Positive Parenting And Autism

When I was a teenager, my mom worked for several years with a nonprofit that focused on preventing child abuse. She taught parenting classes and classes on what child abuse looks. Later I followed in this path, teaching parenting classes to adults who had lost custody of their children due to abuse or neglect. One conflict both my mother and I got into with people was whether or not it was okay to spank children. My mother would point out that my sister and I were never spanked and we were extremely well behaved teenagers. My sister and I were the Hermione Grangers of our schools, we wouldn’t think about breaking the rules. People would tell her my sister and I were naturally good and positive parenting wouldn’t work with most children. Well, now I have a son with autism, and we have struggled with undesirable behavior.

Autism and behavior problems tend to go hand in hand. When Sissy was born, Buddy was very jealous. He was also 3 and a half, which is when his problems regulating his impulsivity started to peak. We added a second child right when Buddy was at a very difficult age (his twos were really a breeze, three was a different story). Once Sissy started to learn to walk, he started to push her down every chance he got. And when he would get mad, he would bit, kick, and hit.

And yes, this behavior has been extremely frustrating and rage inducing for me. Buddy seems to have inherited the tall, burly Anglo-Saxon genes from my side of the family and has always been large for his age. Sissy has inherited the petite Asian genes from my husband’s side of the family and has always been tiny. Add in a 3.5 age difference, and Buddy is literally twice as big as her and very strong. Seeing him act aggressively towards her is scary because he could really hurt her. Further, I don’t want him to think violence towards women is okay, and I don’t want Sissy growing up thinking that it’s okay for boys to push her around. And there is also nothing worse than seeing one of your children beat up on another. So yes, I know well the white rage that one feels when they see one child beat up another. Generally I tend to be very calm and easy going, the type of person that other people say they can’t envision ever being mad. Well, it happens, and when Buddy pushes Sissy down, it happens fast.

What I always had to keep in mind was that hitting Buddy wouldn’t have solved any of the problematic behavior. It would have left him feeling hurt and resentful. And it would have made it worse. When Buddy feels resentful, he tends to act out more. Further, hitting him wouldn’t have taught Buddy anything about how to regulate (or manage) his behavior.

Teaching Buddy to regulate and manage his behavior has been a long process. What I want to emphasize, though, is that he has learned. I also want to emphasize that while he has autism and communication is limited, he is also very logical and responds to logic, if it is phrased a certain way. Pretty much there are two rules.

  1. Ask reflective questions that force him to analyze his behavior.
  2. Don’t tell him what to do. Let him come up with the solution.

Here’s an example of how this looks. This morning the kids were watching tv, and I left the room briefly to take care of something, and I heard Sissy screaming. I walked in to see Buddy laying on her. In this case I don’t think he was trying to be aggressive. Buddy is very sensory seeking and enjoys it when we put pillows over him and roll him on the floor. He was attempting to do that with Sissy, who is not a fan.

I took a breath to calm down and then I pointed out, “Buddy, Sissy is screaming, that means she does not like this. Is this nice or not nice? (reflective question)”

“Not nice.” he said.

“Show me a nice thing to do. (forcing him to come up with the solution)”

Sure enough, Buddy got off Sissy and left her alone.

It also works when Buddy takes one of her toys. I’ll ask him if it’s nice or not nice to take a toy (reflective question), and then to show me a nice thing to do (forcing him to come up with a solution). And he will give her her toy back. On the other hand, if I try to grab it from him, he will dash across the room and turn it into a game.

Buddy has autism, so I have to keep in mind that it is harder for him to control his impulsivity and that, since he has difficulty communicating, it’s hard for him to say, “I’m mad/jealous/sad.” I also have to give him the benefit of the doubt that he is doing his best in a world that is confusing for him and keep in mind that he is doing his best. And I also have to balance this out with Sissy’s safety.

My first goal has been for Buddy to be more aware of his behavior and it’s impact on other people. When Buddy hurts Sissy (or me), I point out that Sissy is crying, or that what he is doing hurts. Since Buddy is so sensory seeking he has a very high pain tolerance. Everyone who watches him for a while remarks on how he’ll bump into things and doesn’t seem to notice. Buddy likes bear hugs and deep pressure and sleeps with a weighted blanket. What he doesn’t realize is that he is also big and strong for his age and that, what for him is a good, soothing sensory experience, is uncomfortable for other people.

So I point it out that other people might not like what he is doing so he is aware. Remember, children with autism have difficulties reading social cues. Then I ask him what he wanted with his action, and what he could have done differently. In Buddy’s case, his receptive language is stronger than his expressive language, and I’m pretty sure he understands what I am saying. And my proof is that this has been working.

When I ask him what he wanted, he can’t tell me “to play” or “to say I’m angry”, but I’m fairly sure he is thinking about it. I will also give suggestions as to what he could have done differently (count to 10 if angry for instance). And when I see him engage in play with Sissy appropriately or going to his room to calm down when he is angry I make sure to praise what he is doing and give him that good feedback so he knows to do that more.

