I’m just loading the washing machine and putting in the detergent when the phone rings. I already know before I answer who it will be and I dread the call that’s becoming all too familiar lately.
My child has had another outburst at school. As we talk through, once again, potential triggers, behaviour expectations and policies and how we progress from yet another incident I sit down and wipe a silent tear from my cheek. This isn’t an isolated incident either at school or at home.
Raising a violent volatile autistic child is taboo. You feel shame and embarrassment and guilt and all too often parents like myself are left alone to deal with it. It’s isolating, exhausting and emotionally stressful.
We all know it’s not the child to blame but that doesn’t make it any easier. That doesn’t pay for damaged items, heal the scarring or ease the fear. That doesn’t calm your child, keep others safe or tidy up after another meltdown.
So what does help if like me you are living with a child whose high needs and difficulties mean that they can become physical and violent at home, school or in public?
Firstly, don’t struggle alone.
You might feel alone but you most definitely aren’t. Often in the frantic scramble to get support and help for your child, you forget about seeking support yourself. Raising a child who has emotional or physical outbursts is extremely stressful and impacts greatly on your physical and mental health. Don’t be ashamed or embarrassed to reach out for help and support. Having a non-judgemental listening ear to confide in, a friend who understands, a support network who are there for you as a parent, can make the difference between you coping and falling apart.
Secondly, accept that you might need to do things differently. Fighting with your child all the time doesn’t help anyone. Does it really matter where your child eats? Or what do they wear? Giving some control over your child isn’t admitting defeat or ‘giving in’, it’s about understanding their needs and accommodating those needs just as you would with any other disability. Stepping back and being able to admit that some things you do as a parent need to be reassessed is humbling and hard but children are not a one size fits all and all challenging behaviour is a form of communication that things aren’t working and changes need to be made. Being brave enough to see and accept that can bring peace and forgiveness where there wasn’t any before.
Thirdly, treat the root cause of anxiety. All too often we get caught up in the trap of ‘behaviour happens, the child is punished, the child gets angrier, more behaviour happens’ and the circle continues on. In the heat of the moment when things are being smashed, people are being physically hurt and words are being shouted in anger stepping back, staying calm and seeing anxiety can feel impossible. Yet the reality is that your child is scared, confused, misunderstood and anxious and these emotions have become too much to deal with. Often an autistic child lacks the communication skills to talk through and share what is affecting them and triggers can happen quickly and easily.
Stop and think:
What leads up to this incident?
What words were said?
Was there a routine change they didn’t expect?
Have there been too many demands placed on them?
Was the environment overwhelming?
Something as simple as the phone ringing unexpectedly, a teacher is off sick, not understanding a request, clothes that fit and we’re comfortable before now being too small, food tasting or looking different to how they expected, or sudden loud noise can all cause such extreme anxiety and lead to incidents quickly. It’s about understanding, being willing to help and putting things in place to reassure and comfort.
There’s no magic wand. I can’t promise the calls from school will stop or the staring and judgement will disappear but remember to look after yourself, don’t be afraid to parent how your child needs, even if this goes against the norm, and work with your child to ease anxiety as much as possible.
It’s hard but it will get better.