Conflict is unavoidable in the family of a child with autism. If it's not heated debate between mom and dad over parenting methods then it's griping between siblings who often feel ignored or left out of the decision-making process regarding family events and activities.
Sadly, conflict in the home often leads to parent separation and divorce. This does not always mean that autism is the root cause of the separation, but if the family is already at odds or on uncertain ground for any other reason, this disability can shake the foundation to its core. Family disagreements (such as Kristina and Adam confronting Haddie about seeing Alex against their wishes) occur regardless of the presence of a disability, of course, but when autism comes into the picture, there are some ground rules to remember:
- Never let the child with autism overhear the parents' disagreement about parenting methods. Children with autism spectrum need to see that mom and dad are on the same wavelength in regards to teaching skills, discipline or rewarding their child. When parents argue in front of the child with autism - or in front of any child, for that matter - about "what should be done about ___ behavior," the child learns hints and strategies about how to play one parent against the other.
- When an argument occurs for other reasons, it is important for the parents to try to determine how much their child might understand, and then to decide whether or not s/he should witness it. The spectrum is very broad; many children with ASD will understand a great deal of what's going on but others will be frightened by the louder voices and angry atmosphere in the home. In this episode of "Parenthood," for example, Adam and Kristina decide it would be better for Max to wait in the car and away from the situation between them, Haddie and Alex - before this dispute can escalate into a very messy conflict. Parents have to consider their child's understanding when considering what's best overheard versus what is best kept well away from their ears.
- If the decision is made to let the child overhear the argument, then it is important for the parents to make sure that s/he sees all components of the conflict. This will include 1) the initial reason for the disagreement, 2) parents and siblings listening to each others' opinions, 3) weighing the various options for resolution, and 4) the final resolution. When a child only sees the beginning of an argument and slamming of doors, etc., and then later when everyone is fine again, s/he will not understand what happened in between and how the argument was resolved. This is the stage of an argument that children with autism spectrum require the most instruction in order to learn, since children on the spectrum have a great difficulty problem-solving the hidden steps.
Parents can teach their children with autism spectrum disorder great problem-solving strategies by letting them see routine disagreements that take place within their home, and then - crucially - also letting them see how the problems are resolved without aggression, meltdowns, running out of the house or the destruction of property. Since children with this disorder tend to lose their ability to find options for resolution when they become upset, they must be taught specific strategies for handling conflicts. This gives them practical processes and steps to pull from their long-term memory banks when needed.
As the Bravermans demonstrate, it is natural for family members to have conflicts every week, and even every day. These are great "teachable moments" that can enhance the skills of the child with autism. Parents need to remember that they are the ones who set the example for their child's actions when events don't go their way. Although teachers can supplement this instruction, parents and family members are the best instructors in this area, since they live in environments where disagreements occur quite naturally and frequently about minor and major issues. Do parents always remember to do this? Of course not, but being knowledgeable about this area of instruction can help the child the next time a disagreement occurs, and remind him or her what happened and how it was resolved.
Written by Sheila Wagner, M.Ed.