Communication – How small things changed after I explained my Autism to my children

„In our home we can be spontaneous – but we give 24 hours notice!“

This is a sentence my 10 year old daughter wrote in her home work about life at home a few months ago. And I do realise that it sounds humorous to most people. But it is actually an essential part of us living together. Before I write something about how I manage my day to day life with my children I want to emphasise that this is simply me retelling what we did – this is not a „how to“ book where I claim any authority over how to tackle those issues „the right way“. The right way is the one that is working for everyone involved.

I have Aspergers – my daughter doesn’t. She is a very open and communicative person who makes friends easily, has a lot of empathy for everyone around her and, most important of all: Can communicate her emotions very well. She lets people know she loves them with ease, she is popular in school and has, overall, grown into a very confident child. She is starting 5th grade this summer – meaning she will go to a new school. And she is excited about all the new things in store for her and looks forward to meeting new friends. So basically she is the exact opposite of her mother – socially. There are other aspect in life where we are very alike but this is not one of them.

When she was little she was a rather shy kid, afraid of her own shadow and very clingy. It felt that in her interactions with the outside world she was very much like me. But as soon as she started going to school that changed rapidly. And I mean: RAPIDLY. As in: over the course of 3(!) days. She went from „I am scared to go to my friend next door alone“ and „I rather play alone“ to „I can go the baker and get bread and I’ll drive by some friends on my way back“ in a heartbeat. And suddenly she didn’t seem that much like me at all anymore.

We had to learn an entirely new way of communicating. In the beginning she saw my problem with sensory overload when being around many people as something akin to me being scared of people. And in her mind the solution was easy: If you are scared of something just do it anyways – then the scary feeling will go away. That my situation was different was something not that easy to explain to a six year old. At least that’s what I thought. Am I maybe just confusing my kid by trying to explain my Autism to her? People keep saying you shouldn’t push grown up themes onto children – but was ma condition something only grown ups ever had to deal with? Thinking back on my own childhood lead me to a strong no on that point. So I took at least part of her advice: I was unsure and perhaps a bit scared of explaining things more in depth to her – but I did it anyway.

I explained as child friendly as I could what Autism was, what the word Aspergers means. What problems I sometimes have with it and how it affects me every day. And I reassured her that I am fine nonetheless because I didn’t want her to worry about me – I just wanted her to understand some things. And what do you know? Things that many adults I talked to didn’t get seemed entirely easy to grasp for a child. No heavy silences and uncomfortable glances. Just a hearty „well, that sucks!“. Yes it does. It sucks a lot sometimes, I agreed with her. She asked if it was hard for me if she brought home friends without telling me. I told her honestly that it was very stressful but that I also want her to have a good time with her friends. So we came up with the day in advance notice. If she want to go somewhere she can tell me a couple of minutes before leaving the house, but if she brings someone home she always tells me the day before.

A while later I had a similar conversation with my son. He got incredibly sad and for a while I didn’t understand why exactly. He concluded that if I have trouble reading people and their emotions I might not always know how much he loves me and it made him so upset he went to his sister and made her write me a letter. Because he understood from one of my conversations with my partner that I prefer text messages to phone calls. That was four years ago and he kept that up. I still find post its or little pieces of paper with „you are the best“ or „I love you“ on my desk now and then. Now that he can write himself he sometimes writes down his feelings about something and gives it to me to read – „just to make sure!“ And it does help! Of course I know he means it when he says he loves me. But pinpointing exactly how passionate he really is about other topics? What things touch him on an emotional level and what is just a random interest – I have a really hard time reading those situations sometimes. His method helps a lot with that.

A few communication issues have come up now and then and there will probably be more to come down the road, one of those things is that I tend to be a very literal person. If I say „I do it in a minute“ I do exactly that, in almost exactly a minute. And I tend to take other people way too literal. Children are usually… well, not like that at all. Same issue comes up with figures of speech. I know a lot of them and can often pinpoint what they mean but sometimes, especially when there is new stuff coming home from school, I am lost. The kids know to explain them to me or to at least signal that they don’t mean things literally. That takes a lot of stress off me (the amount of free mental capacity you can have if you don’t have to consonantly overanalyse every throwaway sentence is amazing…) and at the same time it gets the kids to think about what they say. This has led to them asking a lot of questions about language. „Where does this expression even come from?“ „Why does it mean exactly that even though the words seem unrelated to the meaning?“ „How do sarcasm or irony actually work?“ One question I found particularly interesting was „how does this work in sign language? Do people move their hands slightly different (like changing your tone) and then sign something sarcastically? And do they have figure of speech sings?“ (I have not had the opportunity to ask someone who knows but I am definitely going to.)

So things that might seem like an extra chore from the outside turn out to be not that bad in the end. Of course you can’t take every problem and turn it into a positive, wonderful experience. Some problems remain exactly that: problems. With no interesting or magical fix. And to expect every issue to be turned into some positivity inspirational story is rather detrimental in the long run. But at least some obstacles can be minimised or even turned into stepping stones on the way.

 

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