Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Be Careful What You Wish For…Appreciating both the good and the not-so-good that come with autism remediation and puberty

Mom talking to her teenager: So, honey, what’s going on in your life? I never hear about it lately. Teen: Not much. Mom: Well, what classes do you like at school? Teen: The same ones I liked before. Mom: OK…How about your friends? Who are you hanging out with? Teen: Different people. It’s no big deal mom! And so it goes… The onset of puberty is a challenging time for any parent, let alone a parent of a child with autism. The physical changes seem to happen so quickly that we scarcely can keep our kids in clothes and shoes that fit them. Personal hygiene reaches epic importance as little bodies morph into breeding grounds for gnarly odors and skin eruptions. Emotionally, our pubescent kids seem to actually regress at times. The moodiness, the stubbornness, the “attitude,” the eye rolls, even preteen temper tantrums – sometimes we feel like we are dealing with the terrible twos again. What about a child with autism? Because of the child’s neurological makeup, parents can find all these emotional changes magnified tenfold. The period of puberty, then presents unique challenges and opportunities for parental guiding of an ASD child. It is so important, then, to have built a strong relationship base with your ASD child before he reaches the preteen and teen years. As your child is moving through early and middle childhood, the development of a parent-child relationship that is respectful, fosters open communication without forcing it, and encourages the child’s feelings of competence is a wonderful gift you can give both of you. I have been an RDI parent for over seven years now. When Matt was young, I thought a lot about what his preteen and teen years would be like. Would he have friends? Be conversational? Be able to communicate nonverbally like his peers? Feel the normal urge to prefer peers to parents and keep some things private between him and his friends? Over those last seven years, I have seen my son go from a rigid child who had poor self-awareness, spoke mostly in scripts, could not carry on a conversation, had poor “eye contact” and emotional relatedness, to a conversational, talented, warm and engaging young man who thinks often about his future and is able to reflect on his strengths and weaknesses and set goals for himself. Some of the positive changes probably are due to what the scientists call “maturation,” but some of the changes are absolutely due to specific guiding I provided to my son over the years. That guiding focused on me learning how to create frequent opportunities in the course of our everyday lives for my son to be challenged to the “next level;” a learning environment tailored to remediating the core deficits of autism, while enhancing our relationship in the process. Having two older (neuro-typical) children, I already have experienced the turmoil of puberty. With my girls, I viewed the eye rolls, the disrespecting, the need for independence, with frustration. Now that my son is displaying some of those same behaviors…although I reprimand him, I secretly rejoice. Parents of typical kids take for granted the rich repertoire of behaviors, good and bad, that typifies normal preteen and teen development. Parents of children with autism, on the other hand, often appreciate those annoying behaviors that signal normal steps in emotional maturation. Allow me to share a few recent “colorful” examples I’ve witnessed with my son: Example 1: Matt: (Late for field trip) Hurry UP making my sandwich, mom! Me: Hey, don’t give me that attitude! You’re lucky I’m making it for you. Usually you have to make it yourself! (Meanwhile I think to myself: Wow, He has developed an attitude of urgency! Motivation!) Matt: (Gives me disrespecting glance) Me: Whoa! Hold on! Don’t you ever give me that disrespecting look again! You apologize to me or you are not going on that field trip! (Meanwhile I think to myself: Whoa! What perfect age-appropriate facial communication!) Example 2: Matt, to a friend who is over to play: And did you hear what he said??! Me: (Thinking to myself, wow this is a great conversation they are having but he didn’t clarify who he is talking about; maybe I’d better help out.) Hear what WHO said, Matt? Matt: (Giving me an eye-roll look) It’s none of your concern, Mom! *Be careful what you wish for, parents. You might just get it!*

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