ABA Treats a Problem Your Child Doesn’t Have

ABA is an extremely sensitive topic. You may experience intense emotions as you read this piece. I ask that you read through the post in its entirety before you make a final decision on what your perspective will be. If you need clarification, please ask. If you disagree, I’d appreciate your feedback.

It has taken me months to prepare this post for so many reasons, not the least of which is that I’ve been coming to terms with my own very late autism diagnosis. I’m one of the fortunate people who wasn’t subjected to Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy, but so many autistic people are not so lucky. I write this post for them and for all the children now and in the future who will undergo this very painful experience.

At the start, I have to make clear that I am not a professional. I’m an autistic mom of an autistic child, and I have been in the position of deciding whether or not to put my child into ABA therapy.

I also need my fellow parents to know that I am not condemning you if you’ve chosen ABA therapy. It is the gold standard “treatment” for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), it’s covered by insurance, and it certainly seems to work. Unless you’ve been exposed to autistic adults and our position on ABA, there’s little reason for you to be concerned. I hope you will hear what we have to say and consider whether you want to continue down this path.

Autism Isn’t a Behavior Disorder

So, why treat it with compliance-based training? Autism is a completely natural, neurological variant. It is only disabling in cultures where autistic people are not included and embraced.

Autistic brains perceive and process the world differently from allistic brains. But, we are fundamentally human beings, like everyone else, with the same emotions and responses to stimuli. If you hear a loud noise, do you not cover your ears? That’s not considered odd at all, right? So, why would it be odd for an autistic person to do the same? Sure, it might be accompanied by humming and rocking, because stimming is so comforting to us, but we’re doing the same thing you do to reduce the strain of overstimulation. When allistic children relieve intense stress by cutting, we don’t send them to compliance-based training to try and coerce them to stop. We get them into helpful therapies to give them back control and provide relief that doesn’t harm, thereby addressing the problem rather than the behavior. And, that’s what autistic kids need: acknowledgement that behavior is communication and relief from the underlying problem.

A History of ABA Therapy

Back in the 1970s, UCLA psychologist, Ole Ivar Lovaas, participated in the development of a therapy that promised to alter “deviant” behavior. His involvement in the Feminine Boy Project offered him an opportunity to engage in a form of behaviorism soon-to-be-called conversion therapy wherein gay men would theoretically be converted to heterosexuality. He also used this new therapy in his work with autistic children.

Conversion therapy for homosexual people has since fallen out of favor, for obvious and good reason. However, autistic children are still subjected to the same behaviorism that we’ve deemed unacceptable for use on other human beings. The reason? It was the same back then as it is now. In the words of Lovaas himself, ABA therapy can make autistic kids “indistinguishable from their normal friends.” Unfortunately, that so-called progress comes at the price of an uptick in PTSD and suicide among autistic people. I’m sure you can understand how devastating it is to go through life feeling that the person you genuinely are simply isn’t enough for the people who say they love you. Now, before you decide that my criticism is unfounded, let me make it abundantly clear that Lovaas was a pretty despicable fellow:

Modern ABA might look gentler on the surface; however, at its core, it starts with the assumption that autistic people are broken and wrong, and it seeks to make our behavior more comfortable for allistic people.

Autistic Perspectives on ABA

Amythest Schaber is an autistic artist, writer, public speaker, and advocate. Her series, Ask an Autistic, tackles a great many topics that have proved helpful to her many allistic followers. In this episode, she explains what ABA is from her perspective.

The following list includes links to other autistic writers and advocates, as well as allies, who explain why ABA should be avoided:

Finally, this post from the Non-Binary Intersectionalist (and I must give tremendous credit to this page for the wealth of resources I’ve been able to provide in this post!) describes a recent interaction with a young child in ABA therapy:

If you’re interested in reading some personal accounts of ABA therapy, I encourage you to check out this post on Stop ABA, Support Autistics. If you still aren’t convinced that ABA therapy is harmful, read this post.

What’s the Alternative to ABA Therapy?

To answer this question, we have to consider what well-meaning parents intend to happen when they put their children into ABA therapy. Some of the most common reasons I’ve seen are 1) to help the child be more independent, 2) to help the child navigate society more easily, and 3) to protect the child from danger. There are many, many more reasons of course! These are simply the top three as I’ve understood them.

