The last time our Autism Support Worker came out I told her how Bear, our 9 year old autistic son, has been very physical recently when he gets upset. When I say physical I mean it really hurts. He uses pinching, punching, squeezing and ramming to express himself emotionally.
I can’t remember what it was about but the worst time he had me pinned against my bed and kept pushing his whole body against mine. I felt crushed bodily and emotionally. Bear is usually very loving and warm. So it is always distressing to me when he flips into aggressive mode. He was cross and he resorted to non verbal communication to express himself. I remembered something I was told at an Autism Workshop last year, ‘If your child is doing something you don’t like or find uncomfortable at 8, if you don’t deal with it at 8 they will still be doing it at 18.’ It’s a powerful way to imagine what life might become with our children on the spectrum if we just let things happen to us and to them. Things will stay the same.
Visuals are commonly used to help communicate and remind children with autism. I no longer use visuals with Bear because last year he started getting upset by them and throwing them at me. Rather obviously I decided that they were hindering rather than helping him and we stopped using them.
When the Autism Support Worker heard what was going on she suggested a twofold approach. Firstly bring back visuals and secondly to work on his emotional regulation.
Hearing our experience with Bear and his last set of visuals she could tell I was apprehensive about this part of her plan. She asked me if he liked words and if maybe the problem had been the pictorial element of those visuals he threw at me.
I realised that I used to write short lists on the back on an envelope to explain what is happening that day to Bear so he can process the information but I had stopped doing it. I had got waylaid by the terminology. Just because the word visuals sounds like pictures, and often seem to be pictorial, it doesn’t mean they have to be pictures. Or have to include pictures. So we are going to list instructions.
Bear really, really loves Dennis the Menace so I am using Dennis as a positive role model (!!! I know) to explain emotions. We were given a chart of emotions ranging from calm to out of control and I found our old laminated traffic light set. The list is colour coded and numbered with matching faces for each emotion. We came a bit unstuck over colours on the chart not matching the colours on our traffic lights. So I need to do more colour paper circles to include the other colours or only talk to him using one set at a time about emotions. I did talk to him about Dennis and how Dennis feels and he took this on board well. We are yet to see if it will have a positive effect on his daily outbursts.
Do you still find visuals helpful?
Or have you found they had a shelf life and your child stopped responding to them like Bear did?
To sum up the two simple and effective methods to support our children to regulate their own emotions are;
One; Use visuals, pictures or just lists, to show them what is coming that day and we can make a conscious effort to talk to them about recognising what they are feeling inside.
Two; Teaching them to use numbers or colour charts with a scale to help them recognise and communicate where they are at any given point in the day. Using a familiar character as a reference can really help children with autism to relate their own feelings inside them to how they are able to respond in stressful and challenging situations.
I am aware as I finish writing this that I also need to give Bear something he can use to regulation his emotions. Examples of this would be counting to ten, taking five deep breaths or leaving the room when he starts to feel different inside. I will revisit this subject in an upcoming post as it is very important and central theme with helping children be more comfortable and the whole family to have more fun together.
I am also aware that as parents we need to use these same techniques to keep our emotional responses in check at the same as supporting and teaching our children. Please comment below if you have found something here that resonates with your experiences parenting?