Strategies for spectrum children that might be useful for ALL children

There is a statistic that gets thrown about that dentistry is actually about 30% evidence-based and 70% anecdotal. I reckon that parenting is probably very similar and how I have made a five year old that only appears to have all the annoying traits of every other fellow preschooler is definitely more luck than judgement.

And then came my second born who turned out to have additional needs associated with autism. Everything that works for the neurologically normal child has no place in the universe with a spectrum child, mainly because they’re not experiencing the same universe. However, with a little gentle support and guidance (for me, not him), it all became painfully clear – I have to get into his universe. A world where things are literal and sometimes very overwhelming, to try and merge the two realities together.

Whilst on this journey, I have learnt many ways to help him (and me) cope and it became obvious how five main strategies in helping our spectrum child would also be enormously helpful to our non-spesh kiddo.

The Iceberg Analogy

Our boy is fairly non-verbal and his only means of communication presently is screaming, biting, hitting and physical positioning. Very antisocial behaviour which his father and I happily acccept (mostly) because we know he has no other way of dealing with whatever it is that is bothering him. However, we still have to be detectives to find out exactly what it was so we can (hopefully) avoid it the next time. I make this sound easy of course. A spectrum child may have an increased sense of smell, taste, hatred of lights and sounds, and many other things we take for granted that become overwhelming for them.

This got me a thinking. Just because my son has ASD, does this make his feelings more valid than my daughter’s? Ugh. No, I suppose it doesn’t. Which really means I have to stop dismissing my daughter’s feelings so readily just because she is sobbing her heart out, frantically licking chocolate spread off a spoon, because I didn’t do something in quite the way she wanted. I have to not focus on the behaviour being exhibited (as fantastically irritating as that may be), but look at the cause lying under the surface and see what I can do to help.

Take-up time

My son has no concept of time and sand timers offend him. Getting him to understand that something needed to come to an end so we could leave the house, especially when he was micro focused on his trains, or transfixed with Thunderbirds, was always a bit tricky. Then I was introduced to the idea of take-up time – a short amount of time for him to comes to terms with the fact that something will be ending and something new beginning. I have found that he likes counting so whenever his activity needs to end, I explain, “In three, this will be finished” and give him a countdown from three using my fingers as a visual cue. Not a lot of time, 3 seconds, but it seems enough to allow him to cope with it.

I now use a similar strategy with my daughter. She is more aware of time as a concept, but has no clue what time means. So I use watches, clocks and timers as a visual way to give her time to come to terms with what needs to happen next. Yeah, I may still get the mind melting whinge noise on occasion, but on the whole, it really does work a treat.

No is a swear word

This has to be one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. Give up the N word. It’s not until someone tells you that you need to stop using it that you realise how thoroughly entrenched it is into daily life – especially with children. Every other word seems to be a teeth-clenched or exasperated, “NO!”

So what’s the thinking behind it. Well, spectrum children are very good at filtering things out, meaning that they can sometimes get mistaken for being deaf or ignorant. They’re merely having to bang the radiator repeatedly with a wooden spoon so they can focus on that rather than whatever it may be that is bothering them. Therefore, the word “no” gets filtered out too because it’s part of the background stimulation that is discombobulating them. Plus, they aren’t learning anything from the word. It doesn’t provide any information for the spectrum child. So what do you do instead? This leads me to the next strategy.

Say what you want, not what you see

The boy has particularly anti-social behaviour. Just saying “NO HITTING!” every time he hit or bit another child, made no difference to his intention because it provided him with no information on what to so instead. It also left me feeling very frustrated because I could see it meant jack shit to him. Therefore, giving him an instruction such as, “hands down” or “feet on floor” provides him with a clearer directive, and me a productive way to deal with the behaviour. He hasn’t stopped hitting or pushing but he definitely responds when he hears me saying, “hands down” meaning he’ll hesitate before sending a toddler hurtling off the top of a slide giving me enough time to catch them.

I think all children are very open to the power of suggestion, and hopefully now, my girl also benefits from clearer guidance focussing on the positive rather than the negative.

Backward chaining

Definitely my favourite. Spectrum children can disappear for hours in an activity that motivates them and have zero interest in anything else. This makes playing with a spectrum child quite difficult. Encouraging them to partake in other activities that might be a bit of a challenge for them is very important and how you do this is something called ‘backward chaining’. So you have a simple puzzle, for example, fill it in leaving just one piece out, then get the kid to put the last piece in, congratulate them and say, “well done for finishing.” The next time, you leave two pieces out and so on. This also works for getting dressed. Put all the clothes on, all bar one arm and then encourage them to do it. When they do, you say, “Well done for getting dressed!”

The thinking behind this is self esteem. We all know that sticking one arm in a jumper is not getting dressed but rather than laying out a pair of trousers and a jumper and saying, “get dressed and I’ll help when you get stuck,” by working backwards, it means there is less chance of failure; the child doesn’t get despondent because the activity is too hard and overwhelming therefore the activity always feels good.

So there you have it. Easier said than done. In fact, if anyone can give me ideas for alternatives to “NO BITING!” I would greatly appreciate it. “Kind mouth” or “soft teeth” just ain’t cutting it at the moment. Answers on a postcard….
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7 thoughts on “Strategies for spectrum children that might be useful for ALL children

  1. ‘Tongue out’ maybe? It’ll look weird, but he certainly won’t bite then.
    A great post though. I think you’re right – we far too easily deal with a behaviour, not the cause, and thus undermine the emotion of kids. It’s not just spectrum kids who find the world unfair and cruel and react against it. Hell, it’s not just kids!
    And overall new tactics are great, no matter where they come from. Anything to help us appear to master the Jedi mind control needed to sail through parenting!

    1. My spectrum boy is teaching me a lot – I always thought I was quite easy going on my first born until he showed me a mirror to my ridiculously high expectations I did actually have. Yoda doing parent classes – I would have definitely attended those.

  2. Also -Early Bird parent in course where I also learned all this has made me a better Parent to both my children AND a better swimming teacher. More empathic, more patient. Everyone should do it (or a version)

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