A Coaching Power Tool created by Sue Simmons
(Life Coaching, CANADA)
A Power Tool to improve Quality of Life in Families affected by ASD
Having a child with ASD is incredibly challenging. Most of us know at least one family affected by autism. I’ve experienced it firsthand. My son was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at the age of 5. The years leading up to, and following his diagnosis, were the darkest days of my life. As a woman and Mom, I suffered terribly. The impact on my entire family, not to mention my son and then one-year-old daughter, was immense.
It’s impossible to parent a child on the spectrum as you would a typical child. This is a result of the child’s neural makeup, and the ensuing “gaps” in his or her development. Challenges in information processing cause autistic children to struggle with anxiety and “fight or flight” reactions on an ongoing basis. Therefore, parenting loses its intuitive nature. Here’s how this shows up in the relationship between parent and child:
- The emotional “dance” that occurs between parent and child is most often out of step; neither can judge the other’s emotional state and adjust, from moment to moment
- The child often has difficulty borrowing the parents’ perspective
- Children with ASD miss out on hundreds of tiny “fail and grow” opportunities.
Therefore, ASD children do not possess the resilience that their typical peers do. This often leads to meltdowns and other related challenges. Sadly, these children have a disproportionate number of memories related to failure. This leads them to seek out “safe, static” activities such as electronics or repetitive activities, in an attempt to control their environment. In order to avoid uncertainty, they become even more resistant to novel experiences and opportunities for growth.
The end result? Parents feel chronically helpless and frustrated. They often believe they have failed, although their predicament likely has little to do with them as parents. As I often tell my clients, the best-read, most patient and resourceful parent would likely be little further ahead, without effective intervention.
Learning to be mindful of “triggers” during difficult behaviour, and modifying a “reaction” to a mindful “response” can have a dramatic impact on minimizing the length and severity of meltdowns. Furthermore, when parents change how they respond in the moment, children receive productive nonverbal messages which can quickly strengthen their own ability to self-regulate more effectively.
Imagine the following situation:
Like all parents, Karen adores her son, Shane, who was diagnosed at the age of 7 with “high functioning” autism. Although Shane appears normal, he has a great deal of difficulty managing day-to-day, particularly in his Grade 3 classroom. Academically, he does reasonably well, but he struggles with self-regulation and has difficulty interacting with peers. At recess, Shane trods around the school yard, sometimes talking to himself; always on the periphery of the school yard, as if walking a labyrinth.
Karen and her husband Ryan are often at odds in terms of how to “handle” Shane’s often difficult behaviour. He is prone to terrible outbursts at home, and Karen often feels guilty that she “gives in” to him to keep the peace. On the other hand, she herself can “erupt” during difficult times, raising her voice and lashing out at her children. Sometimes, it’s all too much for her.
Karen and Ryan lovingly joke about how Shane would be perfectly happy as the King of his own empire, but deep down, they know this is not the case at all. It’s just so much easier to bury their heads in the sand, and let him have his own way. However, Karen knows in her heart that the easy way out will not help Shane to learn to function in our dynamic world. Quite the opposite; it will “teach” him that in order to function, others need to acquiesce to his desires, leading to a false sense of competence and entitlement.
When Shane arrives home from school, he is typically wound like a top. He has struggled all day to manage his stress, and desperately needs an outlet. Karen does everything possible to avoid stepping on the invisible land mines. The video is cued up, his favourite snack is ready, and as long as the computer doesn’t crash, all will be well. At least, until she calls him for dinner, that is. Ah, the usual dinner time battle. Well, at least she will have a few minutes of peace before then, she thinks to herself.
Between the kids, her job, the kids’ activities and trying to keep the house from looking like a cyclone hit every day, she’s at her wit’s end. She hasn’t slept well for the last few nights; her family’s visiting on the weekend, and every day feels like an uphill climb.
