I have no children, myself (I chose not to). That’s for a very good reason. I’ve never been convinced that I would be “up to the challenge” of having and raising kids (beginning with even being pregnant — the idea never, ever appealed to me, for some reason). I can’t even imagine how taxing it would be to bear a child, care for him/her, raise them through the years, and go through all the ups and downs of parenting. Plus, all my very fertile siblings have a bunch of kids, so the family name will continue without my involvement. Whew! That’s a relief.
Let me use a decidedly un-Autistic phrase — My hat’s off to them!
Becoming a new parent has got to be incredibly stressful and disorienting. Especially for new parents. They’re under considerable pressure, both internally and externally, to “get it right”… to produce proper human beings who integrate into society and become productive citizens. A million things can — and do — go wrong. Or so I hear from my parent co-workers, each and every day at work.
It’s profoundly stressful, from day one, when your usual sleep schedule is completely turned upside-down, and you have all these new responsibilities on you. You’re not just taking care of yourself. You’re caring for a completely dependent little creature who doesn’t yet make a lot of sense — because they haven’t learned how to do that. And you haven’t gotten to know them, yet. That’ll come. Maybe you’ll like your child, maybe you won’t really care for them (I hear that happens). But bottom line, you have a seemingly insurmountable pile of work ahead of you. And that’s stressful. To say the least.
Being a new parent apparently comes with all sorts of hidden land mines of social failure — you’re not doing this right, you’re not doing that right, is your child attractive? are they healthy? do they behave the way others would expect a child their age to behave? do they blend well with other kids their own age? do they have talents? are they … deficient in some way? will they embarrass you? will others make fun of you? will other parents reject you? will you get it right? will you get it wrong? what did you do wrong now?
Good grief. Personally, I think modern parenting is a set-up. Once upon a time (including in the rural area where I grew up), whole communities raised kids. It wasn’t just on the parents. Other adults, teachers, preachers, friends of the family, neighbors, even total strangers all pitched in to train kids how to be decent human beings and responsible adults. It wasn’t just about a small nuclear family with Mom and Dad and 2.x kids and a dog keeping their own company. Child-rearing was a community effort, and that guaranteed that the little urchins would eventually become respectable adults. In my the world where I was raised, kids were considered little packages of selfish, willful, sinful desires very much in need of proper training to get them/us on the straight-and-narrow. There was none of this isolation you see in mainstream, suburban life, where Mom and Dad are solely responsible for Bringing Up Baby. Nope.
Nowadays, though, you get in trouble if you even say a word to another person’s kid without the parents’ request or approval. I’ll spare the projections of doom this conjures up for me, since those of us who are inheriting this batch of newbies is prevented from doing any “quality control” or even participating in helping make these noobs better able to participate in the world they’ve inherited. But all that nuclear family autonomy and isolation comes with a price — putting the full load of parenting an infant into productive adulthood onto the shoulders of the parents. And that’s gotta be stressful. All the drama that invariably comes with each kid concentrated on two individuals — either together or separately, if they split up and co-parent separately… It’s a recipe for a continuous state of fight-flight in your nervous system. That’s especially true at the start, when your freshly minted infant is still pretty much a stranger you have to both get to know and keep alive, and all the real and imagined pressures / expectations of the present and future are intruding on you. Anxiety. Stress. Fight-flight. And all the while, you’re not getting enough sleep. Fun! I just reminded myself why I chose not to have children.
Anyway, physiologically and cognitively speaking, being in a constant state of stressed-out fight-flight makes you brittle. It makes you jumpy. It makes you over-reactive. It limits your ability to perceive and process information. It limits your ability to learn. It primes you for yet more fight-flight, with a snowball effect that just builds over time, with all your stress hormones pumping you up, giving you the (illusory) impression of competence, even mastery, while limiting your ability to think through complex information, come up with inventive new solutions to sticky problems, or learn from your mistakes and mishaps.
Unless you take steps to actively reduce the stress and clear out the stress hormone “buildup” from your system (I’m flashing on that old gasoline commercial that had a commanding voiceover promising to “Get the gunk out!“)… your system will continue to marinate in your stress hormone cocktail, and it has a cumulative effect. Your brain literally can’t:
- Process a wide variety of information
- Detect nuances
- Think critically
- Make memories
- Learn effectively
- Let its guard down
- Find new and different ways of doing things that will solve the underlying issues of the problem at hand
Fortunately, our systems are “wired” to do something about this. If we couldn’t (and sometimes our systems go haywire and we can’t), we’d short-circuit and either end up in wooden boxes six feet underground or … I dunno what else. Anyway, bottom line is, we do have ways of getting from fight-flight to the opposite rest-digest state. Our parasympathetic systems are always at the ready, waiting for us to give them the go-ahead to take the edge off our frazzled existence.
So, what can you do to tone down the stress and tone up the rest-digest response? Balanced breathing (in and out slowly, at an equal rate) will do it. You can relax in whatever way works for you. You can eat something. You can have sex. You can listen to music and sing along. Or you can just sing by yourself. You can meditate. You can focus on your body and stop your thoughts from racing wildly in your frantic mind. Getting “back in the body” and slowing everything down does wonders. I should know. I was a fight-flight mess for years, till I figured this stuff out.
