My son’s views on being pushed to do something which causes anxiety

Two weeks ago my 8-year-old son gave me some insight into his views about autism, when we spoke about an article written by a mum who literally pushed her autistic son to see an Elmo show. After worrying last year about my son saying he was learning to be normal, I was buoyed as I listened to him speak about his autism and his thoughts on the situation described in the article.

Long before I ever heard about Neurodiversity, or received my own diagnosis, I made a decision to be open with my son about his autism. From day one we told him that it was a difference which meant that sometimes he needed a little extra support in the same way that Daddy needed glasses to see.

As someone who was bullied at school for not fitting in, I wanted my son to own who he was. Verbal bullying only works when people say things that resonate with your secret doubts about yourself. It is much harder when you have confidence in who you are.

In our house being autistic is a factual part of who we are, and we often have open discussions about it. We talk regularly about behaviours and triggers, and the need to work through our frustrations in a less challenging and confrontational manner. We push the boundaries of what is possible, and try to work through situations when heightened anxiety gets in the way. When dealing with challenging behaviour, we try to understand the possible reasons for the behaviour and address those. 

This is not to say that I am someone who only focuses on the positives. I am a parent and, like all parents, find that raising a child can test my limits. At times the additional challenges of heightened anxiety, demand avoidance, and challenging behaviour feel like more than I can cope with. There are days when I scream and days when I cry. These are the days when I question “where is the support” and the guidance to get through it. Some things just don’t make it into the what to expect parenting books.

Recently my son refused to continue his weekly swimming lessons because his favourite swim teacher was unexpectedly ill for a long period of time. My son loves to swim, and absolutely loves being in the water. Despite the love of swimming, he refused to enter the pool without his favourite swim teacher. For 6 months we tried every Saturday, with no luck. No amount of cajoling, bribing or enticement was enough to convince him. He point-blank refused and any attempt to encourage him to take part would result in him getting agitated. In fact, he didn’t even want to be in the pool area while his sister had her lesson. It was frustrating as we knew he would enjoy it, if only we could get him in the pool.  We were ready to give up when the teacher came back. That day he was straight back into the pool.

So it was with interest that I found out my husband and son had talked through a recent article in the Washington post where a mum describes how she forced her son into a theatre to watch an Elmo show, knowing that he would enjoy it despite his initial fears. It was a difficult read, as the mum had to literally push her son kicking and screaming while people around her commented and stared.

When I read the article I cried. I recognised the sentiment of “if only we could make it past the curtain, then everything will be ok”. I have been there myself, but the situation described seemed so extreme that it concerned me. All I could think was "why couldn't they have found another way".

In my mind, I saw the scene play out and felt the boy's fear as I read about him screaming and trying to get away as he was pushed towards the unknown. I wanted to take back that moment for them. To have Elmo meet them at the door, and guide the into the theatre whilst entertaining the boy with something that was familiar to him. I wanted the family to have the theatre to themselves so that they could have the time to move forward at their own pace, only moving forward when they felt ok to take the next step.

My son’s reaction was a little more candid. In his view it was torture. Even when told that the little boy eventually enjoyed the experience and was able to enjoy other things as a result of his mum pushing him, he was adamant that the mum was wrong. When asked what the mum should have done instead, he responded “let him do it his way, and wait for him”.

My husband pointed out that the mum felt she was trying to help her son so he could enjoy the same things as all the other children, and felt that his autism was stopping him from doing that. My son’s response made me realise how much he has embraced autism as a part of who he is. He told us, “autism makes you special. You shouldn’t try and get rid of it. My autism gives me fidgety eyes so I can spot things really quickly. I can spot Lego pieces quicker than you can”.

We don’t often get to know what my son thinks as he doesn’t like to talk about his thoughts, so this was a great insight into how he feels about autism. He doesn’t know about the challenges of learning difficulties or difficulties with communication, so I don’t think he can fully appreciate the situation between that mum and her son. Despite that, he has given me something to think about.

For my son, the possibility of enjoyment is not enough to warrant pushing him past his limits when he is struggling with the uncertainty of something new or different. He would much rather pick out Lego with his fidgety eyes, and be given the time and space to get through things in his own way. We will continue to push him out of his comfort zone, but will try to be careful to ensure that we are not taking his so far past his limits that it feels like torture to him.

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