Saturday, January 29, 2011

What I’ve Learned from Tantrums by Kelly E. Peters, Child Therapist

Tantrums can be difficult for both caregiver and child. They are stressful, upsetting and difficult to deal with. They can also be a learning experience.

Tantrums are at their core, an expression of emotion. This emotion may be extreme and inappropriate, but the person having the tantrum is doing the best they can. They may be overwhelmed, tired, angry, frustrated, not getting what they want, and trying to do something to change the way they feel. Here's where the learning comes in to play.

Tantrums can teach young people about how to deal with emotions. In order to do this, they need to know that although this is one method of expression, it is not an effective method to change their situation. You can help this learning along by stating just that. "I can't understand you when you are screaming" -or try-"I really want to help, but I can't help you until you are calm". This teaches young people that you care for them and want to help them, but if they want things to change, they have to control their emotions and express their desires.

Everyone has probably heard (and rolled their eyes at the idea) that all you do during a tantrum is ignore it. This is only half-true. In order to ignore effectively, you need to stay calm and be okay with what is happening. It’s hard to be okay while hearing your child scream, yell, hit, and cry tugs at your own emotions and nerves. This is where the learning comes in for you.

Find a way to stay calm. Meditate, refocus your attention, and get your inner-self okay with what is going on. It's okay for young people to cry. It's okay for them to feel angry. It's okay for them to feel frustrated. It's their choice to tantrum. What you have to be okay with is, showing them that this choice will not cause you to give in.

When a young person decides that throwing a doozy of a tantrum may just help, you have to show them that what this choice does is stop everything. Don't offer a toy to console them. Don't try to distract them. If possible, stay in the room, away from kicking and screaming,and just sit and wait it out. If you're out and about find an isolated corner, go back to the car- anything which will eliminate the negative attention factor, and wait it out. This is (obviously) MUCH easier said than done.

It can be tempting when trying to move quickly through an errand to give in, just this once, to make the moment go easier. And sometimes, it may be all you can do. Keep in mind, that this 10 (20, 45+....) minutes now may be awful, but the more often you give in, the more often it will likely happen in the future. When you can find a good spot, sit, find a book, find a toy- entertain yourself. Do not engage. If the child tries to engage you while still screaming- reinforce the "I can't understand what you need. If you can get calm I will help".

Once your child works his/her way through the emotion, CELEBRATE! "I'm so glad you got yourself together" - now is the time to redirect. Find a toy, read a book, spend time showing them how much better it is when they can explain what they need to you. They can learn, if consistently given the feedback that sometimes they can feel strongly about something, but to fix the situation they first have to calm down to find a way to feel better. Staying calm will help you to cope too. Stay strong. Stay calm. You can do it!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Autism and Real Life Drama by Robert Naseef, Ph.D.

“Lucy” is a powerful play about the everyday realities of autism. Written by Canadian playwright Damien Atkins and directed by David Stradley at the Delaware Theatre Company, this is not a “feel good” story, rather it challenges us. Lucy is a teenager with autism who does not seem destined to “recover” or grow up to be the next Temple Grandin.

As Stradley wrote in the program, “It is filled with much thought and love, and will hopefully have you leaving the theater asking questions about many things—including normalcy, parenthood, science, gender roles, and how we move beyond limitations imposed by one’s self or by society”. “Lucy” touches places inside the human experience of autism where web pages, books, and mass media cannot reach.

When Lucy pulled down her pants, as I watched with my wife, Cindy, I could feel in my gut the tension we had lived through over 25 years ago when my son would pull down his pants in the mall. When she flopped on the floor, screamed, ran away, repeated herself over and over, I could sense the whole audience feel what our lives had been like. I suppose most of them probably never spent time with a child with autism. This is the power of art, as William Faulkner said, to portray the human heart in conflict with itself. The power of community, in the audience which seemed to be typical theatre goers, made me feel less alone.

In what is not on the surface a typical autism story, Lucy has grown up with divorced parents in the custody of her father. Just before her first menstrual cycle, he brings her to live with her mother, Vivian, because he wants to move on with his life and believes that Lucy needs her mother. Vivian had never bonded securely with her daughter and was initially overwhelmed by the challenge. As an anthropologist, getting to really know her daughter for the first time, she wonders if she herself has autism.

On the other hand, what is typical for parents, especially mothers, living with this disturbing disorder is a ruptured bond with a child who does not respond to them in ways they naturally expect—with eye contact and interest and excitement in relating. Extreme rigidity, confusing sensory differences, echoed speech, endless tantrums, etc. can feel like torture.