Additionally, we talk. Talking (like singing) stimulates the vagus nerve, which kick-starts the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and takes the edge off your fight-flight impulse. It also fosters a sense of connectedness with others, which can make you feel more supported, less alone, and that can take the stress off, as well. Talking to another person and learning that you’re not the only one with certain problems can do wonders for your stress levels. And if you’re autistic, talking to people and learning tips and tricks and hacks for solving those problems (rather than just rehashing them) can be magical.
Verbalizing for its own sake can be very stress-reducing for neurotypical folks. If anything, it seems to be their predominant stim. I squeeze hard, pointy objects in my hand and it relaxes me. Neurotypicals talk with no apparent need to exchange useful information, or even hear what others are saying. It’s not a criticism, it’s simply an observation (though I will admit to a little annoyance at the idea of chatting without actually exchanging any useful information).
Talking… it does its stress-relief wonders in hidden ways, and nobody who’s off the autism spectrum seems to need anything more than basic PNS activation.
This highly reliable mode of stress relief — talking, interacting, chatting — seems like a basic requirement of neurotypical interaction. It’s not just something they like to do. It’s something they have to do, and others are required to do it along with them. After all, you can’t just stand there talking to yourself. At least, not if you’re non-autistic. Plenty of autistic folks I know (including me) have extended conversations with ourselves or no one in particular, which I imagine serves the same purpose as non-autistic people standing around talking at each other without listening to what others are saying in response.
But I digress. Let’s get back to the basic neurotypical requirement for regular life: Everybody Has to Talk to You. If they don’t, it means something terrible. It means you’re being rejected. It means you’re cast out, unwelcome, cut loose from the crowd… on your own. Nooooo!!!!! Not being talked to, is like a slap in the face. And being ignored triggers the same chemical reactions in the brain as physical pain.
So, if someone won’t talk to you, well, that’s a double-whammy.
First, they’re not giving you the chance to relieve the stress that comes with everyday living.
Second, you’re experiencing pain from feeling ignored.
Which isn’t fun for anyone, whether or not you’re autistic.
So. You’ve got parents who are under tremendous social and personal stress, raising kids they’re just now getting to know. Their primary hope (typically) is that their kids will follow the expected developmental trajectory. But there’s a lot of variation, and in today’s segmented, isolationist society, they don’t have a lot of direct contact with others who can vouch for how everything’s gonna be okay, even in the face of the grand diversity of human experience and expression. So, they’re left guessing an awful lot. Which is stressful.
And how do they relieve stress? By talking with their kids, interacting with them, getting to know them, learning how to best understand them and meet their needs and also steer them in the right directions. Kids need to be interactive, to give their parents important feedback on how they’re doing. And when they’re out in public, interacting with others, kids need to interact, as well — especially talking, preferably in full sentences that make sense to others — so that others can get to know them and see that they’re developing as expected into future members of society.
Children are expected (even required) to speak — both as a source of stress relief for the parents, and a sign that the parents are instilling in them one of the most critical communication / community building tools in the human repertoire.
Now, if kids don’t speak, and if parents don’t have any other techniques for relieving stress, they get even more stressed. They get hit from all sides — they’re not getting the feedback they need from their kids to see if they’re parenting properly, in society’s eyes they’re failing to be adequate parents with a speaking child, AND they’re missing out on a critical stress-relieving tactic (speaking interactively with their child) — all adding to their stress levels.
As I said, prolonged stress blocks learning, creative thinking and problem-solving. It heightens and distorts the issues at hand, intensifying the experience, and it puts parents on the defensive — which can morph into going on the offensive. Perpetual fight-flight state ensues. Plus, if autism is in the mix, that makes things even worse, because who the heck really understands it in the mainstream, anyway? And a whole lot of parents with autistic kids are in a state of perpetual fight-flight, themselves.
It’s no picnic for the autistic kids, either. Autistic children can be highly empathic and sensitive to negative, critical emotions, and the fight-flight drama environment around them can add to their own stress levels, thus dampening their desire to even try to speak… perhaps even develop along the lines they need to learn and develop. I’m not a developmental psychologist — I’m just drawing logical conclusions from the available information. You’re free to draw your own conclusions, of course.
The result? A downward spiral of ever-increasing stress and added difficulties for everybody involved. Parents of non-verbal kids can feel embattled, beleaguered, and completely misunderstood by the outside world that’s judging them based on their kids’ “performance”. They get pretty beaten up by the judgments of others, and it separates them from the support they need to deal effectively with their challenging situations and their own stress. Kids may not get the support or understanding they need, let alone the opportunity to develop along their own lines. And the larger community just stands there, exchanging uncomfortable glances and wondering if there’s a potential criminal in their midst.
This opens up the door for organizations like A$ to intervene with “solutions” for parents of non-verbal, autistic kids. They have handouts, YouTube videos, promotional campaigns, pamphlets, explanations for everything — including the chance to participate in finding a cure for this dreaded condition that seems to have stolen once-healthy child from their loving, confused parents. Organizations touting the “autism is an epidemic / disease” have a proverbial red carpet laid out for them (accompanied by millions of dollars of funding), in part due to the impaired reasoning of everyone involved: the overwhelmed, frightened parents, the kids who aren’t getting support, and society at large, which doesn’t do a great job of understanding or accepting non-verbal people at all.
So, that’s my little spiel about why non-verbal children can be problematic for their parents — and society at large. It makes sense to me, and I hope it sparks some new and different ideas in the minds of folks who never thought about things like this before. Because truly, being often non-verbal myself, it’s really tiring to be under constant pressure to talk-talk-talk, when I literally don’t have anything to say.
And I know I’m not the only one who feels this way.