20 March 2017 – As children on the Spectrum reach adolescence, it is important to recognise the increasing needs of the parents, family, teachers and other professionals who are in close contact with these individuals. Susan Haldane, the driving force behind Mind over Manner, is a parent of a teen on the Spectrum and discusses the workshops she runs.
Within the first five minutes of a MIND OVER MANNER workshop, we have our 150 participants breathing a collective sigh of relief as we all unanimously agree we are not attending this event so we can ‘fix’ our child.
Phew! The very thought of it is exhausting.
This is an impossible task and we all know it! We all live it!
We are all here in the same room, at this MIND OVER MANNER workshop recognising our difficult family experiences or school experiences are not so isolated or obscure after all! We are all here to find out ways to stay buoyant.
So what does MIND OVER MANNER do?
It delivers specialist workshops designed to engage and develop communication capabilities of those who learn, think and work differently and it facilitates workshops for parents, families and professionals in the workplace along with community to advance communication and behavioural functionality.
The workshops are successful because we use a different approach by working with theatre practitioners.
We reconstruct and deliver “active-reality” scenarios from life experiences so parents, family, caregivers, teachers, youth workers and police have the chance to participate and reassess their responses to these most difficult times
Sensory processing and cognitive differences in children are presenting at an accelerated rate.
The behaviours are often confused leaving us no choice but to address their discomfort and find ways as parents to shift and adjust.
No standard parenting books work, the children are emotionally and physically uncomfortable and as parents, we know they will not “get over it”. They will not back down because what they are feeling is real and it can be terrifying or overwhelming.
As my child reached adolescence, I came to recognise the increasing needs of the parents, family, teachers and other professionals who were in close contact with him. The strength and stability of all these people in their interactive role was a fundamental contributor to the positive development of my teenager. And to the maintenance of myself as a buoyant parent
Our first change as parents is to be generous in ourselves sometimes beyond what seems fair. However, we are the first movers.
Get objective, rise above the moment and recognise that we are the demonstrators of flexibility.
That is our job.
It is we as parents who need to make the shift. Not completely but we have to make the first move.
Once our children see we can make a shift then they recognise they can be safe enough to shift as well.
Not only are we unravelling their constant fear and inflexibility but also their inability to respond to authority. Our social structures are often based on rules some obvious and some more hidden. As we know authoritative measures do not work with our children but suggestion and generosity will.
In 2014, I spent time in the Black Hills, South Dakota with Temple Grandin, the psychologists and educational experts from Reclaiming Youth International and the Native American Sioux Medicine People.
While this course catered to teenagers who had been in foster homes throughout their childhood, I was interested in the application of “Belonging” and how it applied to our new sensitive youth estranged from it because of their neurological differences.
The belonging comes externally for them, primarily through application rather than direct connection with another; through the personal soother, the familiar, the music, the spinning, through the instigation of their appropriate and individual time frames, through their opportunity to self-learn, through their special environment that takes out all “over stimulus”. Once they create their internal belonging then the connection through the one or two people they trust can become the next stage of finding belonging.
We must objectify what we are doing in a process. We are enabling the sense of belonging and providing generosity and showing the capacity to shift.
This objectivity prevents us as parents from becoming emotionally engaged in the difficulty, from being frustrated at the time it takes to “go the long way round” and from being outraged at the way we are sometimes treated. Objectivity maintains buoyancy.
CREATE A SELF CARE CHECKLIST
At different times in your parenting cycle your self-care needs will differ. Learn to recognise these…when you need to be alone and when you are just “hiding from the world”.
When you feel strong and brave and when you are not managing, if you accept all of these as parts of a cycle, then you know you will come back up again. You learn to understand yourself as part of the growing process and this keeps you buoyant.
We all know that post a “meltdown” a family or relationship argument will often follow soon after. If we view this as the “transfer of energy”, we can create protective measures to avoid the meltdown affecting other relationships in the family.
It is essential, post meltdown, that no one speaks. No one comments. Everyone must take their space and individuals must create their own self-care strategy. Let the energy pass out, open windows, shower, and walk, play music, write it down but do not engage with each other for a set time. If you have another sibling set them up with an activity ensuring you still take out the words. This is so you all re find your essential sense of self. If there is physical damage let the clean up happen together once the family and individuals are soothed.
If possible, be silent for at least 30 minutes.
When there is a meltdown brewing take out all words. The person is overwhelmed and is often unable to hear anything. Hold up a flashcard to suggest the “soother” or to connect “I am here for you”.
The flashcard is also good for parents to use for recovery after meltdown.
“I am going to walk for 30 minutes .When I return we can clean up together. I love you””
Sometimes it is too frustrating to try to communicate using verbal language. Texting an idea or list can provide a way to get a message across where the teenager can have the space to absorb and decide from afar to comply with your idea or suggestion.
As parents, we can parallel the exclusion our children are experiencing and can become more and more reclusive ourselves. As our children become teenagers, we do not go to the parents’ impromptu barbeque while the teens go to the movies, because our teen was not included.
People can hurt us, as they do not understand.
More and more I found there are people who did understand, but they were outside of these school social realms. My son’s special interests and the mentors I found for him (often older and wiser people with more time to recognise and place value on what he could offer) were my links to people.
