This guest post is from Anne K. Ross, the pen name for an award-winning writer and school psychologist with three decades of experience working in public schools in Northern California. Anne is the mother of two young adult sons; her oldest is on the Autism Specturm. She is the author of the new book Beyond Rain Man, which has received rave reviews.
Learning My Son Is On the Spectrum
I have been a school psychologist in public elementary, middle and high schools for a little more than thirty years, but when my oldest son, Matt, was finally diagnosed at age eleven with Asperger’s, I was shocked and embarrassed that I didn’t realize Asperger’s was part of the autism spectrum, and that the spectrum was so broad it included this thing I didn’t even know how to spell.
Related Article: A Definition of Autism and Related Diagnoses
I Learned More About Autism
I quickly learned that although Matt was smart and a good student, his tantrums, inflexibility and tactile defensiveness (aversions to the way certain things feel) were all part of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). We finally understood why he could be so black-and-white and rule-bound. Why he got stuck on the way he thought things needed to be.
Living and working with kids on the spectrum, I’ve learned just how wide the spectrum can be. I’ve also learned that it is really a genetic roll of the dice that determines what strengths and weaknesses show up in individual kids. Additionally, I’ve learned some strategies over the years for helping my son, and our family, get through the rough times.
8 Key Things I Learned Raising a Child on the Autism Spectrum
1. It’s tactile defensiveness, not a lack of love, that makes some kids on the spectrum resist hugs and kisses.
Matt often brushed off our embraces, preferring strong squeezes with advance notice that they were coming. Once, when I told him that we were not joining our extended family for Thanksgiving that year because they were meeting on the East Coast, Matt was relieved, but not for the reason I expected (that it was boring to have to sit and talk with relatives he only sees every other year). He set me straight: “They’ll be hugging and shaking hands and everything.” He shivered with repulsion.
Sensitivity to touch causes physical discomfort and even pain for some people on the spectrum. Try imagining the feeling of cutting a fingernail too short. Now imagine that feeling all over your body.
A fourth-grade girl I worked with wore lots of colorful combinations of clothing that were a few years behind the current style. When I interviewed her mother, she told me she bought used clothing for her daughter because it was the only clothing soft enough for her.
When her daughter was a toddler, the girl had complained one day of “bees stinging” her arms. Later that evening, when her mother pulled off her daughter’s shirt to get her ready for bed, the little girl smiled for the first time that day. “No more bees,” she said.
My son, Matt, worked with an occupational therapist, who taught us a brushing and joint compression practice to help with tactile tolerance. And, with our pediatrician’s permission, we let Matt play in the snow in his long-sleeved tee-shirt without a jacket. Matt still prefers shorts, but he can tolerate jeans now and he has bought dress pants for job interviews.
2. There is a good reason for some kids’ lack of eye contact.
It’s been compared to watching a badly dubbed foreign movie, with the sound and video not matching up. This may explain why some kids on the spectrum cover their ears when overwhelmed, and why some kids don’t use eye contact when listening. Instead they look elsewhere.
Once my son and I were having an argument, and I was shouting about something when he started to laugh. This, of course, made me yell louder. “What are you laughing at?” I shouted. Matt smiled. “Your lips look funny right now,” he said.
When he was a baby, Matt seemed to stare at the outline of our heads instead of at our faces, but by the time he was talking and gesturing, his eye contact did not look unusual. I didn’t even know he was looking at my lips sometimes.
In my work, I see many kids on the spectrum who have typical eye contact. Some have learned from their parents’ or therapists’ reminders to look at people. Some look directly at my eyes, some look at my neck and some stare hard without looking away as expected during conversations.
3. Routines rule.
Routines and advance warnings about changes in routine can alleviate anxiety about the unknown and unexpected changes. Before Matt could read, we drew pictures of our weekend schedule so he would know what to expect. Later, we moved to checklists and calendars and bought him a wristwatch.
When watching TV one night, our family cracked up when the Monk character said, “I don’t have a problem with change. I just don’t like being around when it happens.” We all stared at Matt, and he laughed the loudest.
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4. Sarcasm and other figurative language often needs to be taught.
Humor, idioms and metaphor may need to be explained and taught to kids on the spectrum. I can often tell which families use a lot of sarcasm at home because their kids are good at understanding it. At our house, we used plenty of sarcasm, and we also read to our kids all the time when they were little.
Children’s books are full of silly rhymes and plays on words and we talked about double meanings and puns. The Amelia Bedelia books were a hit in our house for a period of time. We suspected that given her funny literal interpretation of language, she might be somewhere on the autism spectrum herself.
Matt could make me want to scream with how literal he was, but he could also make me laugh. Below is a conversation between Matt when he was about 12 and a psychiatrist who was evaluating him for a medication trial:
Psychiatrist: Do you know your name?
Psychiatrist: What is it?
Matt: Matt Ross.
Psychiatrist: Do you know what city you’re in?
Psychiatrist: What is it?
Psychiatrist: When’s your birthday?
Matt: March tenth.
Psychiatrist: What year?
Matt: Every year.
5. Don’t let your family get isolated.
For years, we felt like we were the only family with a difficult kid. Because of Matt’s tantrums and what looked like rudeness, my partner and I had no dinner parties, no barbecues, and no pizza with other families.
We were hiding out, waiting for the storms to pass, hoping to rejoin the social world again someday, like we did when the kids were babies and toddlers. But with a kid we hadn’t quite figured out, and our family desperate to find its way, we kept to ourselves, just trying to survive.
