By Rob Willson and Rhena Branch
Many moons ago I would arrive in the kitchen to find my mother slaving away over a hot oven. This would occur frequently, often early in the morning before I was really awake. If I asked, ‘what are you cooking for supper,’ she would usually give the same answer, something along the lines of ‘I’m not sure…yet.’ I would look at this menopausal mother in her 1970’s caftan, ruler of my universe and wonder how this could be? Her hands were busy, her body moved about within the available space and she spoke and yet she made no sense at all.
Forty [plus] years later, it seems unduly harsh to criticize this woman knee deep in sautéd onions and hot flashes, but now, it seems to me that this would have been the ideal time to grasp what we now call a ‘learning opportunity.’ She might have said, ‘there’s this book that hasn’t been written yet because the authors haven’t been born yet, but in the future you could learn to accept that there is a whole slew of things over which you have absolutely no control. If you learn that now, your life will be a whole lot happier.’ So if, like me, you find that as a parent you spend a great deal of time telling your autistic child the same things many, many times, just be assured that you’re on the right path, not matter how futile it may sometimes seem.
This book may seem an odd choice for parents like us, after all, we’ve been dealing with variations on a theme for some while now, what else or more could we possibly learn from such a self-help book? The answer, for me at least, is quite sobering and twofold. Firstly, it’s an acknowledgement that our children are growing older and we are still dealing with the same underlying issues. Although they are coping much better, better than we could possibly have ever imagined, nonetheless, the underlying difficulties remain stubbornly in place and more importantly, they will probably stay there long after we are dead and buried.
This may seem a little gloomy, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be so. What it means is that we need to update our skills as parents so as to deliver a different set of coping strategies, those better suited to an older person with greater cognitive abilities. Star charts and tick down schedules are all well and good, but children move beyond such motivators and develop different skills.
I did learn something new. I learned about NATs:- Negative Automatic Thoughts. These are thought which enter your mind automatically, immediately. This is something we have been tackling forever, but it’s a slightly different approach. In the realm of autism we tend to describe this how we perceive it as parents: rigidity, inflexibility, a desire to maintain a strict routine, a resistance to anything that deviates from a well-worn regime. Do you recognize it now? I certainly do. When they were younger we tackled this in a variety of different ways but surprise, surprise it’s still there, writ large. This is just a different way of tackling the very same issue and I was grateful for the reminder.
If you take the acronym NAT and add a G for ‘General’ or ‘Global’ then you have GNAT – which is much easier to remember. Take some time to explain the concept, that those negative responses need to be curbed, but first they need to recognize what they’re doing. Quite often it’s become so ingrained that it just blends in. Then, every time someone says something negative, a first response, without any thought because it’s automatic, you can ‘snap that GNAT and be a smooth, cool cat.’ I snap my fingers at the same time, as it’s more likely to catch their attention. Pretty soon, I found out just how frequently this occurs.
Yes, it’s only the first stage:- recognition. What to do about it thereafter, replacing it with more proactive and helpful strategies, comes a bit later. Clever people can problem combine both strategies at the same time, but for now, we’re still working on it.