Let me stop you right there and say, welcome, you are definitely in the right place. I feel like I am a whole, entire, hot mess all the time even when people on the outside looking in tell me it appears like I have everything together. The only reason there seems to be any semblance of order is because I become more and more rigid the more control I lose over a situation. But, the more I try to get things under control, the worse the situation becomes. It’s defeating. The smallest things set me off and I feel like there’s no escape. Taking a little time off here and there doesn’t help, because my brain won’t stop going. All I do is worry. I’ve had to start taking medication to get my brain to slow down enough to sleep. I had reached a critical point where I was about to go downhill fast and I had to save myself.
Ironically, I’m great in an actual crisis. Totally calm and clearheaded, but I fall apart completely in the aftermath and shutdown for days. Somehow, everyday life wrecks me and, even with coping skills, it’s a struggle. Then, I went and became a mom. My stress level went to about 5,000% and my coping skills barely cut it most days. I want you to know that I get it.
So, in the midst of all these difficulties, why bother to attempt peaceful parenting? This one’s easy. An aspect of my Autistic brain – that seems to be fairly common among Autistic people – is deep empathy that results in a strong orientation toward justice. The more I’ve gotten to know myself and embrace my neurology, the less tolerance I’ve had for cruelty, and children bear the brunt of so much cruelty. Laws in the United States protecting children are weak at best and children become outlets for their parents frustrations. I can’t take it. I can’t watch the videos that go around where children are being harmed in some way. It’s too much for me now. So, with my own kids, that need to treat them with decency and respect planted itself front and center in my mind. It’s an inherent imperative now. But, it’s a serious challenge to remain conscious about my parenting when my brain is in turmoil trying to survive this neurotypical world.
That’s why I have fallen back on my natural inclination toward patterns, routines, scripts, and formulas to give my children the very best I have. All my life, I have felt like there’s a virtual rolodex (I know I’m dating myself here) where I record information I need. Then, when I need it, that rolodex goes flying through the cards and lands on exactly what I need. I don’t see the rolodex in my mind eye, but I feel it. When I write articles for this blog, I often do so from that perspective. My pieces are how-tos. “Do it this exact way and see how it goes. Then adjust as needed.” I love step-by-step instructions, like the Three Rs and the Five Essential Steps of Emotion Coaching.
I want for peaceful parenting to be accessible to my neurokin. I don’t want y’all to see it as an amorphous concept that’s impossible to implement. A helpful goal is to put together a mental toolkit of step-by-step plans for how to address different issues and use those as a frame around which to pin your thoughts and intentions. For me, it has become almost second nature to call one of my solutions to mind when my children are having a hard time. Having a plan I can actually follow-through on helps me feel confident and calmer than I otherwise would.
Here’s a collection of Peace I Give articles that I hope will offer you a start on building your own tool kit:
I write about peaceful parenting, but I’m far from an expert at it. I’m learning every day just like you. I enjoy teasing out new knowledge from things I’ve already learned. It recently dawned on me that two words I’ve been using interchangeably, boundaries and limits, actual have separate meanings. Digging into the difference has helped me better acknowledge my own needs.
Diffsense.com explains that boundaries are a “dividing line or location between two areas” whereas limits are “a restriction.” In terms of relationships, boundaries are the points of resistance between two people as beautifully embodied in this quote by Prentis Hemphill:
Without boundaries, we risk trampling each other’s needs. I struggle a great deal with people touching my face. The sensory experience feels smothering, so my loved ones know to avoid my face. However, my children do not understand how uncomfortable the experience is for me and they regularly breach this boundary. As a result, I find myself struggling to maintain my calm which makes me less effective as a peaceful parent and in need of greater amounts of self-care. Children simply don’t get it. That’s why it’s so important for us to recognize and honor their boundaries. There will come a time when my kids will finally understand why this particular boundary matters so much to me. And, when they figure it out, they’ll know what to do because of how I’ve treated them throughout their lives. I don’t hug them without consent, force them to eat, demand that they treat me as an unimpeachable authority, or hurt them to prove a point. These are boundaries that allow my children to trust and respect me.
Limits, on the other hand, are the lines within which children can safely move. The space between me, as their mother, and the limit out ahead of us is their “yes space.” Limits change as children grow in maturity and capacity. They are the clearly marked guides to ensure my children’s health and safety. Yes, they may play in the yard. No, they may not run into the street in front of a car. As a peaceful parent, I do my best to find ways to say yes instead of no and to minimize both demands and limits. My goal is to give my children as much access to the world as they can enjoy safely, while leaving plenty of room for risky play which children inherently need. One of the most crucial reasons I don’t fall back onto punishment is because there are so few instances where punishment would be necessary. My kids don’t cross lines because there aren’t many lines to cross.
We need as many boundaries as necessary to feel safe in our relationships. And, as few limits as necessary to keep our children healthy and safe. Once I realized that, it changed my perspective on how to relate to my children, my husband, and everyone else in my life.
So, let’s do it. Why would I bring this up on my peaceful parenting blog? Because the way we approach abortion has everything to do with our worldview and the example we set for our children. And, it determines how we will treat our children if they choose abortion for themselves.
With more and more states all but banning abortion, I keep finding myself in discussions with Christian friends and family about how best to address this matter. As a reminder, I’m a Christian clergy wife and seminary trained in my own right, which I don’t discuss often on this blog because it organically permeates my peaceful parenting experience. It’s simply part of my identity.
I don’t talk much about my stance on abortion either, because, frankly, it’s not that important, but for this post, I’ll tell you. I believe that humans are precious at all stages. It doesn’t matter to me when life or personhood begins, because I honor human existence from conception to the grave.
I have no issue with other people’s perspectives on when personhood or life should be recognized. My vision of our shared future involves continued reduction in the rate of abortion as much as possible while honoring those who are pregnant and facing a very difficult decision.
Here’s what I know for sure. Legislating abortion won’t make it go away. Abortion is older than recorded history, y’all. I think anti-abortionists know deep down that their efforts to criminalize these procedures won’t do anything but impose their sensibilities onto everyone else. They must know that banning abortion doesn’t reduce the rate of abortion and may, in fact, have the opposite effect.
If Christians really want to make an impact effectively, the way forward is clear.
Champion universal basic income, universal healthcare, guaranteed housing, no cost college, childcare support and subsidies, and a minimum wage increase. In other words, if you truly believe in the sanctity of life, then you must honor it no matter the socioeconomic status of the family.
Stop elevating virginity as having value in and of itself separate from the human being it is attached to. Virginity is a harmful construct that has no scientific basis and has been used for millennia for the purpose of subjugation. There are plenty of reasons to delay sex that don’t involve losing one’s worth.
Stop shaming childbirth “out of wedlock.” If you want these children to live and be loved, stop punishing those who choose to raise the children they deliver.
End abstinence-only sex education. While this approach may be understandable for faith-based communities, it is not an effective public health strategy and, in fact, research shows its limited effectiveness, particularly as a result of seismic shifts in our understanding of sex and gender.
Support a cultural reorientation toward keeping families together by reducing reliance on foster care and adoption. So many of the reasons children get separated from their first families can be mitigated by a caring society.
Choose anti-racism. For all the outcries over the differences in rates of abortion between white and marginalized people, you’d think the natural response would be to take action to end racism. Somehow, that is not the case.
Leave people alone when they have an abortion. This one is simple. Just stop harassing and belittling them. Focus your efforts on 1-9 with a healthy dose of empathy and understanding.
If you are a Christian who is serious about taking steps to reduce the need for abortion, which is the most effective way to achieve the goal of the anti-abortion movement, then please get to work. If you’re here to bluster about, please step aside and let the rest of us serve all people with Christian love and respect.
I see y’all out there. Parents trying to do your very best for your Autistic kids. You talk about how much ABA has helped your child and how you don’t know what you would have done without it. You say that you couldn’t possibly have done what your BCBA or RBT has accomplished. You truly believe that you, the person who knows your child the very best, don’t have what it takes to give your child the world. But, oh Love, you do! You honestly do.
The ABA industry systematically chips away at our confidence in our own instincts and abilities. With those scary prognoses and extensive treatment plans, how could we ever give our child what ABA can? From that perspective, it’s true. We don’t have the skill set to do what a BCBA or an RBT can do. For some parents, that will mean putting a child into ABA and trusting professionals with their care. For others, it will mean getting trained yourself so that you too can use behaviorism to manage your child’s actions. There’s another choice though. A less expensive and time consuming choice. A better choice.
A few days ago, occupational therapist, Greg Santucci, wrote about a fundamental flaw in the concept of ABA, one that we parents need to understand:
So, if the antecedent doesn’t really happen right before a behavior occurs, but rather results from a combination of factors that can stretch back days or even years, how could a BCBA or an RBT possibly recognize what’s wrong? How could they possibly know everything you know? You, Love. You saw what happened when your child’s favorite toy broke last week. You offered comfort and validation, but you knew your child felt grief, so you gave them space to mourn. Then, over the weekend, you saw your child’s energy revving up and you knew they needed to go outside, but rain changed your plans. So, you did your best to help your child get all that energy out while inside the house, but you could see a storm brewing. You have always been there. You are the safe space.