There is a line which repeats several times through the play, “Everything evolves. Everything moves forward.” Therein we find hope and light, as Lucy and Vivian bond with each other. There is a crescendo of feeling as they find comfort in and with each other as the play concludes. The parent-child relationship is indeed reciprocal and vital to both.

Herein is the universal which as a psychologist I help parents find with their children on the autism spectrum. We cannot cure or even control this condition very well despite the best efforts of medicine, science, and education. We are in that sense powerless. What we can do while trying our best is to repair the bond by accepting the child we have, and living the lives we have each day to the fullest possible. Holding lightly the possibilities as we find what we can enjoy together and figuring out how we can live together in a semblance of harmony. Everyone grows this way toward a future we cannot predict except to know “Everything evolves. Everything changes.”

Learn more at .

Listen to a discussion of the play on public radio station WHYY at

See a scene on YouTube at

Monday, January 17, 2011

Autism risk higher for child born soon after another

by Carolyn Beeler

From, powered by WHYY in Philadelphia:

A Columbia University study suggests that children born soon after a sibling are at a higher risk for a diagnosis of autism.

Researchers looked at the birth records of more than half a million children in California. They found that babies conceived within a year of a previous birth were three times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than those conceived three years or more after that first birth.

Craig Newshaffer, an autism researcher at Drexel University, called the new finding a new "corner piece" of the autism puzzle. Over the past few decades, research into the disorder has focused on genetic traits; Newshaffer said this study brings needed attention to the fact that there are lots of factors that lead to the complicated diagnosis.

"Honing in on the things that are showing promise on the genetic front is very important," Newshaffer said. "But as this paper shows there are other things that we can be thinking about, and should be looking at, as non-heritable autism risk factors."

Researchers said they don't know why having two children close together may lead to a higher rate of autism, but it might have to do with depleted nutrients in the womb after pregnancy.

Philadelphia psychologist Robert Naseef says he hopes the finding will provide another piece of information for parents when they are planning their families. But, as with all new autism research, Naseef said it also provides opportunity for self-doubt.

"I think there's going to be a mixed reaction to this," Naseef said. "It's new information, it's good to have, but for some moms it's like 'Oh my God, I did the wrong thing, I got pregnant too soon.' "

The findings excluded families in which the first child is diagnosed with autism, so it does not provide much information for parents of an autistic child facing the agonizing decision of whether, and when, to have another.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

RICHMOND, VA: Fathers' Voices by Robert Naseef, Ph.D.

January 7, 2011. It was a snowy night in Richmond, Virginia. 75 fathers of children with autism turned out for a presentation entitled “The Father Factor.” They came ostensibly to hear me, introduced as a psychologist and the father of an adult child with autism, talk to them about the issues they face day and night in their families. They did more than listen.

First, they showed up, and that turnout said something. It said that their local chapter of the Autism Society ( recognizes the need for programming that speaks directly to fathers. It says that men respond when they are spoken to directly. It says that the mothers of their children found the presenter at a national conference, planned and organized the event, and encouraged them to attend.

After a brief talk about my background as a son and a father, I asked them to share their stories with each other in small groups around the tables at which they were seated. The energy level in the room rose as they connected with each other. In every small group, men commented on how alone they had felt and how much they enjoyed meeting each other. Many had never attended and Autism Society event in the past. Those who had been there mentioned that there were few if any men present so they just listened.

Then we watched together a short DVD, “Father’s Voices: A Journey of the Heart” which is a compelling video about men raising children with disabilities from the Washington State Fathers Network.( ) The film focuses on four dads, including the father of a child with autism and how their lives have been dramatically changed because of their children.

Filled with the powerful message of the movie, the men opened up in their small groups about their own thoughts and feelings. I asked them to recall their sweetest memories of their own fathers and male role models which they carry with them. These insights were offered within the large group of all present.

Finally, we discussed how to apply what we knew about fatherhood from our own lives to the often overwhelming mission of raising a child on the autism spectrum. The discussion focused on how men remembered the time they spent one-on-one with their fathers doing simple things: chores, errands, baseball games, fishing, etc. Many had lost sight of what they could do with their children while overwhelmed in the world of therapies, special education, doctor visits, etc.

Even though they couldn’t fix the autism, there was a sense of hope that they could do something about their relationship with their child. After 2 hours of open and honest discussion, men lingered, talking and holding onto the moment. Several told Bradford Hulcher, the Executive Director of the Autism Society of Central Virginia, that they wanted her to set up an ongoing fathers’ group. She told them that they would need to step up themselves if they really wanted that to happen.

Today, I got an email from Bradford telling me that 4 men had stepped up to be organizers and leaders. That turnout really said a lot. There are plenty of good men in the autism community and not just in Richmond.