Anxiety, violence and school problems

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[image: in white text ‘Anxiety, violence and school problems’ against a largely black background]
This post was originally published as a three-part series entitled ‘Managing Violence’. I have decided to re-publish the series as a single article (as originally intended) which can stand alone as a resource for parents and schools. I’ve spent a lot of time pondering the title, should I replace the word ‘violence’ with another? I considered changing it to ‘meltdowns’, ‘anger’ or ‘challenging behaviour’, but decided to stick with violence as that is what people see.

My son started ‘lashing out’ at nursery, but it became a real problem when he started school. Looking back I can appreciate how hard his nursery had worked to support his needs, calling in external advice and actually following the advice. Nursery staffing ratios and the physical space of the setting helped too. The nursery took up the ground floor of a big old solid Victorian house with vast gardens and quiet spaces. The free flow of this setting meant my son could make choices and choose activities. He had more autonomy over his choices at nursery than at any other stage of his education so far.

He started school a few months after his fourth birthday, not diagnosed or even referred for assessment, though he was recognised as having some special educational needs and had extra support for the transition. Despite raising the possibility that he was autistic several times, it was never taken seriously. School were dealing with an aggressive child, who struggled to interact with other children, but who was highly articulate and appeared ‘bright’ and capable, whilst refusing to accept that there might be a reason for the obvious disparities.

At the beginning, I worked alongside school, supporting their sanctions, because that’s what we are told ‘good parents’ do. I removed privileges at home after ‘bad days’ and rewarded my son for days without incidents. It didn’t make any difference as he didn’t respond to sanctions and rewards. He could verbalise that he knew it was wrong to hurt other children but he couldn’t stop himself.

At some stage during that reception year I came to my senses, realised that this wasn’t working, and if anything, was making things worse, so I stopped. I realised that anxiety was making him lash out, and that focusing all my energies on trying to address the violent behaviours wasn’t helping and was making home life pretty grim.

If I had continued to use sanctions, rewards, and other inflexible approaches, I know, without a doubt, that my son would not have done so well. To encourage flexibility of thought, we must model it. To encourage staying calm we must model it. To encourage kindness we must model it. Inflexible, draconian, harsh parenting doesn’t provide the modelling our children need.

Over the years which followed, he got his autism diagnosis (and a few more) but school continued to be a challenge. With hindsight I wish I had changed schools. It is only now that he is in a supportive, responsive and pro-active secondary school that I realise how much easier it is when school both respect a parent’s knowledge and want to work in partnership.

Parenting a violent child is hard, we do it in secret, too embarrassed and ashamed to talk about it. The internet is often our only way to find other parents (usually mothers) coping with similar issues. Nobody says it out loud. We need to. Too many autistic and otherwise disabled children are being failed because these behaviours are seen as indications of poor parenting, lack of boundaries and ineffective discipline.

Two types of violence

Too often children who lash out in distress are labelled as ‘bullies’, particularly by the parents of their classmates and peers. My son has never been a bully. The confusion arises because people misinterpret the behaviour. There are two broadly recognised types of violence:

Instrumental violence and aggression is where the aggressor uses violence (or threat of violence) as a means to an end. It requires an intent to harm, or provoke fear of harm, and is controlled and calculated. The aggressor will usually take steps to hide their behaviour. This is typically the sort of aggression used by bullies, who check who’s looking before they act, and who lie and manipulate to avoid detection. Because the aggressor seeks to evade detection for fear of consequences they are more likely to cease when risking a feared sanction.

Expressive violence and aggression is altogether different. There is no planning, no intent to harm or gain, and minimal control. It stems from our instinctive fight, flight or freeze stress response. This sort of often explosive violence is rarely hidden, though as children get older that may hold it in and explode later, which is why so many autistic children appear ‘fine’ at school and become violent, destructive and suicidal at home. It’s not that school is great and the parents are hopeless, quite often it’s the very opposite, that school are failing to recognise a child’s rising distress while the child uses all their strength to hold it in and ‘be good’.