As a last resort, if he can’t leave Sissy alone, I take Sissy into the master bedroom with me and lock the door until he (and me for that matter) calms down. Here’s the good news; the last time I had to do that was at least three months ago.

Which is what I want to emphasize. My son was not a so-called naturally good child or an angel. I had to teach him, and continue to have to teach him, ways to manage his behavior. And he learns.

He learns without me hitting him. He learns when I am patient with him and reason with him at his level.

It’s slow, yes. But when I think about where we are now compared to where we were last year, his progress has been amazing. I can’t even remember the last time he pushed Sissy down.

Here’s what people who insist on spanking do not understand. Spanking a child does nothing to teach a child what to do instead of the bad behavior they were engaging in. It also does not take into account that some children do not have to capacity to manage their behavior yet. Children who are impulsive and young may not be able to stop themselves from hitting, tantruming, etc. They need an adult to calmly help them learn how to control those feelings. When Buddy tries to hit me, I move out of the way and ask him to think of a better way to say “I’m angry” or ask if he wants to blow bubbles or time in his room to calm down. Sometimes staying with me helps him calm down, sometimes he wants to be alone. When it’s the former, it’s important that I stay engaged with him as long as I can to model controlling anger with him (which is hard when tempers are flailing. Going outside and blowing bubbles is often a good solution).

Further, there are times where a child, especially one with autism, may not understand what it is they are being spanked for. It also tends to leave a child feeling hurt and resentful. And we are not our best selves when we are feeling hurt or resentful.

And I have worked in a mental hospital for children with behavior problems. One of the questions we ask at intake is discipline procedures. Most were spanked, and the behavior problems got worse. Some families would continue spanking, others would admit it made the problem worse and abandon it. I would have adult therapy group filled with people who committed crimes. They were also spanked growing up. I really get sick of memes saying if parents just spanked their kids there would be no crime. Every person who has sat in my office who has been to prison was spanked, and often, growing up. And because of it, they grew up to be adults who can’t regulate their emotions. You can’t teach children good behavior by beating them! You instead tend to beat out the ability to regulate their emotions that they need to behave.

I know it is emotionally draining for parents to keep their cool when their children are misbehaving. I have been guilty at getting so frustrated when Buddy was being aggressive with Sissy that I would scream at him. I’ve always felt bad, first because I’m not someone who screams or yells often (as people who have tried to provoke me have found), but second because it tends to cause Buddy to become more anxious and results in him acting even worse.

Bottom line, it was my signal was that the best thing for everyone would be for me to get Sissy in a safe place and Buddy and me some time apart until we both cooled down. So I would take Sissy into the master bedroom with me and lock the door. Often this would rile Buddy up because he likes being with other people and because he likes having me help him calm down (and possibly even needs that, I’ve heard from adults with autism that the rages they had as a child were terrifying for them because of the heightened emotions), but if I was so angry I was screaming, then we needed a break.

And it is another skill Buddy (and Sissy for that matter) have to learn. When you have a disagreement with someone and you get so upset you start yelling, it’s a good idea to have a break until tempers cool down a bit. Usually when I returned from my room I would be calmer and better able to handle Buddy and I would be in a position to help him calm down (if he hadn’t already).

Once again, it’s been months since we’ve had an incident where I had to go into my room with Sissy and lock Buddy out. It took time, I was not always the perfect bastion of calmness and compassion, but he learned to manage his emotions and his behavior. To which I want to point out, parents don’t have to be perfect, we can mess up and scream and need to lock ourselves in our rooms for a bit while our children tantrum outside our door, but if we focus on getting to that calm place and helping our children reach that calm place, they will start to learn how to regulate those emotions.

It does take more effort up front to teach children ways to cope with their anger and teach them to manage their behavior. It takes patience. And to be perfectly honest, one of the reasons I believe child abuse will persist is because some children who were abused grow up to be adults who never learned to regulate their behavior, and who can’t control themselves around their children when they get mad. They never developed those abilities as children. Rather than having good behavior beaten into them, their ability to control themselves was beaten out of them. And until we as a society are willing to put in extra supports for parents who were abused as children, then the problem is going to persist.

Which is a shame, because when children start to master the ability to manage their behavior, it pays off. Because you don’t have to watch over their shoulder all the time. Because they are behaving because it is the right thing to do, not because they are worried about the punishment that will be doled out if they misbehave.

And that is the long term goal! I believe my children are good people who can make good decision if given the right tools. Even if I wanted to, I won’t be able to watch them 24/7 to make sure they always behave. They are going to have to learn how to do that.

And yes, it is possible. Even if your child has autism or ADHD or a different disorder, it is possible for them to learn. But it can’t be forced on them. The parent has to form a partnership with the child and learn to work together to help the child manage his/her behavior. The important thing to keep in mind, though, is that with patience and guidance, this skill can be learned.

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