June 23, 2012

Stretch, but do not push!

I have seen many parents and teachers unsuccessfully push their children into situations that are too overwhelming for them. When the child is young, they do not have the coping skills to effectively deal with their emotions and behavior reactions. When placed in situations of confusion and frustration, they may act out in disarray. If we look closely we can identify "why" the child is so frustrated and make modification to reduce the stress. It sounds like you have been very skillful is doing so. Children on the spectrum need to a lot of help in accommodating for their sensory, cognitive, and emotional vulnerabilities. The more we can be sensitive to these needs the easier it is for our children to adapt. By doing so, the child views us as a "working partner" with them, and learns to use us as a "trusted guide" for them.

Children on the spectrum, because the world is very confusing and overwhelming for them, will often fall back into very rigid comfort zones in order to escape and avoid the dynamic uncertainty our world presents. Because of their anxiety and insecurities, they are often motivated to seek out sameness and predictability, and to avoid risking, trying new things, and following the lead of supporting people around them. While providing supports, using the child's interests as a starting point, and adapting activities to lessen the anxiety, we also need to teach the child how to "feel competent" in tackling uncertainty and anxiety. I work with many children on the spectrum, and the one thing I found helpful is to continually stretch their comfort zones. Since many children on the spectrum hate "uncertainty" they often hold very rigid comfort zones, and actively fight stepping outside these comfort zones.

I find parents and teachers make too important mistakes in working with children on the spectrum. They either demand the child adapt to our typical routine too quickly, requiring too much adapting, or they cater to the child's comfort zone, not expecting the child to continually stretch their comfort levels. Too much uncertainty overwhelms the child and reinforces their motivation to escape and avoid uncertainty, making their comfort zones even more rigid. On the other hand, protecting the child by keeping them in their comfort zone is not helping them learn how to adapt to our world.

I find it helpful to teach the child to feel "safe and competent" in tackling small amounts of uncertainty, by continually stretching their comfort zones. I start where they are at (comfort zone), and gradually stretch their comfort zones, by providing frequent "nonpunishing" exposure to uncertainty. Every time I stretch them a little, I create small amounts of uncertainty (anxiety). However, I also make sure it is not too overwhelming for them, and that they eventually tackle and master the uncertainty (and lessen the anxiety). Through repeated "tackling and mastering" small bits of uncertainty, the child becomes more confident and more flexible. As the child becomes older they learn stronger coping skills for dealing with the frustrations our world presents to them.

So, it is important to understand and respect your child’s comfort zones, since it is these safety nets that help him feel safe and secure. However, it is equally as important to continually stretch the child’s comfort zones to (1) develop learning opportunities, and (2) teach the child to feel competent “risking” and tackling uncertainty. This is essential if your child is going to learn how to handle the dynamic uncertainty that our world presents to them.

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