This expressive violence is the type we see most in autistic children, who are frequently not socially sophisticated enough to plan and carry out instrumental violence, and whose violent behaviours are, almost always, an extreme stress response.

School problems

Parenting a child who is violent and aggressive at school places us in a difficult position. On the one hand it’s your child so you feel you have some responsibility. None of us want our children to be violent at school. On the other hand, school are in loco parentis and have a duty to meet needs and provide appropriate support.

Unfortunately, school behaviour policies are often built on tackling instrumental violence, relying on escalating levels of sanctions as both deterrent and punishment.

If you use those strategies for children whose violence is impulsive, expressive and stress-based, you risk making them more stressed and more prone to explosive and reactive aggression, lashing out and meltdowns. This can create a vicious cycle of stress, explosion, sanction, more stress, more explosions and so on. For far too many children this results in eventual exclusion from school. I don’t know how my son avoided exclusion, I know of many children excluded for less serious and less frequent violence.

With my son, there were broadly two types of children who got hurt by him lashing out at school. Some more socially sophisticated children appeared to take great pleasure in provoking and goading him, stepping back when he lost control, amused by his reactions and distress. They had the skills and awareness to not be seen or caught, whilst my son couldn’t find the words to explain what had happened (you can probably guess who got in trouble).

Hours or even days later I would find out what had led to the incident. Teachers always wanted to know straight away so they could take action. But with an autistic child you might need to wait until they are in the right frame of mind to explain. It can take very careful questioning to get to the real cause. I would do this at home, slowly working backwards from the incident to find the precursors.

The other type of children who often got hurt were the opposite, the caring boys and girls who would recognise my son was upset and approach him out of kindness. Unfortunately, their kindly questioning, checking my son’s well-being, and well meant touch (neurotypical children can be very tactile!) would be perceived by my son as a further attack and his fight instinct would erupt. These children probably suffered most. They were trying to be nice and were rewarded with a push or a kick.

Whilst I was working hard at finding and using strategies and techniques which worked, school were inconsistent in their approach and poor at spotting his rising anxiety, despite having considerable 1-1 support. Things that were working would be suddenly withdrawn, school failed to carry out advice from external professionals and ignored most of my suggestions.

As my son became more effective at masking in school much of the violence was delayed until he reached home at the end of the day. Each day at home time I would swiftly get him to the car hoping he wouldn’t explode before we got home. School never saw this. They thought he was fine. He wasn’t fine at all, he was in a state of heightened anxiety most of the time, but he wanted to go to school and he wanted to learn.

Throughout those primary school years I found ways to ameliorate the worst and help develop the skills he needed. My son has made remarkable progress. At his last annual review, with a new SENCO, her first words to me were “Wow! Hasn’t he come far. I’ve just been reading his file and I cannot believe it’s the same child”

Making the world an easier place for our children

After I abandoned using rewards and sanctions I started to explore different ways of reducing anxiety, increasing emotional regulation and improving problem-solving skills as a way to address explosive and reactive violent behaviours. I started off with a general idea of what I was doing, sometimes drawing on my professional and academic experiences, but mostly going with what felt right. It was often later that I found books and advice from ‘experts’ which supported (and legitimised) my seemingly eclectic approach.

I looked to ways we could change the world around him and I looked for ways to help him develop the skills he would need to navigate the world. It was not about changing my son, it was more about making space in the world for him and equipping him for the journey.

If we accept that anxiety is at the root of our children’s more extreme behaviours, we have to address that anxiety. I see little purpose in addressing behaviour without the right foundation. None of us learn well when stressed.

Changing the world

Changing the world for our autistic children happens at both a macro and a micro level. I think we all as humans have a responsibility to do what is within our abilities to try to make the world a better place for our children (for all children) to grow into. We might do this by raising awareness, educating people, upholding values of acceptance and justice, whilst encouraging and embracing diversity. Every little bit helps.

In our day to day lives we might have to make changes to our homes, our lifestyles and our plans to meet the needs of our children. We must find ways to make the world our children inhabit easier and less overwhelming. For my son this means predictability, structure, routines and meeting his sensory needs.

