Happiness is hard to achieve. For anyone. We are all striving, often unsuccessfully, for a happy life. Most of the strategies for happiness are universal. Autism however seems to make it that much harder. To make it clear though it is not the autism itself that is the problem.
Some of the problem is the ‘other stuff’ that often accompanies autism – ‘stuff’ like anxiety, depression, sensory issues and epilepsy. Anyone that suffers from any of these conditions, whether or not they are autistic, may find it hard to be happy. Some of it is the way society will view people on the spectrum. The bullying. The misunderstanding.
There are things you can do to help with this. But it is not just up to you.
So right now at the start of an article about making kids happy, I will say one thing. You cannot make your child lead a happy life. It is not just up to you.
You can help them. You can concentrate on making this particular hour happy. Or you can concentrate on a particular skill that you know they will need for happiness in the future. But there is nothing you can do that will guarantee their future happiness. Whether or not they have special needs. So do not put that pressure on yourself.
Part of your happiness, anyone’s happiness, is fixed. We all have a natural happiness equilibrium that we return to. Even after suffering severe trauma, victims will return to their equilibrium within six months. Or after winning the lottery. Human beings are that resilient.
Some people, are happy people. I am a happy person. It doesn’t mean I am always grinning like an idiot or I have no emotions. But I just tend to be optimistic. I don’t work for it. It’s there.
Other people are not as happy. They may suffer from anxiety, depression, or just naturally have a lower ‘equilibrium’ point. They will need more support but deserve happiness just as much as people like me, who have it given to them on a platter.
Luckily for us Michael takes after me. He is a naturally happy little boy. He has all the sensory challenges that often accompany autism. But he is still usually his happy, cheeky self. He loves life, he loves the people in it, and he knows that he is loved by them.
I have accepted that his long-term outcomes are not only up to me. His happiness depends on a lot of factors beyond my control. What kinds of kids he meets. How he responds to therapy. What friends he makes, if any. And of course, like with any kid, the decisions he makes along the way.
I can however decide what to pursue right now. How happy he is today is, partially, up to me. These are some strategies my husband and I have followed that have worked well for us in our grand project of Keeping Prince Michael Happy:
Step One: Make Yourself Happy Too
The most important thing, before even guaranteeing Michael’s happiness, is for you as a carer to look after your own happiness. I know I repeat this theme more often than a pop song repeats its chorus. I have written a blog post about why carers need to look after themselves first. Put yourself first.
To keep Michael happy, I have to be on the ball. All the time. I have to be bubbly, loving, and have the patience of a Buddhist monk. Like many other children on the spectrum, he has trouble communicating his needs. I have to understand why he’s crying. I have to make sure he’s fed, and wearing clothes. Just changing his nappy will sometimes involve a meltdown the size of Brazil (and that’s just by me!).
It may come as a surprise to society, but I did not stop being human when I became a special needs parent. I did not gain super powers. This level of patience requires hard work. And rest.
To be clear, Michael and I have a fantastic time together. Playing with him is intense. It is wonderful. But it is exhausting. There is no way I could keep up the super parenting without support.
I have learned to ask for help, if it’s there. I have learned that it is ok to lie down and watch a stupid show while someone else is with him. Or to order dinner. In order to do my job well, I need to be rested and happy.
Step Two: Fix the Sleep
Yes, I know, easier said than done. I haven’t done this myself yet, which just proves the best thing to do with good advice is to pass it on to someone else.
In children with autism, sleep issues are very common. I have read that as many as 80% will have these problems.
Some are medical and can be fixed. For example, since we started giving Michael melatonin he has slept through the night very often. He calms down easily in the evening and falls asleep by himself. We have an ironclad bedtime routine and rarely go out in the evenings.
I change his bedding every few days to help with his allergies. We set up his sleeping environment very carefully. He has black cardboard on his windows as well as blinds so the sun doesn’t wake him in the morning. At the same time we leave the door slightly open, since he is afraid of the dark. We have long arguments about whether the heater should be on or off. One degree can be the difference between him being up for three hours at night or sleeping through.
We also sleep in separate rooms with my husband. We cuddle, say goodnight, and he goes into the spare room. He puts on white noise, so he can’t hear Michael if he’s up at night. I get up for Michael, and if I get tired we swap. This way one of us is always asleep and even if Michael has a particularly difficult night, we can still function.
Step Three: Deal with any medical or physical problems
We are very lucky that Michael is, generally, a very strong and healthy little boy. He puts his own life in constant peril by climbing EVERYTHING. But he somehow survives every day and the running around helps him stay fit and strong.
He does get sick. And then all therapy is off, and he rests for a week. But overall we’ve only been to the hospital with him once, when a virus triggered off some asthma-like symptoms.
But he’s very prone to stomach aches. This has been due to his diet. Until we introduced his food program, he only ate bread and drank soy milk. This made him constipated, sore and cranky. He would poo once every few days. Often he did it in the bath.
I introduced a food program for him, emphasizing fibre. He has dried apricots, berries, beans, and wholegrain everything every day. He still gets the occasional tummy ache (he’s a man, so naturally the world ends at this point) but he’s ok.
Luckily for us, he now loves his food and loves variety. He is so much happier, and instead of being constipated he has started pooing too often. Two or three times a day is normal for him.
There are, sadly, many conditions that often coexist with autism. If your child has one of these, work on them separately. This is why you have your great team of supportive experts. Ask them.
