Bonding with your Child on the Spectrum

Since it’s “Autism Month” I am re-printing this article that originally appeared in New York Metro Magazine.  

 

Your child with autism wants to form a secure bond with you, even if it doesn’t always seem that way. Part of the challenge is learning to understand signals: developing insight into how your child’s mind works, trying to see the world as he or she sees it, and not comparing your parenting skills with those of a parent of typical children.

 

The most fundamental bond between humans is the bond between child and parent. Psychologists have a name for the process that occurs as a child develops a secure bond with his or her parent: attachment. Whether or not you are familiar with the term, you have been affected by it, and so has your child. It’s part of our culture. But how does the theory of attachment apply to your relationship with your child who is on the autism spectrum?

Attachment theory has been a bedrock concept of child development, and yet for children on the autism spectrum, the milestones of secure attachment may not look at all like what we expect. All atypical children need to feel safe and securely attached as much as typical children, yet they may behave differently or even seem to reject parents’ attempts to create a safe and secure relationship. It’s a fact that children on the autism spectrum are impaired in their ability to navigate social relationships, so of course they will react to their parents differently—not because parents are not sufficiently responsive or sensitive, but because of the way their brains are wired. In other words, parents: It’s not your fault!

And keep in mind that the quality of your bond with your child is certainly not the only factor that affects your child’s development. Genetics, natural temperament, and environment are a few of the other important influences. In children with autism, attachment theory as a predictor of future mental health is not such a great barometer; in fact, it can be downright discouraging.

Atypical Attachment

For children with autism, the signposts of secure attachment may not be obvious. Your child may anxiously expect you to be there for him or her, but may not be able to demonstrate reciprocity like a typical child, such as giving you a hug. Part of the challenge is learning to understand your child’s signals: developing insight into how your child’s mind works, trying to see the world as he or she sees it, and not comparing your parenting skills with those of a parent of typical children. Let’s face it: There is no real comparison. Atypical children need atypical parenting.

All children on the autism spectrum require much more supervision and assistance than typical kids. As the child matures but the daily demands on the parent do not diminish—and if the child does not respond to the parent’s love and care in gratifying ways—it’s only natural that the parent’s nerves begin to fray. Having to be available and supportive 24/7 can leave even the most devoted parent overwhelmed and depressed. Over time, a parent’s judgment about how much care to provide can become distorted by stress, doubt about the child’s ability to function on his or her own, setbacks, and conflicting input from spouse and family. Add exhaustion, and it is easy for a parent to lose perspective and become over-involved. Feeling guilty about not having created a securely attached child will often have parents going overboard into the ‘helicopter’ department. Caring for your child, loving your child, supporting your child—nothing is more important than that, right?

By being a consistent and responsive parent for your child with autism, you are creating the steady presence that your child needs, but your own emotional well-being is every bit as important. Reclaiming your own self is essential to nurturing your child. Here are a few options I suggest to parents:

1. Practice self-compassion.

Acknowledge the challenges in your life and stop criticizing yourself for not being a “good-enough” parent as evidenced by your child’s behaviors. As you mentally embrace yourself when you are feeling most challenged, you are modeling a compassionate way of being in the world that imprints on your child. Research has shown that self-compassion is strongly linked to mental well-being, happiness, life satisfaction, and better relationships. Can you imagine how increasing your self-compassion could help your relationship with your child?

2. Develop interests outside the home and your child.

Learning taikwondo, taking a pottery class, or joining the adult swim team are just a few examples of what you might do. It will infuse your family life with extra energy as you come home with a glow and show off your new moves. Helping to widen your child’s narrow window of interests is a healthy side effect of widening your own scope of activities.

3. Spend quality time with your child apart from chores and homework.

Sit down on the floor together and really join in your child’s activity. Learn to notice small signals, try to see the world from his or her perspective. Sideways activities are a great way for children on the spectrum to include their parents in their passions. So take the time to learn all about the hummingbird’s pollination behavior or whatever interests your child. It may seem like your child prefers to be alone, but the truth is that children with autism get lonely too. They need you to help them build that bridge to connecting with others.

4. Above all, don’t mistake your child’s lack of social responsiveness with a lack of connection to you.

Your child’s attachment needs are just as strong as typical kids. It is just harder for kids with autism to communicate their needs and emotional feelings. Have faith in your efforts as a parent, and try to treasure the small moments that make your family a place of safety and comfort not only for your child but for yourself as well.

ALL ABOUT ACCOMMODATIONS: Who, How and Why


Accommodations for students in schools and on standardized testing is growing rapidly. It may come as a surprise to parents that among the most coveted “award” in the most highly ranking private prep schools and colleges these days is not necessarily “phi beta Kappa” but the “label” of “learning disability”. Otherwise known in public school lingo as “LD” or as “OHI” (other health impairment, meaning ADHD) or even ASD (autism spectrum disorder).

