Sunday, March 24, 2019

Over-Parenting kids on the Autism Spectrum


I've been watching a TV series on Netflix recently called Atypical. It's about Sam, a young man with autism and the way in which his family, school, work and relationships interact and grow.  It's a very good series and I'd highly recommend it.  I expect that I'll review it at some point. 

Like all media about autism, it gets a few things wrong and exaggerates others. That's okay. It's fiction and it's taking a little poetic licence. At the same time though, it raises a lot of interesting points.

One of the most interesting aspects of the show is the behaviour of Sam's mother, played brilliantly by Jennifer Jason Leigh. It shows an over-parenting (and in this case, over-mothering) instinct that is all too familiar with kids on the spectrum.

In this post, I want to look at a how over-parenting happens and why it's harmful.


What is Over-Parenting?

Over-parenting tends to happen much more frequently on the mother's side of parenting but that's probably because mothers are usually the primary caregivers of children.  Over-mothering is most common but it's certainly possible to over-father as well.

Over-parenting may feel a bit like helicopter parenting but it's far more invasive. Helicopter parenting is about wanting to keep an eye on your children at all times. Over-parenting on the autism spectrum is about pushing your children away from the already established "boundaries".

It's more pervasive, more needy and more damaging. 

For example; At a high school dance, a helicopter parent will want to escort their child to and from the dance hall. They may even want to stay and keep an eye on things while the dance is in progress. This in itself is stifling.

An over-parenting autism parent on the other hand will want to intervene to make sure that no foods are touching on their child's play when the meal is served. They may try to completely change the way the dance works to accommodate the specific needs of their child or they may simply say that their child won't go (without giving them an opportunity to say yes).

While these are signs of great care and protection, they're also very harmful to your child's development.  

Why Boundaries Need to be Pushed

Autism comes with so many boundaries. There are sensory boundaries of sound, texture, taste, smell and sight. There are boundaries set by arbitrary fears, by rules and by routines. All of these boundaries make life on the spectrum very difficult indeed.

We all start our parenting journeys as novices but end up as experts skilled in our children's abilities and boundaries. We become predictors of their reactions, their meltdowns and their sensory difficulties.


We know for instance, to remove their plate the instant that someone, for example a visitor, touches some of their food. We  know instinctively that they won't want to go to a crowded or loud place and we're experts at manipulating guests to reduce the likelihood that our children will get an unexpected hug, kiss or pat on the back.

The problem is that without constantly pushing these boundaries, they'll become set in stone and they'll reduce the ability of our children to cope without modifications. 

It's important to teach your kids to continually try to push their own boundaries. If a place is noisy, they should give it a go with noise cancelling headphones. If there's a high probability of skin contact, they should try wearing clothes with long sleeves. If you're serving a meal, particularly if it's a favourite, you should encourage them to try foods which have been in contact.

Tastes change as you get older but if you limit your young adult to only the tastes that they liked as a child, you'll deprive them of the opportunity to grow and change.

If your child only eats chicken nuggets, you need to every now and then contrive a situation in which they have to choose something else. Pushing boundaries is the only way you'll expand their world. 


Why Failure is just as important as Success

We place a whole lot of emphasis on success and it's very important to celebrate our successes; the times that our kids on the spectrum manage to avoid a meltdown, the times where they spend time with a visitor without a diatribe about their special interests, the times when they manage to eat foods of unusual flavour or texture.

Sometimes it feels that success is so elusive for our kids on the spectrum that we need to celebrate every little achievement as if it's a major victory. It's easy to forget how much of a part failure plays in success. 

Every success is usually preceded by multiple failures, even if they're years apart. Every failure is a learning opportunity, a chance for you and your child to discuss what went wrong, why things fell apart, what the alternatives were and how things might still be salvaged.

Success is where we celebrate but failure is where we learn. 

Over-Parenting is essentially "planning for failure". People who over-parent their children on the spectrum remove the potential for failure before it happens without realising that they're also removing the opportunity for your child to learn.

It's something that starts when they're young. We know that our kids are going to knock our favourite vases or statuettes over so we lock them up, out of sight. We know that their cup of juice will be spilled on the table, so we invest in an underlay or change their cup to a sippy cup or juicebox with a straw.