Controlling the world

Most standard parenting courses for parents of autistic children recommend routines and structure. These are supported by visual schedules, timetables and lots of planning and preparing. We get shown examples of complex schedules, beautiful symbols, pictures and artwork, laminated and velcroed. We are shown different ways to make them and where to buy the constituent parts or even ready made schedules.

I love making visuals with my son, we discuss them in context. We talk about what we want to achieve and why. We carefully select images, cut them to size, watch the laminator work its magic, apply velcro… and then they usually get abandoned. I’ve learned that, for us, the thinking and talking is the useful part of the process!

Without a doubt, having some routine has helped my son, but I’ve also learned that routines can restrict and limit. What is often missed is how to build flexibility and surprise into these rigid structures. Life cannot be entirely predictable, so finding ways to help our children cope with the unexpected is vital. I get very anxious when my own routines and plans are disrupted so I’m very conscious of the effect on my son.

In our family we have found that having set routines can be beneficial at specific points of the day. They are useful when we are working to someone else’s schedule, like getting ready for work and school in the mornings. We have also found that having a bedtime ritual, which has changed and adapted as my son has got older, makes for an easier and happier end to the day. These are not imposed, they are discussed, trialled and talked about. Flexibility, negotiation and compromise are key (more on that later).

This day to day scaffolding provides a safe structure for my son who seems more able to cope with surprise and disaster within it. Finding the right balance is important. I have found that as my son has got older and developed his own strategies (and simply matured and developed in a myriad of ways) he is able to abandon some of the routines and rituals. I can tell when his anxiety is rising because he relies on them more and is less flexible, more explosive and more aggressive. I need to be able to respond to these needs, providing routine when he needs it and gently encouraging diversion when possible.

As parents I think we have to pick our moments and create opportunities for our children to encounter inconsistency and spontaneity. Using special interests is often effective, but should be used carefully. Too much and we risk our children losing their interests, but a little diversion can present new areas to explore. We need to respect our child’s right to say or indicate ‘no’ they don’t want to do that. Very few things are compulsory so giving choice and an escape route is important.

I cannot stress enough how anxiety-ridden change and changes can be, and the more anxious we are the less flexible and more controlling we become. The security and predictability of routine can make it easier for us and our children to try new things and cope better with the unexpected.

If we can make the world more familiar, more predictable and more comfortable it becomes more accessible for our children and their anxiety reduces. When our children are less anxious they are more able to both cope with challenge and use the skills they’ve developed. If our children are prone to explosive and violent behaviours when their anxiety is high we have to work on reducing the anxiety first. There is absolutely no point working on learning and skills development when a child is in a state of distress.

Note for schools: our children work really hard to get through a school day. Don’t underestimate how much effort it takes just to be in school. Keeping to the timetable, preparing for changes to the timetable and allowing some choice can make a difference. Just because a child seems ‘fine’ with change, doesn’t mean they are. Many of our children are master maskers. Do listen to the parents if they spot a pattern which indicates home problems are rooted in school day problems. One of the most effective supports for my son was a copy of each week’s timetable. It helped me prepare him for each day and helped me spot problems by identifying patterns in his behaviour.

Sensing the world

Our senses are central to the way we experience the world around us. Autistic people often experience sensory input differently to neurotypical people, but all people respond to sensory input and use sensory strategies in their daily lives. All of us, autistic or not, see, hear, touch, smell and feel. The position of our bodies and how we move is the result of sensory processes. We both avoid sensory input and seek it. I am not here to explain the science of sensory processing, as that’s beyond my expertise, but I do want to explain a little about how it affects us and what might help on a practical level.

For many autistic children sensory problems cause immense anxiety and can be directly linked to violent and aggressive behaviours. Our senses keep us alert to danger, triggering our instincts when we feel under threat. If those sensory perceptions are a bit wonky it follows that our reactions might be unusual too.

