When I am asked if I am happy, I’m not always able to answer right away. Sometimes I have to sit and think a while, looking inward to see if I can find the answer. “Am I happy? Am I happy? What is happy?” Happiness is a little abstract to me. Sometimes it is pretty obvious to me that I am happy, but just as often I struggle to even understand what happiness is.
Competence, on the other hand, is more concrete and much more clear to me. When I have remembered to take the trash out the night before the garbage truck arrives, I feel competent. When I have cooked food without burning it and the resulting meal is healthy, tasty, and satisfying, I feel competent. When I cut my hair and the result looks good (or when someone compliments me on my cut and asks me who my stylist is) I feel competent. When I write an essay that people share with others and people tell me they enjoyed reading it or learned something valuable from it, I feel very competent. When I get up in front of an audience and speak about autism and field questions and feel strong and solid about the answers I am giving and am thanked afterward by others, I feel incredibly competent.
Victories, both large and small, can bring a sense of competence. Solving puzzles, reading a mathematical proof and being able to follow the logic all the way through, playing a musical piece without any errors, keeping a relationship healthy and thriving for another year, being able to hike farther on a trail than I did the last time, doing my laundry, not going to sleep with gum in my mouth, mending my clothing, having a non-confusing conversation with someone.
And, unlike happiness, I know when I am feeling competent. I often struggle with a mind-body disconnect that leaves me only vaguely aware, at best, what my emotions are. But competence is an emotion that sings out loudly and clearly. And when I feel competent, I know I am feeling happy. Maybe competence is one kind of happiness (I feel sure there must be more to happiness than simply feeling competent.) When I am feeling competent, I am feeling in control, confident, and happy.
I have had parents ask me to help me understand why their kid says “no” to everything — things the child doesn’t want but also things the child wants. I mean, quite literally, everything gets a “no” from the kid. As you can imagine, it’s really frustrating to the parent. There seems to be no solution, nothing to bring that child to “yes.” Even offers of the child’s favorite foods, favorite toys, favorite activities are met with resistance.
A child (or adult, for that matter) who is saying “no” to everything, even things that person might really like to have, is a person who is feeling out of control in their situation and trying to cling hold to the only thing in this world they are still able to control: their will. Your child is living in a world that is too loud (or not loud enough), that is too bright (or too flat and colorless), that is filled with wild and clashing smells. that is populated by unpredictable people who move startlingly fast and often reach out to touch in painful ways (for some of us, even the gentlest touch can be painful. For some of us, especially the gentlest touch can be painful!)
As Nick Walker has pointed out in his excellent definition of autism, the lived experience of autism is “more intense and chaotic” than the world appears to most non-autistic people. Walker writes that, “on both the sensorimotor and cognitive levels, the autistic mind tends to register more information, and the impact of each bit of information tends to be both stronger and less predictable.” As you might imagine, living in a world that is intense, chaotic, and unpredictable is no easy task. Refusing everything is one way to assert some level of order and structure on a world that seems wildly out of control.
One approach a parent can take when their child starts saying no to everything like that is to help them experience feelings of competence. When a person feels like the entire world is out of control, they need victories and they need to be in charge of something. This can be difficult to address since typically a person who gets to the point of refusing everything is someone who has a lot of support needs and, as a result, has ended up in a position where just about everything is being done for them or done with minimal, passive input from them. How can you help someone in that position to get more control over their life?
One way to help someone who is unhappy with their lack of control and their struggles against a chaotic and unpredictable world is to help them increase their happiness and sense of control by helping them to increase their feelings of competence. You will have to start small, of course, but you can start anywhere and then build up from that point. What makes it tricky is that you will not be able to suggest anything as that will just get a “no” in response. As with many things when it comes to raising, mentoring, and educating a child, it has to be led by the child themselves.
Start by choosing something that is not harmful or significant for the health and well-being of the person and that they have been fighting to get their way with for a while and give them their “no.” In fact, start by giving them every “no” you can spare. A person who has turned everything into a “no” is in crisis and getting them to feel safer, happier, and more competent is more important than a lot of the daily routine. So they miss a couple of baths and smell bad. So what? For a while, only insist on the absolutes and give them as many chances to take charge of their life as you can possibly give them.
Find other ways to help them discover more of a sense of competence and control. If they stack some blocks, don’t put them away too quickly. Let them savor their creation. The more you can give them space to take charge of their life and manipulate the physical world around them, the more you can make space for competence.
But don’t be surprised if skipping baths and stacking blocks is not enough. Examine their communication abilities. People often get frustrated when their communication abilities are lagging very far behind their communication needs. To move very far past that place where the person is refusing every single thing, you will want to help them find real control in their life and that cannot be found until they can communicate on a level that gets their needs met.
Never give up on helping Autistic people who need and want to increase their communication. Try every method. Offer every opportunity. Communication is such a fundamental need (and such a fundamental human right) that it is the cornerstone of competence and happiness. And competence and happiness are the cornerstones of a life well-lived.