When Eva kicks off, particularly in public, right now I find it hard not to respond as a ‘typical’ parent to a ‘typical’ kid throwing a paddy. I huff n’ puff n’ cajole n’ fume and don’t try hard enough to look beyond her behaviour, which often isn’t a question of pure ‘naughtiness’. Like any kid with ASD, she’s making up for the massive shortfall in her social skills by using behaviour to communicate, and I have to work out what she’s trying to tell me through a cunning process of elimination.
She doesn’t know how to say ‘Daddy, it’s too noisy’ so she shouts & cries. She doesn’t know how to say ‘Grandad, I’m really happy to see you!’ so she sucks the back of his hand and kicks him. She finds it confusing that people in church are silent one moment and singing the next, so she prances & fidgets. She finds it very hard to concentrate because, as I’ve said before, Autistic kids can’t tune-out background noise, and their senses are more finely attuned than ours. What’s loud to us can be deafening to them and a normally quiet room can sound smotheringly silent. One girl we know can’t stop screaming in church, and her mortified mother is only beginning to realise that it’s not a question of ’bad behaviour’. The poor girl just can’t handle the extremity of experience.
Luckily Eva has already developed a coping mechanism for the stimuli overload. She loves the church band – particularly the flute – and she loves to dance, so she spends most of her time boogying in the far aisle to music real or imaginary when she should be listening to the hallowed word of Our Lord. It might be endearing if every other pew didn’t seem to be occupied by one of her classmates primly absorbing the sermon beside their ‘perfect’ parents. I know that perfection is only illusory but, speaking as the family atheist, I’d willingly convert to Catholicism to embibe the blood of Christ if it meant Eva could sit still for thirty seconds rather than squirming over the pious and laughing in wildly inappropriate places. Like during the school trip to the synagogue, when all the other kids were silently listening to the Rabbi while Eva danced behind him quietly singing ‘I’m pretending to be a Jewish person.’
But then it’s unrealistic to expect a normal child to sit still for an hour let alone one on the Spectrum, and even Eva’s school don’t expect that much from her. Their idea of ‘good sitting’ is ten minutes, which I think is miraculous, and then she’s allowed to read a story with a helper. Thankfully they know when her environment’s threatening to overload Eva, and they’ve got all the strategies in place to positively shape her behaviour. All we have to do is support them.
Analysing why she behaves the way she does involves using what the National Autistic Society call ‘The Iceberg’:
The tip is the what you see, and the mass beneath is why it’s happening. Of course there are many times when she’s just being a Madam, but that’s not always an easy call to make, so whenever Eva develops an inappropriate behaviour I have to stop and apply the iceberg to work out why. Like a detective talking out loud, I accumulate all the evidence beneath the waterline. When & where did it happen? Who was she with? What happened in the build up to the event? This last one can be crucial because Autistic kids work at a much higher level of anxiety than ‘normal’ children. If a normal child can be said to have a bucket of stress that overflows into a tantrum, an autistic child only has a cupful. It takes a lot less to push them over the edge.
So, Eva might lash out at a child who might have only brushed her shoulder, but that brush might just be the final act in an accumulation of environmental stresses for which she’s yet to develop coping mechanisms. Of course I reinforce the message that we don’t hit anyone, but if I can work out why it’s happening I can work out how to minimise the flow into her stress cup.
In the meantime, being angry with her can be counterproductive, because she’s actually quite confused & strung out. Bizarrely, when I most feel like scolding her is probably when she most needs a hug, so every day I’m trying to keep my jaunty detective hat on and my old school daddy cap in the drawer. Who knows? Maybe one day I’ll get round to burning it.