We know that their friends will overwhelm them so we take great pains to only invite them over for play dates one at a time. As our kids get older, we know that they can't play happily in groups so we simply decline birthday invitations to avoid meltdowns.  Eventually, one day, the invitations stop coming and we wonder why our kids can't seem to make friends.

By planning to remove failure from our kids lives, we stop the learning process and reduce their chances of success. 


Why Parents Need to let go for their own Sake

There are a lot of articles out there which talk about the 80% divorce rate when there are children on the autism spectrum. I'd recommend that you don't pay too much attention to these articles or these statistics. Your marriage isn't under the control of your children. It's entirely up to the adults to find their way through and too often these articles place blame where they shouldn't.

Marriages fail for a wide variety of reasons but they rarely fail when couples are devoted to keeping each other as priority number one.

This is where the link to over-parenting comes in. Sometimes parents can become so focused on their children on the spectrum that they build their whole world around them. They devote all of their time to their children and very little to their own needs or to those of their partners.


When one or both partners in a relationship feel under appreciated or under-needed, it makes sense that they'll respond to anyone else who offers those qualities. Marriages often break up not because couples dislike each other but because they don't make time for each other.

Children on the spectrum crave order and structure. If your focus on satisfying their immediate needs costs you your marriage, then you're not considering their long-term needs. Unless the relationship is violent, angry or devoid of love, it's usually in your child's best interests to stay together. 

As a parent, you always have to remember that at some point, you won't be as necessary for your child as you were in the past. At some point, in most relationships, you and your partner will be alone when your kids have departed. As your kids get older, you need to be planning for this. You need to make sure that you and your partner are more focused on each-other than on the kids.

Where to from here?

There's no doubt about it. All of us over-parent in one form or another. Even entirely neurotypical families suffer from over-parenting. From the fathers who are too terrified to let their daughters date, to the mothers who would rather keep their kids at home, for their own company, than let them go to school.

Our fears and overprotective instincts towards our children on the spectrum lead autism parents particularly towards over-parenting and put our relationships and our children's futures at risk.

Why not take some time to think about how you could make your child a little more independent and how you and your partner can find a little more quality time together. Your lives will be all the richer for it. 

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Audio Book Review: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time


The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon
Unabridged AudioBook Read by Jeff Woodman 

I used to be able to read quite a lot of books but these days, I find myself to be quite "time-poor" and I've switched to audio books instead. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time has been on my "list of books I want to read for years".  I finally got around to "reading" it last week.

Autism in the Book

While autism is never actually mentioned in the book, the protagonist, fifteen year old Christopher Boone is very clearly on the spectrum. A lot of people have said that he has Asperger's syndrome but it's hard to tell. Little is revealed about Christopher's very early life and while he's clearly "Asperger's" by the time we meet him, there's more than a few lower functioning traits in his behaviour too.

The author, Mark Haddon, has said on a number of occasions that he did little to no research on autism because it's not really intended to be a book on autism.  This is very clear from his character, Christopher and in the behaviour of other characters around him.

Christopher is a fifteen year old from the UK who among other things, loves trains (timetables) and yet he doesn't know that the words tube and underground refer to the trains of London.  He's brilliant at complex mathematics puzzles and able to talk to strangers when interviewing them but is unable to tell his fellow passenger that he needs to use a toilet on a train.

These things simply don't add up. 

The story is interesting and well told but it's not a book about autism. Christopher is just a two-dimensional autism-like character (actually a caricature) and from a certain point of view, this could be considered quite offensive.

Suitability 

While the phraseology in the book is quite simple, it's not a book for the very young as it has some very adult themes and strong language.

As I mentioned earlier, it's also a book which treats the subject of autism, albeit undisclosed, in an offensive manner.

Readability and Story

In terms of the actual story, "the curious incident of the dog in the night time" is quite a good read.  It takes a while for the story to start to unfold but when it does, it holds your interest. Christopher's monologues are sometimes interesting but also border on rants at times.

The mystery itself isn't all that difficult to figure out and most people will guess it well before the revelation. The point of interest lies in watching the main character, Christopher, trying to solve the mystery while satisfying all of his own needs and phobias.