Now, it’s a new week and it’s time for ABA. Your child feels great stress from compounding factors that occurred well before the session. Then what happens? Your child refuses fulfill a demand and they get ignored. As they struggle without the support of a trusted adult, they get punished via planned ignoring for mourning their favorite toy and for needing outside time. ABA works because it crushes children into compliance no matter how they feel or what they need.
You can decide right now never to go back. Never to put your child into a situation where their behavior defines how they will be treated. You can give your child the exact support they need because you experience it all with them. You know when things get hard and how your child needs comforting. You can move past managing behaviors and instead coach emotions, helping your child feel and bear through the difficult times. And, those really difficult situations, like a child running into the street? Change the environment. Use a locking harness to make sure your child stays close to you when cars present a danger. Practice road safety with games like Red Light, Green Light in a safe location. Tell your child stories about how cars can hurt us, seeing the consequences from a child’s perspective. “If you get hit by a car, you won’t get to eat jelly beans until you get better because the car will hurt you!”
With emotion coaching and controlling the environment, you won’t need behavior management at all, and you certainly won’t need ABA. You can do this. You have all the skills already from your years of practice as a parent. Don’t let these medical professionals tell you that you don’t have what it takes. They are lying to you.
Learn strategies for how best to support your Autistic child by following these links:
As I lean into unschooling a little more bit by bit, I’ve started reading literature about the approach to better understand the lifestyle. I recently picked up Unschooling: A Lifestyle of Learning by Sara McGrath. It’s not a long book, but it’s rich with experience and insight that one can put into practice immediately. McGrath’s book did more than educate me on unschooling, though. She also introduced me to some concepts that I knew innately, but had not yet spelled out. In particular, she touched on the Continuum Concept from Jean Liedloff from her 1975 book of the same name. Liedloff developed the concept after observing the differences in the way Indigenous South American Ye’kuana mothers treated their children in contrast to what she had become accustomed to in her white western upbringing. On the site continuum-concept.org, a description of the Continuum Concept makes clear the expectations of both parent and child. I will post the description here in full so as not to lose anything in translation. (Content Warning: Jean Liedloff’s work contains references to harmful conceptions of what constitutes “civilized” culture.)
According to Jean Liedloff, the continuum concept is the idea that in order to achieve optimal physical, mental and emotional development, human beings — especially babies — require the kind of experience to which our species adapted during the long process of our evolution. For an infant, these include such experiences as…
• constant physical contact with his mother (or another familiar caregiver as needed) from birth; • sleeping in his parents’ bed, in constant physical contact, until he leaves of his own volition; • breastfeeding “on cue” — nursing in response to his own body’s signals; • being constantly carried in arms or otherwise in contact with someone, usually his mother, and allowed to observe (or nurse, or sleep) while the person carrying him goes about his or her business — until the infant begins creeping, then crawling on his own impulse, usually at six to eight months; • having caregivers immediately respond to his signals (squirming, crying, etc.), without judgment, displeasure, or invalidation of his needs, yet showing no undue concern nor making him the constant center of attention; • sensing (and fulfilling) his elders’ expectations that he is innately social and cooperative and has strong self-preservation instincts, and that he is welcome and worthy.
In contrast, a baby subjected to modern Western childbirth and child-care practices often experiences…
• traumatic separation from his mother at birth due to medical intervention and placement in maternity wards, in physical isolation except for the sound of other crying newborns, with the majority of male babies further traumatized by medically unnecessary circumcision surgery; • at home, sleeping alone and isolated, often after “crying himself to sleep”; • scheduled feeding, with his natural nursing impulses often ignored or “pacified”; • being excluded and separated from normal adult activities, relegated for hours on end to a nursery, crib or playpen where he is inadequately stimulated by toys and other inanimate objects; • caregivers often ignoring, discouraging, belittling or even punishing him when he cries or otherwise signals his needs; or else responding with excessive concern and anxiety, making him the center of attention; • sensing (and conforming to) his caregivers’ expectations that he is incapable of self-preservation, is innately antisocial, and cannot learn correct behavior without strict controls, threats and a variety of manipulative “parenting techniques” that undermine his exquisitely evolved learning process.
Evolution has not prepared the human infant for this kind of experience. He cannot comprehend why his desperate cries for the fulfillment of his innate expectations go unanswered, and he develops a sense of wrongness and shame about himself and his desires. If, however, his continuum expectations are fulfilled — precisely at first, with more variation possible as he matures — he will exhibit a natural state of self-assuredness, well-being and joy. Infants whose continuum needs are fulfilled during the early, in-arms phase grow up to have greater self-esteem and become more independent than those whose cries go unanswered for fear of “spoiling” them or making them too dependent.
Liedloff further explains that, as a child grows up in Ye’kuana culture, they become integrated into the lives of the people. Ye’kuana adults do not center or dote on children. Instead, adults focus on adult activities, pausing as needed to connect with their children. As a result, children gain autonomy, self-reliance, and intrinsic motivation. Indigenous cultures consistently emerge as the originators of responsive, respectful parenting. Stories from around the world tell of communities where young children do not cry, because the adults immediately meet their needs. In the west, we believed we knew better and we sought to overwhelm evolution toward a more efficient society. In doing so, we have lost sight of our humanity.
Such a lifestyle evades many USAian parents who find themselves forced into a multiple income scenario due to the greed of the billionaires who control the means of production. We can choose to care for our children or we can starve, but choose we must. In my family, we choose responsiveness. In doing so, our children do not fall to the ground at toy stores kicking and screaming in frustration and not because we don’t allow it. To the contrary, we acknowledge and validate all expressions of emotion in our family. My children simply don’t tantrum, because it doesn’t occur to them to do so. They know we value and accept their perspectives, thus they needn’t get loud for us to hear them.
I encourage you to find ways to choose responsiveness, patience, and belonging whenever possible in the spirit of Ye’kuana mothers who understand human development far better than our so-called learned experts.
As someone who came through traditional brick-and-mortar schooling, I had been conditioned to view education through a particular lens. Degreed and licensed teachers are necessary for learning to occur. Only specially trained instructors can “break through” to disabled kids. Children at each grade level should be fairly close to each other in ability and, if they aren’t, they should be removed to a separate class or school so they can learn at their own pace. That’s where I started.
Now I understand that traditional school is its own bubble. Are degreed and licensed teachers necessary? Yes, absolutely, because they are experts at navigating the system on behalf of students and their caregivers. They serve a dual role of teacher and liaison. They understand classroom management. They have other teachers nearby to help them work through challenges. They have the resources of the school system at their disposal. Yet, there was a time when teachers in the U.S. were much more similar to homeschooling parents than schoolroom teachers. So, we know there’s a distinction to be made.
To answer the title question in no uncertain terms, yes, absolutely, you can homeschool an Autistic child, even in spite of ABA practitioners and “experts” who are sure they know our children better than we do. When I first started homeschooling, I had no idea what I was doing. I have taught all the way up through college and tutored in the past, but the idea of being solely responsible for my own children’s education was daunting. I figured Special Education teachers had some magic I didn’t have. They knew something… were something… that I couldn’t access. After all, I have no formal education in the field.
I scoured the internet for information on how to teach Autistic children and found lots of specialized resources that dealt mostly with learning theory and behaviorism. That couldn’t be right, I thought. But then, how do you teach an Autistic child? I found some Facebook groups and read a bunch of posts on the topic. As I read, I realized that these actual homeschoolers were saying something unfathomable to me at the time. Teach Autistic students the same way you teach any other student. If you want to get a curriculum, do it. If you want to let your child lead the way, go for it. Embrace your child’s interests and utilize them as pathways to learning. Wow, I thought. That sounds almost too easy. (That, of course, was rationality peaking through ableism.) As my understanding has evolved, I have come to realize that teaching is secondary. Learning is an experience that the child has. It’s not something that a teacher can demand or enforce. We can only facilitate it. I have also learned that it’s completely ok to go at my child’s pace. If a child is strong in math and needs support in reading, well, that child is strong in math and needs support in reading then. We don’t have to try to force a child to advance in a predictable way based on age or ability. We really, truly can teach to the level of our kids no matter what that level might be. We homeschoolers can genuinely tailor education to our children in a way that leads to unfrustrated success.
As a homeschooler, I am strongly oriented toward both Charlotte Mason and child-led learning/unschooling, so I found a Charlotte Mason-inspired curriculum and got started on the year. Turns out, those homeschoolers were right. The incomparable benefit of homeschooling is that, at home, we can teach our child rather than teaching to the test. We determine the pace and the material. We know how much to challenge without leading to burnout. And, we have extraordinary flexibility to give our kids the breaks and attention they need to excel. I have vowed not to talk about my children specifically anymore in this blog and I will honor that vow. Suffice it to say, homeschooling has led to gains at a rate unmatched by public school. That is not a dig at public school teachers who are truly a national treasure. Honestly, it’s a dig at our entire educational system in the U.S. It is outdated, clumsy, racist, ableist, and expensive for no reason. Children have a right to a suitable education that doesn’t steamroll them to oblivion.
