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Grooming Civility

  • Posted on March 14, 2014 at 10:00 AM

Self-help and life skills are all a part of raising a civilized child. There’s a sense of conforming to the norm, because it is normal for a child of a specific age to be able to dress, feed, and wash up by himself, as well as performing regular hygiene and grooming tasks, like brushing hair and teeth. In addition, when raising a child with autism, obtaining these skills is important for independence and quality of life purposes. So, yes, we are conforming to society’s expectations in a way that the child may not initially appreciate.

The problem comes into play when we expect or even demand that these skills be developed in the same way and/or on the same timetable as more typical peers. Such expectations and demands only lead to mutual disappointment and frustration. I’ve seen parents who have, at least for the most part, maintained the same timetable by make significant adjustments to the way the skills are developed. I’ve also seen parents sacrifice the timetable by waiting for the child to develop these skills at his or her own pace. I’ve tried both routes with mixed success, resulting in a rather mixed approach.

In the end, the question is not whether we need to conform to society in these regards; the question is how much we are willing to conform to society. Where we draw the line, as parents, matters. It impacts how we perceive our children and how our children are perceived by others. More importantly, it impacts how our children perceive themselves. It impacts the levels of chaos and order that exist within our homes. It impacts the comfort and adaptability of our children. It impacts their quality of life with regards to how expectations and methodologies relate to their frustration, their aspirations, their self-direction, and their self-authority.

In the end, our children will become adults. In the end, our children will find ways to communicate their own ideas, their own beliefs, and their own experiences. As we judge where our own parents drew their lines in the sand, so too will we be judged by our children. If you doubt that for even a moment, take a look around at the dialogues of autistics adults that pervade the blogosphere.

So, whatever struggles you face today, I caution my fellow parents to keep this thought in the back of your mind: What do you want your children to say about you when they can? Don’t forget that respect others’ personhood is part of civility, too. The way you teach your children to do that is to do unto them what you would have them do unto others. Autism doesn’t change that.

The Cutting of Hair

  • Posted on March 10, 2014 at 10:00 AM

When we first learned about autism and sensory integration disorder, we learned (among many other things) why haircuts seemed so traumatic for the boys. Simply put, they seemed traumatic because they were traumatic.

I remember how the boys would writhe under the scissors or the buzzer (an electric hair clipper). It used to be that I would sit down and hold one of the boys on my lap, while my mom cut their hair as quickly as possible. We’d all get covered in hair, the child would cry, and it would end with us in a breathless, exhausted tumble of remonstration, remorse, and reconciliation.

Once we understood that, yes, they acted like haircuts hurt because, to them, it did! When we understood the impact of sensory integration disorder and ineffective communication skills, we changed how we did things. Mainly, we performed haircuts in short bursts and separated each burst of haircutting with intense sensory regulation strategies. The result was a little less trauma, but otherwise the same. As the boys grew older and stronger, it seemed—at first—that the only thing that really changed is that Mark was the one to get covered in hair instead of me.

Then, something miraculous happened. It started with Willy. You see, he started becoming adept at self-regulation. He gained more self-control. So, while he still put off haircuts as long as possible and continues to dislike haircuts, he became able to endure them to the point that he could sit for them himself, he could tell us when he needed a break, he could regain his own self-control, and could tell us when he was ready to come back.

Alex’s journey is this regard was a little less straightforward and isn’t as progressed, but he can also sit for haircuts by himself. He’ll let my mom know when he’s had enough. He’ll come back when he can tolerate more. He can self-direct his participation. And they can both tolerate the buzzer!

In Ben’s case, the story is a bit different. Becky, Ben’s therapist, took over the responsibility of cutting Ben’s hair. She volunteered herself and has kept it up over the years. The results are satisfactory and we trust Becky completely, so we’ve let her choose when to cut Ben’s hair, how to cut his hair, etc. So, she manages the entirety of the project. Ben still cannot tolerate the buzzer, but seeing as Becky does it all by herself—controlling the environment in which the hair is cut is one of her strategies—Ben, too, must be doing better.

When the boys were little, I despaired of ever reaching this point. I know there are parents out there who are in the midst of that despair. But things do get better. Hang in there!