I imagine you won’t be very surprised to learn that the best alternative to ABA therapy, in my experience and in accordance with my values, is Peaceful Parenting.

Peaceful Parenting achieves each of the three aims I mentioned by instilling self-sufficiency, self-assurance, and boundary recognition in children, as well as improving emotional development and self-regulation, one interaction at a time. Peaceful Parenting does not require thousands upon thousands of dollars or 40+ hours a week of therapy. For symptomatic concerns, there are other wonderful therapies like speech therapy, occupational therapy, and physical therapy. These therapies can help discover and meet needs that parents may not fully understand. And, much like taking an ESL class, they help autistic kids learn a different culture without coercion.

Autistic kids deserve the same gentle treatment as any other child. If you wouldn’t put your neurotypical child into ABA therapy, there’s no need to put your autistic child into ABA therapy. If you’d consider Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (sidenote: CBT and ABA are not the same) to help your neurotypical child handle the stresses of life, offer the same to your autistic child. Figuring out how best to support a child – any child – can be complicated. But treating our children with the same responsive gentleness, regardless of neurology, need not be the least bit complicated.

In this TED Talk, Dr. Amy Laurent explains why autistic people need support in developing emotional skills, not behavior management:

Learn about the SCERTS Model by clicking here

ABA therapy is simply incompatible with Peaceful Parenting. The entire concept hinges on the adult therapist’s ability to coerce a child into compliance by withholding beloved objects and activities until the child “earns” them by obeying the therapist. ABA therapy discourages children from saying “no.” It does nothing to meet underlying, unmet needs and, instead, attempts to force children to ignore those needs while behaving as though the needs do not exist.

If you are a Peaceful Parent who is alarmed by what you’ve read, please know you and your child are enough just as you are. Your connection with your child is the key to comfort and growth. All children want to be heard and understood. Your job, then, is to learn how your child communicates and become conversant in their preferred language. Trust yourself. Trust your child. And, when you need help, find people who are willing to do the hard work of figuring out why your child is suffering and then find ways to relieve that suffering by way of accommodations and modifications. For instance, if your child hits himself in the head in the presence of very bright lights, the remedy is simple. Turn the lights down or off. When you start to see remedies everywhere, the rest falls right into place.

My son was diagnosed with ASD, Level 2 (since autism is diagnosed by how burdensome we are to allistic people, which is unfortunate) which means the expectation is that he will have far more additional needs as he grows up than an allistic child might. Considering the dire prognoses presented in medical literature, one might expect my son to barely function in the broader culture. In fact, many people do. But, let me tell you a story.

Recently, I took both of my kids to the gym for the first time ever. My gym has free childcare which makes my life so much simpler. So, here you have a young, autistic boy who has never set foot in this new place and finds himself face to face with brand new sounds and smells that he’s never experienced. He’s led into a small room with an abundance of toys, all bright and mishmashed, and he sees two complete strangers sitting there smiling at him. What does the boy do?

Well, he finds a stand-up racing track and begins racing little cars. He listens attentively to the caregivers, and he has a relaxed smile on his face when it’s time to go home. No meltdowns. No shutdowns. No stimming. No fear. And, the reason? He’s been the recipient of Peaceful Parenting from the day he was born. Peaceful Dad and I are firmly connected with him, so he feels safe. We do not punish or reward him, so he doesn’t feel coerced. We are honest with him and prepare him for new experiences, so he doesn’t feel blindsided. We treat him like any other deeply loved person and include him in all our activities, so he has plenty of other experiences to draw from when encountering something new. And he knows that, if it’s ever too much for him, we will respect his needs and find the exit as quickly as we can.

On the way to the gym, I explained in great detail what he could expect. His communication is primarily gestural and minimally verbal, so it’s not as though he could tell me in words that he understood. However, his reaction to the new experience said it all.

No autistic child is the same and your child may not be able to handle a new experience at a gym like what I’ve described. That’s totally normal and ok. There are going to be things your child can do that mine can’t. Again, all autistic people are different from one another. The key is learning what exactly that means for your child and filling in every single crevice in your child’s heart that is aching for your love and attention.