I also created my own personal friendships outside of the school social sphere that were separate and meaningful to my special interests and me.
HOW TO ASK FOR THE SUPPORT YOU NEED
My closest friends were not the ones who said: “you need a break. You need to get away”. The supportive friends knew that the best relief they could bring me was to form a true connection with my son. This alleviated the exhaustion of being the sole communicator with my son, it alleviated his loneliness and it alleviated the loneliness that I felt because of his loneliness.
This was the break I needed. There are great people out there who know kindness and who will walk, talk, and interact on a one to one basis with your child. People come and go in our lives so it is important to accept these people come for pockets of time.
Over the years, so many people have said to me “I don’t know how you do it! You are amazing! I could never do what you do!”
Now we all know these people are intending to support and care for us but in all truth, what we are receiving is “Gee your life is so bad. It looks awful. I wouldn’t want to be you”
I have the most ghastly feeling when friends say this. Within the MIND OVER MANNER workshops, we find ways to rise up out of this. As parents, we must keep ourselves buoyant and still acknowledge that this person is genuinely intending to be caring.
In these moments I quietly thank the person for their care, I point out that many people have made similar comments and that the statement they are making is a strange one because while they intend to be caring it is making me feel like I have a “bad lot”.
I acknowledge, “Yes there are difficulties and I then say the reason I have got through and the way I maintain my strength is because people like themselves are standing beside me and giving me support. I acknowledge that their support and care for my child and myself is invaluable. By delivering this response with quiet affirm, they receive it as an acknowledgement and as a compliment. At the same time you have not allowed this statement to deflate you and you will have retrieved your buoyancy.
Our children are like radars. Their senses are operating differently. I have come to observe and understand they notice how a situation or person feels…almost electrically. If we start to think of the space in between two people…the electrical field, and if we were to picture it in our minds, we can then use our mind to soften it….actively.
This is a bit like horse gentling. It takes out all words and eye contact, personal emotion and it is a process to activate another sense…our radar sense…for the space in between our child and us. Once we become aware of the energy, we generate outside of our bodies it can somehow moderate the energy and emotion going on inside our bodies. This technique helps me calm down when I am not even necessarily aware of how upset I actually am.
ADVICE FROM OTHERS
When people do not understand sensory and cognitive diversity, they often try to help us by telling us: “You should” or “tell him he has to” or “He’s got to”.
We all know that our children do not respond to “should” or “telling” or “got to” This area of “friend incompetence” can become a huge place to dump your anger. Be aware of how you respond, stay gracious and teach them about declarative rather than imperative language!
The main thing is the intent of the communication. In declarative communication, the intent is to share our experiences. A response is invited but not demanded. Declarative communication is open-ended; there is no right or wrong way to respond. In imperative communication, a particular response is expected.
Imperative : Pick up your shoes
Declarative: I think you will have cold feet if you go outside now
Imperative: Don’t forget your phone
Declarative: Hmm, I wonder what you are planning to do in the car
As you strengthen in how you stand in your parenting, you will learn to ask for what you need in the school environment. It is up to you to frame your child’s learning environment to be strength based. As the school days become overwhelming and the programme needs to be changed make sure the school does not call it a “reduced programme”.
Your child will most certainly “feel” this. Set it up as a Specified Enrichment Programme and make sure your child has the opportunity to grow in his special interest area.
This is an opportunity where a voluntary mentor could facilitate your child in finding positive threads of specific learning. Often you can use the specified learning as the connector to create other learning experiences.
The mentor must not be you as a parent. This is so you maintain your resources for parenting but also so you do not take away your child’s opportunity to have another human relationship through his special interest.
Observe how your child fits in with the set time structures you have in your lives. Where they do not work so well see what you can do to create more flexibility. This is difficult, as we all have to meet timelines and deadlines. But consider for example if it’s possible to leave the house one hour later on a Wednesday so in the middle of the week your child can have a morning breather and gather himself so he can manage himself to the end of his week.
NEGATIVE WORLD VIEW
With the stresses that come around neuro diversity it can be easy to fall into a negative world view, each individual can fall into these traps. Just watch out for them. Be cautious not to blame others and avoid thinking the worst-case scenario. Adjust to a more positive framework where you can.
Behavioural problems in teens can lead to behavioural reactions in adults
Make sure you respond and do not react.
I have endeavoured to share some of my observations as a parent. I can say through the care of others, through established mentors and through dedicated work from myself, my family and good friends my son has the capacity to have independence, drive a car and to run his own business in his special interest “bamboo as a global resource.”
The work with these children is evolving. If you have a child with neuro diversity this becomes your work. It is family work. It is community work. It contains new science, the potential for new ways of relating not necessarily based on language, new social structures, and new shapes in time. We must become curious and open and we must take up a bigger perspective.
It is part of who we are in the moment but it is also about what we are creating for our new youth and for our future.
Susan Haldane, the driving force behind MIND OVER MANNER, has worked as a freelance actor, director, singer and teacher for 30 years. Her work has focussed predominantly on youth and their development of social confidence and flexibility. Susan has facilitated theatre workshops with refugees, multicultural and differently abled groups – and used communication role play techniques extensively in schools, prisons, with legal, medical and other professional groups and with kids on the street.
This article was first published in Altogether Autism Journal Issue 1, 2017 read the latest edition.