My son experiences a seemingly conflicted mix of hyper- and hypo- sensitivities. A simple example is his touch response. He is hypo-sensitive to heavy touch, he loves to be squeezed and squashed and physically restricted. He will ask for more and more and ‘please more’, as if he wants to be compressed like a car in a crusher, his body simultaneously folding in submission and resisting pressure. This is deeply calming and pleasurable for him. Since he was a baby he has been pacified by firm patting and vigorous rubbing of his head and back. If you bump heads with him he won’t even notice.

However, his hyper- sensitivity to light touch, a fleeting brush of his skin or clothing as you walk past, a gentle stroke of his arm to soothe him, means he feels it like a full-on assault. And when we feel under attack, what do we do? We fight, we take flight or we freeze. We are barely in control of this instinctive stress response, even less so when we are already in a heightened state of anxiety. My son’s instinct is almost always the fight one. To an outsider it looks like a massive over-reaction, but in response to what he feels and perceives, it is quite proportionate.

This fight response to uncomfortable sensory input is called ‘sensory or tactile defensiveness’ and it is very real. It does not just apply to touch. Often, we can cope better with perceived sensory assault when we are calmer, or have some control. The noise of another person eating can make me mildly irritated on a good day or holding back an urge to rage in fury on a bad day. I have learned to flee rather than fight, but the instinct is there. I am fortunate that I can articulate this. Many of our children cannot.

Having to constantly process uncomfortable sensory input and meet our sensory needs is exhausting and can leave us with limited capacity for rational thought or learning. I could list all the various ways people manage their sensory problems, but there are whole books about this. I urge you, if you have an autistic child who is presenting with violent and explosive behaviour, to look at sensory processing difficulties. Small changes can make a huge difference.

Atypical sensory processing can cause significant problems, but it can also lead to creativity and new ways of experiencing the world. Autistic artists like Jon Adams create beauty from their synaesthesia, providing new ways of experiencing the world. Our autistic children often offer interesting and original insights into the world around us.

Note for schools: school classrooms and corridors are often a sensory nightmare. Poor acoustics, residual food and cleaning smells, fluorescent lighting, and visual clutter everywhere, all combine to add to our children’s stress load. The noise and chaos of a primary school playground or dining hall can be hellish. It makes our children feel under attack. If you can provide calm spaces for our children to retreat and recharge you might help reduce stress and overload, reducing violent and explosive behaviours.

Allowing an autistic child physical space and room to fidget and move can help them maintain their own balance. Try to understand that children fidgeting or becoming entranced by the view from the window sometimes learn better than when forced to sit still and face forward. Our brains can get so cluttered that to concentrate we sometimes need to hyperfocus on something unrelated. My son’s teachers have finally learned that when he’s looking out of the window, fiddling with his ruler, possibly even humming, that he hears every word you say. Make him look at you while you speak, and he will be so focused on sitting right, looking the right way, and staying still, that he won’t hear a word you say.

Practical solutions for reducing anxiety, increasing self-regulation and managing violent behaviours

So far, this post has been exploring ways to reduce violent behaviours which present as a result of heightened anxiety. We’ve looked at what doesn’t work and we’ve made the world a better place for our children. Now we need to equip our children with the right equipment to navigate the world – the maps, tools and guidebooks which will help them face the challenges of their journey.

I do want to say though, that none of this is rocket science, there are lots of us parenting like this, I just want to explain it for people who don’t understand or who need a confidence boost.

A lot of existing strategies for helping autistic children navigate the world are, in my opinion, not helpful and are often disablist (ableist for my American readers). If a child is exhibiting autistic behaviours at school, such as harmless stimming, choosing solitude or lashing out in fear, schools almost always offer a fairly standard social skills or ’emotional literacy’ package. These interventions tend to be built on a premise of neurotypical behaviour expectations with success measured by the achievement and emulation of neurotypical norms.

My son has attended a couple of these sort of interventions, the most recent was an ’emotional literacy’ programme provided by school. He didn’t learn anything useful, but it was a handy escape from his least favourite lesson. If quantitative measures had been used to record pre- and post- programme emotional understanding and anxiety levels, his would have shown a positive change. It would have looked like a successful intervention. But it wasn’t really. Attendance on the programme merely provided respite from a highly stressful subject. It was beneficial, but not in the way the developers of these programmes would expect.