If you are approaching a point where you feel strongly that your Autistic child needs the freedom and support of a homeschool education, I am here to tell you that you can do it and you can succeed. It takes effort of course and lots of self-education. Ready to go? Check out these links to get started. (Beware of ableism in the Facebook groups. It’s hard to get away from.)
One of the things whiteness affords me is access to conversations I don’t want to be having. The tiring ones that I know I’m responsible to engage in by virtue of my privilege, my understanding of the stakes, and a moral imperative to betray white supremacy. So, when I see (and hear) white people denying the existence of systemic racism and chalking up the documented differences in opportunity and outcome between white people and Black, Indigenous, and people of color to personal failings, I’m compelled to seek out airtight responses that will destabilize their worldview. I need them upset and unsure, because that’s where growth starts.
To this end, I’ve been following a piece of evidence that popped up on my radar not too long ago. Something that has actually been known for years, but isn’t widely known among white people. First, Black families are among the fastest-growing populations withdrawing their children to homeschool.
Accomplishing more academically than in conventional schools.
Please take note that the first three reasons given are not academic in nature. These parents brought their babies home to build them up, guard their hearts, and give them space to breathe and just be. Most of the parents who are homeschooling do not have education credentials, as is the case for most homeschool teachers. Degreed and certified teachers have an important role in our educational system, but they do not hold the keys to education.
I think about reparations a lot as a white person from a very long line of white people in the United States who have benefitted tremendously from exploitation. And, I wonder what impact we’d have on the future if Black families suddenly became entitled to a guaranteed living stipend to stay home and educate their kids. And, that is exactly the query I want to pose to people who claim systemic racism doesn’t exist. (But the answer is not what a lot of white people want to think about.)
A few days ago, I settled in to hear the entire hour-and-a-half long talk on How to set limits with your kids… DON’T! from Gentle Parents Unite podcast. In this talk, Sujai and Vivek discuss why arbitrary limit setting can be a form of coercion and control. If you’d like to give the talk a listen, I highly recommend it:
Levels of Limits
I am a strong proponent of the use of limits instead of punishments or consequences (which are just punishments given with a smile). However, something I haven’t discussed at any length is my strategy around limits. I restrict my own employment of limits to instances I judge to be imminently dangerous or destructive. For instance, I won’t let my young kids run into the street alone or dunk their hands into boiling water. Sure, a natural consequence might deliver a more memorable message, like getting hit by a car or hospitalized with third degree burns, but you can surely see why that’s not an option for me. My limits in these cases protect my children from endangering their lives and health. They are rather hard and fast.
Some of my softer limits involve harming belongings, people, and animals. These are more difficult to navigate as there is great benefit to children learning about the world on their own. If a child is smashing their toy into pavement, I will mention that smashing the toy will break it and generally give the child space to make a decision. On the other hand, if the child is using a toy car to try and break a glass window pane in my living room, that is an instance where I may remove the toy and say, “I can’t let this toy break through the glass.” And, I won’t allow children to beat each other up in my presence, but I might hold back if I see a child smack another and the harmed child standing up for themselves. If appropriate, I will intervene and work on some sportscasting to help the children broaden their understanding of the situation. If a child is poking at a cat, I will tell the child that I can tell the cat is unhappy because of its pinned ears and that cat might scratch.
My goal in any instance with my children is to give them as much autonomy as I possibly can while recognizing that they might not understand the potential outcomes of their actions. In some cases, I intervene, as much as I’d rather let them work things out on their own. In other cases, I don’t employ limits at all. For instance, I never force toothbrushing. I start introducing the toothbrush and toothpaste at the first tooth eruption, so that it becomes part of the standard daily routing. Then, if the child resists my efforts at cleaning their teeth, my first step is to hand the toothbrush over and back off. What I’ve found is that, invariably, curiosity and independence kick in, and the child starts to brush their own teeth. And, then when I offer to get the teeth in the back of the mouth, my offer is usually met with willingness, because at that point, I am working with the child on the child’s terms. I don’t use force unless I feel strongly that I absolutely must. And, that’s rare in my house.
Destructive vs Deconstructive
One area I know a lot of parents struggle with is the messiness and chaos of childhood. Kids wreck stuff in one way or another and it’s crucial that they do. It’s one of the most basic ways they have to interact with the world and learn how things work. Sometimes it’s accidental and sometimes it’s on purpose. Either way, it’s ok. Our response depends on the motivation.
Destructive and deconstructive actions have a similar result, but a very different purpose. Children who destroy are often calling out for help. I have found that many times children will smash things that are important to them and then burst into tears at the results of their actions. These instances usually indicate a child who is in a state of distress and dysregulation. And, our response must be compassion and understanding with a goal of connecting with and building up the hurt child.
Deconstruction is educational. Deconstructive activities usually occur when a child is happy or curious. A child dropping an egg on the ground is learning about gravity, shell strength, and splatter. Plus, it’s just fun to deconstruct. Adults do it by smashing sandcastles at the end of the day and turning over dominoes. There’s just something pleasurable in wrecking things in this way. Giving children ample opportunities to deconstruct and be messy is a fantastic way to foster sensory integration! So, do it often.
A big part of what we do as peaceful parents is investigating our own perspectives and responses. Limits are ok when used judiciously and are certainly preferable to punishment. So, first things first, think about your non-negotiables. What is it you feel you absolutely cannot allow your child to do. Write down a list of these non-negotiables.
Second, pause at each item you wrote down and consider carefully if you’ve included it because of imminent threat to your child or because of your own feelings and conditioning around it. Ask yourself what harm it would really do to strike that limit from your list.
Third, take your pared down list and discuss them with your children, regardless of whether you believe your children can reason through them. If your kids are able to discuss the limits with you, have a conversation. They might bring up something you hadn’t considered. Talk with them about how you can best support them in respecting the limits and be prepared to negotiate if they feel the limits are too restrictive.
Fourth, shift your mindset to figuring out how you can say “yes” to your children more often. You and your children can eliminate the perceived need for many limits by finding ways to balance freedom and respect for each other. Practice telling your kids, “I want to help make this happen for you. Let’s think about the possibilities.”
So, does all of this mean we should never say no to a child? Nope. It means we should be cognizant of why we’re compelled to say no. Is there an immediate danger? If not, can we accommodate our child? If not, how can we come to a mutual agreement that respects both parent and child?
If you remember nothing else from this piece, remember this: limit less, trust more, and be curious about what your child is doing rather than shutting them down.
No matter which of the five main types of discipline you use, it won’t work if you aren’t consistent. Consistency is one of the more important keys to addressing child behavior problems. Consistently setting limits, giving effective consequences and enforcing the rules all day every day can be tough, however. Examine what gets in the way of being consistent and take steps to increase your discipline consistency.
Ugh. There it is. My least favorite advice about imposing discipline. Be consistent. Enforce the rules. It evokes a sense of rigidity. Control. Be consistent and make sure your child knows who’s boss. Be consistent and use your selected punishment immediately every time. Never show a crack in your armor or else your child will take advantage. Sounds pretty stressful to me, both for parent and child. How many parents receive this advice and are chastised for not being consistent when their kids when they behave like… well… children? How many discipline experts claim that children can’t feel secure without consistency? Consistency is a tool of behaviorism, the theory that people’s behavior can be studied and controlled externally, without regard for our thoughts and feelings.
That’s a dog, because behaviorism is what we use to train animals. Sure, humans are technically animals, but we have a capacity to think, feel, and reason that is not paralleled anywhere else in the animal kingdom. Our children deserve more than dog training. Now, there may be times when consistency can be useful, such as when Autistic children need their routines to be predictable. Consistency, at the behest of a child, is part of maintaining a respectful relationship. Consistency applied to children without their consent must be carefully considered, because it has the potential for harm.
I’ve written at length about the merits of punishment-free parenting and emotion coaching. I’ve even talked about limits. No, not the limits they’re talking about in that VeryWell Family article above. I mean limits that take into account the needs and wants of children. Limits that lead to a genuine feeling of safety and understanding. And, I have a response to the ubiquitous calls to be consistent:
Be reliable instead.
Be the person your child can run to when everything is falling apart, knowing your response will be one of unconditional love and acceptance. Be the person who knows how to bring your child from crisis to peace through co-regulation. Be the person whose respectful limits are a cushion from harm and not a brick wall they shatter against. Show your child, through your own actions, how to make it through difficult situations, acknowledging every emotion, seeking out resources when necessary, and embracing restoration.
Where consistency means inflexible adherence to a norm, reliability requires dependability and trustworthiness. These are traits we all want to instill in our children and we can do that by first demonstrating them through our approach to discipline. So, next time you have the choice between being consistent or being reliable, you know which one to choose!