Mark Haddon's attempts to explain "autistic behaviours" from the inside are well-intentioned and sometimes touch upon truths but most of the time they feel out of place. The interactions between other characters feel fairly genuine however and while the book never quite manages to be funny, it raises a smile every now and then.

The Audio Book

The AudioBook that I listened to was read by Jeff Woodman, an accomplished narrator with several other books under his belt. He was very clear and easy to listen to and for the most part his vocal inflections from one character to another made the book much more enjoyable than it might have been in print.

There are no special effects or music but in this book they're not really a requirement. The audio recording lasts for about 6 hours.

Recommendations

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon is an interesting read which will provide you with a short, fun low-key detective story with some interesting and colourful characters. It may tell you a lot about autism but you'll find it hard to separate the truth from fiction, so it can't be relied upon as a source of truth.

Remember; if you've met one person on the spectrum.... you've met ONE person on the spectrum.  

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon is available in most bookshops and online as a book; including Goodreads, Amazon and Google Play.  Amazon also has it as a Kindle book or an Audio Book.

You can also get the Audio Book on AudioBooks.com or Kobo.  The print book is available on the Apple store but the Apple audio book appears to be read by someone else. There's also a play version of the book around, so make sure that the author actually is Mark Haddon.

Honesty Clause

Nobody provided me with this book for review. I had to get it myself -- so no influences there at all.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Helping your kids on the Spectrum to find Employment - Part 3

In part 1 of this series, I covered how to make the most of your final school years in order to gear yourself up towards work.  In part 2, I looked at developing your CV, and marketing yourself towards jobs. In part 3, I want to look at the interview process, whether or not you should disclose your autism diagnosis and what other options exist to help kids on the spectrum find employment.

The Interview Process

If you keep applying for jobs, eventually you'll get an interview. If you're applying and not getting any nibbles at all, you need to talk to some new people (people outside of your immediate family). If possible, talk to people in similar jobs to those for which you're applying. They'll help you tweak your resume to get noticed.

A little preparation can take a lot of the discomfort out of an interview.

Preparation

If you're applying for an office job, you'll need to do a lot more preparation than you would for a trade position. Here's a few things that you need to do well ahead of time in preparation for an office job interview;


  • Re-read the job advertisement several times, highlighting key phrases (like "works without supervision" or "attention to detail". These phrases give you key insights into what the prospective employer sees as important. You'll want to mention them during the interview. Specifically, you'll want to be able to mention examples from your life where you've needed to demonstrate these particular skills.
  • Work out transport. If you're taking public transport, make sure that you can arrive in the area (not at the interview) at least 30 minutes earlier. You'll want to be 5-10 minutes early for the interview but you'll want to appear casual, unflustered and certainly not as if you've been running to meet a deadline.  If the interview is in a busy area, like a city, you can safely plan to arrive there an hour early as there will be plenty for you to do beforehand.
  • Work through possible interview questions with your family -- or even better, with people you don't know as well. After all, you'll need to answer to strangers. You'll find lots of sites on the internet which go over the most common interview questions.
  • Research the company you're applying to work with. In particular, make sure that you've looked at their website and that you can say what they do. If you can name one of their products or mention an award that they've won, that's even better. You might not need that information but it helps to know. If they have an annual review on their site, it's a great resource as it will often give you an idea of their achievements, direction and corporate structure. In smaller companies, knowing who the CEO is can help -- if you find them on the Annual review, check twitter to see if they are tweeting as this will give you an insight into their interests.
  • Practice shaking hands with your family. You'll need to feel comfortable with the right hand. If you have have trouble remembering which hand, wear a watch and then simply remember if you're shaking with your "watch hand" or not. There's a lot of rules for hand shaking and many people get it wrong. Watch some YouTube videos on the process and practice for both genders.
  • Pick out your clothes carefully. They should match the general requirements of the job, meaning that for a trade job, you should turn up in sensible shoes, jeans and a reasonably nice shirt. For an office job, you'll want a shirt and jacket with neat pants and shiny shoes. You may also need a tie. When you're selecting your outfit, get someone else's opinion to make sure that it looks good on you. You'll also need to make sure that you feel comfortable because interviews are sensory hell enough without the addition of scratchy, uncomfortable clothes. If you're buying new clothes, you'll need to try them on first because you might want to remove the tags.
  • Check your hair and if you need to, get a haircut. It needs to be neat and not oily. 

