our son to recognise when he is beginning to loose control. A 5 point scale is a visual used to help understand how you feel ie 1 = happy, 5 = lost it. We had to amend the 5 point scale to 3, as he couldn't understand the emotions in between, so we adapted and made it work for him. He still really struggles in this area and it is mainly the adults who know him well that can recognise the signals and have to act. I am hoping with time, that he will be able to do this himself. We also have bible time each day which not only teaches him about our faith but helps us to discuss different topics and character traits.
All of this takes time and a lot of perseverance but we have seen results. It is tempting to give up when everything takes so long to learn and to feel disheartened. Some things other children just get and we have to persistently train to achieve them. It is good to stop and remember how far we've come and to celebrate the achievements, no matter how small or odd they may seem to others. I hope that our sons will not only learn those things to get on in the world but also have a real sense of love, security and family. I hope that they really grow in their faith, have a boldness to go where God calls them and will be able to think of and serve others. Behind all of this, has come a lot of tears and prayers. It may seem like I know what I am doing but it has been a tough road getting here (as I said before tears and prayers, trial and error) and I am fully aware there is a lot more parenting to do, more life to face and we have the teenage years approaching....