Few parents who have children with autism can escape one of the hardest things to deal with, jealousy. Like a bad penny, it just keeps turning back up when the parent least expects it. Many children do feel jealousy of various forms, but often with a child diagnosed with autism, jealousy can be more pronounced. Luckily, this jealousy rarely gets out of hand. It can, however, be frustrating for a parent to address.
What Causes Jealousy?
As mentioned, most children have felt some sibling competition for mom or dad’s attention at some point. Mom or Dad have dealt with the situation, usually by addressing it as it happens and redirecting the behavior. A child who always wants to be first over others in their family (get the first piece of cake, the first to go out the door.. the one to get the best seat in the car, for example) could possibly only be looking for some validation and a place of belonging. They want to know they count, and they should know that. But they also need to know others count, too. Continued reminders, as well as occasionally making them wait while you help others first.
Jealousy and the Theory of Mind Connection
In neurotypical children, that is, children who have no underlying neurological disorder such as autism, self is seen as a separate entity. There is an understanding after the preschool years, that others have thoughts and feelings that do not necessarily match your own. Some empathy can take place, because there is an understanding of feelings that others have, even if that understanding is rudimentary.
In autism, there is a marked difficulty in identifying and recognizing others’ feelings. It can be hard for the child with autism to put himself in someone else’s shoes, because he doesn’t even realize that person has shoes that are different than his own. This is why many children with autism overreact to imagined slights. They aren’t being difficult. They really believe when you accidentally hit them with your elbow that you meant to do it.
The Problem of Jealousy
Because of this, jealousy can be a problem. The child doesn’t necessarily see himself as different than you. He believes he is an extension of you and vice versa. So when he climbs on your lap, he isn’t concerned with how it feels for you: he likes it. With neurotypical kids, jealousy can be calculated and manipulative. With a child on the autism spectrum, this is less likely because it never even occurs to him that you don’t like it or that you were in the middle of something else.
Another situation that occurs is between couples. The child with autism sometimes doesn’t like the closeness between others, and will try to get in the middle of the hug. The child may climb in the middle of people and try to make space where there isn’t any. Besides being annoying, it sends the wrong message to the child. Again, it is important he understand that other people count. But he also just wants to belong, as well. Explain it is someone else’s turn, his will be next. Then: follow through, and make sure he knows he is getting that time. In the beginning, don’t expect him to be able to wait very long, just long enough for the point to be made. If he has a hard time, shorten the wait time. With practice, he can actually let a cuddle or two between others happen.
What Can You Do About it?
Talk, talk, talk about how others matter and have needs as well. Think about using social stories to teach the child. A social story is a scripted story told in the child’s name that directs them into the desired behavior. With practice, while it will never be automatic, your child with autism can learn to take some situations into account for you. There is a chance he will even find his place of belonging without having to displace others to do it.
photo copyright smoulaison, flickr, cc. Use of image does not indicate disability.
Tina Cruz is a writer, wife and mother of three children. The two youngest children have high-functioning autism and the oldest has undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome tendencies. She advocates for autism awareness and education, as well as acceptance. She views autism as a growth process and the opportunity to connect parents for support as a privilege. She is the editor of the Special Needs channel here at Typeamom. Her personal blog can be found at Send Chocolate. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions or comments.