I happen to be part of a very awesome, very unique family.
My husband has autism.
Both of my surviving children have autism.
And I am probably somewhere on the atypical autism spectrum.
Which means that all of the fun and challenges of living with someone with autism is multiplied by a factor of four.
But it also means that we have had a really unique perspective into how to understand our kids and how to help our kids along the way. And one of the biggest strategies we’ve learned to use with our kids is ‘joining’.
We found this idea buried in an otherwise not-so-fantastic book we read years ago, but the idea itself made sense to both of us immediately, and as soon as we started using it, we started seeing impacts for our kids as well.
And even more than that, I discovered that when I started to ‘join’ with those around me who were not autistic, it had just as much of an impact!
The way joining works is that you start by looking at a person’s behaviour. I’m going to use some autism experiences for the examples here, but I’m sure you can think of some challenging examples from your own life to follow along with.
Maybe it’s a child hiding under the table growling like an angry dog.
Maybe it’s a teenager who seems to pull out of everything good that’s going on in their life, with no obvious explanation.
Maybe it’s a family member who just keeps getting upset during family gatherings.
Regardless, you start by looking at this behaviour and asking yourself the question, “what would I have to be experiencing to respond like that?” (If you’re feeling like you’ve heard this before, you’re right – it’s a compassionately curious question!)
I might start to think that I’d have to be terrified to cower under something – maybe I’d have to be worried that we were going to have an earthquake and that I had to protect myself from falling debris.
Or I might start to think about how scared I would have to be of something to avoid doing the things I loved the most.
Or I might think that what was being said at the family gathering was touching on something bigger in my life for those off-hand comments to upset me so much.
In other words, I would have to be dealing with fear to end up responding like that. And we’ve already talked about the fact that the only way to deal with fear is with love.
And once we have that perspective, then, it’s only a simple step forward to joining.
Joining says to the child under the table, “it’s really scary out there isn’t it. Hiding’s a great idea when you’re scared, but sometimes it can be lonely to hide on your own. What if I came and hid under the table with you.”
Joining shows up with breakfast in bed for the teenager who’s been struggling to get up and going in the morning. Or invites them to come slump on the sofa and watch a favourite movie together when it notices that they’ve avoided a night out with friends again. It might even offer to make a blanket fort and hide inside with the teen, chatting about nothing big or scary, but simply making a safe place for them to remember that they’re loved.
Joining says to the family member at the next function when things start to escalate, “hey, I know that sometimes people don’t understand the impact of their words – wanna step outside and stretch our legs for a few minutes.”
Those are just a few examples of what joining might do. Joining might notice that someone is super excited about a topic, and then ask lots of questions about that person’s interest. (At least one person in this house has a special interest in astro physics, and I consequently know more about astro physics then this Arts major ever expected to know about!)
Joining might notice that someone is working hard on something and offer to lend a hand with the fiddly bits. (I’ve done a lot of dishes, peeled a lot of potatoes, pinned a lot of fabric and helped type out a lot of essays over the years!)
But what joining doesn’t do is try to fix.
Joining doesn’t assume the other person is a problem to be solved.
Joining doesn’t assume that there is a punishment to be given or discipline that needs enforced.
Joining doesn’t reprimand or condescend or even get exasperated (which is why I still find it very hard some days!)
And the reason is simple. Joining knows that the only solution to fear is love.
Being a problem other people have to solve doesn’t tend to make people feel too loved.
Punishment rarely makes people feel loved.
Reprimands or condescension or exasperation are unlikely to make people feel loved.
In my experience it is very rare for someone to want to behave badly.
In my experience, most people who are dealing with ‘behaviour’ issues wish that they had some way of controlling them – they wish that there was some other way to get what they needed – but they feel trapped and unable to respond the way they know they’re supposed to, or else they simply don’t know (or can’t remember) what’s supposed to come next.
So joining comes alongside.
It responds to fear with love.
It gives people the support and the encouragement to move forward.
It de-escalates the situation and allows the person the opportunity to feel like they have choices again, instead of simply feeling trapped and controlled.
Joining isn’t a quick fix – it will take time and intentionality. You will have to turn off your media, stop what you’re doing and focus entirely on the person in front of you. If you are parenting a child or children with autism, it will mean missing things you had wanted to get to, staying up late when you wanted an early night, interrupting family meals and rearranging your schedule more times than you can imagine.
But the impact of joining is huge – I have seen behaviours lessen, coping skills increase, imaginations take flight, responsibility develop and personalities blossom because people experienced themselves as valuable individuals through the process of joining.
Interested in learning more? Among other things, life coaches can help coach parents through challenging obstacles with their kids. If you’re struggling with the challenge of how to respond day-to-day with your children, I’d be happy to chat more.