That includes autistic children who exhibit self-destructive and violent behavior. Remember, all behavior is communication. If a child, any child, is lashing out, something is wrong that the child can’t overcome. Our goal as parents has to be to investigate the underlying cause of our children’s challenging behavior and help to relieve any stressors we discover.

You Want Action Steps? We’ve Got Actions Steps.

You’ll find this to be a very short section, because I’m directing you to the single most helpful post I’ve ever read on helping autistic kids as a parent. For concrete, comprehensive details on what you can do for your autistic child without the use of any ABA whatsoever, please read If Not ABA, Then What at The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism. The recommendations there will support what you are already doing as a Peaceful Parent.

Careful! ABA Ideology Can Wriggle Into Other Therapies

If you’ve gotten this far, I want to make sure you know that ABA ideology has infiltrated all aspects of the way professionals care for autistic people. Plus, because ABA is so profitable, some professionals use ABA codes to bill insurance even while they claim they aren’t practicing “traditional” ABA. However, don’t be fooled! If it’s called ABA, it is ABA. And, even if it’s not called ABA, the professional could be using ABA tactics to pressure your child into making advances. It can all be very confusing. An excellent post by Autistic Mama describes the red flags that should send you running for the door if you see them in any therapy your child undergoes. Please visit her post directly for a full explanation of each red flag.

  1. Observation is Not Allowed
  2. Indefinite Therapy
  3. Extreme Hours
  4. No Stimming Allowed
  5. Requires Eye Contact
  6. Excessive Reliance on Token Systems and Edibles
  7. Rigid Approach or Refusing to Make Basic Accommodations
  8. Focus on Outward Behaviors, Rather than Functional Skills
  9. Expecting Kids to Perform on Command, Regardless of How Difficult Something is or Where the Child is at Emotionally
  10. Moving too Fast or Not Breaking Down Tasks into Manageable Pieces
  11. Learned Skills Don’t Transfer
  12. Focus on Compliance
  13. Focus on Verbal Communication
  14. Punishment of Any Kind
  15. Presumes Incompetence

You Are a Good Parent

Any parent who would go to the ends of the Earth, at any expense, for their child has earned that title. Please know my intention is not to attack you, though I understand why such an impact could result. You may be thinking that your child’s ABA looks nothing like what I’ve described or that your child loves their ABA therapist. I’m not here to argue or to condemn you. I ask only that you carefully consider the history of ABA, its inherent weaknesses, and the voices of autistic adults urging caution.

A Thank You to All My Fellow Autistic Adults

This post wouldn’t have been possible without the labor of my fellow autistics. You are so incredibly valuable and I appreciate you more than I can express. I have learned from you and I’ve been able to offer my son a better life because of you. Thank you!

And, reader, thank you for listening.

Update (February 10, 2020): After I published this piece, it came to my attention that Alfie Kohn recently published an outstanding piece regarding new research into ABA. It’s well worth a read!

Peaceful Parenting Won’t Work on My Child

Whether you’re having in-person conversations or online, someone somewhere has probably told you that peaceful parenting can’t work for every child. “Every child is different” they say, with the full force of unfortunate implications behind each word.

Every child is different. Some need to be punished.

Every child is different. Some need to be shamed.

Every child is different. Some need to be spanked.

Every child is different. Some need to be arrested.

It’s simply not true. None of it. While peaceful parenting can seem to be an unachievable ideal from the outside, it is an evidence-based approach that takes into account the advances in neuroscience we’ve made over the past century. It is a scientific marvel. And, once you dig into it, you see that it is appropriate for every. single. child.

Well, what about that kid screaming “NO!” in his mother’s face while she sits there unsure of what to do?

An authoritarian parents might lay down the law. “You will NOT treat your mother that way!” Punishment is the answer here!

A permissive parent might allow the behavior to happen and make excuses. “Oh, he just tired. It’s ok.”

A neglectful parent might completely ignore the child.

An authoritative, peaceful parent would address the issue head on. We’ve got a fantastic solution for overwrought children who have lost their ability to regulate: The 3Rs and a limit. As a reminder, the 3Rs are regulate, relate, and reason. This formula was developed by Dr. Bruce Perry, a psychiatrist who specializes in trauma-informed care, and it can be effective for all children.

