Autism and Relationships: Correction or Connectionby Brenda Rothm, mamabegood.blogspot.com
December 3rd 2012
We yearn for connection.
As members of a community, our biggest fear is isolation. One of our worst punishments is banishment, as it was for Cain, forced to wander forever. We put prisoners away from their friends, family, and community. And the worst punishment we use is death, permanent isolation from all that we know.
We value connectedness to each other. For our children, we build hopes about their connectedness. We want them to have friends, belong to a community, find a life partner. We dream about symbols of connectedness, like their weddings and births. We strive to ensure our children are included, invited, and wanted. We feel pain when they are left out. We understand deeply the value of connectedness.
When autism is presented as a lack of connectedness, it hits at our core. Our children, ourselves - we are suddenly vulnerable to the very isolation we fear.
We are told that our autistic children lack connectedness. We believe when experts tell us that our children would rather be alone, that they prefer objects to people, that they turn inward rather than reach outward to people. We are told that our job is to fix the disconnection. We focus on the signs of disconnection. We fear every behavior, every deficit, every miscommunication as a symbol of that disconnection. Our dreams turn to nightmares about their isolation.
What if autism is not a lack of connectedness? What if autistic persons are yearning for connection, just like everyone, but are overwhelmed at times by the environment? What if they long for connection and get stuck in communicating it? What if the greatest risk to autistic children is turning off that feeling of connection by the very things we are told to do to repair it?
Autism therapy focuses on individual skills, breaking everything down into steps and skill sets. But what if there is a meta-lesson that they are learning from these relationships? Daniel Siegel, psychiatrist and author, discusses in his book Mindsight how the overarching themes of our childhood set a lifelong pattern for our relationships.
So let's look at the relationship patterns that today's autistic children experience. What if our natural need for connection is not met with a connecting other, but with a correcting other? The major theme with therapies and education for autistic children is deficits and correction. We focus on correcting academic and social delays. Even if it's done with good intent, autistic children receive a consistent message that relationships are about correction, not connection.
This pattern of correction is highlighted in a lack of focus on what brings them joy. A common observation from parents is that after autistic children graduate school, they don't know what to do for fun. They haven't spent their childhood finding out what makes them happy. In fact, we parents are told that the things that bring our children joy are dangerous symbols of their disconnectedness. Their interests are dismissed as obsessions. Even their self-initiated ideas of what is joyful is up for correction.
What does this focus on correction do to their patterns of relating? Do they feel that they can never measure up to expectations? Do they give up trying? Do they dismiss their own ideas of worth and happiness? Do they lose their ability to self-attune? Do they give up their creativity?
And what results from a relationship pattern of correction? Does it actually increase the risk of disconnection? Does a pattern of correction teach that relationships are too painful? Will autistic children as they grow older withdraw from relationships because making themselves vulnerable to more correction is too risky? Because relationships are wrapped up with fault-finding? Will they believe that connecting with others is more about teaching than feeling? Will they lose touch with who they are and what brings them joy? Will they reject others before they can be rejected?
What if we viewed autism, not as a lack of connection, but, as all childhoods are, an opportunity to focus on connectedness? What if we assumed that autistic children yearn for connectedness - because they do - like all children? Instead of focusing on fears and deficits, what if we looked at ways to reinforce connections - through people, interests, ideas, and school? What would their relationship patterns look like then?
In the face of a consistent message to parents that our children lack connectedness and require correction, we need hope. We can give each other that hope through our connectedness. We can remind ourselves of the amazing feeling of being in love with our children, of how our children manage to connect with others, of the feeling of hope for their connectedness, now and in the future.
One day in the future, when our grown children tell the story of their childhood, I want them to remember themes of connectedness - about relationships, about love, about how teachers inspired them, about how important they felt to others.
We can change these themes now - from correction to connection.
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