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Week in the life of a male foster carer 5th June – 11th June

Background

T has been with us for about 6 months. He is 10 years old and is diagnosed with ASD though it seems quite mild. Some of his symptoms that are attributed to ASD could also be just down to the fact that T is a 10 year old boy. In general he is a very happy lad but one who has moments of anxiety and has some problems dealing with his emotions. Because of his condition he does get fixated on things so he has a strong passion for cars and certain movies and TV programmes and at the moment he has a sometimes unhealthy obsession with Loom Bands (tiny little elastic bands that the kids make into bracelets).

I am married with three children, one at home, one at University and one living just down the road, and I am the main carer as my wife has a full time job as an Assistant Principal at a Sixth Form College.

Friday 05th June – Thursday 11th June

Have we moved to the next level?

A few weeks ago I wrote about the visit from the Autism specialist and how that had gone. She had come for the day to observe how we function as a family and to talk about strategies on how to manage T’s Autism. I have to admit that at the time it did not feel like we had got far enough and we were struggling with some of the ideas, particularly the ‘low arousal’ approach and the ‘no consequences for poor behaviour’ approach (she wanted us to focus on rewards as a positive action). We also had some handouts and reading material sent over but it had not told us enough so we had asked for the specialist to return while T was with Mum so that we could have an open and honest conversation and discuss some incidents that had happened, what we had done and what she would do differently. But during the 3 weeks between the visits we had noticed that there had been a large improvement in T’s responses and behaviour due to us using these new techniques.

And all that had happened between her first and second visit was that we had tried her low arousal approach anyway and found it did make a difference. To sum up, the low arousal approach means recognising when T is right up there emotionally (a 4 or 5 – see below) and to accept that at this point there is no gain in pushing for behavioural improvements. T, we were told, looks like a 10 year old, has the intelligence of a 10 year old, but emotionally is only 2. And this is his Autism. So what my wife and I had done between the visits was to constantly remind each other of this fact, HE IS ONLY 2, when we saw that T was emotionally too aroused to take in any information and so we had pulled back and allowed him to calm down before tackling the situation or not tackling it at all. If you know about the theory ‘A 5 can make me lose control’ then that is what we are using.

“This unique hands-on activity helps people who are highly anxious cope with their stress by systematising social and emotional information. Using this self-contained product, the person literally sorts cards describing highly stressful situations into colourful pockets designating stress levels, ranging from 1-5, as a first step in changing the way they think about and respond to emotions such as anxiety, sadness and anger.”
Amazon

So T has lived with us for 18 months now and in that time we have built up a good knowledge of his body language and spoken language so that we can now see where he is emotionally quite quickly. We have also learnt to predict when he could be on a higher level of stress, what could get him there, and worked out strategies in advance. We can see when he is at a 4 or 5 quite easily and if we use this number system then we now can tell that his general wellbeing and emotional state is commonly at a 3 so only a quick step away from a blow up and meltdown. This really helps. That is, of course, if we are not emotionally aroused ourselves, and so we have worked hard on that too. And by using this knowledge we have learnt when the best time to challenge his behaviour is. And that helps. And we can prepare for things coming too because we know they will be hard for him and so we can ‘attempt’ to prepare him. When he is very emotionally aroused and we challenge behaviour then all we are doing is ‘poking the bear’, pushing him when he is already at his limit, and there is only going to be one outcome from there. By stepping back we are giving him time to calm down and we were able to discuss the issue later (sometimes) when he is more receptive to listening. Originally we thought we would have to drop the incident completely and therefore not be teaching him how to manage himself but now we know that what we are doing is picking the best time to talk and not the immediate one. Of course this means that we have to stay very calm ourselves so that has become one of our new tasks. To help him we must stay calm ourselves, sometimes in the face of a lot of abuse and even physical attacks. Patience, patience, patience…

We were also worried about T taking advantage of us not pushing when his behaviour was not good but we needn’t have worried. When the specialist came back she spoke about the short term memory ability of T holding on to this knowledge and using this new found freedom against us, telling us that he would not because in that highly emotional state his processing ability is highly reduced and so he won’t know how to take advantage or fully remember the incident. This also helps because we know that boundaries are very important for all children so to know that we have kept the boundaries in place because he, in his highly emotional state, cannot link the two together, is very important.

And another thing we had to work out is that we were worried about having no consequences for poor behaviour until we realised that what we had been doing was taking away treats because he was being ‘naughty’ and so focusing on the negative. The specialist said focus on the positives and ignore the negatives but we could not see how we could do that. There have to be consequences don’t there? Well yes there does but what we can offer is positive consequences. So we already do that with some things without knowing. For example, if T has a good day at school then he is rewarded with time on the PlayStation; a positive reward. If he didn’t then nothing happened and we did not talk about it. But if T is rude to us or swears at us he loses his after-dinner treat. That is focused on the negative. And that’s what we need to change. So what we did is change the language to make it positive so instead of saying if you are rude to us you lose we are now saying if you are not rude to us then we will give you a treat after dinner. Focus on the positive. This has the same consequence but the language is about rewarding good behaviour and not punishing bad. Simple eh! Well, no, but it is a change in the right direction that’s for sure. We are still learning.

It is going to be a long, long journey, as I have said before, and we know that this feels like 2 steps forward but we also know that it can just as easily go 2 steps backwards. T has a very difficult task in front of him in managing his emotions and he will have that all his life but at least we feel at this moment that we are getting somewhere, moving somewhere, and helping him to help himself. One small bit at a time.