Adult Responses to Autistic Children Lead to Escalation or Calm

Brenda Rothman

An adult’s response to an autistic child’s upset is the single, most important factor in whether the child’s upset is escalated or calmed.

We must remain calm. We must understand — at a gut level — that the child’s reaction — whether to yell, hit, bite, or flail — is frustration and that is all. As “disorientation is one of the least bearable of all psychological experiences” (Neufeld & Maté), we must understand that children are disoriented by their emotions, frustrated by communication. It is not personal. It is not hate. It is merely frustration.

When we begin to feel overwhelming emotions in response to our children’s actions — like sadness, upset, anger, fear, or resentment — we need to calm ourselves for the immediate moment. However you need to do that — by breathing, talking to yourself, repeating a mantra. For the long term, you will need to do the hard work of exploring those feelings and the reasons behind them.

Our physical response is just as important. Because this is frustration, respond with calm and soothing. Our children are not trying to hurt us. If they see us reacting in disorienting ways — like crouching, putting up our hands as if to ward off hits, or crying — it will frighten them even further. Trying to control our child’s behaviors through physical restraint also escalates the situation. Imagine how you would feel as a child if you were already disoriented and your parent’s actions looked even scarier. Instead, we should calm, soothe. Remember that we are our child’s compass.

Know in advance what soothes your child. Physical things like running water, a fan, their bedroom, low light, a tent, blanket, a stuffed animal. But also, let them stomp, stamp, slam doors, hit pillows, throw stuffed animals — there are many safe outlets for frustration. And they do need outlets. We can’t just clamp down on them and negate all outlets for them. Imagine if you couldn’t vent – you’d feel like exploding.

One thing that I have to do regularly is keep everyone safe. I say, “I’m so sorry, but I have to keep everyone safe. I know it’s upsetting, but that’s my job as a parent. And you know, parents have to do their jobs. Sorry, that’s just what I have to do.” And I keep everyone safe, as keeping hands off each other. Without any type of punishment like ignoring, or separating, or high emotions, or anything. Just sigh, sorry, this is what I have to do.

The other thing I do regularly is playful parenting — stopping the actions but in a very playful manner so it doesn’t escalate. Like very lightly saying “oh, ho, ho, mister, are you teasing your sister? Do you want some love taps, too?” or “I saw you do that, you Wile E. Coyote, you.” If you haven’t read the books Playful Parenting and Hold On To Your Kids, I highly recommend both for ideas of discipline that are not punishing or isolating.

After they’ve vented their frustration, you can try getting their sadness out. That’s the real emotion underneath frustration — because something isn’t working and that’s upsetting. After our children have experienced a big emotion, they often need a safe way out. Silliness is one way. “That stuffed toy smells terrible! Did he toot?” We often have to just try different ways of helping.

This fact that the adult escalates or de-escalates the child’s response is critically important. We have to realize how we are a compass to our children. We also need to hold the adults in our children’s lives accountable for their reactions and how those reactions escalate our children’s reactions. Teachers, therapists, behaviorists – do they put their hands on your child, even to direct them? Do they give your child ways to vent? When the child gets frustrated, are they forced to sit back at a table and do a task or are they given recovery time? Are they labeling your child violent instead of frustrated? Are they restraining, ignoring, secluding, punishing your child?  Are they demanding too many things?  Are they requiring quiet hands, quiet feet, quiet body?  Are they spending directing and redirecting all the time? Are they blaming the child instead of acknowledging their own role in the escalation?

Our children react to being forced. They react when there is too much direction and too little connection. They react with frustration when the relationship isn’t working. They react with their own will as they try out independence. When our child is not treated as her own person, with her own preferences, thoughts, opinions, and boundaries, she will put up resistance. This is a healthy part of growing up.

If the therapy our child does sets us up for conflict, no matter how beneficial we are told it is, we need to refuse it. If we are told our child is “violent” simply because he reacts to force with negative emotion, we need to reject that. We parents have the right to demand peaceful, loving, connecting ways to raise our children.