A colleague recently told me she found it embarrassing and exhausting to take her young son with autism to the park. But when she asked another mother at his special preschool if they could get their kids together, she felt like she could finally stop worrying about what other people thought. She could finally relax for a minute in the park with another mother who understood. She had begun to find her community.
Now parents can find other parents at their children’s schools, on special education parent email groups, at Meet Ups, at community support groups, on social media and at online gatherings like My Autism Team. Just knowing that we’re not alone can be comforting and sharing information with each other can be empowering.
6. Your expectations will change for the better.
For years I believed my son would follow in my footsteps, attend college, get a job to support himself, have a family, etc. Then I began to worry that he wouldn’t do any of those things and instead would become depressed and lonely.
A friend told me about her brother-in-law, a grown man recently diagnosed with Asperger’s. He worked as a software developer, lived alone in a high-rise condominium in a big city and competed in bicycle distance races on weekends.
He did not date and had only one true friend. He spent more time with his bike than with people. “Is he depressed?” I asked my friend. I couldn’t imagine a life without a constellation of friends, associates and colleagues. My life was full of people who recharged me. I’d be lonely, and I worried my boy would be lonely. “Oh, no,” she said. “He’s perfectly content. I think he gets stressed when he has to be around too many people. If he’s ever depressed, it’s because he has to miss a bike race because his company is having a picnic.”
It was a relief when I finally realized my son would take his own path. And it might not include a prestigious college, or maybe any college, and that he might or might not marry or have children. It would be his life. And it would be fine. He was from me, but he was not me, and what made me happy did not necessarily make him happy.
In a flash, I could see my son in ten years. Not in a hospital under a suicide watch, or living in the transition program we’d checked out, but in his own place, doing whatever it was he loved doing. I could see him heating up the same frozen dinner every night, and I could hear his voice over the phone when he said, “I’m fine. You worry too much.”
7. The autism spectrum is wide and wacky and wonderful.
Although people on the spectrum share difficulties with social interaction and communication, sensory integration, and with flexibility and regulating their emotions, no two people on the spectrum are exactly alike. This can make it difficult to diagnose autism spectrum disorders and therefore many children and adults still go undiagnosed or misdiagnosed for years, instead of receiving supports or services early, when many of those do the most good.
I want parents and professionals to have a better understanding of the spectrum, both the positive characteristics and the more challenging, many of which are often hidden. Children with less obvious behaviors can still have pretty significant needs.
This is important, especially in schools where parents often need to advocate for their child’s individual needs. Good teachers use tons of visuals: templates, models of expected work, schedules, outlines and visual mapping to help students get organized and learn. They keep homework to a minimum because many kids on the spectrum are exhausted from the school day, and some have social skills classes and other therapies after school. Working as a true school-home team is best for kids.
Related Article: 12 Ways Schools Can Support Your Child on the Autism Spectrum
8. See the upside.
Asperger’s (Asperger’s has been removed from the DSM-5 and is now referred to as Autism Specturm Disorder) and I have an uneasy, ambivalent relationship. I do not love Asperger’s, have never loved it and am pretty sure I never will love it.
Asperger’s has from time to time stolen my child from me, has stretched my relationship with him to the brink of irreversible damage too many times. It has forced my son to work harder to manage almost every detail of his life, and I have resented that.
At one point, I believed Matt might eventually turn his experiences into a spiffy college essay proclaiming how his Asperger’s Syndrome made him tougher, more resilient and more deeply connected to us, his loved ones, because of the hardships we’d all endured. Maybe someday he will indeed feel that way, but to me now, that thesis is nothing more than a sappy movie of the week.
I anticipate my feelings will change as he grows into adulthood, because he and I can already talk about Asperger’s as if it is something outside of him, something with control, but not total control, over him, something he is learning to battle when required, accept when prudent and finesse as necessary.
He appreciates the qualities that Asperger’s may give him, like his contentment with being alone (something I discovered when I was much older) and his ability to focus intently on what is important (to him), a quality that he believes comes from his “not needing as much variety as most people.”
We sometimes joke that “The Asperger’s” is stuck on a topic, or “The Asperger’s” wants to trash the house, or “The Asperger’s” is not so good at keeping a conversation going. But more and more, I see less of the Asperger’s and more of My Son.
I recognize the skills that Asperger’s gives him, and the ways he has learned to circumvent the challenges it causes him. I am finally done separating Asperger’s from my son and have begun the process of integrating. We have all come so far.
Adapted from Beyond Rain Man: What One Psychologist Learned Raising a Son on the Autism Spectrum by Anne K. Ross; Leatherback Press.
This article is republished with permission from Love that Max: A Blog About Kids With Special Needs Who Kick Butt
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Rachel Wise is a certified school psychologist and licensed behavior specialist with a Master’s Degree in Education. She is also the head author and CEO at educationandbehavior.com, a site for parents, caregivers, educators, counselors, and therapists to find effective, research-based strategies that work for children. Rachel has been working with individuals with academic and behavioral needs for over 20 years and has a passion for making a positive difference in the lives of children and the adults who support them. For Rachel’s top behavioral strategies all in one place, check out her book, Building Confidence and Improving Behavior in Children, a Guide for Parents and Teachers. If you want Rachel to write for your business, offer behavioral or academic consultation, or speak at your facility about research-based strategies that support children, email her at email@example.com.