I fear this post may sound much more disjointed than I normally try to write, but this is because I have many thoughts swirling in my head, and the only way to make sense of them is to get them out of my head and in front of me. Remember Spin Art? You put in the paper, push the button to get it to start spinning, then squirted paint inside to watch it splatter everywhere.
This is kind of how I imagine my thoughts look right now inside my head. My brain is spinning, and thoughts are being squirted everywhere all over this page as I type. Maybe in the end, it will look as magnificent as I used to think my creations looked when I was done.
This post will not be exhaustive of everything I am thinking, but rather a jumpstart to thinking more about the title of this post: Reconciling ABA and “Shepherding a Child’s Heart”. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the latter, “Shepherding a Child’s Heart” is a book written by Ted Tripp. The sequel book is “Instructing a Child’s Heart”. The basic premise of the books is this: our hearts are sinful, caused by the fall of man in the Garden of Eden. Sin manifests itself in various ways, including poor behavior, especially in children who are learning via trial and error how to behave appropriately and fit into society with its cultural rules and boundaries. We constantly deal with our kids in the areas of (dis)obedience, (dis)respectfulness, dis)honor, selfishness, whining, pride, laziness, etc. The reason these imperfections exist is because of sin in the heart. Typical parenting tips, especially in the secular world, only help to change the behavior. We use natural consequences, choices, discipline, removal of privileges – anything we can to manipulate our children’s behavior to something more desireable and socially appropriate.
The goal for Christian parents is to get to the heart of the behavior – by only dealing with the behavior, we’re only dealing with the symptom, not the illness. The symptom of the sin of selfishness is throwing a temper tantrum because our child refuses to share a toy when another child tries to take it. The other child is also a showing a symptom of the same root problem of selfishness by trying to take the toy away. So what do we do? Perhaps we tell the children that if they can’t share nicely, then no one gets the toy. Or we give the toy to one child while the other one cries and set the timer telling them they can switch when the timer goes off, at which point the other child may start crying until something new strikes his fancy. But we haven’t reached their heart in doing this. We’ve only addressed the symptom and medicated it. We haven’t cured the root of the problem. The selfishness still exists, and will rear its ugly head again in 10 minutes when another toy is at stake.
Perhaps if we appeal to the heart of the child, as such Christian parenting books suggest, then appropriate behavior will follow. We can ask our child questions :
“Why are you upset?” (Because he doesn’t want to share.)
“What does Jesus say about sharing?” (That we should share what we have with others who don’t)
“Does Jesus want us to be kind to our brother/friend?” (“Yes”)
“We can be kind by sharing. Let’s share our toy so we can be kind and be obedient to Jesus.” (Child agrees to sharing).
This isn’t a perfect example, of course, but it’s the gist of what Christian parenting books are aiming at. Get to the heart of the child, and the appropriate behavior will follow.
But for those of us with children with special needs – particularly with autism (since that is the only special need of which I can personally speak), this scenario gets thrown out the window. Most kids who have been trained by their parents up to this point will likely share their toy, even if they do so reluctantly. But a child with autism is very different from this. For instance with Samuel, if a toy belongs to a certain person, then that toy belongs to that person. Period. There is no concept of sharing something that only belongs with a certain person. Even if it’s not Sam’s toy, the same rule applies. If Josh (age 4) agrees to sharing his toy with Ben (age 8), Sam (age 6) has a meltdown, insistent that Josh can’t share his toy with Ben, because it’s Josh’s toy and no one else can have it.
At the moment of the meltdown, we can’t “get to the heart”. There’s a very large elephant in the room raising its trunk and making whatever noise elephants make standing on its hind legs, threatening to trample everyone else in its way. There’s no point in trying to talk to the elephant in a logical manner, as if he could understand you at that moment. No, autism requires and demands a different approach.
This is where “blazing a new path” comes in for Christian parents who are desperately trying to be faithful in the call of God to train up their children to love God and hope in Christ according to God’s Word. For those same parents dealing with autism, the secular world of therapy and ABA (which I am a FIRM believer in!) deals only with behavior. Christian parenting books deal only with the heart, assuming behavior will follow. Where is the marriage of these two? It appears it is now necessary to create a new breed of parenting for the Christian autism parent by bringing both worlds together.
My thought process is as follows: 1. Deal with the autism and symptoms thereof (in the above scenario, the meltdown) according to the rules of ABA or whatever therapy you are using. 2. Only AFTER the situation has been reconciled and the child is able to truly hear you again, address the issue of his heart – selfishness. Use questions, and if he doesn’t know the answers, give him the answers and using the ABA approach, he is expected to tell you the answers. Repeat question and answer until he gives you the answer on his own. 3. As you are dealing with the heart, more behavior may come up, and you have to start all over again at #1. As I said in the title, these are just beginning thoughts, so I have yet to expound on these simple points.
When autism is in play in situations like this, the heart of our children is hidden. We have to first deal with the part of autism that is getting in the way of the heart before we can deal with the heart itself. Then we continue to deal with the behavior, resulting in a revolving door of ABA and loving Christ-like discipline.
From what I have read thus far (and I have read a LOT), there isn’t anything out there that walks Christian parents through these kinds of steps, or gives guidelines for how to reconcile what they are taught in various therapies which do not address the church, and what they are taught in Christian parenting circles or church classes, which does not address usually special needs with regard to Christian parenting (that I have experienced).
I am very interested in the need and desire of other Christian parents out there who may be looking for the same thing we are. My husband and I have often talked about perhaps writing our own book since we can’t find what we’re looking for. All books had to start somewhere. Maybe this “breed” of special needs Christian parenting can start with us. Not that we have it figured out, but I know we have a vision for what we’re trying to accomplish in both worlds – vis a vis, the Christian and autism worlds – and we can speak to it, even if in some small way.
What are your thoughts? Please give feedback in the comments below! 🙂 Does something like this already exist, and/or are we insane for thinking such a notion of writing a book? Let me hear you!
I have been thinking about this since you first mentioned it: the concept of treating behavoir then the heart then the behavior will follow. I am not sure this is all that different from what we all do in certain circumstances. There are often behavior issues that need to be dealt with before the heart can be addressed. I think even Tripp says this. While melt-downs may be different for an
JRB, agreed. There are certainly similarities between all types of kids. All kids will exhibit behavior that reveals the condition of their sinful hearts. Those behaviors must be addressed in both types of kids (neurotypical and special needs) prior to engaging their heart. However, one difference I am drawing out is that the way in which those behaviors are addressed will look very different
I think the point Sarah makes is that there needs to be a bridging of the two concepts. Right now they are in contrast to each other, and there is no need for them to be. My autistic son is non-verbal. He communicates with vocal approximations, sign or PECS. Many of his most frustrating moments come because he cannot communicate his desires. JRB, although all children have temper tantrums, they
Sarah…I am so encouraged by your desire to educate others, and the vision and need you see for the speical needs community of Christian parents. Keep writing, keep learning, keep teaching, and most of all keep seeking God's desire for your role in this community! Love you my sweet and beautiful friend!