November 12, 2016

An Oasis of Calm: Helping Your Child with Autism Cope with Reactions to the Election

Hello Everyone,

Image result for parent talking with child            I recognize that this post may be a little late in coming.  As you know, the results of our very recent presidential election have come as quite a shock to many, leading to many strong and complex reactions.  It seems that everyone has been impacted in some way or another and to varying degrees; when several parents of clients I work with who have autism discussed their reactions and how they were coping, I began to think about the impact the election has had on children and teens with autism.  The unfortunate prevailing, and much stereotype informed, view of individuals with ASD is that they are off in their own worlds and not aware, or even capable of for that matter, understanding the complexities of subjects such as politics and the ramifications of the election on society.  I have found that such a view is highly unfounded and not based in fact, especially since research has proven time and again, that despite reception and processing difficulties, individuals with autism are highly aware of what goes on around them in their own way and do have reactions and do make meaning of incoming inputs.  Remember, individuals with autism do struggle to make meaning, identify and use appropriate contingent responses in the appropriate context, to handle different social and life situations.  They often compensate, and very successfully I might add, by having excellent memories and often very keen observation skills with which they take in the world around them to create "fact files" to be used in a recall mode in the future.  It is very likely that in their observations they have been observing your reactions and those of peers and other adults over the course of the election and are generating their own understanding of the situation and generating their own values and beliefs to make sense of what is going on and maintain a level of internal equilibrium thrown off by all the stressors of daily life as well as new ones generated by the election.
Image result for parent talking with child          Parents are, first and foremost, the oasis of calm for their child.  Children are very suggestible, especially when younger, and are very much influenced by those around them, especially those they look to for guidance and nurturance.  Depending on your reaction to the election and how you express it, your child with autism may believe that something is very wrong that could put you or them in danger.  Being aware of how and when you share your reactions of others and what you say, you need to make sure you are setting a calm example for your child and remove potential stressors of seeing you disorganized, which may trigger their own disorganization when discussing with them.  This is your critical first step.  Consider taking some time to do activities that calm you and help you get into a positive mind-space.
Image result for meditationOnce done, do some "self-work" really focus in on your own reactions and where they come from.  What are you thinking?  What are you feeling?  What behaviors that you are aware of or not, occurring which may be observable indications that you are reacting in a certain way.  Remember that just because children with autism struggle with reading non-verbal language and with making meaning, does not mean they are not paying attention.  They will ask questions and will often follow along with what you do to help make that "fact file".  If your actions are incongruent, you will confuse them and may even generate concerns about trust and efficacy around you being an "expert" who gives them information they need.  Once you have done yours "self work" you can approach the present issue of helping cope with reactions.
          There are many steps you can take to be that oasis of calm after you calm yourself.

  • First of all, remember that your child has valid fears, concerns and opinions, even if you do not agree with them or know how they reached their conclusion.  So the first step to being that oasis is to validate them genuinely and show that their reactions matter.  You can't work through their reaction until you can identify with them from their point of view!
  • MAINTAIN A SENSE OF NORMALCY.  There are many fears that the results of the election will lead to numerous scary consequences for many people from immigration, to healthcare and institutionalized discrimination.  Validate those fears (see below) but also reinforce how their lives are still the same, particularly many aspects of their routines and daily life.  This will go great lengths to easing anxiety around fears that everything is going to fall apart.
  • Recognize that children with autism often speak through very fluid and often complex metaphors.  For example, an expressed fear is that the newly elected president will permit more police brutality because of certain verbal statements that have been made.  Investigate into the metaphor being used to find the underlying meaning and concern, which can then be addressed.
  • When targeting a specific worry, use balanced and neutral facts to provide counterpoints to whatever facts the child has developed to support that worry.  For example, speaking with them about Black Lives Matter and its efforts to curb police violence as a counterpoint to the "imminent increase in police brutality".
  • As a side note, it is very, and I cannot stress enough, very important that counter-facts and opinions are presented as balanced and non-partisan as possible.
  • You are their "expert" and as such provide your child with facts of life and help them navigate their social world.  As they are often very concrete thinkers and unable to contemplate wider, abstract concepts such as many people having  many other opinions, that can vary from topic to topic, a child with autism is likely to take information and see it as "the gospel truth" and not something to budge from.  If you can provide information from different perspectives and stress that people have different opinions you can make great contributions to their ability to handle peers and their reactions and opinions.
  • Remember that children with autism, and children in general, may not understand the implications of their actions or statements being made by parents or others.  They may also not understand the difference between appropriate and inappropriate contexts in which to share them.  They may think they are simply stating a fact, while it actually is a negative message some might find hurtful or worrying.  You can make sure that your child struggles less around this aspect by monitoring what you say and providing balanced information.
  • Help your child find appropriate outlets to express their conclusions and views where it will be seen as constructive and non-detrimental to them from a consequences standpoint.
  • Encourage communication with your child's teacher, therapist, and other service providers around ways they can express themselves and share their fears safely and healthily.
  • Encourage understanding of why the winner of the election was who they were by using metaphor to explain the complex process of how a president is elected.  This may be more beneficial for younger children than older ones, but one idea is to use the "team captain" metaphor where team-mates decide who they want to lead the team and can replace them.  it is very simplistic but can be a good entry to effectively answering other questions about elections.
  • Remember to speak to the child's intelligence and ability to understand election related concepts. 
  • Again avoid using bias and personal beliefs when answering questions about why people voted for whom they did.  There are many good people who voted for the winner and many good people who voted for the other candidate.  Emphasize that point because your child undoubtedly goes to school with children of families with voters on both sides, hearing their opinion.  This holds especially true when discussing worries around race, gender, religion, etc.
  • Limit screen time to the television, computer, other electronic devices, and social media.  Many children with autism communicate easier through social media, yet they are simultaneously exposed to more frequent inputs about the election, peer opinions (see my post on social media anxiety), and views not in context of wider issues.  You can help them make sense of it.
  • Move slowly and in slow increments.  We may be able to process our responses faster than those with developmental disabilities and do not struggle with perseveration to such a degree.  The topic and same concerns may come up repeatedly until the child feels safe enough to move on to the next one.  Be patient, breathe, and move slowly through each one giving as much time as is needed.
Please remember these are only a few suggestions and is not intended to be all-encompassing.  I would love any further thoughts and suggestions and welcome your responses!  Good luck and be well, after all the holidays will soon be upon us!

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