Wait a minute. What am I doing? This is a question I try to ask myself multiple times a day. I do it because I have made a decision to not float through my life without intent. I want to be present in my life. I want to actually experience it, the good and even the bad. I want to learn and not repeat mistakes. I want to actually be a part of the good things that happen, really being in it and really feeling the feels. This is a mindset known as mindfulness. Mindfulness is a practice in which you pay attention to yourself. You pay attention to your actions, thoughts and emotions. More importantly, in mindfulness, you pay attention without assigning judgement. You pay attention and accept the current situation, actions and emotions. Mindfulness requires that we do not assign labels like “right” or “wrong”, nor do we focus on rehashing the past or worrying about the future. We are present in the moment. Not on Facebook. Not reliving old pain. Not making grocery lists and to-do’s. It’s about not flying on auto-pilot through the day.
Being mindful has many good benefits. It is good for stress and anxiety. It has the power to boost immunity. It improves memory and attention. It can even help you combat weight issues. But more importantly, mindfulness enhances relationships. And when we are looking to improve our relationship with a person who has autism, it is a practice we can use to develop compassion, understanding and experience sharing.
In my RDI practice, I like to talk to parents about establishing presence with their child so that in turn, the child can be guided into being present. Many people with autism struggle with remaining engaged. Multiple factors play into this difficulty, including obstacles with dynamic thinking, rigidity, lack of communicative competency and sensory issues. I am not saying that people with autism cannot learn to become engaged and mindful within relationships. It is often a place that I am asking parents to guide their child. When you are participating with another person, there is an unspoken agreement that both of you will be present in body, attention, thoughts, actions and emotions. That is what a relationship is. It is reciprocity on many levels.
So how do we guide someone to be in relationship? My first suggestion is to become mindful with yourself. You cannot guide someone to do something you are not able to do yourself. Learn to observe and be present without judging yourself (“I can’t believe I just did that” “oh my gosh, I am so stupid” “I can’t ever get it right”). Pay attention to what you are doing as you are doing it. Pay attention to what you are thinking and the language you are allowing to speak to yourself. Pay attention to the thoughts you have about others, and try to let go of judgement (“oh, she is prettier than me.” “That guy is an idiot” “They obviously do not care”). If you can become good at it, you will be in a much better, less stressed out place and more available to guide your child.
My second suggestion is when interacting with your child, be aware that you have made an unspoken agreement to be with your child. Set aside that million other things, thoughts and feelings you have to be present with that child. That means no cell phone, no grocery list, no multi tasking. Your child deserves your full on attention and patience. Even if it is for 5 or 10 minutes, being actually present with your child is essential to your relationship.
If your child is unable to be present with you yet, your job is to observe. Watch what he is doing, don’t judge it. Quietly observe before imposing any sort of agenda or activity. Breathe, observe and bask in your presence with this wonderful child you have been given. Look at your child’s beauty, his thought process, his actions and his emotions. No rush.
Starting here creates the space, attitude and intent of a guiding relationship. It is not a waste of time. I promise.