The more preparation you put into an interview, the better your chances of doing well.

On the Day

If you can, eat in your pyjamas, not your interview attire and be sure to brush your teeth afterwards -- maybe even use some mouthwash for extra fresh breath. Avoid smelly foods like garlic, sardines etc.

Get dressed and make sure that you put deodorant on and brush your hair. Check your shoes to make sure that they're shiny and get someone else in your family to look over you carefully.

Before leaving the house, do a very careful check of everything. Make sure that you have your Resume/CV and portfolio folder. Make sure that you have the address of the place you're going to and the name of the person you're supposed to see. If you can pack your bag the night before this is much better.

Make sure that you have money for public transport, plus a little for emergencies. You'd be surprised how often an emergency, like a sudden downpour or a broken shoelace, can occur on interview day. 

The key is to relax as much as you can, leave yourself as much time as possible and have enough money to problem-solve on the run. 

Sudden downpours can be "opportunities" as other candidates might not turn up, giving you extra interview time,
-- or for a laugh you can use it as an example of how you handled a difficult situation. 

Once you arrive at the approximate destination, make sure that you check yourself carefully in the mirror just before your interview. Don't use the toilet at your prospective workplace. If you can't find a public toilet, consider catching an elevator to a different floor or walking into a hotel -- they often have toilets on the ground floor.

Spend time washing your hands carefully with soap. Remember it's about the smell of soap as much as it is about being clean. Look carefully at your skin, particularly at your mouth and make sure that there's no food there.  Many people on the spectrum don't feel food on their faces, so it's important to spare yourself the embarrassment. Check to make sure that your clothes are neat and tucked in.

Try to be as calm as you can. If you need to listen to a little music or close your eyes, do this ... but not while you're waiting at your prospective workplace.

Dealing with People

When you go into an interview, you need to be prepared for a lot of contact, which for people on the spectrum can be really difficult. To give yourself the very best chance, make sure that you have as much quiet/disconnected time as possible in the lead up to the interview -- even if it means that you need to sit in a park or in the toilet to get away from people.

You'll be expected to give a lot of eye contact, so if you find this is too difficult, look at people's mouths or hair. Try not to look behind them because people notice that and definitely try not to look below the mouth as people, particularly females, will find this offensive. Interviews today often consist of several people so be prepared to have to deal with two or three people at once.

If you're lucky, the interviewers will give you their business cards. If that happens, put them on the table in front of you in positions which vaguely correspond to the positions in which they're sitting (try not to make this too obvious). Having the cards in this position means that you can easily glance down if you forget someone's name.

Sometimes interview panels seem to be set up to make you fail.
Oppression can indicate toxic company culture. Some jobs aren't worth the work. 
Use your portfolio well. It's a great distraction tool. If someone asks you about "a time when you handled a difficult situation", talk about it for a while and then (hopefully) you'll have something in your portfolio that backs this up, even if it's just a page with a little more detail on it. Open the portfolio and put it in front of the interviewer. They may take it, or they might not. That's okay. If they do take it however, that's one less set of eyes on you and it means that you can devote more time to another interviewer for a short while.

When the interview is over, be sure to thank the people for considering you and after perhaps a day or so, send them a follow-up email just to say thanks and to say how excited you are for the opportunity. Sometimes that follow up is enough to remind them of how good you were. 

Disclosing Autism

Unless you're going for a job where the employer is fully aware of your autism, or you feel that you're likely to experience frequent sensory issues in the job, it's best not to disclose at the time of the interview.

It's usually better not to talk about your diagnosis for the entire first year of the job. Give them a chance to accept you for who you are first. 

Alternative Sources of Work

If you still can't find work, you can benefit from talking to careers advisors who can look at your goals and achievements and advise you whether or not the jobs you're seeking are within reach -- and where you should start. 

There are also a lot of autism-related organisations who can help; 

You might also want to look at the options available from companies who hire people with autism

I agree that it feels a little offensive to have to seek work in places who hire for these reasons but if it gets you a FIRST job, you can always move onto another place once you have a bit more experience. 