Regulate

This one is why you should never, ever, ever ignore a child’s undesirable behavior. Children, especially young ones, aren’t very good at self-regulation. The human capacity to self-regulate is a matter of development more than it is a matter of skill. But, we can help our children learn techniques that promote self-regulation. We can be most useful in this educational process by co-regulating with our children. Co-regulation refers to the way a child in a well-attuned relationship with a caregiver can sync physiologically with the adult. The process is different depending on your child’s neurology and personality. Some children need to be hugged. Some just need to be present with the adult. Some children need verbal assurances, such as “I’m right here with you. I’ll be here as long as you need to feel better.” However it works for a particular child, the goal is for the adult to share calmness with the child through physiological accord (think deep breathing), emotional stabilization, and social proximity.

Relate

Relating involves the very human act of empathizing. Once your child’s body and mind have relaxed, the next step is to let your child know he isn’t alone in how he feels. Children’s emotions are human emotions. No matter how trivial their concerns may seem to us, we can understand them. My favorite way to relate is to affirm how my child is feeling. For instance, “You’re angry because I said we’re going to turn off the tv in 5 minutes. You want to watch more tv! I know watching tv is fun.” You could let your child know of an instance from your own childhood when you had a similarly upsetting experience. The goal here is to let your child know you see them. You feel their distress and you understand it.

Reason

Once your child’s body and mind are working in concert with your own, you can explain what’s happened. Using the tv example, I might say, “We need to turn off the tv, because it’s time to take a bath and read our book before bed. Once the tv goes off, we get to play in the bathwater!” The age of your child determines how you will reason. All children, including infants, deserve an explanation for the things that upset them. They understand more than we may give them credit for and, at the very least, they will grow up learning how reason and logic work. If your child begins to get upset again, start back from the first R. Make sure not to skip any of the Rs. They work in sequence. And, a critical note, if your child is dysregulated because of a physical need like sleepiness or hunger, please be sure to address that need in your reasoning.

Limit

Setting a gentle limit may be what upset your child in the first place. You do not need to ignore the limit during the 3Rs. I was recently asked by a friend what she should do in a bookstore where her daughter became dysregulated in an aisle upon being told it was time to go. She told me that her daughter didn’t want a hug and, while she attempted to co-regulate by sitting near the child without touching, her daughter continued to play around in the store. I told my friend, in this case, I would gently take the child’s hands and physically stop her. She said that would set off another meltdown. I told her that’s ok! That’s what the 3Rs are for. Often, we do need to cycle back through until our kids are feeling better.

Our goal can’t be for our child to be happy with our limits, because that’s just not reasonable. I remember being told, as a child, that it was my responsibility to be joyful in the face of admonition. No. Children are just learning how to deal with disappointment. We don’t need to place impossible expectations on them in the process. As an adult I have had to learn how to take criticism without exploding or shutting down, because I didn’t learn how to do it as a child.

Forget all that. Our goal is to ensure that our child feels loved and supported in the midst of their unhappiness and even when they’re expressing that unhappiness in ways we don’t like. So, if you have to scoop up your child and head out the door while she fusses at you because you’ve run out of time, sometimes that’s how it’s gotta be. The work you’re doing by engaging in the 3Rs, giving your child time to process their feelings, and being kind even as you are firm is to establish a pattern of empathy and support that your child can rely on. One that will continue to impact her positively.

One of the criticisms leveled against peaceful parenting is that it just takes so long. It’s true. This approach is a long game and individual interactions can take a while (so build in extra time to make sure your kids get the full benefit of your attention). We are working on fostering the development of genuine human beings who embrace mistakes as learning opportunities, observe the world to see where they can help the most, and find healthy ways to overcome hardships. It’s so much quicker and easier to punish and you could very well do that. But, why? Why would you put off the work of growing up by controlling your kids? Punishment teaches nothing but not to misbehave around people who punish you. It does not teach accountability.

So you have a few choices. One, fall back on punishment and force your kids into compliance; two, let your kids spiral into dysregulation and make excuses for their behavior; three, neglect your kids altogether; or, four, support your child’s psychological and moral development by putting the work in from birth; no punishment required.

