Rethinking Discipline: How Gentle Parenting Transformed My Autistic Son's Life

Rethinking Discipline: How Gentle Parenting Transformed My Autistic Son's Life

I’ll admit that in the early days, I did raise a finger and utter a firm “no” to my baby son, Daniel, a couple of times – when he was crawling to somewhere I judged he shouldn’t be going. The first time, I was taken aback by the intensity of how he burst into tears, as if he had been deeply wounded. I wondered what the problem was. When it happened a second time, I realised that I was the problem. It didn’t feel that it was a protest at not being allowed to do what he wanted to, but rather a fundamental shake in his reality, as someone he had come to totally trust and depend upon suddenly launched an unprovoked aggressive attack (as he would have experienced it) on him. There are much gentler ways I could have steered him to where I judged he should be whilst remaining on his side.
I am ashamed that it took me two times to realise this, but also grateful, because the image of his face the second time made me realise more than any other single event that most of the parenting advice that was coming at me from all directions amounted to a form of child abuse.
I would have been told that it was necessary to issue that sort of firm warning to instil in him from a young age a sense of “discipline” and to “toughen him up” to this world of harshness and cruelty which he would need to get used to. There would have been no sense of the irony that at least part of the reason the world may be in this condition of harshness and cruelty is because of the model of harshness and cruelty that parents are taught to provide to their children from a very young age. It started to become clear to me in that moment that this advice made no sense. A hard approach to parenting may encourage a child to adapt by closing down chunks of their sensitivity (both to their own and to others suffering, which could easily lead to a more relaxed attitude to causing suffering later in life), and by learning that they can’t trust others (meaning they could easily later feel less inclined to be trustworthy themselves) and changing their behaviour accordingly, so it looks like they have become disciplined and resilient, but this isn’t true discipline or resilience, and it comes at a colossal cost, to them and to society. Later, it became clear that Daniel was autistic. I have since been learning and observing that a big part of what this means is that he is unable to close down chunks of his sensitivity in the way that other children can, and has a tendency instead to retreat within in an attempt to protect himself. I don’t think that optimal parenting for autistic children is different for optimal parenting for anyone else – it is not in any child’s interests to be faced with aggression at any level and certainly not to the point where they need to change their way of interacting with the world to accommodate it – but autistic children are more evidently and desperately in need of the kinder and more respectful form of parenting that would serve all children. We were exceptionally lucky to find a very early intervention treatment when Daniel was 2 that took place at the Mifne autism clinic in Israel. Before we went there, we were pretty clueless about how best to take care of him. We learnt so much during and after our time there that enabled us to unimaginably transform is quality of life and his future prospects.
It centred around becoming very attuned to the needs and the essence of the child in any moment, and to provide them with an environment in which they could be contained.

Both of these, and particularly the idea of containment, have been fundamental to us in the years since we went there. Essentially, this is all about giving the child a safe and calm environment that fosters the sense that everything is okay, whatever happens. That they are understood and looked after. But the only way to bring this sense of containment to our son, was to first imbibe it in ourselves. If, as an example, Daniel was at the dinner table having difficulty with or becoming anxious about some food that was presented to him, it would have been impossible to soothe him and give him the confidence that he could cope and that this wasn’t actually a very difficult situation, if I too was anxious about whether he would eat and if he didn’t he would be malnourished and I would be failing in my duty as a parent and so on.

 The only way I could do it was to first calm myself and create a deep feeling within me that whatever happened was just part of our process and would turn out as fine as it could. Then, Daniel was able to pick up on my own calmness, and when he saw that I was confident, this enabled him to relax too giving him the best chance to make optimal choices. If I had remained anxious, he would have sensed that, and taken from it that if his parent – the person who he trusted and looked to to understand the world – was finding this difficult, then it must really be difficult. I would have been feeding his anxiety and confirming his worst fears about how overwhelming this situation was. Over time, as this is confirmed again and again, this can lead to an intense anxiety whenever a similar situation happens, before it has even become stressful. It seems to me that this happens because the child has become so familiar with the pattern of how the anxiety escalates and how the parents repeatedly confirmed that it is justified, that the very anticipation of that pattern playing out provokes enough stress to trigger a meltdown as a type of post-traumatic reaction.

