A small moment on the beach tells a big and important story about Aspergers parenting:
Bella’s meltdowns and the message Mom got
Bella’s mom came for her first visit quite desperate. Bella was prone to severe emotional outbursts and aggressive behavior, especially when she was upset. These outbursts occurred at home, in the community, at school. In front of everyone.
Mom knew something was wrong. Something she did not entirely understand. But everyone, including family members, friends, educators, and professionals told her that Bella “just needed to learn to listen”. Mom easily translated this comment: they were telling her she was not being a good enough parent, not teaching her child, not making her mind or listen.
Not so much.
I evaluated Bella and found her to have a mild autism spectrum disorder, Asperger’s Disorder. I recommended services at school and family treatment.
From “making her listen” to helping her regulate
Bella’s Mom and I worked together for several months to better understand Bella and her behavior. We collaborated in developing parenting strategies that would help her learn to regulate her emotions and develop her social skills. After several months of this treatment, Mom told me about a day at the beach with her kiddo. Bella was playing cooperatively in the sand with a group of kids. She was doing well. She was right in the middle of things socially. Per our agreement, Mom was vigilant, ready to do any live social coaching that might be necessary. After a good while she noticed that Bella started to throw sand at another child. This was a very common behavior in the past.
Last summer, Mom would have treated this as misbehavior. She would have intervened by reminding/admonishing Bella not to throw sand. She would have expected that Bella would not have responded positively to this reminder. Instead she would have escalated emotionally and gotten out of control. So she would have to forcibly remove Bella from play as a consequence. Bella would be screaming and crying and kicking, while Mom carted her away from the kids.
Mom had a clear description of this sequence from last summer. It was not a pretty picture. In previous years, it would have been a big yucky scene. Bella would have been out of control. Mom would have been upset, confused, guilty and ashamed. Guilty because it must be her fault that she did not teach Bella to listen and behave better. Ashamed because everyone was watching her be a bad mom with a bad child. Confused because she knew it was more complicated than that. Extremely upset because of all of the above.
This summer she did it differently. As we had been discussing, she saw Bella’s throwing of sand as an early indicator that Bella was becoming dysregulated, losing her ability to control herself. She focused on what was positve and great – that Bella had been so cooperative and social in play with multiple peers. She assumed that she had reached her limit at that moment and need help regaining her equilibrium and reducing arousal. She needed something that would calm her down so that she could resume social play.
So Mom just walked over and said entirely positively, “Bella, let’s go for a swim.” Bella was happy to. They swam together for a while. Had a good time together. Bella quieted and calmed and then after the swim break went back to playing with her friends. With no further throwing of sand.
A small shift in Mom’s understanding yielded a huge improvement in their relationship.
Understanding A: “There goes Bella misbehaving again. Why can’t she behave? Everyone’s watching her. Everyone’s watching me. What’s wrong with her? Why didn’t I teach her to behave? Whats wrong with me?”
Understanding B: “Bella has been doing great with the kids. But its hard and her misbehavior tells me she is too stressed and needs a break to calm down. Swimming always calms her nervous system. We’ll have fun in the water and then she be calm enough to rejoin the play.”
So with this shift in her picture of her child, the whole experience is transformed:
On the beach last year: “Bad child. Bad Mom.”
On the beach this year: “Child with vulnerabilities who is doing her best to belong. Mom who is helping her succeed despite these vulnerabilities.”
What a change. That’s why I love doing this work.
The same shift can help with any child (or grown up for that matter).
The basic step is to join the person, understand what is contributing to the difficulty, and collaborate to build skills and solve the problem.