Friday, February 4, 2011

Would Tiger Mom Be Able To Raise a Child with Autism?

Amy Chua’s new book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” has created quite a stir the past few weeks.  Her memoir of raising her children “the Chinese way” has drawn much criticism over the harsh methods she used, and sparked debate on the relative merits of Asian versus Western methods of parenting.

She illustrates her toughness in one notorious incident where she describes how she once rejected her young daughter’s homemade birthday card, saying she wanted “a better one – one that you’ve put some thought and effort into.” 

Another example is the time when she forced her then seven year old daughter to play the piano for several hours until she mastered a particularly difficult piece.  Tiger Mom yelled, threatened, and called her daughter names.  She said that her house became a war zone as she refused to let her daughter get up from the piano, even to eat or use the bathroom.  Eventually, the girl did successfully play the piece, and felt so good about doing so that she was beaming and wanted to play the piece over and over again. 

Ms. Chua argues that letting her daughter give up would have hurt her self esteem.  Instead, her daughter gained confidence by accomplishing something she thought she could not do. 

She goes on to say that Western parents are lax, and more likely to try to build self-esteem by praising a child, even for a mediocre performance, whereas Chinese parents do so by setting high expectations and then forcing their children to work hard to meet those expectations.  She also believes that parents need to be tough about overriding their kids’ desires as parents always know what is best for their children. 

Being Asian-American, I have some personal insight into the Asian approach.  As with the Tiger Mom, my parents set high expectations for me and held me accountable.  From the time I was in elementary school, a grade less than an “A” was unacceptable with my parents.  I still recall the time my fifth grade teacher asked me how my parents had reacted to my report card.  I think she expected that they would be full of praise as I had gotten mostly As except for one B.  I’ll never forget the look of horror on her face when I told her that I was grounded for a month.

But when it comes to my own parenting style, even before I had a child, I was determined that I would use a more Western approach than that of my parents.  I believed in the value of teaching a child to make good choices because it is the right thing to do, not out of fear of being punished. 

Of course, once I actually became a father, I learned a lot about parenting.  And being the father of a boy with autism, I have really been challenged.

But all this commotion over the Tiger Mom has me wondering how she would do if her child had autism.  Would she be able to handle it?  Would her methods be effective? 

I think she might have to adjust her methods:

Set high expectations, within reason:  I have no problem with setting high expectations, even for a child with autism.  But these expectations should be set within the context of each child’s capabilities.  I believe that every child can be taught to always try to do their best, and that it is up to us as parents to do this. 

I think the bigger problem for Tiger Mom would be in dealing with her own expectations.  Would she be able to accept that her child will not become a prodigy no matter how much she pushed, prodded, and punished them?  Moms (and dads) who are far less demanding than Tiger Mom struggle mightily with this.

Understand, not command:  Tiger Mom does not strike me as the understanding type.  But, a child with autism behaves differently than a neurotypical child for a number of reasons – they may be sensory-related, neurological, or biological.  Regardless of the reason, the differences are such that children with autism need to be taught things that come naturally for most neurotypical children.  Commanding kids to do something they are not able to do is futile.  A parent needs to have an understanding of why their child with autism does what he or she does.  Only with understanding can they teach their kids the things they need to learn.

Teach, not taunt:  Kids with autism need to be taught so many more things than typical kids.  Seemingly little things like learning how to blow their nose can be difficult.  Major things like learning how to communicate, and how to cope are constant, ongoing processes.  You can’t spend hours haranguing your kids to become piano virtuosos when there is so much else to work on.  Also, patience is essential.  And this is where I think Tiger Mom would have to really change her ways.  Kids with autism are more likely to feel inadequate or insecure as it is.  They don’t need their parents piling on by calling them names. 

Soothe, not provoke:  While Tiger Mom may have been comfortable in making her house a war zone when forcing her daughter to play piano, she never had to deal with an autistic child who went from zero to sixty in one second, and then stayed in a state of eruption for a very long time.  I’m willing to bet that even Tiger Mom would opt to try to de-escalate matters after going through that a few times.  That is not to say that your child should never have to pay any consequences for their poor choices.  There are times when you will take a stand and deal with the upset it causes.  But, there will also be plenty of times when your child may have a meltdown when it has nothing to do with setting a limit.  No matter the cause, it does not help to pour gasoline on an already-explosive situation.  Your child needs to calm down before he can be taught anything.

Eastern methods? Western methods? Both!:  When my son was two years old and not talking or responding at all, we began an extensive program of ABA therapy for him.  ABA is somewhat akin to the Eastern approach to teaching in that it relies on repetition and regimented drills to teach kids with autism things that other children learn naturally.  In my son’s case, as with many others, it worked.  He learned quite a lot.  But, one of the drawbacks of the approach is that speech and communication can be somewhat robotic.  The child often gives the response he has been taught, rather than one that comes spontaneously.  But, when you consider that previously our son did not speak at all, that seemed acceptable. 

After a time, though, we went away from ABA to a DIR/Floortime model of therapy instead. This is a far less structured approach. There are no drills. Rather, the basic tenet is to follow the kids’ lead in play. The belief is that this will lead to interactions and more natural communication. This Floortime approach also worked with our son as he interacts more than ever and his speech is not robotic at all now. Somehow, I have a hard time picturing Tiger Mom doing Floortime with her kids, especially the part about letting them lead.     

Conclusion:
So, what do we make of all this? Would Tiger Mom be a good parent of a child with autism?

We can debate Tiger Mom’s methods, but I think almost all would agree that she is a very determined woman who wants what is best for her children. If she did have a child with autism, I think that quality would serve her well and help her to persevere. But, could she handle having a child with autism? Wouldn’t she have a lot to learn? To that, I ask, how many of us felt truly prepared to be the parent of an autistic child?

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