Over the years, the label of “learning disability” has evolved from a stigma to becoming an upfront and center characterization of bright but struggling students who perform below their potential and are looking for an explanation.

The good news:

Labels provide services and accommodations which serve to level the playing field for students with challenges. Far from being a “crutch” it opens the door to educational opportunities for all types of students.

In banishing stigmas from all mental illness, learning disability and pervasive developmental disorders, we, as a society have become more inclusive, more tolerant, and provide more opportunities for those who are slightly different.  With open recognition, we can help children grow up to be powerful, efficacious and rightfully compete amongst the most educated groups in our population. This is so positive for our children and a step in the right direction for an evolved, tolerant society.

The not so good news:
It’s not so easy to obtain a label. Unfortunately, parents who know their children best, can initiate the process but can’t create the labels for their kids. It takes a good professional evaluation to highlight a child’s challenge areas as well as their strengths and to demonstrate the need for specific accommodations.

Testing can be through the school or an independent evaluation. A neuropsychological assessment will cover all areas of development and highlight key areas to target for remediation, accommodation or enrichment. This assessment will allow these accommodations to be considered for school, standardized testing as well as college and beyond into grad school.

The New News:
The College Board had recently decided that students do not need new evaluations in order to apply for accommodations for standardized testing. They now say that if a student is receiving certain accommodations, such as extended time, in high school, that will suffice to allow them to receive accommodations on the ACT or SAT. However, most schools will still require testing in order to make sure that kids do qualify at the school level. 

BE AWARE! Colleges are becoming more strict about granting accommodations – even more than the College Board which provides SAT/ACT accommodations. 

if a student has received accommodations on their previous standardized testing, this is no guarantee that they will receive the same accommodations in college without a recent test report.

BOTTOM LINE:
if you suspect that your child is struggling or not meeting their potential in school, a neuropsychological/educational assessment is the best method of determining your child’s overall profile. You may not need to renew the testing every three years as in the past, but testing every five years is still recommended.  Your child’s brain continues to grow and change over time so their profile and subsequent accommodations need to be re-examined periodically.

For more information on this issue, please go to my website:
www.drritaeichenstein.com

Best wishes and remember to hug your kid today!

Dr. Rita Eichenstein

For more information on accommodations for testing on College Board exams – the SAT, SAT Subject tests, PSAT or AP tests – go to https://www.collegeboard.org/students-with-disabilities/eligibility

Happy Presidents Day!

Happy Presidents’ Day! 

Today is a great day for our country. But how do we inspire our children? Clearly, no child has been unaware of the recent political turmoil. Without education, We risk creating cynicism in the tenderest minds. We happen to live in still the greatest country and yet so many children are not taught very much about patriotism in general. 

Yes, Presidents’ Day is also a wonderful vacation day and if you are hitting the slopes or relaxing on the beach, it’s wonderful family time and I’m sure much deserved. 

But parents, please take a moment to also talk about the wonders of living in a thriving democracy. 

Most kids that I test are woefully unaware of basic touch points of American history. 

For example, very few know who Christopher Columbus really is; their answers often range from hilarious to blank stares. (“Did he cut down a cherry tree? Didn’t he discover gravity? I think he ran for president a long time ago”) 

Many many older kids don’t know what an amendment is, who was the president during the civil war or what a unanimous vote is. 

And speaking of president Lincoln, here are some quotes to share and discuss with your kids. Read them aloud and discuss what they mean and define the words. Try to inspire. They will remember it, I promise. 
Quotes about President Lincoln: 

He showed that fame may be won and what services be rendered by a plain son of the people unaided by any gifts of fortune.  ~James Bryce

In him was vindicated the greatness of real goodness and the goodness of real greatness.  ~Phillips Brooks

Humble birth did not retard his genius, nor high place corrupt his soul.  ~Cass Gilbert

A Fresh Start

Happy New Year! 

Maybe it’s just me but I always feel a burst of optimism at the start of a new year. It’s a time to create the possibility of change, a rebirth of expectations for yourself and hope to change some of our less desirable habits. 

For parents, it’s an opportunity to explore just how much they are willing to improve. It’s tricky to set a realistic goal without trying to go overboard. In setting a goal, it’s important to take that goal seriously enough but not to not set the bar so high that you set yourself up for disappointment and feel less effective as a parent. 

Here are some “sure to fail” goals and how to re-adjust them into winning possibilities: 

1. “Lose weight”: of all the New Years resolutions, this one is the most popular. 

Instead of setting yourself up for too much pressure on yourself (after all, if you’re reading this as a parent of an Atypical child, you’ve already got your hands full)! How about:

“Plan healthy menus for the entire family. ” 

Now that’s a goal that is a win-win. Healthy food= good habits for you and for the kids! 