Content Warning: Description of Animal Abuse in Historic Experiments
I recently ran across a meme with a troubling message. It said, Never do for a child what he can do for himself. A “dependent” child is a demanding child… Children become irresponsible only when we fail to give them opportunities to take on. I bristled immediately. “Never” do for a child? Absolute statements like this make me uncomfortable. I understand that the point is to be decisive and firm, but then there is no room for children to be imperfect or to have needs. Yes, giving children age-appropriate responsibilities builds competence and self-assurance. However, we should be open to children refusing responsibility in an effort to have their other needs met. Seems a lot of us misunderstand why children might be “irresponsible.” There’s a great fear that we’ll foster learned helplessness if we don’t demand that our kids fulfill their responsibilities. But, is that really true?
In the 1960s, psychologist Martin Seligman conducted a series of experiments to better understand why depression was so defeating. The first experiment involved three groups of restrained dogs. The first group was restrained and released. The second group included dogs who received an electric shock which they could stop by pressing a lever. Dogs in the third group were paired with dogs in the second group and also received an electric shock. However, their levers did not stop the pain. Instead, the paired dog from the second group controlled the only working lever, which meant that the dog in the third group had to suffer the pain with no control over it and, therefore, little hope of ending it.
In the second experiment, the dogs were presented with a similar scenario, except that Seligman introduced an escape option. The dogs in the first two groups, having either not experienced the shocks at all the first time around or having had access to a lever to stop the pain, fairly quickly escaped when the shocks began. However, the dogs in the third group made no effort and were able only to cry out pitifully when they were shocked. That presumed inability to take action is learned helplessness, and it results from hopelessness in the face of failure.
An especially important aspect of these experiments was the finding that “one cause of learned helplessness seems to be learning that reinforcers cannot be controlled” (409). For those who aren’t familiar with the term “reinforcer,” it means a punishment or a reward. So, the inability to control the punishment of these painful shocks directly contributed to the dogs’ acceptance that the pain was inescapable. No amount of punishments or rewards delivered after the learned helplessness had taken hold had any positive effect on the dogs’ behavior.
What you may find interesting is that Seligman did find a cure for the learned helplessness. He discovered that either picking up the dogs and moving them to safety or using a leash to drag them out of harm’s way provided enough motivation for them to take action. He called it “directive therapy” and it was simply an intervention wherein an outside participant showed each dog how to do what the dog didn’t realize was possible. He found that less and less force was required in pulling on the leash as the dogs began to realize that there was hope. The end result of this portion of the experiment was that all the dogs in group three fully recovered and were able to escape completely on their own (410).
…which brings us to helping. Put simply, learned helplessness is giving up because an obstacle is too insurmountable. For children, it may be sitting in the middle of their room unable to clean up, because they don’t know where to start. It may be accepting punishment for not getting dressed quickly enough because they feel that the punishment is inevitable, and they can’t do what’s expected of them to begin with. As noted in the experiment, the cure for learned helplessness is directive therapy, i.e. demonstrating a way to be successful. In other words, helping. When our children become overwhelmed with their messy rooms, we can intervene by helping them come up with a plan and working on the clean-up with them. Over time, they will gain more competence and the process will be less frustrating for them. When our children struggle to dress themselves, the easiest solution is to recognize that we need to take a few steps back and offer to help them dress. It may take a while for them to do things that seem simple to us, but the more we respond to their need for help, the more capable they will become.
There are three overarching lessons I learned from reading up on learned helplessness:
A little failure is good. Letting kids figure things out on their own is crucial for their development.
A lot of failure is bad. Leaving kids to become helpless in the face of challenge does no one any good.
Our responsibility as parents is to help our children learn from failure without losing hope.
Whether a child seeks our help because they don’t know how to do something or because they want to connect with us or because they are weary and need some support or for any other reason, we will always do right by them when we help them, especially when we don’t think they really need the help. In doing so, we invigorate qualities like learning, self-motivation, and confidence… the very things that combat learned helplessness. So, please, help your kids.
If you’re a visual learner, check out this video from therapist Kati Morton! Toward the end of the video, she provides some tools for helping ourselves (and our kids) release these thoughts of helplessness.
Rewards are an inherent feature of behaviorism, a school of thought which posits that we are influenced by our external environment alone. It does not take into account the inner life of kids. Their thoughts, their frustrations, their very identities are ignored. Behaviorism seeks to change children’s behavior through external forces, including various forms punishment and rewards. One of those forms (of punishment or rewards… depends on how it’s received) is praise. “Good job!” we might say to a child to push them toward a result we desire. I’m heavily conditioned to use praise by my culture here in the United States. It is a moment-by-moment battle to stop my mouth from dishing out quick and empty motivators. What’s so wrong with these phrases, though? Let’s look at a few.
I’m so proud of you!
You can do it!
They all sound lovely and encouraging and the truth is they are. To a point. But, it’s the backside of these phrases that can harm our kids. I’m so proud of you! and Great work! communicate our excitement that our children have fulfilled our expectations of them. They are moral judgments that kids will continue to try to maintain to keep us happy. Well, that is, until they stop caring when the reward of praise becomes exhausting or demotivating. You can do it! looks harmless enough until you realize it represents a parent informing a child about their abilities. We can understand how dismissive it is to tell a crying child, “You’re ok,” rather than offering empathy. It erases the child’s inner feelings and minimizes their struggle. By the same token, while we may think You can do it! communicates our confidence in our child’s competence, in reality, it sets them up for an impossible outcome. If my child fails, does that mean I’ve lied to them? Does it mean I don’t respect them? What’s the end result?
The Power of Noticing
There is an alternative that works to foster intrinsic motivation: noticing. Noticing can be a simple thank you, It helps a lot when you carry groceries in with me. Thank you! Noticing can be paying attention to the simple, every day things, You’re working so hard on that drawing. I’d love to hear about it! Noticing can be empathetic support, Scoring a goal is really challenging. I am right here with you. Noticing is highlighting and acknowledging the values or the effort or the struggle without attributing a moral zero-sum game to them.
I’m especially partial to the phrase, You did it!, to express my joy when my children accomplish goals they’ve set out from themselves. It’s my way of noticing their effort by stating a fact and leaving it at that.
The Power of Not Noticing
As we carefully and purposefully speak to our children’s intrinsic motivation, we have to know when enough is enough. Have you ever seen a child’s exuberance deflate when a parent comments on what they’re doing? I certainly have in my own children. When I overstep bounds and interject my thoughts onto my children, it can be an invasion into their bubble of privacy. Any time we interact with our children, we impose our own values. For better or worse, most of us adults value things like rightness, progress, and success. But, these values aren’t superior to wrongness, stopping, or failure. Think of all the wonderful things that happen in the space of wrongness, stopping, and failure. We learn by trial and error. We pause to rest and to reflect. We know when to move on because something isn’t working. These are also critical lessons children need to learn and they can’t do that when we compulsively push them away from the very spaces they need to reside in.
It’s very easy for us to jump in and teach. Although, often children need time to express their thoughts freely. It’s ok if they don’t know what to do and it’s ok for them to feel they need direction.
When we continually teach and correct children, they learn to always look for direction. The more children use their own thoughts, the more they build up their intrinsic motivation and self belief. Having time to be creative with no direction is such a healthy process and supports children’s emotional wellbeing.
For me, the simplest way to know when my comments are invited is to wait to be invited. When my children include me in their play and in their efforts in some way, those are the times I can be pretty sure it’s ok to share encouragement and love. I try to avoid interrupting my children to tell them what I think. Sometimes this method works and sometimes it doesn’t. When it doesn’t, I am quick to apologize and let them know I won’t interrupt again. See what happens there? I learn from my wrongness. Children have a way of enforcing their boundaries in a straightforward, genuine way when adults allow them to. So, let them, y’all.
This post is a collaboration between Peace I Give and Unmasked. Tee Mone’t runs the page, Unmasked, on Facebook, and Unnmasked on Instagram. Diagnosed as an adult with substantial support needs, she works to help others understand what it means to be autistic. She is here to educate and most importantly, learn.
“My child just got diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. What do I do?”
If this question is on your mind right now, you’ve come to the right place. We’re here to help. It seems that when caregivers of newly diagnosed Autistic children start looking online for guidance, too often they’re bombarded with recommendations from people who understand autism purely from a professional standpoint. They can miss important posts like this one from Autistic Mama. Misinformation about autism is a quick Google search away, and this article is the antidote. If you want to know what you might really do for your Autistic child in plain language from two #ActuallyAutistic people, we invite you to read on.
Facing a brand new experience can be challenging and your feelings around this new diagnosis are valid. Let us reassure you and tell you that there is nothing to fear and nothing to mourn. Your child is not broken but is the same child you have loved all along. Autistic kids are just like any other child with the same very human need for understanding, support, and love. Parenting an Autistic child is simply parenting a child. All children have a unique composition of strengths, weaknesses, needs, and capacities that caregivers must navigate. The difference when it comes to Autistic kids is that you have the wisdom of an entire community of Autistic adults at your disposal to help you understand where your child is coming from. As you become better acquainted with how to connect with your child and address their specific needs in the healthiest way possible, you and your child will both be empowered.
