Tuning in to the Emotional Lives of Children with Special Needs

One of my trusted guides about the world of autism treatment is Ido Kedar, a talented high school senior who blogs at Ido in Autismland. Here’s what Ido has to say about the professionals who worked with him over many years:

“My experts have missed the mark most of my life. Kind of like a tennis player who keeps missing the ball or hitting it to the wrong court.

Ido’s analogy is stunning. But is his perspective unique? In my experience, it reflects the way many autistic persons recall their early treatment. Naoki Higashida, teenage author of the wonderful book The Reason I Jump, echo’s Ido’s sentiment, insisting that oftentimes, we just don’t get it. Some of my own patients who are now teens and young adults have shared similar concerns. These stories should compel all of us to listen and reflect on current practices.

As I continue to explore Ten Things to Ask of Professionals Working with your Special Needs Child, let’s examine the significance of acknowledging the mental and emotional life of children with special needs—particularly autism.

Do not confuse our child’s inability to speak or use proper language as an inability to think. It may not be easy (or even possible) for our child to communicate what’s in her mind, but she has thoughts, emotions and desires just as any other child does.

ABA goals and Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) generally focus on skill acquisition, and rarely on emotional needs as distinct priorities. That doesn’t mean dedicated teachers and therapists don’t care about the emotional lives of children. Certainly they do. But most professionals working with autistic children lack specific training in the deep connection between emotions and learning. How essential it is to prioritize a child’s feeling safe and loved before anything else. This knowledge is held and practiced by a relatively small number of professionals worldwide who come by it intuitively or have sought out this type of “cross-disciplinary” thinking and practice.

Parents and professionals, I continue with the drumbeat of prior writings. Autistic children’s emotions need to be considered and acknowledged in a new way. Facial expressions, body language, words and vocalizations may not truly reveal children’s internal thoughts or feelings. It is important to look beyond the readily observable.  Be cautious with the idea that children “are not trying hard enough”. This has implications to mental health—to confidence, risk taking and resiliency. Please consider how difficult it must be if your brain is not wired to do what you tell it to do. We must give kids more consideration for what that feels like, and avoid two major mistakes associated with it: resorting to discipline too soon or lowering expectations. These two mistakes can eclipse critical opportunities for connecting, communicating and learning.

Parents and professionals can find support and training regarding the developmental and emotional lives of children with special needs through several international organizations dedicated to this cause. The parent and professional programs at www.profectum.org and www.ICDL.com provide excellent online and on-site continuing education throughout North America and beyond.

In this New Year, let’s all work together to better understand the emotional lives of Neurodiverse children.

Please feel free to comment below and visit/like my Facebook page, where I regularly post information for parents and professionals.

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Excellent points!
Wisdom about emotional support and growth can come from many sources. Our family has benefited from DIR/Floortime, and also from RDI (Relationship Development Intervention). Depending where you are, RDI may be a more accessible resource and also has a growing online community. Their RDI Connect website is a place to start.

Thank you Deborah! Such a great point. RDI is a great resource and may be more available, depending on location.