Can You Say No To An Autistic Child?

After we finally accepted that Aiden is Autistic, it quickly opened our eyes to the many things we could have done a hundred times better pre-diagnosis. We realized that how we’ve disciplined him for having meltdowns were futile because we had zero understanding of what may have truly triggered it. We also came to the conclusion that our frustration of our child’s lack of understanding, disregard for our instructions, absence of clear communication, and just overall unmet expectations were all due to our ignorance of his condition.

In some of my readings, I learned the difference between a child’s tantrum versus an autistic meltdown. Tantrums are supposed to be due to any child’s frustration of not getting what they want while autism meltdowns are due to the child being overwhelmed. According to an article I found in the Autism Awareness Inc.‘s website – for someone with autism, when they reach the point of sensory, emotional, and information overload, or even just too much unpredictability, it can trigger a variety of external behaviors that are similar to a tantrum (such as crying, yelling, or lashing out), or it can trigger a complete shutdown and withdrawal.

As a fairly smart person but a rather ignorant parent to the world of Autism – the article made total sense but my reality continued to not make sense. I was left confused and I continued to be frustrated. With Aiden, whether it was a tantrum or a meltdown – we were faced with the same behavior. Kicking! Screaming! Body throwing (unto the couch, unto the bed, unto the carpet, and repeat)! Running all over the house (to the living room, to the bedrooms, to the kitchen and back again)! Crying uncontrollably for hours on end! And I am not exaggerating – HOURS.ON.END!

I kept researching like a witch looking for that perfect potion. Every time I came across something sensible that we could do at home, I would quickly talk to hubby and get his buy-in. Each time, hubby would go along with the new approach.

Fast forward to these days – 4 years after official diagnosis – with a lot of reading, numerous trial & error approaches, and maturity as a parent to the special needs of our first born – the behaviors brought about by any triggers have tremendously improved. Fits/tantrums/meltdowns don’t last longer than an hour now! (Just thought I’d share that bit for parents out there who may think it will never get better).

Because I cannot tell you (to this day) whether it’s a tantrum or a meltdown, I’m going to just talk about what Aiden’s triggers are. For this post, we are going to specifically talk about the horrific “NO”. Sometimes Aiden will let us cruise by for days (or even months) with uttering the word “no” without a single incident. But, just when we think we have it figured out – “no” becomes a trigger (again) and we’re back to days or weeks of the fits, the tantrums, or the meltdowns (however you choose to call it).

Last Sunday while I was doing laundry, Aiden wanted to put Thomas and his Friends in the washer. Ha! I guess they needed a bath of some sort. He persistently requested it. At first I said “No trains in the washer” but he kept insisting. I sensed a fit/tantrum/meltdown brewing so I switched up my response a little to say “Nice to Thomas, Nice to Percy, Nice to trains, Nice to Washer. No trains in the washer, please.” We repeated this exchange (him putting the trains in the washer, me pulling out the trains and giving him my spiel) for about a couple of minutes. He’d leave and then come back again and we’d repeat the whole thing. After about a few more go-round’s, Aiden had enough. So he went to his bedroom, unto the floor, stiffened up the body and began crying, kicking, and making what I have always just described as his signature “screeching sound”.

I followed him to the bedroom, sat on the bed, and told him it was ok, and encouraged him to be “Nice to Aiden” and get up. I motioned my hand to reach for him so he can get up. He reached back to my hand and got up. I gave him a tight hug, told him I loved him, and invited him to go the living room.

So here’s the deal. I think you can definitely say “no” to an autistic child. I know we say no to Aiden. But in doing so, you have to be almost consistent in your approach. You also have to be open to the fact that as much as you’re struggling with being consistent on how to say “no” (and when to say no), your child is also going to struggle with being consistent on how he/she copes with your “no”.

Here are some strategies we have found to be helpful with Aiden:

  • Maintaining a loving tone even when it proves to be difficult amidst our own frustration (or exhaustion).
  • Detecting very early on what could potentially become a fit/tantrum/meltdown. This is very challenging for us because it requires us to be very attentive to our child the whole time.
  • Gauging your own boundaries as a parent – is it really worth saying “no”? Is it really a battle you want to fight right now? Or, can you let this one go?
  • Switching up your words. Instead of saying outright “no” – use positive language alternatives.

I also found the website Autism Educates has a very good article about when and how to say no to an autistic child. I recommend reading it. It’s eye-opening.

At the end of the day – most of us parents are not “experts” in the field of Autism. We don’t possess the degrees that professional do or the mastery in the field that others have acquired professionally. But what we are (and can be) are experts on IS knowing our child. No amount of school hours can compare to the hours we spend figuring it out, right? It’s alright. It’ll be alright. I can tell you, despite backwards and forwards, it gets better. Just always love your child and learn to forgive yourself for the mistakes you have made and will continue to make.

Finally, don’t be afraid to say sorry to your child when you make a parenting mistake. I find that even when Aiden acts like he may not understand – he truly does. He knows we love him and that we’re trying. And we know that he loves us and that he is also trying.