Now, at the top here, we must include a disclaimer that Autistic people are not a monolith. We don’t all feel the same way or share the same beliefs. As the saying goes, “if you’ve met one Autistic person, you’ve met one Autistic person.” In this piece, however, we will describe how the vast majority of Autistic self-advocates wish to be understood. Neither Peace I Give nor Unmasked criticizes any Autistic person for choosing other forms of self-advocacy that diverge from the majority preferences. However, those decisions lie strictly within the Autistic community. If you are not Autistic, it is not your decision to make.
Autism is a natural neurological variation in humans. Autistic brains are different from allistic brains. Autistic kids are not allistic kids waiting for someone to break them out of a mental prison. They are born as whole and dignified human beings in need of the same care and attention as all children.
When we say “the autistic community”, we mean everyone who is autistic. We mean:
Autistic people who need a lot of support in their day-to-day life, and autistic people who need very little support.
Autistic people who can speak, and autistic people who are nonspeaking.
Autistic people who also have an intellectual disability, and autistic people who don’t.
Autistic people who have other disabilities besides autism, and autistic people who don’t.
Autistic people who were diagnosed by a doctor, and autistic people who figured out they were autistic on their own.
We are all a part of the autistic community, and we have to work together to make sure all of us have our voices heard. Every autistic person belongs in the autistic community. There is no “wrong” way to be autistic. Trying to separate certain groups of autistic people from the autistic community hurts all of us.
What is the Autism Spectrum?
A lot of people who first encounter autism assume that the spectrum is a linear progression from “mild” to “severe.” Please understand that functioning labels like “mild,” “severe,” “high functioning,” and “low functioning” can be extremely harmful to Autistic people, including your child. Autism is a spectrum, but that spectrum looks a lot more like an equalizer than it does a line.
Neuroclastic does a great job of explaining the autism spectrum in this post, but in short, the spectrum encompasses a handful of domains including but not limited to social aptitude, intensity of interests, motor control, and so on. Autistic people are measured against allistic people in each domain, which is inherently ableist. It’s like assessing a computer programmer’s untrained singing voice against professional opera singer, Maureen McKay. The computer programmer may have a fine voice, but it certainly won’t be as polished as McKay’s. Each person needs to be embraced for their inherent worth and appreciated for the gifts they bring to this world. Autistic people bring so much good to humanity.
Sadly, in most areas of the world, societies do not operate in a way that is inclusive of Autistic brains, so Autistic people are largely viewed as deficient. In contrast, the neurodiversity paradigm changes the perspective, declaring that a diversity of neurology among humans is normal, necessary, and natural. And, the social model of disability helps to challenge the idea that disabilities must be limiting in and of themselves. The social model demonstrates that, with acceptance, inclusion, and adequate accommodations and technology, nearly every disabled person could have equal access to social spaces. It’s a lofty idea and we can all help to improve the quality of life and access to shared spaces that disabled people deserve.
Disability is not a bad word and, for the majority of us, autism is disabling because society disables us. Functioning labels are part of the way society oppresses us. For example, some of the people who read this article may say to themselves, “the authors of this piece can’t be Autistic” because of the narrow view of autism they have encountered culturally. This is the kind of mindset we want to gently challenge.
Autism as an Identity
Much like other disabled groups that have developed passionate self-advocacy within their ranks, many Autistic people capitalize the “A” in Autistic in recognition that it is part of our identity. It’s who we are. It cannot be separated from us and it cannot be treated or “cured” without destroying us.
If you happen to see someone on social media with an Âû in their name, they likely consider autism to be a critical aspect of their identity. Âû is a reference to the Autistic Union, which has a list of 10 Points describing its ethos. And, Âû is a helpful way for Autistic people to recognize each other quickly in virtual spaces.
Autism as an identity is one of the reasons that Autistic people overwhelmingly reject person-first language (child with autism) in favor of identity-first language (Autistic child). It’s why you’ll notice that Autistic adults often dislike euphemisms like “on the spectrum.” It’s why many of us despise puzzle piece mentality, a position you may be surprised to learn is backed up by science. And, it’s why Autism Speaks is considered a hate group by most within the Autistic community.
Autism is an identity that deserves to be embraced, understood, and accommodated by our greater culture. By the same token, Autistic people have every right to vent about how difficult and painful it is to be Autistic in an oppressive environment.
Many of us engage in a coping technique called masking. If you’ve ever presented yourself differently from the person you really are in order to avoid an argument or get ahead in your career, you probably have an idea of what masking feels like. For Autistic people, it can be a constant requirement in order for us to navigate a world that was not made for us. We pretend to be neurotypical as best we can, so we can avoid uncomfortable situations, “fit in” more readily with others, and go unnoticed. It’s a survival mechanism and it is costly for us. Many Autistic adults must go to great lengths to undo the damage that masking has done to us. So, if an Autistic person lets down their mask around you, consider it a compliment. That means you are trusted to see us as we really are, stims and all.
Check out this post from Tee Mone’t of Unmasked about the raw truth of what masking really is:
Allistic caregivers are crucial to the wellbeing and safety of their Autistic loved ones. A positive, affirming relationship with a caregiver is not only helpful, it may even be life-saving. Caregivers can uphold the dignity of their Autistic loved ones by getting consent before talking about them, limiting the personal information shared about them, not complaining about autism or Autistic people, and taking their needs very seriously. This excellent infographic from the Therapist Neurodiversity Collective provides a snapshot of ways in which to embrace Autistic identity by refusing to pathologize us:
It’s important to note here that there are some Autistic people who are more discreet about their autism, perhaps because they have experienced substantial discrimination or because they view it primarily as a medical diagnosis or because other aspects of their identity are more pronounced. It is up to Autistic people ourselves to decide how we will move through our lives. The best thing our families can do for us is to support us in whatever way we need. Some of us are out and proud about being Autistic. Others are just living life. There’s no shame in any of it.
Generally speaking, it is considered bad form to tell people your child is Autistic without the child’s consent, in the absence of a seriously compelling reason. For instance, you’d likely want to tell medical professionals and your child’s school, so they can better understand your child’s needs. You’d probably not need to tell your family and friends unless they care for your child and require support in providing the best care. You definitely don’t need to tell random strangers or research companies trying to buy your child’s DNA for dubious purposes.
Use great care and discretion with the understanding that disclosing your child’s diagnosis is an extremely intimate and intrusive act. And, finally, consider what information needs to be shared. Do you need to state that your child is Autistic or do you need to let the person know what to expect? For instance, if you’re at a park with friends who don’t know your child’s diagnosis and you know your child tends to elope, you might say, “[Child] sometimes runs off unexpectedly. Would you mind helping me keep watch?”
There is nothing shameful about being Autistic or having an Autistic child. What we’re highlighting here is the importance of respecting the privacy of Autistic people and allowing us the dignity of controlling the way information about our personal identities gets exposed.
Now, if you’re wondering about disclosing to your child their own diagnosis, yes, please! From the moment you know, tell your child. Openly, talk about autism in positive, factual ways as they grow up. Help your child navigate the world by showing them how. Things like social stories (keeping in mind that social stories have a potential to harm) and role playing can be helpful tools to give Autistic kids a concrete view into the hazy, amorphous world of social interaction. Talk with your child and observe their behavior for clues into what you could be doing to better support them. Accept that Autistic is who they are. Not what they have.
Will My Child Ever Fit In?
Depends on who your child interacts with. It’s so important for caregivers of Autistic children to recognize how difficult it is for Autistic kids to make a way for themselves when they’re thwarted at every turn. Autistic children must be given opportunities to connect with other Autistic children as a basic human need. From crucial childhood relationships with both Autistic and allistic children, Autistic kids learn what it means to be a friend. And, guess what, Autistic relationships have been studied! Here’s what we know.
Autistic people ARE empathetic (more on this below).
Autistic people ARE social.
A study on Autistic kids aged 8 to 15 years found that they believed they were good friends to others and also that they enjoyed social interaction.
At least 80% of Autistic children have at least one friend and the majority enjoy their friendships.
Lack of supports is what excludes Autistic kids from social experiences, not autism.
Allistic biases against Autistic people disappear when impressions are based on conversation rather than audio-visual cues (meaning, prejudice against Autistic mannerisms keeps allistic people from having wonderful interactions with Autistic people).
Autistic people tend to be more invested in their social partners and prefer to have genuine conversations rather than small talk.
Autistic adults often prefer the company of other Autistic adults (so get your kids into Autistic social experiences early on).
A special note on empathy. The outdated claim that Autistic people lack empathy is a lie. What’s true is that Autistic people struggle with cognitive empathy when it comes to allistic people, meaning, we can miss certain social cues and misunderstand situations. On the other hand, our affective empathy, the ability to bear with others, is in full effect for lots of Autistic people. Sometimes, affective empathy is so intense and unmanageable that it can lead to meltdowns and shutdowns. Many Autistic people feel deep, genuine, visceral emotions. However, while hyperempathy is a well known Autistic trait, different Autistic people experience varying degrees of empathy, just as it is in the neurotypical world. And, our empathy may not look the same as an allistic person’s.
