The Bridge: Behaviors, Part 2

Last week, I talked about the more difficult behaviors that can sometimes pose a danger to autistic individuals and/or others. There is another category of behaviors that are pretty much a benchmark of what we consider to be autism, and those are the ones I want to address here.

In the autism world, these behaviors are often referred to as stimming behaviors. They can range from verbal (repeating words, making unusual sounds), to physical (rocking, jumping) and all points in-between.

Let’s go to a new client for a moment. His name is David. David is 7 years old, and his parents are a bit flustered at how he often waves his fingers in front of his face. He will do this for hours if they let him (which they really don’t want to), and they want it to stop because it is keeping him for getting through the school day. It also draws attention when they are out and about. He always seems to get very excited when he does this.

The reflex move, of course, is to just tell him to stop. If they are particularly frustrated, the parents may physically move his hands to his sides or threaten to take away his favorite toys (Legos). This only makes him frustrated, which leads to either a meltdown or David aggressively doing the behavior even more. The truth is, there is a very simple reason why David does this action.

It makes him feel good.

There used to be a notion that these behaviors were a sort of torture for the client, and that the therapist/interventionist was “freeing” them from it by stopping the behavior by force (physically, verbally, or otherwise). Now that more and more autistic adults are speaking up, we are learning (or at least I hope we are learning) that the stimming behaviors are actually relieving the so-called “torture.” The difficult part for our clients is navigating an overstimulating, often unpredictable world. In my work, these behaviors signal that the client is trying to calm and steady themselves in the best way for them. When I see them, I want to find out why the behavior is happening. Either something in the environment has shifted, or there has been a build-up of uncomfortableness for the client.

Or, you know what? Maybe they just felt like being happy in that moment.

Much like the previous entry, a bit of detective work can go a long way. After doing some data collection, we discovered that the finger waving would often increase just before going somewhere that involved being in a crowd. We gave him a fiber optic wand as a possible sensory replacement, which he loved. The family also started giving him plenty of warning as to when they were going to go out. We even went a step further and created mini social stories about frequent places they visited (complete with pictures from those places). While David still waves his fingers sometimes (especially when excited), it has decreased along with his anxiety. We didn’t stop the behavior because it was “wrong,” we adjusted it and the environment so that the anxiety that causes the behavior would decrease.

To put it more simply: if someone bites their nails, forcing them to stop will just make them either do it more in secret, or lead to them switching to another tic. Uncover the source of the emotion behind the action first.

Finally, I wanted to share a blog post from another blog that I follow. The author touched on this very subject, and it is a great way to hear about stimming behavior from an autistic adult.

Oh the Ways We Love to Stim

Next week: About The Siblings…

The Interview/Rejection

I’ve seen some great videos come out of the National Autistic Society in the UK about the autism experience. I really wish that the US organizations would take a similar approach, but hopefully we’ll get there. I want to hear from some of you: do you think that this video captures some aspects of adult autism? Is there anything that is different in your personal experience? I would love to use it in an upcoming training, but I wanted to see what others thought first.

 

Holding Space

Over the last few months, this concept has popped up numerous times in both my professional and personal life. It’s not as straightforward as traditional psychological terms and approaches, but I wanted to speak on my view of it since most of us will be in this situation at some point.

There will be moments where you simply won’t know what to say to a person. Perhaps they just lost someone, or are ranting madly because they’ve been wronged in some way. There’s really nothing you can do to help the situation. So, what do you do?

As a therapist, I’ve had these moments. I’ve had to be the solid pillar while someone’s life was falling apart. I’ve had to break seemingly bad news to parents about their child. I’ve had to sit with a teenager while her brother lay in a hospital, dying. In all of these situations, I had to realize that nothing I say is going to make the situation go away. I can’t remove the pain. The other thing I realized was that I could not bring myself to give some kind of rote response. “You’ll be okay” or “Everything happens for a reason” won’t cut it here.

Here is where the concept of holding space comes in. You simply make that space a container. In these moments, people often just need to express. There is no pressure to think up a solution for the person. They already know that you can’t do anything about it. They sometimes already know that they’ll get through it. In that moment, though, they need to process. They need somewhere safe to vocalize their frustrations, sorrow, confusion, and occasionally socially unacceptable thoughts.

Of course, this is easier said than done. In the therapy field, we are almost programmed to think up solutions, and we may think up some right at these difficult moments. A lot of times, though, that’s not what people need. They need to feel a sense of peace, to know that at their most vulnerable moment, you are making them feel safe. I have been on the flip side of this, where I expected a place to be able to express myself, and instead was reduced to tears by someone who felt that I needed a “reality check” at that moment. No, I didn’t. I needed to process my feelings, and I was demeaned for it. After that, I never trusted that person as a confidant again, and I learned how not to be with regards to future clients.

