I had a moment of epiphany this week.
My son does not like being around large groups of people. He does not like being in enclosed spaces with lots of other people. He cannot work with others if there is noise going on or people moving around. He struggles with indoor group situations, becoming very anxious and overwhelmed.
But because he is my “autistic son“, there is an expectation from many that I must help him “overcome” this “difficulty“. We have tried. For many years! Yet he still hates the same things and wants to get away from them.
Last week, as I watched him struggle at one of our weekly groups, looking as though he was in actual physical pain, it all became clear.
Maybe him disliking certain situations isn’t actually a problem!
Maybe the “problem” is that I keep trying to “help” him to “overcome” situations which he just doesn’t like.
Thinking back to life with his older brother, an able-bodied neuro-typical child, I recall the many things he disliked when younger. We accepted that he didn’t cope well with those things and did not try to force him to do them. He is now able to tolerate all those things, without us ever forcing him into anything.
As a child, I hated the feeling of grass to a point where I would scream. I also couldn’t cope with sand, spiders, getting dirt on my hands, touching anything slimy or sticky and a whole host of other things.
As an adult, I still don’t like those things much but I no longer have to avoid them. I was not forced to try to overcome anything. I just didn’t like them and that was okay.
But, somehow, once your child is identified as being autistic or having learning disabilities, those same dislikes become “difficulties” which you are supposed to help them overcome.
And maybe that is where it is all going wrong.
On this particular day my son was at a group we had attended weekly for several years. He knew most of the other children and adults but was still not able to cope with being in the main hall with them. We had gone into the kitchen to decorate some biscuits, but the anxiety was too great – he was overwhelmed and unable to enjoy anything. It was a huge struggle to get him to take part at all and he looked as though he was in actual physical pain.
It was horrible to see my beautiful boy struggling.
My beautiful boy who had been brilliant at home that morning was now a shell of himself.
My beautiful boy who had engaged with learning activities so well just a few hours before was now struggling to put a chocolate chip on a biscuit!
Later that day he brought two friends home and went back to being his funky, cheery self with them. He is not unsociable and he likes other people, just on his own terms. I know that he loves his friends deeply and he enjoys the company of others as long as it is in the right social situation for him.
He just doesn’t like big group situations in indoor spaces – no matter how big the room is.
And I think I need to just accept that and be okay with it.
There are many ways to socialise, there are many ways to gain the experience of working with others. And that is where my focus needs to be.
Maybe autism isn’t the problem, maybe the problem is that I have been trying too hard to overcome something which just needs to be accepted as a part of who my son is?
Just to be clear, I am not saying we will stay away from groups or activities – we are just going to stop doing what isn’t working. I have invested years into trying to overcome his dislike of large indoor group situations, but it isn’t working.
We love going out and we love meeting up with other people and we will still be doing that, just in the right way for my son.
One of the biggest mistakes people make when they hear “home education” is that they assume it all happens at home, which could not be further from reality!