A Single Change Makes All the Difference

As you prepare to burst through the gate of a brand new year, your thoughts may center on firm resolutions or even just some loose plans for changes you’d like to see in your life. If being a kinder parent is on your list, I have some comforting news for you. One single change can make all the difference in your efforts to embrace peace and gentleness.

It’s so simple, yet so difficult. It takes intention. It may result in a worldview shift and will likely foster in a positive outlook that can carry you through the toughest parenting challenges. If you have limited time and energy; if you’re overwhelmed at the rigors of peaceful parenting; if you’d hoped you’d have more of a handle on becoming a gentler you but trials and tribulations made your path rockier than you’d ever imagined… if you need help but you don’t know what to help to ask for, I encourage you to do this one, precious, small thing: Reframe.

Reframing is a psychological technique wherein you mentally stand up and move to a different location to see your situation from another, more positive (or at least neutral) perspective. I urge you to watch this incredible 10-minute TED Talk before moving on:

When I talk about reframing in the context of parenthood, I mean choosing to see difficult situations in a new light. As peaceful parents, we know that children do well when they can and, when they can’t, they need our help. Not our wrath. It’s so incredibly hard to honor our own emotions around frustrating incidents while affirming our children’s emotions at the same time. But, that’s what they need from us. In those moments when it becomes too much to bear, taking a breather is always a good decision. It is not a failure. It is self-consideration. When you’re ready to gain new perspective in those tough moments, prioritize empathy.

A friend of mine recently shared with me a difficult interaction she had with her young teenage daughter. The pair were engaged in a mother-daughter clothing battle over cleanliness with the teen wanting to wear her favorite hoodies over the course of several days and her mother wanting to get those hoodies washed and in good order. As we talked, my friend recognized that her daughter was likely associating comfort and safety with her favorite hoodies, which helped reduce her anxiety. So, there was likely a genuine need for her to keep those items close at hand. My friend mentioned that she was planning to get some more hoodies to give to her daughter for Christmas, and I suggested getting two of each, which would make four as gifts and six hoodies in total including the existing pieces. Six hoodies would easily get her daughter through a school week with plenty of time for washing. Once she stepped beyond the conflict, the solution became clear.

When you’re under stress, reframing can feel impossible. It just takes practice and a little ingenuity. Your goal is to view your child in a positive rather than a negative light. With an open mind, you can peer into your child’s heart and see just what’s needed.

I asked friends to share with me some of the most stressful behaviors their children exhibit. You know, the ones that trigger something deep inside that could explode into rage at any moment? Whew! I know that feeling. Let me pause here to say that no one – not me, not you, not anyone – is a machine. Some triggers simply touch too deep, and we do end up exploding. That’s not a fail. We’re human. No way to get around that. We apologize and keep trying. And, that’s what makes us peaceful parents. With that said, I’ll note some of the behaviors that seem to really set folks off.

Aggression

Children, especially very young ones, seem to be prone to using their bodies to communicate displeasure. They may hit, bite, kick, spit, and scratch, all of which can be extremely upsetting to the adults receiving this inappropriate treatment. It’s especially infuriating when our children hurt each other, especially when it’s an older, larger sibling beating up on a smaller one. Those interactions feel an awful lot like bullying, and that’s something many of us cannot tolerate.

Children use aggression when they don’t have adequate words to express their emotions and when they’ve reached a breaking point. There are certainly cases where some children are violent due to physiological or psychological differences, but most children will lash out at one time or another. This form of communication typically peaks around age 2, but can be present throughout childhood as a child’s (including teens) brain is working primarily off emotion and not logic.

Destruction

It’s rough when “I won’t let you hit the dog” triggers a toypocalypse as your child slams all her toys onto the floor in a rage. As adults, we know the financial costs involved with destruction. Just walking through the doors of an emergency room costs several hundred dollars to start. That nice dollhouse Aunt Beverly gave your kids last Christmas? $150 down the drain as it becomes the object of a Godzilla-scale attack by a very angry little boy.

There are reasons not to get too caught up in the value of things when your child’s emotional health is on the line, but all the reasoning in the world won’t relieve the fire that burns in your gut when you see your child tearing up their belongings.

