I had an autistic trumpet student whom we will call Joe. Joe frequently walked into his lesson in a foul mood, mumbling obscenities, and griping about hating trumpet lessons. He was in 6th grade and was the most difficult student I had had up to that point. Most of the time I coerced him to play for at least 20 minutes of the 30 minute lesson. I remember his utter disgust when he discovered that I didn’t have perfect pitch – this woman is teaching ME?? Autistic children can be very difficult to take when one is an extra sensitive neurotypical*.
One day Joe walked in screaming. His dad looked at me, shrugged his shoulders, and walked to the waiting room. “I hate (expletive) trumpet lessons! I (expletive) hate you! I want to kill you! I’m going to burn this building down! Don’t talk to me! I hate you!” This went on and on. -This dad expects a lesson from this??- I had no idea what to do.
It suddenly occurred to me to do what he said. Don’t talk to him. So I didn’t. After 10 minutes of ranting vehemently, he began to slow down. After 15 minutes he started looking at me and wondering what I was doing. After 20 minutes he finally asked, “Why aren’t you talking to me?” I said, “Because you told me not to.” A few more minutes went by and he said, “Ok. I will play now. What do you want me to do?” I was FLOORED! He had become a sweet, malleable person. We had a productive 10 minutes and never had another lesson that horrid again. There were times he would come in grumpy and I’d ask, “Do you need me to not talk to you for a bit?” He’d always say, “No, I’m ok.”
This scenario made me aware of how my emotions affect an autistic person. I didn’t just stop talking to Joe, I turned off my emotions. My autistic husband explains that any emotion causes confusion and overwhelm. That confusion leads to obsessively trying to figure out why they are confused. Then when more emotion is thrown in (whether positive or negative), it short circuits the brain, causing rage, stimming, meltdown, withdrawing, etc. In the situation with Joe, it was very difficult for me to pull my emotions inward, but I chose to find a “happy place” and leave that “room” for a while. This shut down the emotional feed to Joe and he was able to regain his non fight-or-flight brain.
Most of us think that our emotions ARE us, but it is a learnable skill to separate from our emotions. Like learning a musical instrument, it just takes time. If you would like to try this with your autistic loved one, but have no idea how to separate yourself from your emotions, contact us here or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Neurotypical: “a term coined in the autistic community as a label for people who are not on the autism spectrum.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neurotypical