When your Autistic Child Seems so Far Away: What Can You do?

Being with a child with autism or autistic-like behaviours often leaves us feeling lost or helpless, because the child is uncooperative and rejecting, not responding affectionately, rarely accepting anything that is offered to him, often distant, isolated and withdrawn. As a result the caring adult frequently ends up trying to impose their own ideas on the child in the attempt at teaching him something useful and thus giving some order or structure to what feels like chaos, – or otherwise bordering on the unbearable. But this tends to be very frustrating and not really successful or rewarding. Understandably, the second response to what seems like an unbearable and impossible situation is to give up and to leave the child to his solitary ways.

Feelings of Distance & Autistic States of Mind

‘He’s not listening to me. He doesn’t want anything I offer him, except biscuits. I just don’t know what to do. So, I think why should I bother?’, the mother of an autistic 4-year-old said to me. ‘But when you’re telling me what is going on for him, what he can understand and how I can understand him, … then I’m not taking it so personally any more … and I don’t feel as rejected.’

What can help is to develop a sense of where the child is in terms of emotional distance in relation to us. Wondering what might be going on for him can then help us to find a new orientation and new ways of responding and being helpful.

There are 3 Ways of Emotional Distance: Is the Child

  1. a long way from me?
  2. against me?
  3. with me?

When he’s ‘a long way from me’

When you feel that the child is ‘a long way from me’, it tends to feel cold and makes your heart contract, because it seems impossible to reach him. He may be wandering around in circles, endlessly running to and fro, jumping wildly while spinning a piece of string or sitting on the floor spinning an object, vocalising loudly, flicking through the pages of a catalogue or banging 2 identical wooden blocks together, or he may be staring into the distance or lying passively on the floor. Or the child is very excited, perhaps full of laughter and apparent happiness, but that seems puzzling and ‘let’s nobody in’.

When he is in this state of mind, he is essentially ‘inside’, with all his attention absorbed in some internal focus on his own bodily and skin-sensations, unaware of you or the outside world. Although his eyes can see and his ears can hear, his mind cannot see or hear you. All his attention is on sensing his body and generating bodily rhythms to provide a sense of predictable continuity that makes him feel safe, with no awareness of the outside world and what might be going on around him.

Often the adult wants to go after him, to get him, to reach him, to pull him out of this state of mind, perhaps even to force him to see, to hear, to acknowledge you, or to do something else. In all likelihood, this will only serve to increase the distance, like opposite ends of a magnet. If that’s what you’ve been putting your efforts in, then you’re probably very stressed, exhausted, confused and discouraged, because you’ve been suffering a high dose of rejection and frustration. Sometimes the adult’s efforts can even push the child into being ‘against you’.

When the child is ‘against me’

When we feel that the child is ‘against me’, he may be opposing any attempt at teaching or reaching him, often in an excited way and with a certain automatic and determined negativism. He’s just ‘against it’, everything. Or he might be sticking himself to your body in a way that in fact feels less like a loving hug than a possessive take-over of your body as if it was his own. It may look to the outsider like affection. But the person on the receiving end feels used as an object or tool by the child to satisfy some urgent sensuous desire of his without interest or awareness of feelings, or of there being two separate people. It doesn’t feel like a dialogue or conversation, but like some kind of take-over and demand. Sometimes the child may even put their wide open mouth to your face voraciously as if they were trying to devour you.

Or he might be shouting in anger, he may be aggressive to you or to himself. He might loudly speak over your voice, stamp his feet or hit his head. He may be laughing loudly in an exaggerated way that seems out of place, perhaps while increasing his repetitive activities or speeding them up or doing them more vehemently. Or he may poo himself and want to get away, sometimes at the same time as trying to attack you. It tends to feel hot or as if on fire, or like a fight or a battle. But if you engage in the battle, you’re lost, as there are no winners to this battle, only losers and misery.

When the child is ‘with me’

Then there are times, when you feel that the child is ‘with me’, which feels more tame and brings a sense of warmth and the hope of emotional contact and mutual engagement.

There are 3 Different Qualities of ‘Being With Me’:

  1.  Is he with me in a genuine way, i.e. is he ‘real with me’?  Here one feels that the child is with us, where we have the sense that he is really there and  where we can see the child’s potential and that he has capacities that can grow and develop, that he has the capacity for being himself and for relationships with others. But his sense of self is fragile and he may only be able to tolerate a little of this ‘togetherness’, before he gets overwhelmed and has to ‘go inside’ again.
  2. Is he with me, but ‘fake or false with me’? This is where the child may take you by surprise by being suddenly very affectionate, although (or because?) you’ve told him 5 times now: ‘No more biscuits!’. So you soften and, when he now asks again smiling so sweetly at you, you say, giving in: ‘Ok, one more then’. But you are left wondering, whether this wasn’t some form of tricking you and getting his own way? These interactions can have a manipulating or controlling, possibly seductive feel, and it is as if the child gives you part of himself, but with a somewhat self-centred focus of getting something out of the relationship for himself, – rather than giving himself to you and the relationship.
  3. Is he with me in a mechanical way, i.e. is he being ‘learnt with me’? This is associated with the mechanical repetition of words, phrases and social-emotionally appropriate behaviours, parrot-fashion, that have a stuck-on rather than a genuine feel, going through the motions, but without understanding or interest. It can feel a bit like a robot saying polite greetings but without genuine feeling. He seems to be giving you, what you want, but he isn’t in it. In fact he doesn’t understand and his attention remains on the surface, without getting interested in the meanings. He is stringing you along, going along with the requirements in an automatic ‘learnt’ sort of way, in order to avoid real engagement and possibly to keep you off his back.