2. “Stop yelling”: here’s another “sure to fail” goal. Sure, no one wants to be a “yeller” but is it impossible to say “stop yelling” and have it work? Not likely. 

How about this: I will give myself permission to be upset but remember to stop, breath, reframe what I was about to say or do into a more communicative conversation.  I like the STOP method:

Stop

Take a breath

Observe what is going on

Proceed mindfully 

3. “Be More Organized”: another sure to fail goal if it isn’t properly structured. Let’s try this: let each family member choose one area of organization responsibility so it’s not just on you. For kids:  Put backpacks by the front door the night before and for parents: make those lunches the night before. 

4.  And here is the goal I wish every parent would work on: self compassion. 

Parents of Atypical kids struggle with an already overloaded burden. Acknowledging that struggle and giving yourself a hug often (that massage can help too!) will go a long way to make you a better parent! 

Here’s to a great 2017! 

The Best Gift of All 

A reprint from one of my favorite holiday posts from 2013, the message is still so timely!! 
THE BEST GIFT OF ALL
Now that the gifts are unpacked and family celebrations are winding down, is it possible to include an often overlooked dimension to this winter season?
This might be the right time to introduce to your child an extra awareness of the world around us and to cultivate your own version of spirituality. 
 Recent research has found that children who are more spiritual are happier – and healthier. This doesn’t necessarily mean typical religious practices but the research included qualities such as a child’s sense of personal meaning and their sense of basic values as kindness towards others, altruism, meaningful relationships and volunteering. All of these things, the research found, were associated with a spiritual life and ‘enhanced well being.’

It is often said that children are more open to spirituality than adults who have become hurried, cynical or just too busy to consider adding a spiritual dimension to the day. But children also need to be exposed to the possibility of expanding their consciousness outward, not just downward into the face of an ipad tablet, but outward to notice the gifts of nature and the wonder of living a life that transcends the material world.

When we elevate our children’s sense of wonder, we also open the possibility of having a child who just might be more contented, less hyperactive and more open to other types of thinking that is not found automatically from living in the grind of the daily routine or found on TV.

Children who are atypical are often more vulnerable to the commercial influence of the shopping ‘gotta have it’ culture. And parents of atypical kids are more stressed, and more invested in trying to make their children happy so they also may buy into the culture of ‘more’ while forgetting that there is another side to life.

Yet, just as spirituality is good for kids, it is also good for you, the parent. Even the most secular and least religiously affiliated parent can consider the possibility of connecting children to forces outside their own sense of self. 

When we experience living as connected to the world as a whole, rather than the “me-me-me dimension” , lives become enriched. Consider, for example, how you might feel after a morning volunteering at a homeless shelter rather than another trip to the local mall?

Providing perspective on life is important, especially for atypical children who are struggling in their own way and are confronted with a great deal of inner stress. In this season of wonder and change for the new year, consider the possibility of adding an extra dimension to your life as well as that of your children.

5 tips to cultivating spirituality in yourself and in your children.

Gratitude

 give thanks before you eat, not just for the food but for everything that allowed the meal to get to the table. The farmer, the store, the truck that brought the food and the blessing of being in a country that has food in abundance. Get in the habit of pointing out your blessings, from the big things to the little things we all take for granted. Children will learn what they see, and gratitude will help a child be more sensitive and appreciative.

Practice wonder – 

a mindful contemplation. Experiment with having a moment of silence and pay attention to how you are feeling. Do this with your children. Report to each other how it felt to be silent and what you were thinking and feeling. You can do this before before bedtime, including breathing and stillness as a practice.

Helping others – 

practicing kindness and giving are experiences that children can learn to model. Volunteer as a family or just perform random acts of kindness, such as helping an older person open the door or take their groceries to the car for them. It can open conversations for children that would not occur otherwise.

Connect with nature – 

consider spending your evening with a contemplative walk outside and appreciating the stars. Experience along with your child a walk in the forest or a picnic at the beach. Take the time to look at the shore, the waves and the sky and point out details that might get overlooked. Consider the snowflakes as being unique and draw parallels to your unique child. By having these conversations, you are exercising your child’s ‘spiritual muscle’ and are building more calm and resilient children as well enriching your self.

Provide a spiritual role model

 If you don’t feel like you can be a positive spiritual role model, try to find one for your child. This will help your child connect outward and learn from others a more purposeful and positive outlook.

For more information on building spirituality in children, visit these websites:
http://www.Spiritualityforkids.com
http://www.livescience.com/3198-spirituality-religion-kids-happy.html
http://www.amazon.com/Spiritual-Life-Children-Robert-Coles/dp/0395599237