Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Baby Talk (Kate Altman, M.S.)

While visiting Doug, a 17 year-old guy with an ASD, at his school, his teacher stopped to speak with him for a few moments. She spoke animatedly in a bright, cheerful voice and complimented him on some recent academic successes he had had. When she walked away, the young man turned to me and remarked, “she’s a very nice person, but sometimes she talks to me like I’m a little slow.”

Other adolescents and young adults on the spectrum have told me that some people tend to speak to them like they are much younger, using sing-songy voices and asking questions that you’d more typically ask a younger child. One young man told me he thinks that his gestures are still childlike, which naturally causes people to talk to him like he’s a child, even though he is a senior in college. Doug speaks very slowly with a flat tone, which may be why his teacher addresses him with babytalk, even though he is a bright and mature high schooler.

Adolescents and adults who find that they are "babytalked" by other adults may experience anything from amusement to tolerance to disgust and anger. Communicating that they do not want to be "babytalked" to the babytalker in a respectful way can be challenging and daunting, especially because they babytalker is usually a well-intentioned person. This subtle and complicated dilemma provides insight into the challenges of being a self-advocate in everyday life.

What are your experiences with babytalk, and how do you, or your child, handle it?

Monday, April 5, 2010

Every time the phone rings…I jump from Robert Naseef, Ph.D.

“It seems like every time the phone rings I jump.” Not a week goes by without a parent of a child with a disability echoing these words in my office. Is it a phone call from a child’s school asking that the child be picked up early because of a meltdown? Could it be another injury on the playground or in the classroom? Or has my child had another seizure? Otherwise, is a teacher reporting that many assignments have not been completed? All possibilities to be sure, but maybe it’s not bad news after all.

Let’s take a breath and look at the traumatic emotional impact of a child’s disability upon the family. Trauma (in the DSM-IV) is the personal experience that involves threat to one’s physical integrity. Trauma can also be caused by witnessing such an event, or by learning about an event that has happened to a family member. While most disabilities are not life threatening, having such a child often produces the same symptoms in families. Although traumatic stress related to developmental disabilities is only recently appearing in the professional literature, this concept can provide a lens for understanding what families go through.

A “bad day” is often lurking in the shadows. For example, if a child has a tantrum in the supermarket that attracts attention, or bolts across the street without looking, a parent or sibling may react intensely—triggering palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness, and even flashbacks to other even more stressful incidents with the child.

Family members may experience nightmares and disturbed sleep, as well as a sense of despair. They may spend long periods of time on edge and behave irritably with each other as a result. But families are resilient and with support and effective intervention, some sense of order and predictability can be restored to the family members’ lives, and thus the overpowering sense of helplessness and powerlessness can be alleviated. Parents and siblings may need to help themselves to learn how to regulate their emotions during these periods.

Families go on courageously to find meaning in their struggle and love for their child and life itself. Although families cannot control what happens, we do have a lot to say about how we handle things. So if you jump the next time the phone rings, remember that’s a normal reaction for people who have been traumatized. You have handled things up until now and you can manage this one. Take a breath, and recognize your fear is about what may have happened. Take another breath and meet the moment that is happening—maybe it’s just a friend calling to say hi.

We invite you to let others hear about your experiences.