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A Better Way? Viewing autism through the lens of development

🕑 5 minutes read
Posted July 30, 2020

By Sue Simmons
Founder, Equinox Family Consulting Ltd.

“How can we get David to start trying harder?” 

The couple seeking help knew their 12 y/o son was intelligent, but they were making unfortunate comparisons between their two boys who were only a year apart. Mark, their younger son was neurotypical; David was autistic. “We know he can do better… his marks aren’t reflecting his potential. At school he acts inappropriately, causes disruptions and he’s consistently getting poor grades,” his father said. 

These were educated, loving parents who came to me because they genuinely wanted to help their son. Despite their desire to help, like so many parents they were seeking compliance, and focusing only on what they saw above the surface. They assumed that if their son was making an effort he’d be successful. He was smart, after all!

When I asked how they managed these types of situations, they explained that they would take away electronics privileges as a means of giving him time to think about his choices and behavior at school. They reported that since school began, he had become defiant which wasn’t generally in his nature. He was starting to withdraw and chose not to participate in family activities. I felt for this family, their son, and for so many other families who fall into the trap of seeking compliance and viewing challenging behavior as a “symptom” of autism that needs to be fixed.

While they were wise to be concerned, they were about to learn critical information that would forever change the way they interacted with him. Not only would it shift how they viewed his behavior; it would enable them to see it through the lens of compassion. This is part of what I treasure about working with parents. There’s a quote that beautifully captures the “aha” moment parents experience. “When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” (I believe this was written by the late Dr. Wayne Dyer.)

In my travels I’m constantly surprised by how few parents come to understand autism through the lens of development. Yes, the term “neurodevelopmental” is used. However, very few are given a deeper understanding of what this means, and how, without compassionate support, it can literally unravel families. Our system has become so hyper-focused on compliance that even despite a diagnosis, we fail to understand that there’s a reason behind a child’s behavior. Behavior is communication; pure and simple.

Going back to David’s family, as part of the initial educational component of my work I helped them understand how their son’s development had been impacted, because David’s brain and nervous system had different “wiring.” It wasn’t bad or wrong, just different. This impacted their ability to parent him, and explained why despite being verbally adept and highly intelligent, he often acted in ways that caused him to appear younger than his brother. 

Typical parents learn to parent “intuitively.” This word hardly describes the messy business of parenting. However, through a typical infant’s insatiable desire to learn and grow through the parent/caregiver relationship, parents inevitably guide their child’s development… it just unfolds, despite the bumps along the way. 

In David’s case, (and is typically the case of children with autism), he lacked resilience, and often wasn’t able to “borrow the perspective” of others. In his parent’s words, from an emotional perspective they ‘just couldn’t seem to understand one another, the way they could with his brother.’ They were referring to the emotional feedback loop that typical kids have with their parents. 

Through our work, David’s parents began to understand that it wasn’t a matter of effort; he was indeed doing his best. On a deeper level, he was chronically overstressed and terribly misunderstood! (This reminds me of Dr. Ross Greene’s quote, another favorite: “Children do well if they can.”) 

With their eyes now opened, in time they were able to reduce his stress and meet David where he was rather than where they thought he should be. They refrained from taking away electronics privileges, and learned to do simple, household things with him to give him the experience of feeling competent. They looked for the “why” beneath the behavior, and provided comfort and empathy when he struggled. Just a few months later, his defiance began to fade as he felt heard, and his experience of the world was validated. 

How did this actually come about? I supported David’s parents to cultivate their awareness of their thoughts and subsequent actions, and how David responded in turn. By intentionally increasing the number of loving emotional exchanges they shared with him, and learning to give him meaningful praise, their emotional connection grew. They took advantage of David’s love of baseball and engaged him in throwing a ball back and forth, adding in variations to build his resilience. As a “we” they relaxed into being playful together, which they never thought possible. As David learned to experience the joy of co-regulation with his parents, his ability to self-regulate also improved.

Through focusing less on his challenges and more on how they showed up in the face of them they established a safe, emotional connection with him. They had re-established their ability to guide their son’s social and emotional growth. This is where the magic lies! 

This quote from Dr. Mona Delahooke’s book, Beyond Behaviors; Using Brain Science and Compassion to Solve Children’s Behavioral Challenges, sums it up beautifully. “Instead of focusing on what we do to children, we prioritize how we are with them. Instead of focusing on eliminating behaviors, we need to provide children with signals of safety (personalized to their nervous system) that allow social-engagement behaviors to emerge spontaneously.” 

A developmental approach to autism gives us a productive lens through which we can begin to make sense of the challenges our children experience. My hope is that through this family’s story, you too will look below the surface with compassion and empathy, and prioritize how you engage with your child.

In two weeks, I’ll be back with a look at why as parents, YOU are the most important people in your child’s life. Until then, be well!

If youre interested in joining Empowered Parents Navigating Autism, Sues free FB Parent group, click here. The group offers a place to learn and grow, and a community of parents seeking the best for their children and families. 

You can visit Sue’s website at Equinox Family Consulting Ltd.

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