You don’t have to be a therapist to do this. Sometimes friends and family just need to talk, and maybe sit in silence for a bit. We are often so afraid of silence, when it can be an amazing gift. Silence allows processing, and it allows Spirit to enter the picture. To me, this is holding space: creating a safe, peaceful environment to allow another to process and express…and to allow Spirit to enter and help heal.

About Happiness…

you-keep-using-that-word

I’m starting to think that being happy in America is either an insult to miserable people, or a word that people use when they think they’re happy when they aren’t.

Actually, it’s both.

I’ve seen and encountered both, and of the two, the second is the saddest one to me. Being an intuitive (aka I pick up on people’s emotional states whether I want to or not), I cringe when people try to convince me that they are in FluffyLand when I know for certain that they are not. It is especially painful when it is someone that I care about. Oftentimes they do not even realize that they aren’t happy. They just look at what they have, think “well, based on my possession of these things, I should be happy,” and conclude that they are happy. Meanwhile, they look, talk, and act like they are miserable.

Because they actually are.

First, if you are depending on outside things (material things, a relationship, a job, etc.) to create your happiness, I hate to break it to you but you’re probably already miserable. I know people get sick of hearing this, but it’s true: happiness comes from within. It comes from a state of being content with yourself, your life, and your purpose. I’m not saying that you’re dancing around singing Disney songs with forest animals 24/7. No, at that point you’re no longer in reality (though the occasional Disney singalong is totally allowed and encouraged). You can’t be slap happy all of the time, but you can have a general feeling of contentment.

By the way, this goes double for relationships; why put that amount of pressure on someone? They have to be responsible for both their own happiness and yours? Would you want that kind of pressure…heck, has someone already put that kind of pressure on you?

Second, other people often see it before you do. If someone you know has that intuition and is constantly asking how you are and checking in on you, they’ve picked up on something. We’re not trying to be annoying or ruin your artificial high (because it is artificial), but we are concerned. I can think of about three people right now off the top of my head who are constantly declaring how happy they are, and their appearance and behavior say the complete opposite. If I’m asking, it is because I see the truth and I care.

Third, becoming the source of your own happiness is no easy feat. Our society practically trains us from birth to seek happiness everywhere except within us. Happiness is often ridiculed in the U.S. culture as well, implying that if you are happy then you are clearly a psychopath because there is no reason to be happy in this society. Mind you, this is very different from the spiritual bypassing I mentioned in my last post. That is still a form of fake happiness.

All of that being said, I cannot tell you what your inner happiness looks like. All I can say is that you will know it when you feel it. One of my favorite moments of it was a day at the ocean. When a wave suddenly overtook my legs and soaked my sneakers, socks, and jeans, I started laughing and spinning happily in the ocean water and foam. I couldn’t care less about my clothes at that moment. I was in pure bliss, connected to the ocean in a manner that I didn’t think possible. This is one reason why I take the stance that I do with regards to autism. I have seen my clients in moments of pure bliss, and I have seen well-meaning professionals snatch that moment away in the name of progress. Who are we to take their happiness away like that? Why don’t we join in on it?

Why don’t we learn how to be happy from them?

Acknowledge

In my field of work, I have heard some managers tell the therapists and interventionists not to show any emotion whenever a child on the spectrum gets upset, because they are doing it for attention. Ignore it and keep your face like stone, and they will eventually stop their crying or tantrum.

This piece of advice often makes me cringe, because to me, that is a blanket reaction. Yes, a lot of times kids do fuss and fight and cry because they want attention or they want to get their way. But then I remembered when I was a kid; I didn’t always scream or cry because I was being selfish or demanding. Sometimes I cried because I didn’t think anyone was understanding me, and I wanted someone to stop ignoring or fussing at me long enough to get what I was saying. Now, imagine if you cannot talk. How in the world do you get your thoughts known then, especially when you’re in the midst of a whirlwind of emotion that you have little control over?

Because of this, I now make a point to always acknowledge the emotion the child or teenager is feeling. It may not always help them calm down, but I truly do feel that they know what I am saying or trying to convey. It is usually a simple, heartfelt and honest phrase: “I can see that you are really upset right now” or “I know that this doesn’t feel good to you,” or perhaps “I understand that this is making you sad.” It doesn’t have to be much, just acknowledging that the person is human and having a human reaction that I also understand because I have had it myself. I’ve seen kids calm down (sometimes completely) from this. It doesn’t mean you are being soft, it means you are acknowledging that you hear them, even if they still have to do this thing that they don’t want to do.

“I can see that you are really sad, but it is time to go home.” For younger kids or those with receptive skills that need improvement, you can make it more simple (without being condescending): “I know, you’re sad.”

You may feel like your words are falling on deaf ears, but believe me, they’re not.