If your little one has anxiety, try cognitive behaviour therapy. If they (or you!) have depression, then try medication. There are solutions to most problems, it is just a matter of trial and error before you find the one that suits your family.
Step Four: Give Them What They Need, Not What They Want
Raising small children is a constant balancing act. Yes, there’s the laundry and the cooking and the cleaning. And the making sure they don’t kill themselves jumping off the couch.
But there is also the need to balance short term pleasure vs long term happiness. Playing with his iPad will bring my son short term pleasure. But in the long term it will decrease his social skills and it may make him tired and cranky for the rest of the day.
In Michael’s perfect world, there are no nappies and no need to change them. No bowel movements. No pants. Probably no clothes at all. He would be constantly eating while watching TV and stimming. In small breaks between programs and eating he would be at the playground. And it would be empty. There would be no other kids. I would be permanently attached to him at the hip. He would also spend a lot of time at the pool or at the beach. These would also be empty. He would be able to get there without needing to get into a car, sit in traffic, or put on sunscreen. No seatbelts would be involved ever. There would be no naps. And there would never ever be any bedtime.
This world will never exist. And if it did, he would get bored of it very quickly. The reason we love the things that we love, so deeply, is that we don’t always get them. And unfortunately, until that teleport is invented, inconveniences like other people and traffic will always exist.
Discipline is an important component in raising any child. How much you use it, and how you practise it, is up to you. That is your decision as a parent. But some limits are important.
Step Five: Do At Least 25 Hours Per Week Of Intensive Early Intervention
When Michael was starting his therapy, I thought of it as a necessary evil. Sure, I thought he wouldn’t like it. I just knew he had to do it anyway, to have the skills to survive in the world.
Partially, this holds true. There are parts of therapy that are frustrating for him. When I make him give me a card for ‘I Need Help’ instead of just helping him when he pulls my arm. When I make him try to figure out his jigsaw puzzle, instead of jumping in and helping him straight away. Yet I do it because of the amazing results that intensive early intervention can have. His future has already been entirely transformed by it.
Many children that do early intervention will have fantastic outcomes. I have shared the story of one mum whose son has been through therapy and is leading a full, happy life. It is one of my favourite posts and I reread it regularly.
Twenty five hours per week sounds like a lot. It can seem overwhelming to parents. How can a child be happy if they have what amounts to a nearly full time job?
If you asked a 5 year old if they wanted to go to school for the next thirteen years of their life, followed by about three years of university, they would say no. Probably. If they understood what you meant. Yet they will have to do it, to prepare them to live in the world. In some ways early intervention is like that.
But it should also be fun. When my son is in therapy he laughs, he giggles, he plays. Some of the time he does things he doesn’t like. But even for those he gets rewarded with a piggyback, a fun game, his favourite food, or time watching his iPad. And there are many activities that he might dislike at the beginning but grow to love.
Step Six: Be Sensitive About The Sensitivities
We are lucky that Michael is not hyper-sensitive. He doesn’t usually get upset at loud noises and he doesn’t have meltdowns in supermarkets. Yes I know, we’re very lucky.
But he does still have his sensitivities. If he’s tired and overwhelmed, I have no problem cancelling on family. I love family events, but if my little one slept for three hours the night before I will keep him at home and let him rest. If he is too scared to play with his cousins I will look after him in his little corner. Or play with him in another room.
I don’t do this all the time. I will stretch him. If he is scared to play with his cousins, I will try to get him to at least be near them. And then bring him closer. Eventually, maybe sit near them for a few seconds. If he doesn’t like the texture of a food, I won’t make him eat a lot of it. But I will make him try a little bit. And then a little more the next day.
His sensitivities will not rule his life. This is what early intervention is for. But forcing him to do things that make him unhappy for an extended time will only result in bad behaviour and unhappiness.
Step Seven: Keep Trying To Find Fun Activities
You can tell our kid is an only child. The other day he was having a bath and my husband was juggling for him. While I danced and sang. Michael thought it was hilarious. If we ever have another kid, and he stops being the centre of attention, Michael is going to have a shock I think…
When we are out of therapy, our world revolves around what we think he might enjoy. We drive to the beach even though he gets tired after 25 minutes and it takes us longer than that to get there. We try new activities even though we know there’s a good chance he won’t like it at the start.
Pretty much our first and last thought every day is how to make his life easier and more fun. What toys would he like? Which books does he prefer? How can I encourage him to try the slide, even though all he wants is the swing?
And this works quite well. Often the things we try may not work the first twenty times but suddenly are his favourite thing in the world on the 21st. The trick is to keep trying.
Step Eight: Fill Their Life With Love
In the middle of all the therapy and all the skills building, your child is still just a child. They need the same things all kids need. Love. Support. Acceptance.
I spend a lot of time with my little one just cuddling or wrestling, or letting him run around outside. I tell him I love him five hundred times a day. And I know he understands because every time I say it he smiles. He kisses me every chance he gets.
Everyone that I choose to help me with Michael is someone that loves children. They always grow to love him especially. He is just the kind of kid that inspires love in everyone and everything. His cousins, his grandparents, his uncles and aunties, everyone accepts him and loves him. His therapists love him. Even the butterflies in our backyard love him. He may not always understand what we say to him. But he understands love.
Understanding the universal language of love is the most important skill I can teach my child. And it so happens that whether or not he can talk, he is naturally very skilled at it.