Defiance

As peaceful parents, we want to be countercultural… to view strong responses from our children as natural and healthy. But, there is just something unsettling about a child blatantly doing something we’ve said not to, refusing to eat, throwing food on the floor, and the like. It hits deep and activates our conditioning to view children as subservient and ourselves as singularly worth of respect. Even the calmest among us have a breaking point where we get so fed up, we lash out.

The Reframe

Here’s how it works. When your child does something that sends you right over the proverbial cliff, stop for a moment and recognize that there is an answer. You CAN find a solution! Breathe. Slow down. Look at your child. What’s really happening? If your child is acting in a way that disconnects them from their social group – which is totally contrary to who we are as humans – recognize that there’s a barrier your child can’t overcome no matter how disciplined they might or might not be. Your task is to figure out what that barrier is and guide your child to the solution.

Give reframing a go! Make this your New Year’s Resolution. Once you start to see through the behavior to the need, gentleness will naturally follow. And, if you need guidance to figure out how to support your child through particularly challenging behaviors, I’ll be here all year to help.

That friend I mentioned earlier graciously previewed this post for me. Coincidentally, at the same time, her young son was experiencing a crisis. He had been playing a video game, when he began crying and saying he hated everything. Initially, his father considered taking video games away altogether, but my friend read this post to him and encouraged him to wait. While their son took a breather, they brainstormed why he was acting that way.

Once they put it all together, they realized he had gotten upset when he couldn’t progress past a certain point in the game. My friend’s husband checked the settings and realized they were at a level that was far too difficult for a little boy. After adjusting the difficulty to a more age-appropriate level, he invited his son back in to enjoy a fun father-son game together. The solution was there all along! There is always an answer. You’ve just got to find it.

Would You Devastate Your Child for $100?

How about $50? Less? I’m a numbers person and money motivates me. Not that I seek to hoard it, but that I’m careful to value it appropriately so that my family can stay afloat. I handle the family finances, so money is always on my mind.

This afternoon, my kids were having popcorn as a snack. It’s a choking hazard, but they love it, so I try to make sure they remain seated and calm so they can focus on chewing and swallowing. LL asked me for a treat that we didn’t have, and I tried to explain that to her. She flew into a rage (she’s so my child!) and knocked both her popcorn and her juice onto the floor. I ran into our adjoining kitchen to get cleaning supplies, all the way speaking empathetically to her. She really wanted that treat. She was tired. She lashed out.

In the 20 seconds I was gone, she managed to get onto the table, scurry across it, and toss her brother’s popcorn on the floor too. I came back and he looked shocked. I could see how far gone she was. She needed help. But, to be honest, I was irritated. My instinct was to snatch her up a little too hard and growl through gritted teeth. Something about wasting the food I prepared in this way seemed to touch something deep in me.

I angrily began cleaning up – normally, I’d have her help, but I was upset and I didn’t want to accidentally hurt her in my frustration. As I wiped up the juice on my hands and knees, I thought to myself, we have such a small food budget! This is such a waste. All for what exactly?? A little voice in my mind piped up, how much waste are we really talking here?

Well, let’s see:

  • Vegan Butter: $.14
  • Juice: $.15
  • Popcorn: $.10
  • Paper Towel: $.01
  • Salt: $.004
  • Cleaning Solution: $.003

Forty-one cents. For $.41, I had to hold myself back from yelling or being physically rough with a little one-year-old toddler who is less than 1/10 my size. It’s toxic. Plain and simple. A result of my culture, my upbringing, my inability to use the same logic center in my own mind that some part of me expects my kids to be able to use flawlessly.

This isn’t the first time I’ve sat down and worked out how much something cost that my kids wasted or broke, and whenever I find that number, it’s always heartbreaking. Earlier this year, my son accidentally broke a $200 TV when he was releasing after-school energy. I was in a great mental space that day, and I wasn’t angry with him at all.

I’ve been thinking about the difference between these two incidents. Why was I angrier over $.41 cents of popcorn, juice, and cleaning supplies than I was over a $200 TV? This is why.

Deep down, it felt like she was disrespecting the effort I had put into getting them cleaned up to eat, preparing their snack, serving it to them, treating them gently, and empathetically letting LL know why she couldn’t have the treat she wanted. Even though my logic tells me she’s not old enough to have any concept of what I was going through, those primal reactions still welled up in my chest.

