I have a child on the autistic spectrum whose behavior can be strange and confusing for people who are not familiar with this disorder. Yet I enjoy having guests in my home both for Shabbos meals, and as sleepover guests. I don’t want to give up hosting others in my home because of my daughter’s diagnosis, yet I don’t know how to balance the desire to have guests with the reality of my daughter’s embarrassing and unpredictable emotional outbursts.
Dear SPD Mom,
In your daughter’s case, and the case with all spectrum disorders, your daughter’s biological age does not reflect her emotional age. Therefore, at an age when most kids will have outgrown this behavior, especially in the presence of others, she will still be exhibiting the emotional meltdowns characteristic of a much younger child. Furthermore, these meltdowns or emotional storms will last longer and be more intense than those of a child whose developmental age matches their biological age. They may last for hours, and be accompanied by self-injurious behaviors such as head banging, scratching herself, or destroying property.
Furthermore, it is conceivable that your guests’ presence in your home, especially the extended presence of sleepover guests, will trigger or further aggravate your daughter’s behavior.
Therefore, the question of whether to have guests, when, and how often, is a complicated one. The first question to ask yourself is are you ready to deal with your own emotional discomfort if your daughter acts out in front of your guests. Can you welcome guests into your home without running the risk of negative consequences for your own relationship with your daughter caused by any embarrassment her behavior may cause you? Your first obligation is to your daughter – your commitment as a parent precedes your obligation to host others. This is what is usually referred to in Jewish thought as “chesed begins at home.”
Only if you can answer yes to this question, then you are ready to move on to the practical question of how to handle the responses your guests will have to your daughter’s behavior.
Since they do not understand your daughter’s condition, they may be critical of your parenting, or respond to your daughter’s behavior in negative and hurtful ways which could cause her shame and anxiety.
You should prepare your daughter beforehand as best as possible for what to expect from your guests, such as how long they will be staying, and how to handle a situation where she feels emotionally overwhelmed. Perhaps the two of you can work out a signal which will allow her to let you know when things are becoming overwhelming, so you will be able to excuse yourself and take her to a quiet room where you can help her to relax and engage in calming activities. This may allow you to prevent an emotional meltdown.
You should also prepare a brief explanation for your guests so you are not in the uncomfortable position of coming up with an explanation on the spot if an outburst occurs. Perhaps a simple sentence such as “Shani is overwhelmed right now and unable to regulate her emotions properly,” or “Shani is experiencing an emotional overload that just needs to run its course,” will allow you to maintain your composure in the face of their confusion and disapproval.
Demonstrating that you understand the situation should prevent your guests from responding in negative ways caused by their own confusion and inability to understand the situation. If they cannot accept your explanation, and continue to probe, change the subject. If they continue to respond in hurtful ways, ask yourself whether these are the sort of guests that belong in your home, or whether another type of guest might be a more appropriate choice. For instance, regular and familiar guests may be less likely to trigger an outburst or respond in negative ways. Guests who have been in your home for a meal may trigger less anxiety for your daughter than unknown sleepover guests.
In any case, your situation is a complicated one, and you do not need to explain or justify your choices and your behavior to anyone besides yourself and the members of your own family.
Thanks for writing,
Tzippora Price, M.Sc.
Marital and family therapist,
Family systems therapist.
Tags: ask the therapist, autism spectrum, SPD, tzippora price