I Like the Corner. Parenting a Speaking Autistic Child A Blog Series by Dr. StacyJan 03, 2023
I like the corner.
The holidays. A time of get together, holiday parties and social events. The pressure to socialize increases for most of us during this very busy season. Many individuals feel the stress of get together. So do our autistic children but not the same way that your or I may feel stressed. The idea of being around new people, lots of noises, and too many smells, can make everyone feel a little grinchy…There is more to these types of events than the sensory overload that we should be aware of.
When working with autistic children in therapy, I have learned some interesting things about their experience during holiday get together. A few share their thoughts and how we can help them in today’s blog.
We like being alone, even in a crowd.
Most enjoy and actually prefer it, when in social situations to be alone. Some autistic children are not driven by the social need to be around others and find the idea of getting together to exchange gifts or for meals to be as stressful as going to school. The idea of sitting around a table, making small talk with strangers (yes, family we do not see everyday might as well be strangers), eating food in front of others…hopefully you are getting the point…not the ideal good time. Some autistic children enjoy the idea of being quiet and being to themselves.
Other autistic children may be very social and engaging but struggle with social moments ex. Remembering names or maintaining boundaries. Some get very excited and have a hard time managing their stemming or their impulsive behaviors due to all of the excitement.
Children who I work with in therapy have insisted that they like being separated at functions and actually do not feel left out. One youth told me that they would prefer their own space and that they will engage when they are not forced to do so. Younger children may prefer to be in a quieter area of the room or even in a different space to play quietly. Teenagers often resort to their phones or technology to help them “disappear” from the event.
Even family members can be strangers
One youth told me that she has such a hard time with remembering names and that going to family functions are so stressful because you have to remember everyone’s name. Her biggest fear is not being able to remember names and having to ask the person who they are. She has asked her parents at events out of embarrassment and this has caused more anxiety while at a family function.
In session, we quickly thought of a way to review photos from last year’s event in her phone to make sure she could identify everyone. She mentioned that it is extremely awkward when an adult walks up to her and starts talking – and she has no idea who it is. These types of moments make it harder for autistic children to feel comfortable at an event.
We also practiced small talk conversations to have with family members who ask the same questions. “How is school? How are you?” Vague questions and repetitive questions can also be very hard to answer. Preparing children for these types of social moments can help them to feel comfortable with their responses.
It is also a good strategy to teach others how to ask more specific questions and direct questions. Ex. What sport are you playing in gym class? What do you like about your English class? Autistic children can give a better response if they have a specific question. Having to think about “how are you?” is such a daunting task and many children will get frustrated and shut down when a response does not come to their mind immediately.
It is also a great strategy to teach others to give context before asking the question. Ex. You have English this year in school. What do you like about your English class? This gives your child time to think and to help them focus on the subject at hand.
Have alternative activities on hand
When my children were little, in addition to the diaper bag, I carried an activity bag. We had a bag full of things they would like to do if we were ever “bored”. This was useful in places like church, gatherings, waiting in line, and restaurants. This helped because I always had small items they liked on hand in case I needed to distract them.
Things to pack- Legos, small coloring books and markers, dolls, action figures, snacks your child likes to eat, headphones/ear plugs, bubbles, stuffed animal
Prepare for an exit
I always recommend to families to know their child’s limit at social events and to have an exit prepared that feels comfortable for everyone. Do not wait until your child is dysregulated and needing to leave immediately. Keep a close eye on the time when you are at social events. Sometimes leaving the room or going to a quieter place in the event may help to allow your child to stay longer. Remember there is a lot going on at a social event.
One child told me that she gives her parents a signal when she is ready to go and they all leave quietly after saying their goodbyes. Trying to force the moments will have dire results for everyone. You can help build up your child’s capacity to manage such events by adding more time at each event, reflecting on what worked when at a previous event, and to make sure you are preventive in planning for concerns that may arise at the next event.
Celebrations even a child’s own birthday party can be overwhelming….
I love to show this video when I am teaching students about Autism and how sensory input can be overwhelming for neurodivergent individuals.
At the Party Video-
Raising a Speaking Autistic Child….
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Check out The Neurodivergent Universe Series, Josh the Neurodivergent Student and Marcus the Neurodivergent Gamer- books helping autistic students navigate their day with daily missions and strategies on Amazon
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