By Brian R. King LCSW
This is the fourth of a ten part series I have decided to put together especially for you. I hope these lessons will serve as a road map of sorts on how to be on the Autism Spectrum and have a successful, happy life. So let’s get started . . .
Step 4: What Do I Want?
How many times have you heard someone on the spectrum complain about how much they don’t like the way things are going in their life? How often do you ask them, “Well what do you want instead?” Only to have them respond, “I don’t know.” This is one of the greatest challenges when parenting or working with a spectrumite. See if these interactions seem familiar as well.
I want people to accept me for who I am?
Who are you?
I don’t know.
I wish people would treat me better.
How would you like them to treat you instead?
I don’t know.
I wish I had friends.
Who do you want to be friends with?
I don’t know.
And the list goes on and on.
Parents ask all the time, “How do I motivate my child?” Teachers ask, “How do I get them to want to do their work?” When asked, “Well what do your children or students want? Guess what the answer is . . . “I DON’T KNOW.” In these scenarios both parents and teachers are more interested in compliance. They want the children to meet their needs and don’t stop to consider the child’s needs.
So if you as a parent or teacher don’t know, how can the child? In the meantime, you aren’t getting anywhere, you aren’t creating anything and you aren’t happy because instead of getting crystal clear on what you want, you settle for what the world gives you.
Think of it this way. You don’t have to do anything to grow weeds, they grow everywhere, without help from you. But if you want to grow a garden you need to get rid of the weeds and do what is necessary to grow the garden you want. Including pulling out the weeds.
So if you continue to sit in the place of “I don’t know” then the weeds of life will grow around you automatically until you decide what to do instead.
Life sucks because you allow the weeds to grow. Make sense?
Why Don’t You Know?
There are many reasons why spectrumites respond to questions with “I don’t know” a lot of the time.
1. Too Tired. I for one do it a lot when I’m tired. My son will ask me a question repeatedly and at that time I’m so tired it’s hard to think about his question because my brain is too tired to do the work.
At the end of a long school day parents ask their child, “How was your day?” and get “I don’t know.” Your child is exhausted and needs time to wind down, they’re likely too tired to answer.
However, if you ask that question when they’re feeling more alert and focused you’d likely get a very different answer.
2. Not Interested. Saying, “I don’t know” is also an effective way of getting rid of a conversation they don’t want to have. It is difficult to have an open ended conversation with someone when you don’t know the point or how long it’s going to last. Therefore, you protect yourself from the uncertainty by saying “I don’t know” so the conversation doesn’t occur.
The way to add more certainty for the spectrumite is to be concrete. For example, “I’d like to ask you a question about your day and then I’ll leave you alone.” That’s pretty darn clear wouldn’t you say?
3. Lousy Question. Too often the question you’re asking is too vague.
“How was your day?” starts an avalanche of thoughts the spectrumite now needs to sift through to give you an answer. It’s like trying to find your way through a snowstorm. “Did you learn anything interesting in science class today? is far more specific and easier to answer. If they answer “Yes” you ask, “What did you learn that was interesting?” If they answer “No” you can ask what they did learn.
4. Difficult to Consider. In many cases the question you’re asking requires them to look too far into the future. Since spectrumites see things right in front of them more clearly (forest versus the trees), seeing further out requires them to consider more variables. This can be very overwhelming because it requires them to both multitask and consider hypotheticals instead of facts. At best I can only plan a week at a time.
5. Isn’t An Option. Here’s the biggie. A spectrumite who is constantly being told what to do and who to be learns that what they want isn’t an option so they stop considering it. Instead they follow the lead of those who they’ve learned they’re responsible to make happy. READ THAT ONE MORE TIME PLEASE!
I work with clients who are always asking what they should do, what I think they should do and other variations. When I finally get past the “I don’t knows” it comes down to fearing they’ll making a decision that others will be unhappy with. They eventually learn to fear decision making.
So What Now?
It can be difficult to reverse the fear of decision making which is the most common challenge I experience when working with spectrumites. But let me give you a few ideas to get you started.
First, instead of judging or criticizing the decision, be curious about it. Ask, “Could you explain why you did it that way?” You may very well get, “I don’t know.” Especially if a person acted on impulse instead of thinking it through.
If the person becomes defensive it’s likely because they hear judgment in the question. So clarify, “I didn’t say anything was wrong with your decision, I’m just wondering why that?”
Next, Point out simple decisions the person makes that have a positive result. For a small child, something as simple as,
“Do you like your ice cream cone?”
“Are you glad you chose chocolate?”
“Sounds like you made a good decision then huh?
With my thirteen year old this is a common conversation. When he decides to handle his frustrations by talking back and slamming doors he looses privileges. When he decides to take a break to collect himself and then sit down with my wife and I to talk it out, he ends up feeling much better.
Since we have that comparison, when he begins the road to door slamming I can ask him, “Is what you’re about to do going to get you what you want?” I then wait 5-10 seconds for the question to sink in then add, “The decision is yours.”
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