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Using self-efficacy, presence, insight and cognition when dealing with a heightened autistic child

Updated: Apr 24, 2021

The Arrive Therapy ethos is based on four pillars, which are (in order to make EPIC life changes):

However, it can be hard to put this rather abstract concept into practice; so let me give you an example. I support and advocate for autistic people as well as families of autistics, and this is a real life scenario from a parent support group that I am involved in.

“I wish you would die, Mum”

A child (it could be a neurodivergent child, or it could by a neurotypical child – the principles are the same); is quite angry. He or she is saying something like this to his parent (or relevant care-giver): ‘I wish you would die, Mum’. Our first instinct is often to react with what our parent would have said to us; this usually takes on one of two forms.

The angry parent. ‘Don’t talk to me like that.’

The hurt parent. ‘After all I do for you! I am so upset you’d say that to me’.

Are we using dated parenting phrases?

If we are using words our parents said to us (who were using words their parents said to them, etc etc), we quickly start using Victorian parenting phrases when we’re in the 21st century!

The more Adult (and ‘detective’ or curious) way of looking at it is to ask: what’s the child afraid of? Autistic individuals can’t always express their feelings (they can swirl around inside us, being felt, and not expressed ) - maybe here, for this child, they’re afraid of rejection - they feel a connection has been lost with the Mum - they’re fearing rejection and they protect themselves by creating the rejection first.

So, sometimes you can almost reverse what a frustrated child is saying, to work out what feeling is driving their words. Saying something Adult to them like: ‘Well that’s a sad way to feel, that must feel difficult, but I am not going anywhere, and I love you. Let’s talk when you have calmed down’ attempts a reconnection , and doesn’t enforce the rejection.

Let’s look at how we used the EPIC ethos here.

Efficacious - in control of your actions, reactions & boundaries.

You didn’t react in a knee-jerk way. You responded in an Adult way. You didn’t let your own experiences dictate the conversation / situation. You halted an unhelpful reaction.

Present - aware of your emotions, and of the importance of Now.

You’re a parent of a hurting child – you let that response (or role) lead the way. You focussed on the moment – in which the child is heightened – and suggested discussing it later – this means neither of you will be so reactive and heightened at that time.

Insightful - understanding the effect of your beliefs and self-talk.

‘Don’t talk to me like that’ and ‘After all I do for you.. I am so upset you’d say that to me’ are your beliefs about how a child should speak to their parent and vice versa. But are they really YOUR beliefs, now, as a parent? Or are they your parents’ beliefs? Does your self-talk tell you to instil more discipline?

Cognitive - aware of your neuroception & processing style.

If you wanted to yell: ‘Don’t talk to me like that’ or similar, you were probably triggered – this is your neuroception at play. It probably took you to an unsafe place – somehow, you felt defensive, even child-like. If you felt more ‘fight or flight’ than engaged, you were not in a safe place to explore someone else’s hurt. By recognising this instinctive reaction, you reduced your own feeling of unsafety or defensiveness.

I hope that example has been useful to showcase how we can be more relational with our children, and can be more Adult in our reactions!

(Also check out our article 'Cognitive behavioural hypnotherapy for business coaching and mindset marketing' which addresses supporting autistic entrepreneurs.)

Kathy Carter

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