I was overjoyed to see him pick the most ‘difficult’ puzzle and go after it with a vengeance!
Teachers walked on egg shells around him. A high reinforcement schedule was used to ‘get him’ to complete tasks. Every response was reinforced with a favorite piece of a food.
But things are different today.
Dear parent, is your child displaying difficult behavior?
Is he hyperactive? Does he lack eye contact, show limited speech, poor motor skills, difficulties with social interaction, crying spells, sleeping problems, or other health issues?
You might think that by ‘fixing’ the above, everything will be fine.
The dagger of time hangs heavily upon your head. It says, “fix this by age 7, or your child will never be ‘normal’.”
So you find specialists and spend our time driving your child around from one therapist to another. You religiously complete the homework they give you.
This is precisely where you must take a step back. Stop the action, so that you can appraise the situation. Why?
Because beneath what you see is an invisible underlying problem.
These issues camouflage the core issue of Autism Spectrum Disorders.
Please note, I’m not saying that the issues you see are not important. Yet they take up so much mind space that you cannot see anything else.
The lack of emotional relation, connectedness, and a back and forth interaction between parent and child, are the hidden issues. Hidden below the layers of conditions and behavior that are visible as clearly as sunlight.
What stands out for you in this clip?
Do you see a child who does not want to make eye contact? A child who has gross and fine motor difficulties? A wonderful, hard working parent who tries his best to make the child complete tasks?
I see it all too. But I’ve trained myself to look beneath the surface. I look beyond the behavioral manifestations to thinking and problem solving.
Here’s what that resulted in.
The idea is not to make the child complete tasks. It is to make the child aware about his own competence.
Imagine if your child felt competent and successful in navigating life and taking decisions. He would be your equal partner in moving towards independence and leading a happy, good quality life.
You would not have to struggle as much, because he would want to achieve it as much as you.
Build the emotional connect with your child. This is the first step towards letting him blossom as a dynamic thinker.
Here are some steps that will help you achieve this.
1. Establish a simple pattern
Start a back and forth activity. In the video above, I start a walking activity where I hand the rings to Dev and he stacks them. Giving him a role is more important than completing the activity.
Does he understand his role? Yes.
Tossing a ball back and forth, picking things to put them in a basket are great activities to establish a pattern.
2. Presume intellect
It’s easy to look at motor skills and try to make them better. I’m asking you to do something different here. Move from the skills to thinking.
What is your opinion of your child? Do you think that he understands things happening around him? Yes, he does. Even if it looks like he doesn’t.
Our children are remarkably intelligent. They show signs of it occasionally. The intellect is just waiting to come out. But it’s difficult to see this if the focus is on improving motor skills.
Work on the foundations of thinking, and it becomes seventy percent easier to develop motor skills.
3. Move from product to process
Don’t focus on getting the task done quickly.
Focus on the process. Slow down and check how much responsibility the child takes for an action or a decision.
In the video above, I didn’t focus on completing the task. I already knew he could do that.
I focused more on Dev’s understanding of the process.
Once the pattern was established, I introduced just noticeable differences. Did he perceive his role despite the little changes?
This is much more than finishing a task. Imagine how competent it made him feel. Halfway through the session (which lasted almost 30 minutes), he was laughing and holding my hand.
4. Stop giving instructions
This is my favorite tip.
We give instructions because we want the child to follow and complete a task.
You’ve done this for years, right? So have I.
Now, try something different for an hour a day.
Stop giving instructions. You will realize that your child does not really need them. You and your child will feel the lightness.
Parents report that their children are calmer and happier once they stop the barrage of instructions.
5. Give the child more responsibility
Once your child sees the pattern and follows his role despite variations, give him more responsibility.
For example, if you are playing ball with him and the ball rolls away, what will he do if you don’t do anything? Will he go get the ball and throw it back to you?
Give him a chance. Just ensure he stays involved in the activity.
6. Focus on what matters
Focus on expanding a single idea. There is beauty in simplicity.
Start with something simple, and stretch it out to increase the mental challenge. Keep your focus on what is most important.
In the above video, you can see how the prototype was expanded. The quietness and slowness of the interaction gives a lot of information.
7. Let him learn from mistakes
Earlier, I was petrified of letting Mohit make a mistake. It was important for me to see him get it ‘right’. The stress and anxiety built up in him too.
As I loosened up, so did he.
It’s alright for your child to make a mistake. Let him remain in the uncertainty – it will build his resilience.
Note time code 2.41- 2.57. See how Dev, this wonderful young boy, keeps trying and succeeds.
8. Be open to discoveries
It’s important to have a plan in mind, but be aware that your child can add something which may throw you off guard. Learn to leave yourself open to several possibilities and go with the flow.
Remember that there is always more than one way of doing something.
The little boy at the start of this article is handsome Nafi. What a long way, he’s come!
I attribute Nafi’s success to his mother Zohra, who applied each the 8 steps described above.
To this basic framework, we gradually added complexity.
Zohra didn’t give up- even when things were at their most difficult.
Nor did Nafi.
This is because he felt competent. We hit the sweet spot of intrinsic motivation.
Today, he wants to succeed, as much as we want him to succeed.
Make your child a competent thinker. He will then be motivated to do things by himself, his way. In fact, he will seek out more challenges to deal with.
Both of you will be relieved.
A story was doing the rounds on WhatsApp groups.
A teacher informed the parents of a 4th grader about his difficulties. She called the boy a ‘slow learner.’ This boy was devastated and thought that he was ‘dumb’. He wondered if his parents would punish him. They came to his room that night and talked about what his teacher had said in the day. Instead of scolding him, they wrote ‘slow learner’ on a piece of paper and tore it in front of his eyes. “You’re not a slow learner,” they said. “We’re going to prove your teacher wrong.” From that day onwards, the parents spent an hour every day – teaching him to read and write. He started doing better. By the end of the school year, his grades were at level with the other kids. Nobody called him a slow learner after that day.
It is the same for children on the autism spectrum too.
Yes, your child is this unique, wonderful person who has certain difficulties. But he also has some strengths.
The label of Autism Spectrum Disorders, should not come in the way of leading a quality life.
Can you rise above the label and support your child? Only you, the parent, can do this.
Kamini Lakhani is a, RDI® program consultant and the Director of SAI School (ABA Center) and SAI Connections (RDI Center). She has over 19 years of experience working with individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders and currently serves as the director of our RDI Professional Training Center in Mumbai. She is the Director of SAI School (ABA Center) and SAI Connections (RDI Center)