When trying to come to terms with their own internal struggles, it is challenging for an autistic person to manage their emotions. The fallout from this can range from meltdowns, tears, non-cooperation and frustration. What do they do with these feelings? What do they do with the physical assault jarring their insides and wracking their mind?
For a parent or teacher, it is tough to know exactly how to sooth on the spot. But time is our ally because we get to observe and note trends and triggers that inform us and help us to prepare for these occurrences. We can use this information to present safer and calmer de-escalating alternatives and strategies.
But what does the autistic person do?
In the final few years of my time in the classroom, I had the incredible opportunity to teach and observe an amazing young boy (I’ll call him, Timmy), who was around 9 or 10 years old when we met. He was autistic and had a medical history that caused him to miss school often; a hurdle to consistency. His behaviors, at the start, were very unpredictable and involved frequent, oppositional and physical outbursts that involved his lashing out at others.
We worked together for three years and the growth shown over that time was significant. He eventually became someone who accepted responsibility for his actions and was able to be reasoned with more often than not. The efforts to help him arrive at this place were ardent and repetitive. It included rounds of trial and error until we found what was effective to get the results we wanted. But Timmy, unbeknownst to himself, was trialing ways to understand and reason with what was happening, too.
I had purchased a small garbage pail that resembled one from Sesame Street. It was pale yellow, small, with a wide girth and a lid. I had intended to store toys or other objects in it for the kids to access in a fun way. Timmy loved characters of all kinds from multiple popular children’s shows and movies. A particular favorite was Mickey Mouse.
One day, a Mickey Mouse hand puppet made its way into our midst and took up residence inside this toy pail. It was one, among many, of different stuffed animals, cars, etc. But over time, as the contents whittled down, Mickey Mouse became the lone resident within this echoey, tin cavern. And what began to take place, initiated by Timmy, was a self directed therapy session whenever he was feeling down or upset.
Timmy would go to the pail, lift the lid and take out Mickey. I would observe him interacting, as best he could, and expressing the reason(s) he was feeling sad, angry or upset; usually because he had to work and couldn’t play. Timmy was able to go to a place of calm in order to speak (words or gibberish) to his friend. This was comforting and revelatory. Mickey became a touchstone and more importantly, a trust companion, that allowed Timmy to communicate and deal with his emotions. This was his outlet and Mickey was his compadre.
Eventually I was invited to join the conversation. Timmy would call me over and I would put the hand puppet on and assume Mickey’s high pitched voice and talk to Timmy. It was fascinating how when I spoke through Mickey, Timmy would respond to directions that were a struggle if they came just from me. And when we didn’t have time to hang for long and Timmy wanted me to interact as Mickey, I would allow him to say “hello” and then I would, as Mickey, tell him that it was time for him to work or transition to another part of his schedule. Timmy would say, “Ok. Bye, Mickey,” and proceed with what was asked of him.
Now just to be clear, no strategy, not even a talking Mickey Mouse puppet, with ears of a therapist, is going to be 100% effective. However, it is interesting to consider that an inanimate puppet or stuffed animal might be an effective tool for a person with autism (or any young child) to manage his or her uncomfortable emotions. Maybe there’s a Mickey Mouse hand puppet-like therapist just waiting to be put to use in your home or classroom. Speaking through these objects is a wonderful way for your beautiful child to engage and delight in the self-soothing process of managing emotions.
Peace and Keep Rising