You don't necessarily have to tell your next employer that the first job was via an autism agency -- and if you get on well with your references, you can ask them not to mention it. 

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Helping your kids on the Spectrum to find Employment - Part 2


In my last post, I talked about how important it is to get your kids on the spectrum into longer-term work experience, how to make the most of their last year of schooling and how foster independence. I also mentioned how important it is to ensure that you choose to work in an area that aligns with your special interest. 

In this post, I want to look at finding, landing and keeping a job. Most of the advice here applies to anyone, however I've tried to take into account some of the difficulties that people on the spectrum face. 

Finding Jobs

These days, finding a job can be quite difficult especially considering the unemployment rate and the fact that so many people have multiple degrees. People on the spectrum are quite often "under-employed", meaning that they're in jobs where their skills are under-utilised. They're also less likely to have a degree than their non-autistic peers even though they certainly have the ability to get one. One of many issues here is that kids with autism find university life too big a change to adjust to.

Getting around the Problem of Over-Qualification

Over-qualification has turned job hunting into an "employer's market" where too many prospective employees are fighting for too few jobs. This puts employers into a position where they can "raise the bar" and decide to employ someone with a masters degree for a job which really needs no formal qualifications.

The best way to get around this issue is to "beat it on experience", which means, to go straight from school into a low-paying job in the correct field and work your way up using experience and short bursts of education. 


The way this works is that people who leave school to pursue college degrees will usually lose 4-6 years just trying to get their degree completed. If they pursue a masters or doctorate, the time is even longer. If they do any part time work, it's most likely to be in a fast-food outlet or somewhere else unrelated to their intended final study. Additionally, unless they live in a country where university is free, they're likely to emerge with crippling amounts of education debt.

If you leave school and go directly into a job which is in some way related to your field of interest, you'll already have four years of work experience over these graduates. Additionally, you won't have education debt.  If you find the right employers, they may send you to do part-time study or they may send you on courses and pay for your further education.

Obviously a degree really is required for some jobs such as nursing, but it's acceptable to get an entry level position in a hospital or surgery with the aim of studying part time.

Sometimes doing a few relevant short courses is much better than doing a general degree and you'll find that after about a decade in the workforce, many employers are more interested in your experience and capabilities than your degree. 

Being Attractive to Jobs

In order to get a job, you need to ensure that you're attractive to prospective employers. This means that from the get-go, you need to be marketing yourself.

The Resume or CV

Your resume or CV is usually the first thing that a prospective employer will see.  It needs to be eye-catching and leap out from the rest. In the old days, when you needed to send in printed resumes, this was easy. All you needed to do was use better quality paper, print in colour and of course, have a decent resume. Employers would be reluctant to throw out an application that looked very professional, even if it didn't tick all of their requirement boxes.

These days however, resumes are generally electronic and while they may be printed out, they're often just read on screen. If your resume doesn't contain decent headings and bullet points and if it doesn't convey the right message in the first quarter of page 1, it's certain to be ignored.

You'll find some good tips on resume writing here.

If you're applying for a hands-on job like metalworking or carpentry, you'll want a resume that is quite different from someone who wants to work in the computer industry. You'll need to tailor your resume carefully towards the type of jobs you're applying for.

There are plenty of websites out there which can give you great tips on resumes.



The most important but non-obvious things in my opinion are;

  • Make sure that other people have looked over your resume (they'll want to check for spelling, date inaccuracies and things that just don't add value to the jobs you're applying for).
  • If you're struggling to write a resume, seek help. Don't do it by yourself. You can pay someone to help but if you ask around friends - even if you ask friends on Facebook, you'll find that many people will be only too happy to help. If you get through to a job agency, don't be afraid to ask them to scribble over your resume and highlight things that they think you could do better.
  • Include as much relevant experience as possible. If you don't have work experience, then use things from your real life. For example, if you're applying for construction, mention helping a neighbour with a retaining wall or building a barbecue.  If you're looking at IT, talk about installing operating systems and helping friends and relatives.  Build your hobbies up as experience.
  • When talking about past work, don't simply write the job title. Make a short list of some of your achievements in the role or some of your regular duties -- and make sure it sounds impressive.
  • Make sure that your name & contact number is on the header or footer of EVERY page of your resume in case it gets lost and the employer only has one page to go on. 


