As a child with autism, I did not understand my emotions, let alone the emotions of others. It was like being in a tunnel. I could not understand most behaviors of others unless they were very obvious. A person crying was clearly sad. Someone laughing was happy. That was about the extent of my understanding. I felt blind and lost to the world of interaction. All I could do was watch and mimic. Then I would practice what I saw and get in trouble. Usually this was at school.
I am in my 40s, so I have had some years to figure out behavior. I have learned that people with autism often do not understand emotions and behaviors in the instinctual way that most people do. I have learned to adjust by asking trustworthy people to translate for me the actions of others that baffle or frustrate me. I have dealt with reactions of confusion and let that go. I am a middle-aged woman, but still a child in the world of human interaction. That is fine and I accept that. Autism is a developmental disability. People with autism are delayed in many things, such as social interaction.
Parents serve as models
Parents, your children with autism may be very confused and lost in the social world. They look to you as models of behavior and may copy you. So many children struggle socially that their anxiety heightens, and they cling to people they trust, such as parents. Therefore, the parents will be the beacon of everything that demonstrates success. If you, mom or dad, come home from work (or are already home due to unemployment/furlough/working from home/etc.) and share your opinions about the world, your child might listen and copy almost to the point of verbatim. They may not know how to create opinions for themselves. Then they might go to other areas such as school and show your actions. For example, if you curse around them, they might curse at school and get in trouble. You are their guiding light on what is successful. So if you do it, it is the Right Thing to Do.
I used to get in trouble all the time with my peers at school. I would say and do what my parents told me to do, and I would get quickly ostracized. Case in point: my dad would tell me to tell peers to “go walk off a cliff” if they were being jerks. Well, that did not work! Perhaps it was a comment that was popular in the 1960s, who knows? My mother would (and still does) give me social scripts I should say in situations that have already happened. I cannot go back in time and fix what I said. They were (and are) just trying to help.
Getting through a challenging time
Parents, I cannot imagine the challenges that this time is putting upon all of you. All of you are different and are experiencing different things. What is a common thread is that you all are sharing the changes brought on by social distancing, schools and services shut down, and now, the focus on police brutality, racism, and protests in the streets of major cities. I cannot imagine how each and every one of you is taking this. You must be feeling all sorts of new feelings.
Your children will pick up on your stress. At school, my students react when one child is feeling stressed, and a ripple effect will happen through the classroom. The energy is strongly felt. Children who are around stressed parents at home may show the stress through behaviors in other areas such as school. This time can provide a teachable moment for your children to understand that even their parents have big feelings. It’s important for parents and caregivers to manage those feelings in safe and healthy ways around children.
What can you do to manage your emotions so you can remain a strong force for your child?
First, know that you are human and imperfect. We all are. Be aware of your emotions and be at peace with them. If you are feeling anxiety, that is okay. Other undesired emotions are also okay. What is important is how you handle them. You and your children will benefit from learning how to accept those emotions and keep moving forward. The Serenity Prayer is an excellent anchor for this.
This is a hard time. How you make it will be how your kids make it. You will be teaching them how to work with their stressed feelings and cope in a successful way. They may not understand their feelings – I still do not understand my feelings at times – but they can mimic how you manage and have success later on in school and with peers. If they feel the feelings that you have now, they can show ways of coping that will get them accepted, rather than ostracized, in other environments.
Mary Janca works as an educator for individuals with autism and their families. She is on the autism spectrum and uses her own insight to connect with others and guide them to understanding autism in ways that trainings and literature may not reach.
She has been teaching college, high school, and middle school for over 20 years to students of all types of learning styles. She holds a master’s degree in Special Education: Emotional and Behavioral Disorders and has state certifications in multiple high school and middle school subjects. She has also been involved in many agencies as either a helper or receiver, including: ASNC, TEACCH, Vocational Rehabilitation, and specialized school environments. Her goal is to be able to help in as many settings as possible, because there is such a high need for educators.
Mary enjoys the quirks of having autism but appreciates being able to connect with others. She goes through many of the trials that most individuals on the spectrum face, including trouble with taking the perspective of others, following expected behaviors, and managing emotions. She hopes to keep learning about the field of autism, so that she can continue to reach out and help others.
Tags: ASNC, autism, autism anxiety, autism asperger parenting tips, autism behavior, autism nc, autism north carolina, autism social skills, autism society north carolina, autism society of NC, Autism Society of North Carolina, Autism spectrum, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Developmental disability