In the end, I recovered without incident and sat down to cuddle with her. She was having a hard time and she needed me to help her regulate herself. It didn’t take long before she was ready to run off and play as though nothing had happened. Meanwhile, I was still reeling and working through what had just washed over me.

Maybe this technique will help you as it’s helped me in the past. When your child’s actions end up in a loss and you’re out some money, calculate the amount. Then, ask yourself, is the value of this thing worth devastating my child by yelling or hitting. I’d say 10/10 times, the answer is no.

If you need help figuring out what to do instead, please check out the two-part series, Punishments, Consequences, and Limits. Or, just have a cuddle with your little love.

Dysregulation and Grounding

No, not that kind of grounding! We don’t do punishments around here. By special request, I am dropping a note to provide some definitions in my own words for those who are wondering. I use the terms dysregulation and grounding, in a variety of forms, to describe some of the important steps in the process of developing self-regulation.

Definitions

  • Self-regulation: the state of being in physiological and psychological balance without external influence. Please note that self-regulation does not mean self-control. Self-regulation develops as a child builds skills to become more able to manage stress in healthy ways. Self-control means arbitrary self-inhibition whether or not the child is handling stressors in a healthy way.
  • Dysregulation: an inability to sustain physiological or psychological balance due to unmanageable stressors.
  • Meltdown: a vigorous, externalized, emotional eruption.
  • Shutdown: self-protective, internalized isolation.
  • Grounding: the process of bringing oneself back into self-regulation.

Explanation

Many of you may already be familiar with the concepts of meltdowns and shutdowns as they apply to neurodivergent children. Kids on the autism spectrum are at an especially heightened risk of experiencing these very upsetting, very natural responses to living in a world in which they have to work every waking hour to operate within the confines of what neurotypical people consider “normal.” Anecdotally, I’ve found that autistic kids are more able to function in neurotypical cultures when they have autistic adults guiding them. They’re less likely to meltdown or shutdown, probably because the autistic adults can better predict stressors and teach the kids how to avoid or work through them.

But, it’s not just neurodivergent kids who respond to stress by melting down or shutting down. Neurotypical kids do it too because, well, they are kids. Up to around age 25, we humans are pretty unskilled in the process of understanding ourselves and negotiating appropriate behavior. Meltdowns and shutdowns occur when children reach a point at which they are overloaded and unable to function. The source could be overstimulation, hunger, exhaustion, or any number of major crises that a child cannot overcome alone.

Signs

Learning the signs of dysregulation isn’t an exact science. Caregivers should have a sense of what’s typical for a child in a given situation and, when things start to escalate, that’s when you know it’s time to act. Unfortunately, because of the way many of us view childlike behavior, it can be easy to brush off signs of dysregulation as a child just being obnoxious. However, behavior is always communication. A child may not be able to explain what’s happening, but their behavior can reveal the truth. Understand that dysregulation is never a choice. If you see any of these signs, or any suggestion that something is up with your child, take action.

Possible Signs of Impending Dysregulation
This list is not exhaustive.

  • Increasing hyperactivity
  • Increasing vocalizations (talking, humming, other sounds, etc.)
  • Increasing destructiveness
  • Whimpering/crying/whining
  • Aggressiveness/anger
  • Unusually avoidant behavior
  • Unexplained mood swings

Intervention

When a child begins to dysregulate, we adults can help. We can guide our child toward grounding by gently offering techniques that soothe at a time when our kids can no longer reason through to a solution. We become their calm. Be sure to choose interventions you know your child enjoys and ask first. Consent is crucial to ensure your child feels as calm and peaceful as possible.

Possible Grounding Interventions
This list is not exhaustive.

It’s easiest to decide what might work best for an individual child if we can figure out what’s wrong to begin with. If my child is just completely overwhelmed and unresponsive to conversation, my go to is always a hug, and then we might move onto other things. If I can see that my child is getting very sleepy, I try to create a calming environment and a place to rest (usually a nap on the couch if it’s during the day). If I can see that my child is starting to physically push people around, I look for ways to introduce heavy work. My response depends on putting together all the other observations I’ve already made leading up to the crisis.

Dysregulation isn’t bad. It’s a natural response that children have no control over. It’s our job as the reasonable adults we are to show our kids how best to cope and get back to a balanced position.