brian_finalAs an adult with Asperger’s and ADHD I have discovered two criteria that allow me to determine when my nervous system is organized and thus more capable of making things happen. Those criteria are the experience of calm and focus. When I’m becoming anxious, I start stimming more and my thinking becomes erratic and fuzzy. Then I know I’m disorganized.

When you have difficulty with executive functions such as planning and prioritizing, problem solving can be particularly difficult. That’s why spectrumites and those with ADHD like predictability and routine – there are fewer problems to solve.

The effort it takes to remain calm and focused in a world constantly bombarding you with information that you must organize is exhausting. Stimming or doing something in an organized way helps us regain and maintain organization. This, for us, is a solution.

Spectrumites often encounter well meaning people who offer guidance.  Unfortunately, many times the guidance is offered in the form of criticism, which only reinforces the Spectrumite’s perception that they are ineffective. This results in the Spectrumite wanting to engage the world less, because doing so results in criticism.

Instead of trying to learn the purpose the solutions provide for us, many people offer solutions that solve the problem of their own discomfort, at the expense of the Spectrumite, whose needs now go unmet. How do we change this? 

Consider that many Spectrumites learn to see the world as a place in which they’re helpless to solve the problems of their lives (especially when their efforts are criticized instead of supported). It makes sense that they would develop a pattern of avoiding problems, instead of working to solve them.

The obvious result of this avoidance is that the problems accumulate and, often, get bigger. None of them go away until they are solved. So how do we reverse this trend? I’ll give you an example from my own household.

On a seemingly ordinary Sunday morning, my two oldest sons who are on the autism spectrum (then ages 11 and 7), announced they would be making breakfast for the family. The 7 year old (Aidan) meticulously set the table, even going so far as to wrap the utensils in napkins, as he’d seen done in restaurants.

The 11 year old (Zach) cooked the bacon. They then combined their efforts to crack and scramble the eggs. How did this happen, you ask? It is because of the solution-focused approach I take with raising my children each day. Constructive criticism rarely is constructive. But an emphasis on solution focused feedback, is.

In my family, people don’t have weaknesses; they have “challenges.” They don’t make mistakes they have“teachable moments/opportunities.” Words such as “weakness” and “mistake” are problem focused. They’re also more readily internalized by children to inform a negative opinion of themselves. The words I choose are designed to emphasize the event over the individual, so the child is less embarrassed and defensive when discussing it.

My boys reached the point of confidence and competence that was demonstrated in their offer to make breakfast because I raise them with the mindset that life is a series of  “teachable moments” that we experience with a solution focused mind. Many households focus on criticizing or punishing for mistakes that are made and do more to teach kids to belittle, second guess themselves or strive for perfection to avoid the criticism.

I began using this approach with my oldest son Zach who had virtually every last drop of self-worth kicked out of him upon entering first grade. He had meltdowns and various other issues that led us to discover that he’s on the Autism Spectrum. The teachers emphasized how inappropriate he was behaving and howbad his choices were. It took a period of homeschooling and switching schools to undo the damage they caused.

The approach I developed was designed to counter every statement of self-criticism and negativity by viewing the problem as though it was a problem about the relationship between him and the task and not about him alone. Here’s an example of an exchange in which I applied this approach with him. In this instance, Zach was angry and calling himself an idiot. My first response is a question to help reframe how the situation can be perceived:

Me: “It looks like you’re upset. Are you upset?”

Him: “This is so stupid, I’m such an idiot.”

Me: “It sounds like things didn’t go the way they were supposed to, huh?”

Him: “No, everything is stupid, I’m so stupid.”

Me: “I’m wondering how things were supposed to go.”

At this point he tells me the outcome he was expecting, to which I make a point of avoiding any words that suggest a mistake was made or something went wrong. Clearly, he’s already stuck in that mindset and the point is to move him into a more solution focused mindset. Read the next statement carefully, as the wording is critical to moving him toward a more solution focused way of thinking.

Me: “So you expected (preferred outcome) but things went different, huh?”

Him: “Yeah, they didn’t go the way I wanted.”

Me: “Can you explain to me what made things go different?”

Him: “No, I did it wrong!”

Me: “It seems to me you did something right. You made something happen correctly, it was just different from what you wanted. If we can figure out how it went different, I know we can figure out how it can go the way you want it to.”

We then walked through the steps he took to create the outcome he did. If I spot where he missed things I ask, “If it were done this way, would it make a difference?”

Him: “I guess.”

Me: “What difference would it make?

Him: “It would make things go more the way I wanted.”

Me: “So what do you know now that you didn’t know before?”

Him: “Next time I need to remember to do (the forgotten step).”

Me: “Seems to me we learned something important here.”

Him: “Like what?”

Me: “That you are very good at figuring out how to solve problems.”

Him: “Not always.”

Me: “I don’t always solve problems myself, but I do solve them all, eventually. We can always work together until we find the solution. We also learned from this that we can solve problems well together. Which means we can solve the next one.”

This is a very simple exchange, to be sure, but hopefully illustrates the line of thinking that directs my efforts. Each situation is unique and it’s more a matter of mastering the mindset than a script.

My approach to raising my children with autism and ADHD is to teach them how to define a problem and then to solve it instead of always solving it for them. It gives them the repeated experience of competence and their confidence had grown as a result, to the point where they decided to take charge in a situation where we have collaboratively worked together to create solutions.

I’ve worked for years to include my children in as many facets of running the household as possible, including meal preparation. As time went on they learned more and took greater responsibility until, one Sunday, they decided to do it all.

Thanks for being you.

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About Brian R. King, LCSW
Brian R. King, LCSW (ADHD & ASD Life Coach) is a #1 Best Selling Author, 25-year cancer survivor, adult with Dyslexia, ADHD, and Asperger’s. He’s also the father of three sons on the autism spectrum. He is known worldwide for his books and highly engaging presentations that teach the power of connection and collaboration. His strategies empower others to overcome their differences so they can build powerful and lasting partnerships. His motto is: We’re all in this together.

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