How to develop emotional understanding

Despite my concerns around traditional ’emotional literacy’ programmes, it is important that we help our autistic children to develop their emotional understanding, expression and regulation. If we want our children to learn how to advocate for themselves they need a vocabulary to express their emotional needs.

For a long time my son’s main emotional expressions were either super-fantastic-best-day-ever or terrible-suicidal-worst-day-ever with little in between. Any vaguely happy emotion was expressed as deep joy but any vaguely uncomfortable emotion (sadness, envy, fear, hurt) would be expressed as anger. It’s not very easy to support a child where every problem is a catastrophe. And before we even started to name emotions we needed to get to grips with the nuance of emotions, the shades of grey in between the extremes.

Scaling and relativity

I didn’t realise at the time, but a simple scaling activity I carried out when my son was about 5 or 6 would lay the groundwork for an approach we still use today. He was having difficulty explaining pain and discomfort. It’s fairly common for autistic people to have unusual pain responses, but it’s quite hard to deal with a child when every injury or illness, however minor, presents like the throes of death.

His interest at the time was sea creatures, so we created a 10 creature scale ranging from plankton, through shrimp, lobster, shark and others up to blue whale. He chose which creatures and he drew the pictures. We then used this scale to talk about a whole range of hypothetical injuries and were able to order them according to severity.

What this did was show how pain isn’t an absolute, that it’s all relative, and that some pain, injuries and illnesses are bigger (worse) than others, and that some are quite small and not really not very serious at all. We could talk about how his pain responses and expressions of illness were also on a scale, and look at whether they were proportionate reactions. Instead of asking ‘are you making a mountain out of a molehill?’ I would ask ‘are you making a blue whale out of a plankton?’.

Over time the scale became a general scale for assessing the severity of any problem and his reactions and responses. Using logic has been important. Sometimes he can be talked out of a rage by returning to this simple scaling. Mostly now we use numbers instead of sea creatures. It doesn’t require him to recognise or name emotions, which remains difficult for him, but it gives a way to express himself and explain how serious something is in a way that’s fairly easily understood.

Note to schools: if parents have found an effective way to support their child in recognising and expressing their emotional needs, please use it. Don’t assume your costly emotional literacy programme is better because it’s been validated. Also, don’t assume that what parents are doing isn’t as valid as your programmes. I later realised that my make-it-up-as-I-go-along scaling exercises have got an evidence base too:

Alert Programme – this is a short intervention programme usually run by Occupational Therapists using sensory techniques to manage concentration, alertness and mood. The programme is reliant on a ‘body as an engine’ analogy and the need to keep our engine running well, but accepting that sometimes we need our engines to slow down and sometimes they need to speed up. A speedometer is used as a scale. The child learns how to monitor their engine (body) and what can help change their engine speed through a series of sensory activities.

The Incredible 5-Point Scale – uses scaling as a way to address a whole range of behaviours. I looked at this after we had been using scales for a few years. It’s a little prescriptive for me, but there’s a lot of sample scales on the internet which are worth a look.

Solution-focused (brief) therapy – this is a therapeutic approach which builds on pre-existing skills and looks for solutions to problems. Part of the process is scaling as a way to break down progress towards a solution into smaller achievable steps. The language of solution-focused therapy is useful because it fosters confidence and self-belief.

If my son is having a ‘bad day’ I might ask him ‘if a really bad day is 0 and a really good day is 10, where are you now?’, if he answers ‘3’ I would ask ‘what could make it a 4?’ And we would try to do that. I try not to give him the answers and I try to remain forward thinking. However, without having done the earlier scales of sea creatures to explore pain and illness, which is much more tangible than these pesky emotions, I think this approach would have been too abstract. Starting with the body’s physical expressions made it easier to get to grips with emotional expression.

Recognising emotions

One of the problems with my son struggling to recognise or express anything but the extremes of emotions is that it is harder to take early action to prevent the more extreme reactions. If you are not aware that you are getting more anxious until you lose your temper or have a meltdown, it’s impossible to either ask for help or take action to address the problem.

