A few years ago, a couple of teenage boys I was working with asked me a question that must be on the mind of many an adolescent: “Bruce…is bastard a swear word?” I answered that it depends on the context in which it’s used, whereupon one of my young charges replied “Screw context! What the hell has it ever done for us?!?!”
An apt question.
Context is a word that comes up often in the world of Autism. Among the reasons for this is the trouble that people on the spectrum have in the area of central coherence or, more colloquially, seeing the big picture. It can be challenging for many of them to recognize factors such as time and place, nuance, non-verbal cues, and the like, and then adjust their behavior efficiently and intuitively. Context also plays a role in the way most non-Autistic people, or neurotypicals, view the behavior of people on the spectrum. Without any context, that behavior is often seen as being odd, rigid, or obnoxious. That’s a particularly troubling dynamic when the Autistic person in question is a child and the neurotypical person is that child’s parent.
Fortunately, a book published last year can help provide that context. Entitled Parenting Without Panic: A Pocket Support Group for Parents of Children and Teens on the Autism Spectrum, this book provides a helpful lens through which parents of kids on the spectrum can view their children’s behavior. The author, Brenda Dater, is the Director of Child and Teen Services at The Asperger/Autism Network, a wonderful organization located in Watertown, MA that provides services, referrals, and extensive information to families and professionals all over New England. She is also the mother of 3 children, one of whom is diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome and another who is diagnosed with ADHD and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. In her book, Ms. Dater brings insight gleaned from both her personal and professional experiences to provide more context and credibility than would be available through just one of those perspectives.
In the opening chapter, Ms. Dater claims that she wrote the book with the goal of providing the same type of support and information obtained by parents who have attended “topic nights” at AANE. She writes:
“Topic nights cover the concerns that parents voice most frequently. Parents often feel anxious as they speculate about their child’s opportunities to make friends. They wonder how to talk with their child about his diagnosis…At topic nights, we begin by taking the pulse of the group to hear about the most pressing concerns. Once we have a better sense of the specific questions and trepidations surrounding any given topic, we explain why the challenges exist and offer practical strategies…Parents leave feeling understood, validated and better informed.”
Parenting Without Panic covers the issues that parents of kids on the spectrum deal with every day, including behavior, social skills, homework and school issues, relationships with immediate and extended family members, and others. Throughout the book, Ms. Dater’s writing reflects her considerable professional expertise as well as the wisdom and authority that can only be gained through the day-in/day-out, 24/7 gestalt of parenthood. Parenting Without Panic is suffused with stories and scenarios that will elicit knowing smiles (or cringes) from the reader that makes the book ring true and feel very real.
Brenda Dater discusses Parenting Without Panic at a December workshop at Academy MetroWest.
Though all the chapters in Parenting Without Panic were valuable, I found the chapter on behavior to be the most compelling. This section offers examples of problematic behaviors described at different AANE topics nights that left group members feeling particularly frustrated or mystified. Ms. Dater, to her credit, stops short of attributing a specific cause to any given behavior but rather responds to each example with the exhortation for the reader to consider factors such as emotional regulation, anxiety, sensory regulation, flexibility, and others. The chapter, and the book as a whole, is thought out and fleshed out in a way that offers parents enough of the right information without overwhelming them with too much information.
Parenting Without Panic is an excellent resource for parents of kids on the spectrum as well as for anyone else who comes in regular contact with this group of children. It can be an indispensable “User’s Guide” and parents may find themselves reading it over and over again in order to help get a better read on their kids’ behavior. Pick up a copy and you can stop wondering what a little context has ever done for you!