February 9, 2023, Cleveland Scene
By Alli Frazier, CEO of Frazier Behavioral Health and Autism Mom
Valentine’s Day is around the corner, which means this whole month, people are thinking about how to show love to the people who matter the most. There are many ways to do this and when there is a neurodiverse individual involved, showing how you care can look unique. As a clinician and mother to an adult son with autism, I will offer some tips and advice on how to show the neurodiverse individual in your life that you care for them.
Unique Ways of Showing and Receiving Love and Affection
Every person has preferences in how they show and receive love and affection. Neurodiverse people have these proclivities as well. Within my work as a BCBA, I have gotten to know a variety of behavior patterns of both verbal and nonverbal individuals. For example, a non-speaking person may show affection by approaching, standing close, or taking a person’s hand. Some individuals make eye contact or share a favorite toy or special interest to show affection. A verbal person may engage in conversation about something they are thinking about or interested in. And yet some people may engage in communication we expect, like saying “I love you” or asking about your day. Each person will behave in a way that is consistent with their own ability in regard to language skills or perspective-taking capability.
Neurodiverse individuals can also be unique in how they want to receive love and affection. The first step is for families to understand their neurodiverse family members’ preferences for giving and receiving affection. For a child with fluent speech, you can simply ask about their preferences. For someone with limited communication ability, you may find that a social story and picture cards can help facilitate these inquiries. Understanding what makes someone comfortable can be especially challenging to figure out when they do not have the language skills to communicate their preferences with words. Finding what they are comfortable with is a matter of watching their behavior closely and interpreting their responses. If challenging behavior shows up consistently with certain types of affection, you can likely interpret that you need to try a different approach. Oftentimes the communication partner gives up when a neurodiverse person is resistant, but I encourage you to think outside the box and try different strategies until you find ways to communicate that both parties are comfortable with. If you need suggestions, a psychologist, behavior therapist, or speech-language pathologist may be able to help.
Engage with Their Special Interest(s)
When a neurodiverse loved one has a special interest, it can be a significant part of their life, which means it can be a big part of yours too. These special interests can serve as a way for a person to express themselves and share what they are passionate about. Special interests can range from focused and narrowed topics to collecting items or even repeating specific behaviors or songs. We have a choice about how we react to the expression of these special interests. We can choose to be annoyed when they become repetitive, or we can choose to engage and connect while setting limits. One way to connect is by getting involved in physical or hands-on activities like walking together, visiting a special interest focal point, like a museum, or reading up on the topic so you can talk about the special interest with your loved one.
However, it can also be important to balance the amount of time spent on the special interest and set healthy boundaries. Establishing that there are times that are off limits, as well as times when it is good to engage in special interests is an appropriate balance. On and off-limits times can be communicated through visuals or language. For individuals with cognitive impairments, this can be as simple as using green and red signals.
Keep perspective. There can be value in encouraging a special interest because, later in life, this interest could develop into a job, an invention, or even an exciting new discovery! And even when that is not likely, having personal interests is an important part of life satisfaction.
Gift Tips to Show You Care
On Valentine’s Day, an obvious gift idea is chocolate. My family loves chocolate, and it is always a welcome gift, but chocolate or candy does not fit into every diet or preference. If you want to give a Valentine’s gift, get creative and give a sensory item. Consider the gift of thoughtful words of encouragement. Try not to measure your neurodiverse child’s accomplishments with a typical standard, but instead recognize ways they are persevering and working hard by taking time to acknowledge it in a genuine way.
Why Time Together Means the Most
Often the most important gift you can give to any child, including those that are neurodiverse is simply undivided attention. Quality time together is not just the minutes in the same room but the shared experience that is meaningful to both people. Planning and preparation can help make this time more successful. Ask or extrapolate what your child would enjoy and think about what you, as a parent, would also enjoy. Compare lists and make a plan of shared or special interests. Whatever you pick, be as fully focused on the present moment as you can be. The plans do not need to be elaborate; simply watching a movie together, building a Lego kit, playing a video game, cooking, or getting takeout from a favorite restaurant and eating together is enough to show you care. Years from now, your children will probably not remember that box of chocolates you gave them or that piece of jewelry. What they will remember, however, is spending time with them where you mentally turned off all the stressors of the day and physically turned off all the distractions like cell phones. You might be amazed by the reward you experience simply by spending time to truly connect with your neurodiverse child and appreciate all the gifts they bring to the table.
Continue to Adapt with Your Child
The way your neurodiverse child gives and receives love will change as they develop and grow. Adolescence, in particular, is a time when interests and preferences often change – and sometimes rapidly. Adolescents can quickly go from loving physical contact and close interactions to wanting more alone time and less physical touch. Roll with the punches. If this happens, it does not mean that they do not want your attention or love anymore, it just means that the way they receive and respond to it is changing. In neurodiverse individuals with speech, it is good to be direct and ask them what they like and update that regularly. In children and adolescents without fluent speech, it may require some trial and error and close monitoring of their responses. Closely monitor your child’s reactions and behaviors because the way they are behaving speaks volumes about the type of love they need at any given moment. With patience and commitment, you can find what works and continue to grow a close, loving relationship.
Are you interested in yourself, your family, your child, or someone you know receiving evidence-based, individualized therapy? Contact Alli Frazier’s company Frazier Behavioral Health, a behavioral health clinic that focuses on the person and helps children and adults with behavioral, social, communication, and sensory issues at FrazierBH.com/Scene. Frazier Behavioral Health also recently received Behavioral Health Center of Excellence accreditation.
Can’t get enough of Ask Alli? Check out previous Ask Alli segments on the Cleveland Scene website by clicking here and watch the most recent Ask Alli TV segment at Facebook.com/FrazierBehavioralHealth.