Many people look back on childhood as being a carefree, even idyllic time – but in reality, it is a stage in life which is full of challenges.
As they grow, children develop and mature and reach different milestones that allow them more independence, more ability to make decisions and to have self-control.
This journey is not smooth, and it is not linear.
The Challenges of Childhood
During these early years, children are starting to:
- make sense of the world;
- experience intense feelings;
- understand that there is a reality beyond their own;
- realise that the universe does not revolve around them;
- learn that there are different rules to follow depending on where they are;
- learn that actions have consequences; and
- understand that people have a will of their own.
They are surrounded by familiar and strange people, as they learn all this and so much more.
They learn how to judge a social situation based on cues from others – verbal and non-verbal. They learn that there is such a thing as sarcasm, jokes, figurative speech and that reality is multifaceted – and it is up to them to figure out how to navigate this social jungle and how to fit in, while trying to follow all of these rules.
And now let’s think of THAT child – you know which child – the one at the shopping centre, throwing themselves on the floor screaming, usually accompanied by an exhausted looking mum, probably because she went through the same thing this morning when trying to get the child dressed, and three more times since then.
THAT child, that at school gets into conflict with other children almost every day, who hits them and is unable to explain why, who seems to be the odd one out, without friends despite wanting them. The child who causes “problems” when he won’t sit down or he’ll speak out of turn, the child who is always reprimanded because they laugh when others get hurt, or because they seem not to get the idea of personal space.
We all know THAT child, right? The “problem” child, the one who always poses such challenging behaviours that Mum and Dad are at their wits’ end and who dread the school routine from minute one until bed time.
But what if THAT child is actually not a “problem”, what if THAT child actually HAS a problem? What if their problem has a name? What if it is Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD)?
Autism Spectrum Disorder
This disorder comes on a continuum (spectrum), and while no two children/adults with ASD are alike, there are similar traits that help with identifying and diagnosing ASD.
When we talk about behaviour, it is good to remember that any behaviour serves a purpose – it does not come out of the blue for no reason. While the reason may not always be apparent, it is still there.
A lot of children with ASD will have special sensory needs, and what for a neurotypical person can pass as a barely noticed noise in the background, for a person with ASD it may sound like a turbo jet passing 2 metres away and overwhelming their auditory system.
Other typical sensory needs include tactile (chewing on clothes, nails, pencils, being bothered by fabric etc), the need to move constantly or to fidget (proprioceptive and vestibular), a very fine sense of smell (olfactory), or any combination of these.
And then, when their sensory system is overwhelmed with all this information they receive from everywhere around them, the bell goes and they find themselves in the middle of the recess jungle, where they must try and make sense of all the nonverbal cues their peers give them. Where they can’t tell:
- if the others’ actions are friendly or teasing;
- why their “friends” keep calling them names and picking on them;
- that while their “friends” are socially savvy enough to know when to stop and how to avoid detection, it is something they don’t grasp.
And when all becomes too much, when words fail them, when they got pushed / shoved / insulted one too many times, they lash out, wherever they happen to be.
And then Mum and Dad get the phone call from the school: “Johnny punched another child because they said his hat looked funny”. Because Johnny could not explain that the other child had spent the morning poking him, and the recess tormenting him, calling him names and pushing him. Because Johnny has ASD and his thinking is very literal, and when asked “Why did you do it?” he can only say the direct thing (the last straw) that pushed him over the edge: “he said my hat looked funny”.
Or, if Johnny has a “good” day at school and Mum and Dad do not get the phone call, after school, when at home, Johnny finally can’t hold it all together and lashes out in an environment where he finally feels safe and secure to be himself.
While our Johnny may display an array of challenging behaviours, across several settings, he is not a problem; he has a problem. But he can be helped to navigate his daily life with less difficulty and to have good days at home, at school and at the shopping centre.
Johnny can learn the social skills he needs to survive the school yard; his teacher can learn about his sensory needs and what they can do to help; and Mum and Dad need to understand that Johnny’s behaviour is not a reflection of their parenting skills, and they have not failed as parents.
While there is no “cure” for ASD, there are still lots of things we can do to assist these children with their coping and social skills, as well as addressing their unique map of sensory needs – you may like to read my article, Addressing the Need Behind the Challenging Behaviour.
Children on the spectrum can and do go on to live fulfilling, independent lives, and many times can provide an interesting and unique perspective on situations, despite, or perhaps because of their specially wired brain.
Author: Alexandra Ellermann, M Psych (Clin), AMAPS.
Brisbane Psychologist Alexandra Ellermann has extensive experience in working with children, adolescents, adults and families with a range of challenges, including Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADHD, intellectual disability and developmental delays, and trauma and abuse.
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