Friday, January 16, 2009

Helping Autistic Kids Deal With Change

I’m rereading an old favorite, Temple Grandin’s Thinking in Pictures. This book is so rich and deep, and the author is so insightful, that the book offers something new on every reading. For parents of children on the autistic spectrum and for adults who have, or suspect they have, an autism or Asperger’s diagnosis, this book is one of the first I recommend.
Early in the book, Grandin discusses how she uses doorways and windows as an experiential and visual metaphor for dealing with change and emotion. Grandin explains how the image of a doorway helped her manage changes she was going to experience, such as a graduation. She moved beyond visualizing a doorway and repeatedly walked through an actual door. In a similar manner, Grandin used an experience of being stuck between two windows to understand relationships with people, with the window symbolizing disconnected feelings and the fragile glass symbolic of relationships. Grandin goes on the discuss how other autistic individuals use symbols which may not be as logical and understandable for neurotypicals to understand.
I think the important message here is that the symbols individuals choose, whatever they are, can be so useful for them. I’ve worked with clients who make tremendous progress in dealing with difficult experiences and emotions after they physically create a container for their feelings, or build an object that expresses emotion. Many of my clients love to graph out their emotions, sometimes getting quite elaborate mathematically. As a therapist, I try to initiate this symbolic process for my clients, follow their lead and then trust their innate wisdom and ability to heal. It can be a challenge to sit back and support when I don’t know quite what’s going on.
What can parents do? For starters, trust your instincts. Then, provide the richest, most varied environment you can, and give your child a wealth of experiences. If they seem to be using symbols and metaphors, can you encourage that and make the experience fuller? Finally, to some degree, you’re going to have to let go and trust in the wisdom of your child.