The Portfolio

Everyone should have a job portfolio regardless of the job you're going for. You won't always need to get it out but you need to take it to every interview just in case.  Your portfolio should be a "display book" and it should include extra copies of the main documents behind the "originals" just in case your interviewer asks for them.
The portfolio should start with a title page, then lead into your resume. You might want to have more detailed breakdowns of your past experience on subsequent pages.

You should have a title page for qualifications and follow this up with a selection of pages that include various certificates, not all of which need to be entirely relevant -- but keep the most relevant to the front.

The third section, again with a title page, should be experience. It should contain examples of your work. Until you have a job, these will probably be examples from your school years.

If you're going for hands-on jobs like metalworking or carpentry, then your experience section should include photos of your work, ideally with you in the photos to help prove that it is your work. If you're following a career in computing, you might want to include screens of applications or web sites that you've developed in your spare time. You might include reports or documentation, even if these are just things you created for school projects or work experience.

You'll want to update your resume regularly, especially in the early years of employment as experience and qualifications change quickly. 

LinkedIn

While many people consider LinkedIn to be the "boring cousin of Facebook", it's an essential business tool, particularly if you're seeking office-bound employment. You'll need to create a profile for yourself on LinkedIn and unless you're pursuing a career in comedy, it needs to be professional.

To do this, you'll need to fill out your profile carefully and think about the questions that are asked.


When it comes to photos, there are two important ones on LinkedIn;

  • Your profile picture should be a square (it displays round but it's a square graphic).  It should start from about half a handspan from the top of your head to about a handspan below the bottom of your neck.  The image size can be anywhere between 400 x 400 pixels and (up to 20,000).  I'd recommend about 800 x 800. It's probably good to smile but it's not okay to grin like a chimpanzee.

    Your visible attire should reflect the level of professionalism to which you aspire. If you're looking to get into business, you'd probably be best off wearing a business shirt. If you're going into a trade, then a trade shirt or even a high-vis vest can sometimes send the right message.

    You don't want your background to appear too cluttered but I personally like to send a message with mine (so it has the Sydney harbour bridge in it).  It reinforces the message about my location. 


  • The background of linkedIn should also be filled in.  It's best, for copyright reasons, if you can use a photo that you've taken yourself. Panoramas are excellent for this and it's easy to take panoramas on most modern phones. The current recommended size of a LinkedIn background image is 1584 wide by 396 pixels high.

    It's best not to make your background image too detailed, so landscapes and patterns work particularly well. If you can't manage a panorama of your own, you can search google for ones which aren't copyrighted.  You'll also find that tools like Sproutsocial can help you resize images to work with the various social media platforms if you're not good with graphics. 

One more thing about linked in. You need to be a little active. This is particularly applicable to office jobs. You need to join a few groups which align with your interests and you need to start reading an "liking" other people's posts.

If you feel that you can make a positive contribution, then you should feel free to comment but avoid insulting people or telling them that they're wrong. Facebook is for picking fights. Your behaviour on LinkedIn needs to remain professional. 

Applying for Jobs

Once your resume and linkedIn profiles are working, you'll need to join some job sites and fill out a profile (and often a resume) there. Luckily, it's much easier the second time around and you can often copy and paste (or simply upload). Make sure that you include your linkedIn URL.

When applying for a job, try to send a note with your resume to indicate why you think you are particularly suitable for the role. Remember that the person handling job applications is probably reading a hundred of these per day, so your job is to make them want to meet you. 

Don't worry if you don't get any nibbles at first, sometimes you have to apply for about ten jobs before you get a response.  If you still aren't getting responses after a couple of weeks, you'll need to get someone to look over your resume, profile and application letters.

You should also be aware that many jobs these days are not actual jobs but are employment agencies. These aren't all bad and many will happily work hard for you  so it's still worthwhile going through the application process with them.

Often agencies will give you temporary work to start with, to see what kind of a worker you are. This can be a good thing and it all goes towards experience that you can include in your resume. 

Next Time

I had expected this to be a two part series but unfortunately the topic is just a little too big.  Next time I want to talk about the interview process, whether or not you should disclose your diagnosis and other options for employment via dedicated autism agencies.