In the first part of this series, I discussed how The Four Agreements, by Don Miguel Ruiz, can be applied to parenting children with autism. In his book, Ruiz explains how we can live a happier, more fulfilled life when we live by the following:
- Be impeccable with your word.
- Don’t take anything personally.
- Don’t make assumptions.
- Always do your best.
Part I covered the first two agreements. In this article, I will cover the last two.
3. Don’t Make Assumptions
We’re all aware of what happens when we make assumptions: misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and undue anxiety. When we assume something, it is believed to be true. We often make this mistake because we are afraid to ask for clarification. Our brains are designed to fill in the missing pieces, and they do so automatically.
So when your child with autism takes his pants off, without warning, in the middle of class, there are several assumptions you might make as a parent: no one was watching him; he’s too much trouble and now maybe the teacher doesn’t like him; he was misbehaving “on purpose” to get attention; all of the above.
We can really get our minds into a tailspin when we make assumptions. It’s always better to ask for clarification from the person who has most of the information—in this case, the teacher. In my child’s case, he usually takes his pants off when he has to go to the bathroom. Imagine the needless suffering I’d be subjecting myself to if I assumed all of the above.
It’s also easy to make assumptions about children who are limited in their communication abilities. Many of our kids experience pain or discomfort when they bang their heads or otherwise self-injure. Most of the parents I speak with assume that this is “part of autism” or make other assumptions about their child’s behavior. This can be one of the most difficult parts of autism.
I usually recommend that parents, rather than making assumptions, try to clarify with their child what’s going on. Have patience. It took several years for me to teach my child, who is limited in his verbal abilities, how to use words and signs to indicate his tummy or head hurt. Now, more often, when I ask, “What’s wrong?” he can tell me rather than whack me on the head. We call that progress.
Unfortunately, the very nature of autism spectrum issues makes assuming easy to do. People with autism often appear as if they aren’t listening, when in reality they hear and understand even those conversations taking place in the next room. Their limited eye contact leads us to demand they “look at us” when we speak because we assume it will increase their ability to take in information.
Often, the opposite is true. Many people on the spectrum cannot concentrate on what you’re saying and maintain eye contact simultaneously.
4. Always Do Your Best
This last agreement sounds simple and straightforward, but is more complex than it seems. Abiding by it helps the other three agreements become habitual.
Ruiz warns us in this chapter to remember that our best is different from one moment to the next. It’s possible for us to try to do too much and consequently burn ourselves out. When my child is up half the night (which means I am, too) I need to be aware of my limitations and speak to myself with kindness. I may need to take a sick day from work or cancel whatever I had planned that evening in order to catch up on rest. Some days when my child is having a rough time, allowing him to watch videos rather than go to speech therapy might be the “best” we both can do. (I realize I may invite differing opinions on that last statement; feel free.) When you do your best, you learn to accept yourself and your child just the way you both are.
Doing your best means you’re more likely to live in the moment; your awareness of why you’re doing what you do will increase. The moments when we want to procrastinate preparing for that meeting may be moments when we aren’t doing our best and need to ask for help.
Remember that kids on the spectrum are always doing their best, even when they “misbehave.” Life in our demanding world is hard for them, and they require a great deal of patience, empathy, and understanding. Practicing Ruiz’s “four agreements” in my daily life have increased these qualities in myself, and made me a better parent. It’s my hope that they will do the same for you.
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