‘I’ve become much better at telling the difference, when he’s really with me or not. I used to focus on him saying the ‘polite thing’. But it always left me feeling hollow. Now I focus on genuine emotional contact,  which also means that I talk less. Instead I focus more on what I feel and try to attune to what he may be feeling and what his real intentions are, and that has really helped both of us.’ Mother of 8-year old boy with autism

What is going on and how to help?

What to do, when the child is a long way from you?

When the child is ‘a long way from me’, a good initial strategy is to do nothing. Just taking note of this fact, and of your feelings, taking some time and allowing yourself to wait, watch and wonder is always a helpful first step. It helps us to manage our initial impulse to ‘do something’. It gives us pause for thought to realise that in this state of mind the child will almost certainly experience our suggestions or invitations as alien and unwelcome. When you are talking to him, are you trying to reach him via his head, or his sensations or his feelings? Because when he’s in this state of mind, he isn’t listening. And he isn’t ‘in his head’. He is in the sensations of his body, and probably full of feelings. But his bodily sensations, his feelings and his ‘head’ aren’t connected in a meaningful way, but fragmented and all over the place. That’s why your words can’t reach him.

The next step is perhaps even more counter-intuitive, as it is to do the opposite of the impulse to draw him closer, to teach him something useful or make him do something meaningful: it is to go easy, to reduce pressure, to provide less stimulation and input, not more. Often a fitting image is that of a little bird, where you have to move very gingerly, so as to not make it fly away in fright as soon as you move or make a sound.

The child cannot bear there being a difference between himself and you. He cannot ‘get his head around’ the idea of ‘other’. All he can manage in his mind is ‘me’ and a sense of ‘me-ness’. He is deeply inside himself and in his own internal mental world where there is no ‘other’, – or the other person’s otherness is ‘me-ified’  into a sense of oneness. The sense of ‘otherness’ creates emotion. But he does not know, how to deal with these feelings, with such a realisation. He therefore does not want to find out that the other person is not as he sees them, so he tries to cancel out this ‘otherness’ by being far away emotionally and not seeing or hearing you (distance) or by copying you (which can be a form of false or learned closeness, that also can also be a way to get rid of ‘otherness’).

Helpful techniques when he’s ‘a long way from me’ are

  • Being with: just being there with your full attention on trying to feel his feelings can be very powerful
  • Reduce you language: in this state of mind a child is not able to decode speech or instructions, or to think and control his behaviour in any rational manner
  • Use your voice to create a calming and containing atmosphere, rather than to give instructions or to impart information
  • Expectant waiting: at the same time, wait for some sign of his interest or a moment, when he may be able to tolerate, and perhaps/ hopefully even enjoy, some contact with you.
  • Help him to feel himself, sometimes in sensory ways like touching or stroking his back or arms, offering a ‘squeeze’ game, can help him to feel more grounded and supported and safe in himself.
  • Keep trying, – don’t give up, but go slow and prepare for needing a very long breath …

What to do, when the child is ‘against you’?

If the child is ‘against me’, you’ll need to tread even more lightly, or the ‘little bird’ might turn into a tiger that feels threatened and moved to defend himself. He is feeling very stressed and frightened of his strong fiery feelings, and he is not equipped to deal in any reasonable way with his internal situation. Or you may feel hot yourself or on fire that seems to propel you into a fight or a battle. Here a helpful image is that the child feels that there’s fire inside of him of strong unmanageable feelings. He feels caught between fear and terror and wanting to, but being unable to, run away and save himself. He needs you to become a fire-fighter, who goes bravely into the fire and takes the panicked child out of the inferno into a more regulated bodily and emotional state of mind.

Don’t ask him to do something different or not to feel how he is feeling. He can’t. Not at the moment. If you do, you’ll be adding to his stress, like pouring oil on the fire. Don’t be surprised then by an explosion, or to become the target of his negativity turning into aggression directed at you

Don’t even try to ask him to control or change his behaviour, or his feelings. He isn’t doing this to annoy or reject you. It is happening to him, – he feels stressed, doesn’t trust you/anyone, feels that the whole world is against him, and he is helpless to control or manage these overwhelming feelings.

Helpful techniques when he’s ‘against me’ are:

  • Lower your expectations and drop the cognitive load, use words very sparingly and focus on a calming tone of voice
  • Slow down, breathe, be kind to yourself and keep yourself from ‘catching fire’
  • Be attentive and interested in him and his feelings, but don’t get into the fight: remember you’re almost definitely going to lose the battle
  • Provide more containment, more order, more structure, a kind and gentle firmness, – possibly putting things away to create a more calming environment
  • Find clear yet kind ways to prevent him from fusing and confusing himself with the other person, i.e. stop him from gluing himself on you or rubbing himself by simply standing up, so he cannot do it, or sitting next to him with a clear space for him to sit, that is not all over you
  • Be a calming and containing presence, possibly holding his hands or his body gently yet firmly, ensure that you don’t get hurt, kicked, bitten

I hope that you have found this interesting and helpful. Perhaps you find yourself wondering about some related issues with your child. I would love to hear from you with your feedback and thoughts.

A warm welcome from Sibylle Janert.

I look forward to discussing your concerns.

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