In conjunction with the scaling exercises and discussions we focused on the physiological signs of the important emotions. Moving away from describing emotions in the abstract and toward describing how they make your body actually feel was a helpful step. It’s worth noting that as well as autistic people often having unusual pain responses this also applies to bodily sensations, including temperature regulation, hunger, thirst and the need to go to the toilet.

Most people, neurotypical, autistic and everyone else, get irritable when they’re too hot, hungry or unable to get to a toilet. Imagine having that sense of rising irritability but having no idea why. It can take me several horrible hours to work out the reason why I feel grumpy and fractious, and I’ve had over 40 years experience as a human. Our children are still in the very early days of learning this stuff and it’s up to us to help.

We need to support our children to recognise their early warning signs, and give them a way to assess their level of comfort/discomfort before they explode. Talking openly and honestly about what we find overwhelming can help our children spot their own triggers and patterns. When things are calm we can talk about what happened and what could have helped.

Keeping a diary is probably very useful but I’m too disorganised to do this. Slowly my son is developing his own mental checklists and escape plans. As he learns more about the early signs he gets better at responding to them. What started with me doing most of the thinking and puzzling has slowly morphed into him doing more of it for himself.

Note to schools: even the most verbose and articulate autistic children can have significant difficulties expressing their emotional and physical needs. Please listen to parents who tell you what to look out for, and actually look out for it. My son tenses, glares and growls when his anxiety is rising, he won’t use words even though he has excellent spoken language. If you take the time to intervene early, send him on an errand or let him pop outside to decompress for a bit, he might recover quickly and be able to get back on task. If you ignore the signs not only will he be unable to concentrate, but he will probably lose his temper.

Demand avoidance

A fairly common factor among children who lash out and behave violently is demand avoidance. At its most severe it is characterised by a form of autism called Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA). PDA is underpinned by high levels of anxiety which are expressed through a need to exert control. Children with PDA will strongly resist and appear to over-react to ordinary requests and expectations.

Demand avoidance is not exclusive to PDA and many children across the autism spectrum, and with other neuro/developmental conditions, can present with demand avoidance. What can confuse parents, carers and teachers is that autistic children presenting with demand avoidance are unlikely to respond to the sort of standard approach often recommended on autism courses.

Earlier, I wrote about controlling the world, through using routines when needed but encouraging flexibility when possible. Combining the security of routines with the creative flexibility required to support demand avoidance is a tricky balancing act. Reducing and disguising demands is fundamental to parenting PDA-style. We do this by prioritising and reducing demands to an absolute minimum, and then ensuring that demands are not presented as demands.

Reducing and disguising demands

Demands can be reduced by making life easy, for example, school is packed full of demands so by getting my son’s bags and uniform ready he has more capacity left to cope with the more important demands. We reduce demands by limiting activities and expectations, allowing him as much time as possible to make his own choices about how he spends his time. We disguise demands by using humour, novelty and indirect requests, as well as giving choices as much as possible. I try never to answer ‘no’ or frame a demand in a way that can be answered ‘no’.

A longstanding issue in our house is my son putting his shoes on in the morning before school. It dates back to when school was pretty awful and putting shoes on became the main expression of anxiety couched as demand avoidance, and would result in kicking and stamping to prevent putting shoes on. My son simultaneously wanted to go to school (because he wanted to learn and school is just what you do) and didn’t want to go (because school was unpredictable and overwhelming).

After realising that bribery, incentives and threats of sanctions didn’t work, and just made things worse, I started to be silly. I might pretend to put the shoes on myself or ask if he wanted ‘socks or shoes first?’ or forget what they were for. He’d laugh, it stopped feeling like a demand and he’d have his shoes put on. Now, as he enters his teenage years I still put his shoes on for him on the days I take him to school. He is perfectly capable of putting his shoes on, he wants to go to school, he isn’t even very anxious most days, but it’s become a game. I think it’s a way for him to have a little win before he goes to school where he faces numerous demands all day.