Relating to Autistic people requires effort on the part of allistic people. Dr. Laura S. DeThorne wrote about this in her piece entitled, Revealing the Double Empathy Problem. In it, she pinpoints a most challenging barrier for Autistic people who are trying to relate to allistic people. She says,
Although the misunderstanding may be bidirectional, it disproportionately stigmatizes autistic people when their perspectives are not adequately represented within institutional power structures, like education, research, and medical systems. When autistic perspectives are not heard, it becomes easy for autistic behavior to be misunderstood and pathologized. Note, for example, much of the autism literature focuses on helping autistic individuals understand nonautistic perspectives, rather than the other way around.
As a caregiver, you can work toward understanding your child on their terms and showing them what a healthy and respectful relationship looks like. All Autistic people communicate. Sometimes it just looks a little different from what you might expect.
Is Early Intervention Necessary?
In the United States, children under the age of 3 are eligible for Early Intervention services when they aren’t meeting their expected milestones and/or if they have diagnosed disabilities that require support. When autism is suspected, many caregivers are pressured by medical professionals and peers to get their kids assessed and into some form of “treatment” as early as possible. We have even seen claims that Autistic children will never “improve” if their caregivers wait too long for “treatment.” That’s simply not true. Autistic brains don’t need treatment any more than neurotypical brains for the mere existence of a particular neurotype. If that weren’t enough, a recent meta-analysis found that there is insufficient evidence to recommend early intervention or treatment for children. Pressure to push children into Early Intervention can be wielded as a scare tactic and that helps no one.
Early Intervention is as embroiled in anti-Autistic ableism as any intervention offering “help” to Autistic people from an allistic perspective. The therapies offered generally seek to bring an Autistic child as close to typical expectations as possible, which is ableist. Autistic people do not need to be more allistic in order to move freely through and contribute to the world around us. So, while Early Intervention is not necessary, we do understand that it is a cost effective way to access services like occupational therapy that can help Autistic kids a great deal. Whatever you decide to do, we encourage you to brush off any pressure that comes your way about changing your child.
Autism is simply a natural way of being. That’s not to say Autistic people don’t need any therapy. There are various forms of therapy that can help Autistic people cope with living as strangers in a strange place without having to be subjected to behaviorism. Different people benefit from different things, so having an open mind can help you find exactly what will serve your child the best.
Occupational Therapy: OTs help identify gaps between a person’s needs and their ability to meet those needs. Autistic people often need support when it comes to motor skills (e.g. dressing/undressing and tying shoes), proprioceptive abilities (e.g. tolerating the taste and texture of food, and knowing when it’s time to urinate), and self-regulation. OTs have the knowledge and experience to recognize where there are disconnects and help Autistic kids integrate their senses and practice new life skills.
Speech Therapy: Speech is widely considered the superior form of communication. It’s not. All forms of communication are valid. Some Autistic people prefer speech, some prefer speech some of the time, and some don’t prefer speech at all. There are many reasons for these differences. What Speech Language Pathologists can do is give your child the tools to improve their speech and/or other modes of communication.
Physical Therapy: PTs specialize in human movement. If your child needs support with balance, motion, or spatial awareness, a PT might be able to help. There is some overlap between what OTs and PTs do for Autistic kids, so our general suggestion would be to start with OT and add in PT, if needed.
Dialectical Behavior Therapy: DBT is a cognitive-behavioral therapy that helps people practice regulating their emotions, relate more easily with others, and handle stress, all of which are skills every human person certainly needs. Given the strain of moving through this world as an Autistic person, DBT is often a great fit for addressing lingering traumatic experiences. Side note: Even though DBT and ABA contain the same word, they are NOT the same. DBT is a true behavioral therapy that is beneficial for many. ABA is a behaviorist therapy that is harmful.
And, finally, a note on comorbidities. Autism is a neurology unto itself with its own strengths and weaknesses. Oftentimes, people conflate other diagnoses with autism as though they are one and the same. An autism diagnosis is not dependent on things like IQ, aggressive behavior, hyperactivity, and so on. When present alongside autism, these things may or may not need to be addressed professionally. And, if they do need to be addressed, the supports may be beyond the scope of this particular article. (In other words, we can’t cover every possible therapeutic option, so please seek out support from Autistic adults.)
Will My Child Ever Be Independent?
Are we meant to be? Do you know anyone who is completely off-the-grid and self-sustaining? Seems like it would be a lonely life. We may wonder what the future holds for Autistic kids, but independence need not be a goal. We are, by nature, an interdependent species. We need connection to thrive. So, one of the things Autistic children need to practice is self-advocacy. Empower your child to ask for what they need. Reveal all the avenues available. Some Autistic people do need lots of hands-on assistance into adulthood (which is probably what most people mean when they wonder about independence). That’s totally fine. They are as fully human, fully worthy, and fully deserving of fulfillment as is any person. It’s natural to worry when you’re responsible for the care of a child, but put that nervous energy into helping your child build a network of support.
How Do I Discipline My Autistic Child?
You teach an Autistic child about the world in the same way you’d teach an allistic child, by figuring out how they learn best and presenting information in that way. There is absolutely no need for intrinsic motivation killers like rewards or punishments. Especially not physical punishment. There’s no need to control your Autistic child or force their bodies to do things that are uncomfortable for them (such as demanding eye contact or using hand over hand instruction). When you create an environment where your Autistic child can succeed, your child will have their best opportunity to grow in their relationship with you and to trust you.
As the caregiver of an Autistic child, your child will be best served by your acceptance that most Autistic children have specific needs around sensory processing. Autistic processing of sensory input is different from that of the allistic brain. Responses tend to be more pronounced and overload can be unbearable. Some things to know.
Sensory Seeking and Sensory Aversion: For most Autistic people, our experiences with external stimuli can be heightened. Sensory Seeking means craving input to address uncomfortable understimulation of the nervous system. Seeking may look like enjoying being extra loud, using our bodies to crash into the world around us, and generally filling up a space. Sensory Aversion means craving escape to address uncomfortable overstimulation of the nervous system. Aversion may look like extreme discomfort with anything touching our skin, blocking our ears to muffle a cacophony of sounds, and covering our eyes to shield them from bright lights. While many Autistic people tend to experience either seeking or aversion, given the right circumstances, we can all experience them both.
Meltdowns and Shutdowns: To understand meltdowns and shutdowns, think about the most upsetting day you’ve had recently. Maybe your car broke down, causing you to lose your job. Then you tried to take the bus home only to find that you left the gate open and your dog has run away. And so on. Just a rotten day. You can relate to jab after jab sending you over the edge. When the needs of Autistic people are persistently unmet, the descent into overwhelm is like your really bad day. You might go home and cry, call a friend, or try to relax in front of the TV. Autistics can end up so dysregulated that these calming techniques don’t help. The end result is an uncontrollable explosion of emotion and physiological tension (i.e. a meltdown) or a complete reset of capacity (i.e. a shutdown). Both are upsetting for Autistic people. No one wants to feel that way, so it’s helpful for our families to understand what we need in order to avoid getting to that point. Meltdowns and shutdowns are not necessarily a given. They can often be prevented by addressing our needs.
If you are interested in a gentle discipline approach to guiding both Autistic and allistic children, these articles may help you as you figure out exactly what your child needs most in order to feel safe, secure, and supported.
While this post is about how to proceed with a new diagnosis, we have included this response to those who may ask about how to obtain a diagnosis. Generally speaking, in the United States, autism assessments for children are conducted by developmental pediatricians and pediatric psychologists. Your child’s standard evaluation may involve questionnaires and interviews for the caregivers, observation of the child, and administration of the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS) and/or the Autism Diagnostic Interview-Revised (ADI-R), along with a review of observations from the child’s teachers and other professionals, if applicable. Be aware that masking (as described in the Autism as an Identity section) can interfere with a medical professional’s ability to diagnose your child. The very thing that helps keep us safe in other circumstances can end up making it more difficult to get the accommodations we need. Please let your child know they don’t have to hide who they are with the doctor.
If you are in the United States, be aware that your insurance company may require a referral from your child’s pediatrician or family doctor. If you cannot afford a standard evaluation or are uninsured, organizations like Easterseals may be able to provide you with discounted services. Be aware, however, that these organizations are not typically autism-forward and may recommend ABA therapy.
In order to be diagnosed, your child must meet the criteria set out in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (current edition, DSM-5), which includes an unfortunate “severity” scale of 1, 2, and 3, each corresponding to an increasing need for supports and services. These numbers represent how burdensome the doctor expects your child to be and that is a problem. The severity scale also does not account for changes in capacities as your child grows up and it is heavily influenced by your child’s ability to speak. However, speech is not required for communication. Do not be overly concerned if your child doesn’t speak. Take note of the number your child is assigned, but don’t allow it to dictate your acceptance of your child’s capabilities.
