Part Three- ‘I think I might need some help here!’
Lots of students with Autism- and those that look after them at home and at school- tell us that when they are struggling they might shut down, either blocking everything out or feeling a desperate urge to get away from everyone, or alternatively they might get overwhelmed and scream, shout or hit out at others. This is tough on everyone so both the student and those around them might think that they can use a little help!
Part Three- Unmet needs : ‘I think I might need some help here!’
When it starts to get too much for everyone, it is usually because the child has an unmet need but cannot communicate it or can't sort how the problem themselves. It would be impossible to cover all the possible unmet needs a child might have in this blog, but we can start to think about some of the unmet needs that we come across most often. We have found that something which often sets off troubling situations is when a child can’t have something that they want or need. At Learning & Wellbeing Psychology we have found that it can be helpful to make sense of these situations by bringing them back to our own lives.
Take a few moments to think of specific situations (more than one) where you have really wanted something, but then found out that you cannot have it. Really flesh out the answers to these questions: What did you feel? How strong were those feelings? What thoughts went through your mind? What things did you do- immediately and then later on?
It can help to think about other questions too: What if most of the things you really wanted were banned most of the time? What if you didn’t understand why you couldn’t have the things you really wanted? How would you feel about the people who kept saying ‘no’?
Now, with your own experience still in your mind, think through the denials and limits that the child you know can cope with, the ones that cause a meltdown and the ones that can go either way. Perhaps you can also summarise your thoughts about what helps your child cope with a denial/ limit successfully? You could jot down your thoughts in a table. It might look something like this one:
Summarise your thoughts about what helps your child cope well with a denial or limit:
Being able to so something else that he likes instead
Having had lots of opportunities to experience the preferred activity at other times, so he feel secure that his favourite things will come his way again
Once we have this clarity about what is going on, it opens up some possibilities about ways forward. For example, we can look at how often we are saying ‘no’ to a child. Are we putting ourselves in the position of being the person who takes all the good things from them? Or a powerful force that blocks them getting what they want? If we have got ourselves into this problem we need to find a way out of the relational impasse.
Perhaps in these situations, we need to start searching for all the ways we can say ‘yes’. Alternatively, instead of ‘limiting our limits’ we might need to let them know that ‘yes’ is a possibility- and when we will be able to deliver on that promise. Language can be an important tool to help with this. We can be sure to use ‘no’ when we mean ‘no-not ever’ (for instance, for behaviour such as hitting others) and ‘later’ when we mean ‘not now’. Thinking about what sets off a behaviour enables us to get ahead of it- but we cannot control everything and sometimes we have to say ‘no’ and mean it. It can be helpful, when going through a tough time with a child, to be clear what things you are going to be ‘like a rock’ about and always, in every situation, forever say ‘no’ to, which things you can say ‘yes’ to at least sometimes as well as some things that you can always say 'yes' to, even if it is only for a short while. It can be helpful to agree and share a No-never/ Yes-always table with everyone in your child's network.
No- not ever
Yes- but not always
Hitting other people
Bubbles (they can get too much attention)
When we do have to say ‘no’, or even ‘later’, instead of being the bearer of bad news, we can take ourselves out of the picture by ‘appealing to a higher power’. This can mean that we, as the teacher or parent, don’t become the focus of the child’s frustration and upset. If we offer written or visual rules, then we can suggest that the child can check the house or class rules, or their timetable instead of using the ‘no’, which is often inflammatory. We can also plan ways to avoid the problem or limit the fallout - we can be ready to offer activities before the child is likely to ask for their preferred activity, or we can be ready to offer the activities that are OK by us as a distraction.
If you think back to the thought experiment that we did at the beginning of the blog, you might remember how hard it is for all of us to cope with the frustration and disappointment of not being able to have what you really, really want.
This means that when a child does manage to tolerate a ‘no’ without a big meltdown or shut-down, we need to celebrate this achievement in whatever way works for them and conveys fully the message of how proud we are of them.
In the longer term, we might also consider that the coping strategies that might help us at times of disappointment- strategies like thinking about other things, planning to do it another time, consoling ourselves with something else- involve skills of being able to ‘move on’ and ‘switch topic’. This is something that children with autism mostly find very, very hard. This means that working on choice-making more generally will help the individual move their mind between topics and onto something else that they can have. Opportunities to make choices and work on ‘first this/ then that’ sequences are a longer-term strategy to support children.
At Learning & Wellbeing Psychology we hope that the thoughts in this blog give you some ‘take-aways’ that you can try out. As schools can now choose which providers they buy in, we offer a range of services directly to education settings, including consultations to support school staff to help students cope with denials and limits. Do request your FREE initial consultation to discuss how we can help your setting.
This blog is the final one in the three part series- next month we will be sharing a completely different topic! If you want to keep up with our blogs, don’t forget to subscribe to our mailing list.