The greatest service I can to for my son in such cases is to cultivate in myself the sense that everything will be fine, whatever happens, so that he very slowly starts to build up alternative experiences where he can sense from his parent that actually, there isn’t much of a problem here after all.
Over time, this can reduce the tendency towards meltdowns. Daniel used to have serious meltdowns every day, sometimes multiple times a day. Since we have been practicing Containment, these slowly reduced and he hasn’t had a single uncontrolled meltdown for the past 5 years or so. It does take a lot of vigilance and boldness on the part of the parent, but the parent can also benefit from this feedback loop – as they see how this is helpful to their child, the point of it becomes clearer and confidence can increase. And this idea of containment needs to be consistent and ever-present, and to permeate all aspects of life, including discipline. We often hear the mantra “Discipline with Love”, but we don’t see it in action very often. Many parents tend towards one or the other, or at least alternate between them. The conception of discipline is a raised voice, a warning, a punishment, some condemnation, maybe even real anger; but as I see it, these things are all actually detrimental to real discipline. What would discipline with love actually look like? I see discipline as an internal quality. We each have our own capacity to regulate our actions and behaviour and prefer to use this internal mechanism. Regulation imposed from outside rarely goes well and there are very few of us who would prefer it. We somehow think it’s okay to impose it on children because they need to “learn discipline”, but what actually happens is that the experience of being repeatedly violated in the name of discipline leaves such a negative impression that they may actually recoil from the concept even of internal discipline later in life, and have all sorts of difficulties with it. And it is even more important as far as autistic children are concerned to avoid such experiences, as any experience of harshness is greatly amplified by their inherent sensitivity. This in itself could easily feed the pattern of meltdowns described above. It also adds to the sense of their being deeply misunderstood – even by those who love them - which many autistic adults complain of as one of the most painful aspects of a life with autism. What if, instead of “imposing” discipline, we think of it as a partnership with our child, to lead and guide them, helping them find their inner sense of discipline? We don’t do this for fear that they will “take advantage”, but in my experience this is what they really want – and it can really support their confidence and ability to self-regulate. What if, when our child needs a steer, we work with them to help them find it within themselves. It means not getting angry with them, definitely not attributing blame to them or inviting them to feel guilty (no good has ever come out of inducing guilt), but standing by them, sometimes insisting where necessary, but leaving them in no doubt that we are on their side.
The more we contain the child, the easier this sort of discipline is to administer, and it in turn contributes to their feeling safer.

We appear to them as confident guides who they can trust when we approach discipline in this way. If we lose our temper or react in a way where it looks like we are losing control, the child will see these as signs of weakness and will take from it that if their trusted guide is unable to cope with this situation, it must be another source of danger, and this will feed the development of anxiety.

We all have a limit to the amount of adversity we can cope with before we break down, and we are rarely tested to that limit. I think that autistic people in general have really tremendous resources to deal with adversity, and incredible resilience. But we don’t tend to see these in action because they also have so much more to process, which would be unimaginable for a non-autistic person. Not only do they need to cope in many cases with heightened senses, but also an emotional sensitivity that comes from an (admirable) inability to close down parts of their heart the way others can, so any negative emotion or behaviour coming from someone else could be crippling. In the face of this, how can they have the bandwidth to cope with a succession of new difficulties that we throw at them? We really need to be mindful of this and give them the space to cope with what they have to cope with without adding unnecessary sources of pain to continually knock them off course. We have all seen how when something has gone wrong or there is something in particular bothering our children, they will suddenly become less tolerant than usual of many other things, as they have had their coping resources taken up by the new thing.

Imagine what it takes to come back from such continual interruptions and setbacks and start afresh again and again to try to get to a point of balance, in the full knowledge that actually something else will inevitably get in the way before they get anywhere near that point.