Many caregivers question if pursuing a diagnosis is worthwhile. The Autistic community is somewhat split on this. A medical diagnosis can open many doors for your child to receive accommodations and modifications. It can also, sadly, present unwanted barriers, such as being barred from certain jobs, military service, and even being disallowed from emigrating from one’s home country. Despite the potential challenges, childhood diagnosis tends to be easier to obtain. It is incredibly difficult to obtain a diagnosis as an adult, which is why the Autistic community embraces self-diagnosis. We encourage you to read this beautiful post from Autistic Mama about the reasons why early diagnosis can be life-changing. If you want to wait or not pursue a formal diagnosis at all, your child may still be eligible for supports in school. In the United States, schools can conduct their own internal assessments to provide your child with appropriate accommodations and modifications while in school, even absent a formal, medical diagnosis.
On IEPs and 504 Plans
We promised plain language at the beginning of this post and we’re about to take a dip in the blistering world of federal law, so please bear with us as we keep this as simple as possible. We strongly recommend checking out Wrightslaw and the Wrightslaw books if you want to get the most accurate information about accommodations and modifications.
In brief, the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) guarantees the right of your child to a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). Part of giving your child a FAPE involves establishing a customized blueprint for their educational track via an Individual Education Program (IEP) or a 504 Plan.
IEPs are comprehensive action plans that detail precisely which combination of services will provide the ideal learning environment for your child in a special education program. The custodial caregiver (e.g. parent, grandparent, etc) is part of the IEP team and advocates on behalf of the child. The assessment process to be deemed eligible for an IEP can be lengthy and tedious. If your child already has a medical diagnosis, this is one of the times when it comes in very handy. IEPs are nearly limitless. If your child needs a solution, this is where you put it. The IEP is also where the IEP team declares the LRE for an individual student be it a specialized separate class or some form of integration into general education.
504 Plans are guaranteed under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Unlike IEPs, 504 Plans do not entitle children to the extensive services of special education. You can think of them as a less stringent counterpart to IEPs that are especially useful for general education students who have specific areas where they need support, such as dyslexia. Students can technically have both an IEP and a 504, but having both is not necessary. It’s important to note that IEPs can and usually do include everything that would be written into a 504 Plan, but the reverse is not true.
In order to obtain supports for your child through an IEP or a 504 Plan, the first step is to contact the school (typically a school/guidance counselor or an assessment coordinator) to request an evaluation. You’ll want to be prepared with as much information as you have about what your child needs. Check out this write-up for a detailed overview of the process.
ABA: Applied Behavior Analysis is billed as a “treatment” for autism, but it has widely been met with scorn due to its proclivity for causing post-traumatic stress disorder in Autistic children. It’s no wonder as the “father” of ABA had this to say about Autistic people, “You see, you start pretty much from scratch when you work with an autistic child. You have the person in the physical sense – they have hair, a nose and a mouth – but they are not people in the psychological sense.” For more information on why ABA isn’t welcomed by Autistic people, check out ABA Treats a Problem Your Child Doesn’t Have.
Asperger’s: In the United States, Asperger’s has fallen into medical disuse as a diagnosis as the DSM-5 rightly condensed autism into a single diagnosis. Many Autistic people who were originally diagnosed with Asperger’s continue to use this term. However, allistic people should be aware that Hans Asperger was a Nazi eugenicist who was responsible for the murder of hundreds of disabled children (warning: linked article contains functioning labels). Some people have pointed out that he may not have been a Nazi sympathizer, but rather a person who fell in line in order to save his own life. Even if that is the case, he still sent hundreds of children to their deaths and does not deserve the honor of being associated with Autistic people. Please use “Autistic” instead as a caregiver.
Autism is a Superpower: The belief that Autistic people have superhuman powers is a form of inspiration porn that dehumanizes and others us. We are as human as any other person. Our autism is often disabling, because it has not yet been normalized by the broader culture in which we live. Because of our different neurology, there are some areas where we might excel. It’s ok to celebrate accomplishments by virtue of our efforts. It’s not ok to celebrate accomplishments because we are Autistic.
Autism Parent: Curiously, many allistic parents of Autistic children proclaim themselves as “Autism Parents” but are often unwilling to adopt the identity-first language most of us prefer (i.e. Autistic person). “Autism Parent,” and the use of autism as a lead into any conversation about their kids, gives the impression that the caregiver is donning their child’s identity as a sort of uniform to showcase their experience caring for an Autistic person. And, worse, “Autism Parents” often say things like “Autism won today” to indicate they’ve had a bad day. Imagine saying such a thing about any other identity. Please use “Parent of an Autistic Child” instead.
Functioning Labels: “Mild,” “Severe,” “High Functioning,” “Low Functioning,” “end of the spectrum” and so on. These are functioning labels that are meant to communicate to allistic people just how much Autistic people diverge from neurotypicality. Even the levels assigned by diagnosing doctor’s that are meant to indicate anticipated support needs end up communicating how burdensome we are expected to be for our caregivers. Yet, Autistic people’s capacities can slide all over the place, even hour to hour. Functioning Labels provide no useful information. When talking about Autistic people, avoid discussing deficits. Instead, help us advocate to meet our needs. For example, rather than saying “my child is non-verbal,” try “my child uses augmentative and alternative communication (AAC).”
Person with Autism: Survey after survey demonstrates that Autistic people, on the whole, prefer identity-first language. Autism isn’t a feature. It is the very lens through which our brains process the world. Every Autistic person has an Autistic mind. We cannot be allistic. We cannot “age out” of autism and we cannot be “cured.” It is who we are, therefore, it is always appropriate to use identity-first language (Autistic person) unless you’re speaking about an individual who has specifically indicated that they prefer person-first language.
Puzzle Piece: Since the puzzle piece is ubiquitous, you might not realize that Autistic people generally do not identify with it. The puzzle piece was created by an allistic member of the National Autistic Society and it originally featured a crying child as a symbol portraying autism in contrast to the way “normal” people are supposed to be. It says Autistic people are a baffling mystery. That our minds aren’t complete. And, it garners such ableist phrases as “Until All the Pieces Fit.” Parents of Autistic kids – the group most likely to use it – go to great lengths to explain why they don’t see the puzzle piece as a negative thing. However, a 2018 study confirmed once and for all that the puzzle piece is harmful to the Autistic community. The Autistic community has embraced the gold infinity loop as a more appropriate representation of who we are. (The rainbow infinity loop is a positive symbol for neurodiversity.)
Sesame Street: In April of 2017, Sesame Street debuted Julia, an Autistic girl who would introduce children worldwide to autism. Many Autistic adults were overjoyed, especially given the fact that Sesame Street had spent years developing Julia with the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN). We knew she would be a genuine reflection of Autistic people. Sadly, in 2019, the partnership between Sesame Street and ASAN ended. In a devastating betrayal, Sesame Street elected to partner with Autism Speaks instead and promote their stigmatizing resources for parents of newly-diagnosed Autistic children.
Symptoms: Autistic people have traits, not symptoms. The way we think and behave is not the result of an illness. It is a manifestation of our neurology and our individual personalities. Use of the word symptom is an example of the pathologizing of autism. Because we are different, there is a tendency from a medical perspective to pinpoint and correct those differences and that tendency makes its way into the literature around autism.
Violence: An unfortunate stereotype exists that Autistic people are prone to violence. In reality, violence is not part of the criteria for a diagnosis. It is not indicative of autism. So, why do caregivers of Autistic kids talk about violence so much? It’s a misunderstanding of what the “violence” actually is. All of us, Autistic and allistic alike, understand what it’s like to be worn down by life and pushed to the limit. This stress is the root of much discomfort, frustration, and even anger. It’s something that Autistic people experience significantly more often than allistic people, because we are moving through a world that does not operate with our needs in mind. Some Autistic people, particularly children, become so overwhelmed that they lash out. It is a form of communication that tells everyone around them that they need help. Not censure. Autistic people are not inherently violent.
How Do I Best Love My Autistic Child?
This one isn’t just about feeling a tender, nurturing draw toward an Autistic child. We know you love your child deeply or you wouldn’t be here. This one is about loving an Autistic child for who they are. Not for who they might be if they weren’t Autistic. It’s about recognizing your child’s stimming and supporting them by providing stim toys and room to stim without judgment. It’s about engaging with, rather than pathologizing the great interest your child takes in the things they love the most. It’s about viewing Autistic people as creative communicators rather than awkward and socially inept. It’s about going directly to Autistic adults, and professionals who listen to Autistic adults, to ask questions about how to support your Autistic child. And, it’s about folding your Autistic child into your family life in the most natural ways. Full acceptance. Unconditional love. Exactly what every caregiver should do for every child. It’s nothing remarkable and it’s the most remarkable thing of all.
We’ll leave you with this video that sums up how we want parents of Autistic children to choose to view their kids in hopes that the more our world understands autism, the higher quality of life all Autistic people can enjoy.
Looking for More?
