Monday, July 15, 2013

Does Your Child Have 'Super Powers?": Talking to your kids about their autistic spectrum symptoms

My son is 7 years old and has a diagnosis in the autistic spectrum.  One of the features of the spectrum is that some children and adults can have many sensitivities that feel overwhelming at times.  My son has many sensory symptoms like this: the sun is too bright, crowded places are noisy and chaotic, being touched can feel overwhelming.  The strength of these symptoms seems to be variable through different ages and seasons of life for him.  When he is having a hard day, he has more symptoms.  I remember one season when he was 4 years old.  He was so sensitive at that time that it was hard to function.  He didn't want me to use any of our kitchen appliances because they were too noisy.  Even if he was in a different room with the door closed, he seemed bothered by the noises.  We even considered taking the appliances to the basement! 

One decision facing parents whose kids are struggling is how to discuss the struggles without making the child feel chastised or bad about themselves.  In this case, we started talking to him about his super powers!  He could really resonate with this concept.  We talked about how not everyone could see and hear what he could.  His super powers (hearing, vision, etc) could be really valuable and wonderful (e.g., he can pick out details in a picture that no one else sees).  We also talked about how his powers can make life hard or uncomfortable.  

One of our goals was to teach him how to monitor how his powers were doing that day.  We would say, "Are your super powers bothering you today?" or when he could see or hear something we couldn't, we might say "Ah!  Your super powers are turned on.  I didn't even notice that noise."  Then we would ask him to start monitoring his own powers and telling us what he needs that day.  We would say, "If your super powers are really strong today, what can we do to make it feel better."  We would start to teach him options for coping with really strong inputs.  For example, we might suggest sunglasses outside.  I would warn him before I turned on kitchen appliances so he could decide whether he wanted to put his hands on his ears, go upstairs to his room, etc.  

He really responded to the concept of super powers having good aspects as well as challenges.  And he also started monitoring how he was doing on a certain day, and letting us know (with prompts).  Pretty soon, he could start to choose from options about how to cope on that day. 

What super powers do your kids have?  How do you talk to your kids about their strengths and challenges?