Welcome to the March edition of Ask Dr. Emily!
We often receive questions that we want to share with all our readers. To help with this, Dr. Emily Rastall, a clinical psychologist at Seattle Children’s Autism Center, will share insights in a question and answer format. We welcome you to send us your questions and Dr. Rastall will do her best to answer them each month. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q: My 6 year old with ASD has all of a sudden started to ask for the sun to go away, she is saying Autumn is not over and tell the sun to go away. My daughter never had an issue with the sun in fact she loves it and would often sit with the sun on her face. I know it could be an event coming up she relates with Spring or it could be a number of things. They are teaching them the change in Seasons in school at present. Help would be much appreciated with this.
A: Any way you look at it, change is hard. Change is especially hard for the autism brain, which relishes in structure, the predictable, and the known. The world, however, is in constant motion, so my guess is (and this is only a guess) that your daughter may be reacting to the conflict between what her brain likes (consistency) and the lack of that in the universe. Your first step may be to simply validate what your child is feeling. You might say something like, “It sounds like you’re feeling ___ about change. Change is hard, isn’t it?” You might then offer your support by saying, “You know I’m here to help if you need me. I have lots of ideas about how to feel better when things are hard.” Finally, you might offer some ideas about how to cope; deep breaths, distraction, and visualization of a “happy place” are some basic coping strategies you might model and describe (e.g., “I’m going to take a deep breath to feel better.” Or “Sometimes when I feel stressed, I like to do something fun to take my mind off of things.”), in an effort to expand your daughter’s coping repertoire.
Q: Hi…I went to work at a preschool and it was my first day. A child came up to me and just held my hand and wouldn’t stop. I didn’t know her, but later I found out that she has autism. So, what does it mean if a child with autism holds your hand and they don’t even know you?
A: One of the diagnostic criteria of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) describes challenges making social initiations. Another criterion describes difficulty understanding social norms. My interpretation of this behavior (which could be correct or not) is that this child was attempting to connect with you or attempting to feel grounded in an environment of constant change (or both?). Either way, she’s not fully aware that this behavior is incongruent with the social environment and behavior of her peers. Through coaching (from you and other therapy providers), she will learn how to initiate effectively and will learn other (more socially appropriate) strategies for feeling safe and grounded. All of this aside, she chose you to feel safe with. What a special first day!