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Through the Eyes of the Child

To truly understand a child on the spectrum, we must take the child’s perspective–by Kathy Dolbee

“A child’s grief is little, but then, so is the child.” Percy Bysshe Shelley

The above statement might seem obvious, but it makes clear that both perception and perspective play an important role in how a person views a specific situation or the world in general. I was once asked to look at a drawing of a top hat. At first glance the hat seemed taller than the brim was wide. In reality, however, both height and width were equal. That taught me that dimensions can easily be misjudged, even by “neurotypicals”.
It is just as easy for adults to misjudge the dimensions of a child’s stress unless they are able to take that child’s perspective—viewing the situation through the eyes and the thought processes of that particular child. The book Childstress cautions. “Adults should not judge troubles by their size, but by the size of the pain they produce.” That reminds me of the Fujita scale that measures the strength of a tornado—not by its wind velocity, but by the damage it does. Oh, how I wish that a psychologist would develop such a scale for the emotional storms weathered by children with autism and their families on any given day!
In many cases the proportions of a child’s pain are greater than parents or professionals realize. This was confirmed by a study in which parents were asked to rate their children’s emotional state. The majority replied that their child was “very happy.” Yet, when the kids were questioned separate from their parents, most described themselves as “unhappy” and even “miserable.” Children face fears that parents and others may often minimize.
Last year I had the opportunity to help facilitate a social skills group at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee. During one activity, each participant in the group received 5 color-coded, numbered paddles. Different social scenarios were read to the students who then rated the situation described (anywhere from a “1” which would mean no or little stress to “5” which equates to jumping off the cliffs of insanity). Something like, “You are visiting your grandmother’s house for dinner and are expected to hug relatives you have never met” or “You go to the library, intending to borrow a favorite book or video, but the library is closed because of a National Holiday.”
Each participant rated the situation and held up a paddle that indicated the level of stress that situation would trigger for them. The responses varied greatly. For some kids, every situation presented rated a 5. It was a lesson in perspective-taking for the kids to see that not everyone perceived challenging social situations in the same way.
In another, more scientific study, conducted by Dr. Kaoru Yamamoto, a group of children were asked to rate 20 life events on a seven-point stress scale. Then a group of adults rated those same events according to how they felt a child would rate them. The adults misjudged on 16 of the 20 items! “We all think we know our children,” concludes Dr. Yamamoto, “but all too often we don’t really see or hear, nor understand, what is really troubling them.
Since many kids with ASD deal with stress on a daily basis, be it from external or internal triggers, teaching them to recognize their rising stress level (self-monitoring) is an important first step toward self regulation.  Such a goal is often written into an IEP, but educators are often unsure of exactly how to make a goal like that measurable.
The Incredible 5- Point Scale” and its companion “When My Worries Get Too Big” are great tools to help parents, teachers and the students themselves, perceive the level of stress triggered by a specific situation, “visually quantifying” a child’s emotional response within a specific context. With that information, an individualized “calming sequence” can be created to teach the student how to manage stress in appropriate ways.

The Autism Bookstore has both of these books and many more that discuss behaviors, relaxation, perspective-taking, and many other aspects of understanding autism.

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