Karen makes her way back into the kitchen after getting Shane set up on the computer, and quickly loses herself in her usual mental chatter and to-do list. Suddenly she hears Shane and her older son, Brian, screaming. What ensues is classic. Two boys clashing over one computer; raised voices, tears and accusations, and one seething Shane. In a nano-second, her peaceful moment has vanished, and she snaps, screaming at the top of her voice…
Brian, it’s not your turn on the computer!!! When are you going to learn not to interrupt your brother?? Honestly, when am I going to get some peace? Who’s supposed to make dinner? Your father won’t be home for another hour, and we’ve got swimming lessons tonight.
Karen’s tendency to emotionally “erupt,” while understandable, is not serving her, or her family. While she is not aware of it, meeting escalated voices with an equally escalated voice will only perpetuate this negative cycle of challenging behaviour.
Through coaching, Karen will learn that by becoming mindful, collecting herself emotionally, and choosing to respond differently, will bring the difficult situation to a close much more readily. More importantly, a different response could also help her son to build resilience and self-regulation skills, not to mention preventing her anxiety from spiking as well!
Cultivating mindfulness as a tool using R.A.I.N.
In mindfulness circles, the acronym R.A.I.N is used to support people in dealing with difficult emotions. “R” is to recognize when a strong emotion is present. “A” is to allow or acknowledge that it is indeed there. “I” is to investigate and bring self-inquiry to the body, feelings, and mind, and “N” is to non-identify with what’s there. This non-identification is very useful in that it helps to deflate the story and cultivates wise understanding in the recognition that the emotion is just another passing mind state, and not a definition of who you are. Just like seeing a movie, standing back and watching the actors play out their dramas, by non-identifying with your story and seeing it as impermanent, this will help assist in loosening your own tight grip of identification. Utilizing R.A.I. N. as a practice can help to bring space to be with things as they are and grow in deeper understanding of what drives, underlies or fuels our fears, anger, and sadness.
An important aspect of using the R.A.I.N. acronym is to uncover what meaning we make of difficult situations with our children. We may or may not be aware of it, but aside from the obvious frustration these moments bring, we are also being “triggered” by the feelings associated with the meaning we assign to difficult situations.
Here are some examples:
- “This will never end. I’ll be dealing with this forever.”
- “My child will never amount to anything!”
- “What did I do to deserve this? I must be a terrible parent, not to mention a terrible person!”
As a starting point, Karen can begin to recognize her “trigger” responses to Shane’s behaviour, and acknowledge that it is driving her reaction. She can investigate and bring inquiry to her thoughts, and begin to “non-identify” with them. With coaching, Karen can learn to step back and see patterns that have developed. As she builds her capacity for mindfulness, she can learn to bring this new awareness into her day through simple “check-ins,” and “respond” to events in her day in a more proactive and less reactive manner.
The beauty of this approach in families affected by ASD (and every family), is:
- Through becoming mindful and managing one’s natural tendency to react to challenging situations, a host of positive benefits can be enjoyed by the individual, including reduced stress and anxiety, and ultimately improved health and well being.
- Through observing the parent’s non-reaction to difficult behaviour, over time, the child’s meltdowns will naturally diminish in duration and possibly frequency.
- By conveying the nonverbal message to the child that, “You will be OK, I love you, I am here...” the child will learn to feel safer in the presence of the parent, and begin to assimilate a calmer emotional state.
- Through this approach, the child will begin to build resilience, and learn to self regulate more effectively, leading to experiences of genuine competence and mastery.
When parents adopt the principles of R.A.I.N. through parent coaching, dramatic improvements in “calming the family waters” are possible. This builds parents’ confidence and enables them to put the next sequence of productive strategies in motion – further compounding efforts to improve quality of life for all family members.
- What becomes activated or triggered in you as a result of difficult situations with your child? Is it guilt, hopelessness or feeling “stuck”?
- How can you cultivate moments of mindfulness into your daily life? (“minute” meditations, mindful movements, etc.)
- Have you had experience using a principal such as R.A.I.N. in another aspects of your life, such as your career? Were you able to mindfully shift your emotions in a productive manner? What was the outcome, versus if you had simply reacted without conscious thought?
 Bringing Home the Dharma: Awakening Right Where You Are, by Jack Kornfield. Copyright (c) 2011 by Jack Kornfield