As a parent or therapist, do you ever experience pain in witnessing the struggles of an individual on the autism spectrum?
Yes! We witness it all the time. And that’s exactly why we need a Witness Protection Program! We feel the pain, the struggle, the hurt and the challenges our children, teens and young adults face when they have autism. Their world is not easy.
Developing compassion that is laced with depth of understanding and the ability to make adjustments to ease the pain of the person with ASD is our mission.
Understand The Needs
Can you imagine going through life anxious and upset … trying to take action that calms you, feels right to you, and makes sense to you … only to find that the world not only doesn’t understand you, but deems your behavior unacceptable?
Most of the world does not understand the needs and behaviors of someone with autism. Even many of those of us who love someone with autism don’t understand, yet we still devote a ton of time trying to protect our loved ones from the ignorance of the world. We also need to protect ourselves. It is difficult at best.
“Having someone who understands is a game changer!”
Lazy, selfish, mean, stupid, arrogant, angry, cruel and crazy are some of the many adjectives people who don’t understand have used to describe someone with ASD whose behavior doesn’t match up with social norms and expectations.
So often this is sheer misinterpretation, borne of ignorance or impatience. It’s also just plain offensive!
Recognizing Thought Patterns
For example, recently I asked my adult son to help me with a small chore that required 2 sets of hands and 5 minutes. He sat down and explained to me that he knew social norms dictated that he should just do it. He even wanted to be helpful to me.
But he also explained to me that he felt he couldn’t do it because it would compromise the day of rest and preparation he had planned for that day before he started a long work week.
This was not an excuse. It was a bona fide explanation of how his world view influences his decisions.
To someone with autism, it is either a day of rest, or it isn’t. Black and white.
He knew he needed the sense of resting, and knew that this chore would destroy that for him. Given the compromise he would have to make, it was “can’t” from his perspective, not “won’t.” (Read more about Recognizing “Can’t” vs “Won’t”.)
Many a family of someone with autism has experienced the black and white thinking – usually without knowing it! It can be frustrating, and easy to misinterpret. That’s why we provide our training programs for parents and therapists. (Click here to read more about our Training Program for Parents, or click here to read more about our Training for Professionals.)
Because I have worked so hard to understand how his mind works, I can appreciate what he explained. It made sense to me, so I found another way to get the chore done without it being a big deal. We both went on with our day without any difficulty, frustration or argument.
In total contrast, when my son’s father heard that he asked not do the chore, he hit the roof! He did not appreciate the need my son expressed, even though my son went to great pains to explain it to him. Out of frustration, he fired off a litany of negative adjectives accusing my son of being “lazy, uncaring, and selfish.” None of which are true.
This experience is all too common. My son felt hurt, shamed, blamed, misunderstood and inadequate after his father was done berating him. That was not helpful…it only added to the difficulty my son faces every day.
A New Perspective
The difference between my approach and his father’s approach is that mine was borne out of the experience, expertise and insight gained from interviewing hundreds of parents and professionals about what works and what doesn’t, and living submerged in the experience of working with my own sons every day. Through that, I have learned a new perspective and how to handle situations differently.
I have worked to create an environment where my “go to” reaction, the focus of the interaction, is to try to understand…to appreciate the effect the autism has on my son… not to just push my agenda and demand my way.
“Appreciation requires that I step back and listen intently when my son speaks.”
No, this is not a common way of interacting in every family of someone with autism. It’s not taught in school, and isn’t part of traditional behavioral training, parent training, or part of most therapy protocols. (Click here to read more about our Training for Professionals.)
Yet it is highly effective for everyone in the family – for family members and for the person with autism.
Appreciation requires that I step back and listen intently when my son speaks. I need to listen for the underlying struggle beneath the obvious behavior. The less able your child is to verbalize their feelings, the more important it becomes to appreciate the thinking of someone on the spectrum. Only in that way, can you fill in the missing information accurately.
A fairly high level of appreciation is what enables us to support our loved one the way they need to be supported for their emotional health and ours too! (Click here to read more about how Appreciation Makes Life With ASD Easier.)
In addition to providing a calmer, more nurturing and happier home environment for the entire family, through my attempts to appreciate my son’s world view, he gets the sense that he is worthy to be understood, even in a world that spends precious little energy trying to understand.
Having someone who understands is a game changer! Autism is a family affair. We are all affected – ratcheting up the level of understanding from awareness to appreciation helps everyone to live a better life.
But taking the appreciation approach is not always easy, and requires us to educate ourselves to the point that we can identify and respond therapeutically to the unique needs of someone on the spectrum. This deep understanding also means that we witness the struggles of our loved one so intimately that we may experience every pain they do.
The challenge of balancing our witness of their pain with appreciation for what they experience, is why we need a witness protection program; a way to help ourselves be strong and emotionally available when our loved ones with autism need us the most to be flexible enough to allow understanding to guide our reactions.
The results of our effort to understand is that we are not just winning the day-to-day battle, but winning the overall war!