Note to schools: children who struggle with demands aren’t doing it to be a nuisance, they’re not spoiled brats used to getting their own way. Such children genuinely experience high levels of anxiety and this is how it is expressed. In the same way you would take the time to comfort a child crying due to their anxiety, please take the time to support those who display their anxiety in different ways. A little time thinking about how to word a request can take up a lot less of your time than demanding compliance, not getting it and then the whole thing escalating to meltdown. Pro-active support might take some time to think and do, but it is a lot less time consuming and stressful than dealing with a cycle of refusals and meltdowns.

Compromise, negotiation and problem-solving

We can help our children cope with demands by modelling and teaching compromise, negotiation and problem-solving skills. It is my view that compliance is a risky, potentially dangerous thing to aim for, and I worry about approaches built on compliance. Autistic children become autistic adults and we are vulnerable to abuse, manipulation and exploitation. We need our children to not be trained to be compliant. Our children need to be able to say ‘no’ to things they feel uncomfortable with and to be able to challenge requests and demands from people they encounter. Teaching our children positive ways to respond to such demands is a good way to help them safeguard themselves now and in the future.

One of my favourite books is Ross Greene’s ‘The Explosive Child’ and if you haven’t read it, you should. It uses a problem-solving approach which is perfect for many demand avoidant children. It is based on a premise that ‘children do well if they can’ and that it’s up to us to help our children develop the skills they need to help develop more flexible thinking. I don’t strictly follow the method (I am a little demand avoidant myself) but use a broadly similar approach. This is the book that gave me the confidence to abandon traditional reward/sanction methods and instead focus on thinking and skills acquisition.

Learning to offer a compromise or negotiate terms can be worked on any time we parents want our child to do something or they want something from us. We need to pick our moments, when our children’s anxiety is low, and create or maximise opportunities to rehearse these skills.

I started by prompting my son to offer a compromise. So, he might ask for something or to do something I’m not really keen on or it’s not the best time. Instead of me saying ‘no’ I might say ‘hmm, not sure… I want to say no but perhaps you could offer a compromise?’ and if he does, I would accept the proposed compromise as a way of showing it’s worth trying. I might model compromise by openly explaining I’m not keen on doing something he wants but that I will do it for X time or within agreed bounds.

Using this sort of approach is helpful for problem-solving too. It’s very tempting when our children present us with a problem to try to solve it for them but we need them to learn how to problem-solve for themselves. It’s up to us to show how to do this and support our children to try for themselves. Asking ‘what can we do about that?’, listening and trying whatever solutions they present, reviewing how it went and learning from it as we go.

Note to schools: demand avoidant children who are prone to inflexible thinking need opportunities to develop their problem-solving skills and the art of negotiation and compromise. If a child who is usually highly demand avoidant and oppositional tries to negotiate with you, please try to find the time to support them. They might be testing out new skills and need you to show that it’s worth it. Please also respect a child who tells you they can’t do something, don’t try to force compliance. Please use your own communication skills to find a way to negotiate or come up with a compromise.

Endnote

This post started as a way to show how to manage violent behaviours in (primarily, though not exclusively) autistic children like my son. As you can see, I have barely mentioned tackling violence, and have focused on reducing anxiety and developing emotional and thinking skills. For me, tackling the violence is pointless, the violence is just a product of the anxiety, overload and yet to be acquired skills.

I’ve often heard parents of autistic children justify their parenting interventions by claiming it is evidence-based. I’m not sure autistic children need evidence-based parenting any more than neurotypical children do. However, it can help to have evidence to back up why our children might need a different approach in schools, activities or therapeutic settings, which is why I have mentioned sources of evidence to back up my approach.

To an outsider, many of my interactions with my son when he is being more challenging look like I’m doing nothing, but all the ‘work’ (if you want to call it work, it’s just parenting to me) goes on behind the scenes. I’ve long stopped caring about how my parenting looks, and now only care that my son is happy and able to achieve his aspirations. It is up to me and the other people who love, care and teach him to create a platform for him to achieve this.