What Parents Need To Know About Interacting With Autistic Children

I have the wonderful opportunity to work with individuals who have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder level 1. There are many things that parents, professionals, family members, friends, and others have said about them.

One very common statement is that they don’t respond to consequences. Another common statement is that they don’t connect the dots. These statements have a lot of truth to them but are also very incomplete.

We often try to apply consequences and get them to connect the dots when the situation is heated and tensions are high. But we forget that even if someone like me, who is not on the Autism spectrum, is less logical during times when my emotions are high.

Individuals on the Autism spectrum often experience non-threatening external situations as threats. As a result, they engage in what one therapist calls the Five F’s. They are fight, flight, freeze, forget, and what the F?

The last F is a catch all for when they perceive a threat and they act in a way that people think is crazy when it is really just a survival strategy dealing with the fact that they’re in a completely limbic state.

To be skills oriented or insight oriented? That is the question. So how does this all relate to this question? It relates because the dichotomy that question creates is wrong.

I work with parents to help them understand that; first their child does understand more than they think they do. Second, if they don’t understand, I need to help them understand in a way that doesn’t trigger the 5 f’s. And third, understanding is not going to change behavior in the same way that it might change behavior with a neurotypical child.

If I spend a lot of time in a place where a large number of situations are perceived as threats,my ability to understand things logically will be limited. This then leaves parents and others frustrated feeling like the individual doesn’t care or doesn’t want to change, which leads to control strategies to try and get them to respond properly. This creates a problematic pattern of teaching and lecturing. Then expectations are dashed leading inevitably to control measures which don’t work because the person doesn’t have the skill to manage their heightened emotional state. This leads to more problems in the future.
I work with parents and students to help them learn how to break that pattern and become skills oriented.

This requires a shift in mindset.

We start by asking ourselves, “How would I speak to my child if I were trying to speak from a skills perspective, from an insight perspective, or from a motivation perspective?” For the struggling individual, I invite them to answer question.

I might use statements like, “It’s ok,” “Thanks for putting in the effort. I see it, and appreciate it,” “Let’s notice that attempt didn’t work out so well,” and “Let’s look at some alternatives.” I may also use some of Ross Greene’s collaborative problem solving methods. We then shift our efforts to other things.

As parents, and as individuals, they study different strategies and practice them. I find that the simpler the strategy the better the results. We can’t get too fixated on one modality since there are times when that method doesn’t work and have to apply another strategy.

I help individuals collect as many skills and strategies as they can, which invites cognitive flexibility. Those skills start to overlap and help them successfully fix problems. Some skills are as simple as noticing an emotion coming on. Just take 2 breaths and label it in your head. A smile can do a lot for emotions. Posture can also help.

The beauty of the wilderness is that it gives people an opportunity to internalize these ideas at a quicker pace because they are not in crisis. They get to reflect on their feelings and are more open to change. It is amazing how much learning happens when an individual is not in a survival state.

Remember that once we are in the right mindset, change is simpler than we think. Also, just because something is simple doesn’t make it easy. Emotions cloud our judgment and make the simple very difficult.


Greg, clinical director headshot and Outback Wilderness Therapy for Troubled TeensGreg Burnham, MS, LMFT
Clinical Director/Primary Therapist
Outback Therapeutic Expeditions


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