Our friend, Autistic Mama, is working on another resource she’s calling Autism Diagnosis Journal: A Parent’s 30 Day Guide to Confidently Process Their Child’s New Autism Diagnosis. Autistic Mama, Kaylene George, is an Autistic mother of 6 neurodiverse kiddos, including one Autistic child. Her life’s work is helping parents of Autistic children become better parents, advocates, and autism allies. Her efforts serve to make our society more accepting and inclusive to Autistics. Her newest project promises to be comprehensive and thoughtful, and we encourage you to keep watch for when it drops.
*Please comment below or message Peace I Give with any questions you may have. We consider this to be a living guide to be updated as new pressing questions arise.We are open to criticism as well. Thank you for reading!
Around this time last year, I wrote a piece called Squaring Santa where I dove into the myth and tackled the childism inherent in a cultural collaboration to deceive kids. Upon re-reading it, I’ve realized it comes across as strongly worded and for good reason. Learning the truth about Santa as a child shattered the magic of Christmas for me. No, Christmas was never about Santa or gifts. What hurt me was that my parents had lied to me and encouraged me to believe something they knew was untrue. Christmas was tarnished from that point and it took getting caught up in the excitement of my own children around the Christmas season to regain much of what I had lost. That’s just my story though. I know millions of people perpetuate the Santa myth because they had warm cozies about it as kids and that nostalgia can make it difficult to see the lie for what it is.
Last week, I was looking for matching pajamas for my family and I saw some with little Black Santas. As I considered the cost, I realized how strange it was that I had no problem with Santa PJs considering how I feel about the Santa tradition. Out of curiosity and a desire to explore, I asked friends if anyone among them chose not to participate in the Santa tradition and why. The most common response what that they didn’t want to deceive their kids and break their trust. Some noted that their children had expressed reservations about a strange man breaking into their homes while they were sleeping. Some went further to say they preferred to talk about the life of St. Nicholas of Myra. Others said they do participate in the Santa tradition in some form, but do not employ the behavioral tactics to pressure their kids into being “good.” And still others said their children understand it’s a game and not real, so they aren’t being duped, but they’re still enjoying the make-believe excitement of it all. Everything they said resonated with me.
There is no denying how ubiquitous Santa has become in the United States. He’s part of our cultural vision of Christmas, for better or worse. Schools really push Santa as well. It can be hard to be a child in this country and not wonder about whether Santa is real. So, first, I want to affirm everyone who does not wish to participate in the Santa tradition at all for whatever reason. Do whatever it is that makes sense for your family. I would advise against demonizing Santa or ignoring that the tradition exists at all, because doing so could create a major conflict for your children. It could also push them to condemn their friends or take up a position of superiority.
If You Don’t Want to Participate in the Santa Tradition At All
Decide what you want your child to know, making sure to recognize that you will not be able to completely avoid Santa during the Christmas season.
Give your child the words to say when people (especially other children) ask them about Santa. Specifically, work with your child to prepare responses to “What do you want Santa to bring you?” And, “Have you been good this year?” Children typically don’t want to get entangled in a lengthy discussion, so sidestepping the questions can be useful.
“What do you want Santa to bring you?” Response: “I’d love to get [gift] for Christmas this year.”
“Have you been good this year?” Response: “I don’t think kids should be rewarded for being good or punished for being bad.”
Explain that it is considered bad form to intrude on others participating in the Santa tradition. If you want your child to tell the truth to other children about Santa, that is your prerogative and it is the anti-childist position. However, if you’d prefer to encourage your child to extend grace, you can let them know it’s ok not to discuss Santa at all with other children (or simply use the canned responses you have prepared together).
If You Do Want to Participate in the Santa Tradition Without the Childism
Tell your child the truth. Santa is a myth. However, Santa is also a fun cultural tradition that your child can participate in with full knowledge of reality.
Teach your child the history of Santa, including the origins in St. Nicholas of Myra, as well as differences in the Santa tradition around the world.
Share other cultures’ holiday traditions, particularly the ways in which they infuse kindness and generosity into their holidays.
Introduce Santa images with a variety of complexions rather than perpetuating white supremacy in the form of white Santa only.
A week and a half ago, my friend lost her life in a horrific car wreck that claimed her toddler as well. Her husband and their other children were badly hurt, but they survived after a harrowing touch and go hospitalization. I saw a picture of the kids today. They were smiling and playing with toys. These precious children who are recovering without the comfort of their mother found a reason to smile. It hit me so hard. My heartfelt thought upon seeing the photo was that children are sacred beings who are closest to the innocence that makes us the most human. I want to wrap my friend’s children up in a bubble and never let them experience pain again, but then they could never heal. Without coming to terms with what’s happened, they would never be able to process all the things they must tackle in time. And, healing doesn’t happen in the absence of discomfort.
If death has ever touched your life and made you more aware of your own mortality, you’ll understand why this tragedy laid bare my human frailty and vulnerability. It compelled me to look at what’s important in my life. And what’s not. The little frustrations. Rushing to appointments. Getting down on myself for not keeping up with my own expectations. Fussing at my kids for being kids. Barking at my husband for relaxing while I’m compulsively trying to accomplish an endless list of tasks. Even the work I put into this blog.
I realized that I hadn’t yet decided what this blog would be. In fits and starts, I would spend a little money to advertise certain posts and think up all manner of gimmicks to increase readership. Not because I was seeking fame, but because my mission has always been to help parents treat their kids more respectfully and, therefore, to help kids. However, life tapped the brakes on me this year and I had to scale back. I look at other moms doing amazing things (shout out to Kaylene George over at Autistic Mama) and I want to do so much more. But, that is not where my journey is right now. I’m grateful for all the people who have subscribed to the blog and who follow me on Facebook. I post for y’all! I post for your kids. And, I post for my kids. I’ll keep going as long as you’re willing to listen.
It’s been over a year since I started this blog and I’m only just now figuring out what I’m doing here. I think back to so many other points in my life where I asked the same question, because I realize that whatever I was doing wasn’t working for me. And, I have to apply that same question to my personal life today. Why have I been pressuring myself to do everything and be everything? Why have I been frustrated with my kids and barking at my husband? What’s going on? Would any of it matter at all if I knew I wouldn’t be here tomorrow? Absolutely not.
I’ve got some thinking and praying to do. I’m also going to make a point to stop every now and then to ask what am I doing here? I will make a commitment to all of you as well. On a quarterly basis, I’m going to pose this question to you. Maybe, together, we can step outside of the rush of life and take inventory of the things that are affecting us. We can decide what needs to go and what we should keep in service of a life lived intentionally. Are you with me?
This past week, a friend found herself with a dilemma. Her parents had given her child a police toy to play with and it made her uncomfortable. I’ve been thinking about her dilemma, because I’ve faced it too. As someone who works toward being conscious and conscientious about the decisions I make as a parent, issues like this require a lot of consideration. I don’t know what the right answer is, but I know what my husband and I have decided.
Our perception of the police is complicated. As a Black man, my husband has been targeted by the police over the course of his life. I have been in the car when he’s been pulled over for no reason and let go as the officer refused to state clearly why we had been bothered. I support the cause of Black Lives Matter and I believe in the use of civil disobedience to protest the egregious treatment of Black people at the hands of the state. I believe that the police are agents of the state issued forth to carry out the dictates of a white supremacist culture. That is the reality we’re living in.
So, why on earth would I allow police imagery in my home? Because while I support defunding and de-militarizing the police, as well as reallocating monies toward community building, I also recognize that even if we could achieve the extinction of poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, and the like, people would still find ways to hate and to hurt. We will always need some form of refereeing in order to live in concert with one another. That much is true, but policing in its current state does not serve the common good and should be revolutionized.
As I thought about this crisis of conscious, I was reminded of the time my mother brought us a white-centric board book version of the Thanksgiving story. In that moment, I had to make a split second decision. Do I stop her and tell her not to read such a thing in front of my children? I did consider it, but ultimately, I sat as she read and I corrected everything that was wrong. I stopped her every few lines to provide accurate information and appropriate terminology. That is the spirit with which my husband and I interact with the word. We acknowledge the things that aren’t right but, instead of ignoring them, we address them.
When my kids want to watch shows that contain police imagery, I don’t stop them. And, when they receive gifts like Paw Patrol toys, I don’t ban them. Not because I consent to violence, but because proscribing these symbols of tyranny does not eliminate them. It curtails important conversations about them. The police are everywhere. My husband and I have to teach our kids how to interact with them so as not to be killed. We have to explain how members of our community who are kind and care for our kids could be part of a cruel, racist system. We have to help them forge a vision of a future where policing is far less destructive and less necessary. And, we have to give them the space they need to process all of these huge and heavy ideas. Our kids will likely eschew the police in the future, of their own accord. For now, we’re working through concepts that are awfully big for people so new to the world.
So, we won’t go out of our way to expose our children to police shows or toys and we won’t ever buy any. We won’t criticize people whose solution is to ban police images from their homes, as doing so is a completely understandable and valid form of protest. But, we will use the organic opportunities presented to us through curiosity and play to counter the glorification of the police and we will offer, as an alternative, the goal of widespread liberation for Black people from the oppression of law enforcement and criminal justice.
I’m curious how you work through difficult concepts and what you do in your home?