The fact that they continually do so should be a true inspiration to us, and if we can recognise and respect it and give them the safest and happiest possible environment in all circumstances, then we are really doing our best for them. So the idea that we need to be “cruel to be kind” to our children is devastating, and can lead to the most abhorrent behaviour becoming commonplace. It is far less rare than I would like to see parents publicly scolding (or yelling at) their children, sometimes not much older than toddlers, for something they have done or not done, and labelling them stupid, selfish, ungrateful, inconsiderate, useless or whatever else. Many children would appear to absorb these outbursts and accept them as a part of their world, while internally being deeply hurt in a way that they can’t acknowledge or understand because they don’t have anything to compare it to. They soon start to absorb these labels they are ascribed as accurate descriptions of themselves coming from a trusted source, and they start to live up to them.

Autistic children are fundamentally shattered by such aggression and retreat inwards, deeply shaken.

I feel shaken just witnessing such occurrences. And it is fascinating to observe how often the words chosen don’t seem to accurately describe the child at all, but rather the parent using them.
I have described how discipline, while very important, can have positive results for a child only if it is approached as a collaborative process, not something imposed from above, and only if it comes without rebuke and blame, which would introduce the child to the feeling of guilt – the most devastating human attribute as far as self-confidence and success are concerned. As for resilience, this has to be based on trust. When we are knocked down by life, it is only the knowledge that there is someone somewhere who we can trust that gives us a reason to bounce back up – someone who we know will accept and nurture us whatever happens; who will always want to listen to us and understand where we are; who will be on our side come what may; who, when we stray from being what we really want to be, will be there to gently and lovingly take our hand and persistently guide us back, not point a finger at us, demand that we sort it out and point out all the inconvenience we are causing. For most people in this almost universally secular age, it is only the family, and especially the parents who can be looked to for this trust.
When, in the name of promoting resilience in our children, we sacrifice the trust on which that resilience is based, we are storing up huge issues for the stability and emotional wellbeing of the generation we are responsible for bringing up. And for the world that they will eventually create for their children.
I often hear that the world is harsh and our duty as parents is to help our children adapt to it, and that in fact it would be negligent not to introduce them to some harshness in small doses early on in life. It is repeated so often that it can easily seem counter-intuitive to question it. However, there is a parallel in what my wife and I were often told about how we supported our son in his early years. We were told that by “confining” him to a room for several hours a day and removing the challenges from his environment, we were isolating him from the world, pandering to his whims and taking away his opportunity to learn and adapt and making him soft and weak. Again, it was a powerful argument and did make me start to question the wisdom of what we were doing. But what I saw over time was that the space he got from that protection and from the constant acceptance and affirmation he was getting enabled him to strengthen himself inside so that eventually he could open up to the outside environment in a way that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. It was only by affording him that space and protection that he was eventually able to cope with much more of what we were protecting him from.
In the same way, it is precisely because the world is harsh that we need to give our children the protection from it so that they can develop the innerstrength and confidence within themselves to cope with it when they have to later – not to shatter that confidence before they’ve had a chance to build it, thereby destroying their unconditionally trusting relationship with us which should be the source of strength that will help them cope.
After all, what do we ourselves need when life is difficult and things feel too much and we start to get irritable and despondent? Do we need time for ourselves and acceptance and understanding from others – ideally kindness even? Or do we need a finger wagged at us and to be harshly told that we’re not up to the mark and that our behaviour is not acceptable and has caused all sorts of inconvenience to others and we are selfish and thoughtless (and whatever else)? Unless we have chosen the latter, why would we think it could be beneficial to our children in their formative years? If we adopt a more compassionate and respectful attitude to our children, autistic or not, we give them the best chance to show who they really are and to bring out the very best in themselves. We might be shocked what treasures there are within each of them if we just allow them the space to emerge. I certainly have been. With autistic children, who get the opportunity to show so little of their great richness, the shock can be much greater. Who knows? If we all did this, perhaps within a couple of generations, it would no longer make any sense to describe the world as “harsh”.