Every once in a while parents are embarrassed as a result of their child’s behavior. Some children make very honest and factual remarks, such as pointing to a person next to you in line and claiming, “she’s fat!” Moments like this can be very uncomfortable but fortunately do not occur often. But when you have a child with an Autism Spectrum Disorder the risk of this happening may be a bit higher.
All children eventually learn how to regulate their behavior and speech but children with autism tend to be a bit slower at acquiring this skill. Children with autism experience the same world we live in but in a dramatically different way, which limits their ability to read social situations and self-regulate.
Most children with autism don’t even realize that their behaviors are socially unacceptable and potentially embarrassing to their parents. Some of these behaviors may include:
inappropriate touching or invading another’s space
extreme honesty about the appearance of another person
handflapping, spinning or stimming
fascinations with particular objects
extreme displays of affection or the exact opposite
Some children respond aggressively when least expected and many have sensory issues that produce bizarre reactions to food textures, tastes, light, sound and smells.
Are you a parent who lives in fear of the next social 'faux pas' your child may commit in public?
Unfortunately, until we are able create more awareness about autism and minimize the judgmental reactions of others, parents will have to continue to deal with some situations deemed ‘socially inappropriate’ by onlookers.
You may experience these occurrences as embarrassing at first, but the goal is to develop a protective armor from the piercing looks of disgruntled onlookers that just don’t understand. In the meantime, what can a parent do?
Finding ways to prevent, minimize and deal with embarrassing public incidents is possible. Here are some strategies to consider.
1. Remember, you are your child’s best teacher/therapist. Your child may be receiving therapies that work on building appropriate social skills but you are with your child 24/7. Don’t overlook behaviors in the home that could be potentially embarrassing when out and about. IF you want to shape your child's behaviors, address them as they occur by explaining why they may be off-putting to others in public and "show" them what to do instead.
2. Appeal to the way your child’s brain works best. Most children on the autism spectrum are very visual so use pictures, photos, lists or video modeling to communicate with your child. Some may respond better to auditory input, so make a recording for your child with step-by-step instructions for them to listen to. Other children may need to be physically manipulated by taking their hand and demonstrating just how much pressure to apply to petting an animal or touching a person.
3. Be persistent. Constant repetition and reinforcement will eventually work to instill more suitable behaviors in your child. It typically takes twenty-one repetitions of an action before a new behavior becomes a habit. A brain that is wired differently may take more time - so start early, practice often and have patience.
4. Use distraction. Plan ahead when going out in public and bring a bag of tricks with you to divert your child’s attention when your gut begins sending you a warning that something potentially challenging might occur. Fill a backpack with stress relievers and favorite items that will quickly catch your child’s interest.
5. Give people information. If all else fails, be prepared with a short statement to say to others that will enlighten them. Some parents carry around cards that explain their unique child’s behaviors and provide suggestions for being helpful. Some even include a few websites that educate people about autism.
6. Ignore onlookers. It takes time to build up the confidence, courage and a secure sense-of-self necessary to disregard the gawkers and disapproving stares that you and your child may encounter. Begin building your protective armor by forcing yourself to focus on your child and what she needs at these times. Tending to and connecting to your child in the moment may be all that is needed to calm her anxiety and reverse the situation.
7. Be prepared. Your child really needs you to respond calmly and authentically in these moments. Getting upset at others will only increase the stress felt by all. Try creating a mental mantra to recite in circumstances such as these that will reassure you and help you concentrate on what is most important – your child.
Most importantly, be kind to yourself. Don’t be hard on yourself after an episode such as this. Remember that every child has the potential to call attention to themselves and every parent has the capacity to handle things inappropriately at times. Tell yourself you did the best you could and use it as a learning experience to gain insight about what you might do differently the next time.
And if the episode ended on a positive note, do a cartwheel and praise yourself and your child. Ask yourself what made the event less negative and make a mental note to repeat it - then find a way to celebrate!!!