While listening to an orchestra warm up the cacophony of sounds can be mighty dissonant and unsettling. I whispered to my husband that like "doing the dance", we are also the conductor of the orchestra. (If you missed my post called, Doing the Dance, click here to read about balancing the emotions in a family affected by autism and or Asperger's.) While doing the dance we are skirting around our son's fragile emotions while trying to keep him as well as the rest of the family emotionally balanced. It is a very complicated dance since one of the dancers has neurological reasons for his lacking emotional and social skills.
As the conductor, we control the volume, tempo as well as a host of other balancing elements in our family. As the parents, we hold the baton that directs our children. Some days my arms are just so tired from cuing certain members of my little orchestra much more often than the other instrumentalists. Without the conductor, the orchestra will "fall apart," as each musician will eventually get off the beat and follow their own tempo. The same is true for our families. And as you probably know, some of us are better at staying on the beat than others! My poor middle kiddo can barely clap in tempo for more than two or three claps. He just doesn't have an innate sense of rhythm. His emotional tempo, however, is usually set appropriately for whatever situation is at hand. (He does have ADHD, however so sometimes his energy tempo, mouth control tempo, and emotional tempo are just a bit faster than I can keep up with.)
When a child has autism or Asperger's, however, their tempo can be all over the place. Sometimes the tempo is too fast for a given situation and he not only can't sit still but can't sit at all. Without his meds he can't sit in a chair without falling out during math. He can either concentrate on math or sitting, but not both. Sometimes his tempo is too slow; he can't change when the "musical selection" asks for the tempo to pick up. When he is playing and we have to leave soon, he can't adjust. When the conductor of an orchestra (the whole family) has one musician who can't adjust with the rest, there is usually fallout.
Preventing fallout is the parent of an Aspie's daily chore. We have been doing this chore for so many years that even though conducting is no less tiring, it has become part of who we are and how we function as a family. It can be second nature at times. We don't even realize that we are doing it. If you watch a conductor, he can conduct the main tempo for the piece with one hand and cue certain sections with another. But like I said before, it is tiring enough when all of the family can change tempos together, but nearly exhausting when one member of the orchestra marches to the beat of his own drum and needs constant cuing!
That's our job as parents. We have to keep a healthy tempo in our home, a speed that everyone can enjoy, while at the same time provide constant cues for the kiddo who can't regulate him or herself. We have to constantly be explicit examples of the appropriate tempo for a given situation as well as explain the tempo in words because kiddos on the autism (and to a smaller degree, ADHD) don't innately feel these rhythms.
If you struggle with a kiddo who has poor self regulation skills, I highly recommend this book: "How Does Your Motor Run?"
Click the image above to go directly to their website. The authors of "The Alert Program," Mary Sue Williams and Sherry Shellenberger do a fantastic job explaining the neurology of why some kiddos have motors (brains) that just seem to know no speed but fast (or slow). Then they teach you as the parent (teacher) and the child how to appropriately regulate those "engine speeds." They also give helpful ideas for what to do when one's engine speed is not "just right."
My copy of the manual is highlighted all over the place and even though my kids don't know I'm using the principles inside, I use them every day as part of my conducting. This book, although somewhat academic in the beginning as the neurology is explained, is VERY practical for any parent who has a child with fluctuating tempos that are hard for both the parent and child to control.
Some ways we help our kids control their tempo:
- By helping them make wise eating choices. Too much dairy can really affect my oldest child's moods and too much white sugar can affect everyone's tempo and mood. No protein is a set up for a meltdown. Of course, these are the foods he craves, so this can be quite a battle at times.
- Doing school without moving around is a set up to falling out of chairs. There is a reason why we have a trampoline and bikes. It's too bad I didn't have some of these when I taught in public school. I know of many kids who could have benefitted from them in the middle of the day.
- Schedules and routines are a must for keeping the tempo somewhat regulated. Too much unstructured time is dangerous for my oldest. Even his unstructured time is pretty much planned.
- In light of the above structures, unforseen changes are part of life. For him to flow into the next item on the agenda, plenty of warning HAS to be given. We can't expect him to change the very second we ask. It's just not neurologically possible for him. Read the "Engine" book for more info!
- We have to be ultra consistent or else!
- We have to model "rest" for him. It is not even close to his nature to rest and it is too vague for him to understand unless we show him. Sleep is essential for him to function.
- We have to teach our other two kids what his limitations are. Sometimes they trigger him without even knowing it. (They are also kids and sometimes do it on purpose.)
- We do use medications. Without them, all of the above are too often for naught for us to handle.
- By educating our family as much as possible we can help keep the tempo even at family gatherings. (No grandpa, you can't buy him a 6 lb bag of gummy bears!) This is only successful when the family is eager and willing to learn that our tempos don't flow naturally without lots of interventions.
- Even when he doesn't understand we still follow through with discipline. By discipline I don't always mean punnishment. We do always correct our kids. We do always expect respect. But in the middle of a neurological meltdown, punnishment only makes the tempo escalate and they don't learn anything anyway. We do however, teach them that all of their actions have consequences. Some good and some bad. We always correct talking back and physical fighting. (We also know that neurologically certain kids are capable of understanding certain principles but acting on them is another thing altogether in the heat of a moment. So even if we punish one day, he may do the same thing the next and the next. It's just our job to persevere!) If we didn't follow through with a consequence the likelyhood of a similar behavior's tempo escalating faster the next time is iminent.
I salute you if you are also a "Conductor in the Band!" Keep it up! You are never alone! Just make sure you take some time for yourself, or else you arms will be too tired to cary on!