Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Getting to Acceptance

I've already talked quite a lot about why we're not promoting autism "awareness" this month (as MammaFry says, we're already pretty aware).  We're all about that acceptance around here, and acceptance starts at home. Everyone's got their differences, and they're all okay.

But that's not to say that getting to acceptance (even self-acceptance) is always easy. As I assume a lot of the people reading this know, there's an entire sub-genre of adult autistic writing devoted to the awkward childhood play date.  For example, the story at the beginning of Look me in the Eye, where J.E. Robinson hits the other boy in his sandbox for playing incorrectly and then pets a little girl like a dog to try to make friends with her.  M. Kelter has a few good examples from his childhood, as well.

Alienation. Loneliness. Rejection. This is the reality for a lot of our kids early in life.  As M. describes it:
I lacked body language and was not picking up on the nuances of non-verbal cues. I was blind, in other words, to a large portion of the shared context that I experienced with other kids.  Needing people, interested in others, I walked- repeatedly- into the buzz saw of rejection.

My self-confidence eroded. I became quiet, withdrawn. And afraid.

Sounds pretty familiar.  My boy has spent most of his life being either afraid of his peers or making them afraid of him. His social challenges have caused depressive behaviors, a negative self-image, and worsened his anxiety.  I can't count the number of times he's told me that he's bad, he's evil, he's naughty, usually after getting overwhelmed in a social situation and either hitting other kids or otherwise struggling. He's called himself stupid on multiple occasions.

He's four.

He already knows he's different.

Let's not make it worse by further stigmatizing his autism in the name of awareness.

Let's make it better.

So what do I try to do to support him? First, I use what I know about his differences to help him connect with others. I also try not to set him up to fail.  I know that he hates sharing and is overwhelmed by busy and unstructured environments. Other kids play wrong: he's not likely to follow other children in child-directed group play. So I try not to put him in environments that force him to do these things. When he has to do these things, I try to get (or give) him the support he needs to be as successful as he can be (which usually amounts to adult intervention and mediation).

He has strong interests and will often follow along adult-directed group play.  Designing play that is cooperative rather than competitive is vital. If I can incorporate his love for the Octonauts, space, or sea creatures, total win.

I also try to be very explicit about social rules, and going forward I hope to have lots of detailed conversations about how to meet his social goals. This hasn't really been possible yet (I mean, the kid is only 4), and he may or may not be able to express what he wants socially.  But if he is, I'll be there to help him plan things out.

Finally, I have been trying to get the kid a positive outlook. Part of that has been changing my parenting style to focus on positive praise, rewards, and points of agreement. This has dramatically decreased conflict and tension in our house, and Flynn's outlook on life has improved as a result.

The other part has been to be totally upfront about his diagnosis. He already knows he's different from other kids - a parent will never successfully hide that fact from their kid. So instead, we're embracing it, making it a point of pride. He has an amazing ability to spot details I would never notice. He sees patterns I would miss. He has an incredible memory. I talk with him about the stuff that he's good at as often as I can, and if it's autism related, we own that.

Slowly but surely, we're getting to acceptance.

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