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If you scroll social-emotional learning on Pinterest, it won’t be long until you see a plethora of activities that promise to teach “size of problem, size of reaction”.

If you’ve never heard of it, the goal of this is to teach our Autistic children that if a problem is small, they should have a small reaction.

Basically, they want kids to stop having huge meltdowns over small issues like pencils breaking, and save the big reactions for what they deem “big problems”.

And on its surface, that makes sense, right?

We’ve all probably found ourselves handling a huge meltdown over something totally ridiculous and thinking… Really? You’re freaking out over THAT?

But there’s a pretty big problem with teaching “size of problem” to Autistic children, and that’s what I want to dive into today.

Teacher helps a child with a project including paper and pencils. Text reads: The Problem With Teaching Size of Problem & What to Do Instead

The (Pretty Big) Problem With Teaching Size of Problem

When they teach size of problem, they help kids sort common struggles into big problems and small problems, as well as recognizing what type of response is appropriate for each.

Some big problems might include:

  • Serious illness or injury
  • Physical fighting
  • Fire, earthquake, or other disaster
  • Breaking something important

And some small problems might include:

  • Losing a game
  • Forgetting homework
  • Being late for something
  • Not getting the thing you want

And I’m sure you can see things from that “small problem” list that would be a BIG problem for your Autistic child.

Why They Teach Size of Problem

Here’s the thing, though… Teachers, counselors, and therapists teach size of problem with really good intentions.

They want to help your Autistic child start to see problems rationally, and they definitely want to decrease explosive behaviors that happen over relatively small problems.

I mean, who doesn’t want to stop meltdowns over small insignificant things like getting the wrong colored bowl?

The problem with that, though, is that getting the wrong colored bowl can feel like a really big problem to our kids.

Size of Problem is Gaslighting

If you haven’t heard of gaslighting before, it originated from a strange play where an abusive husband repeatedly lowered the lights slightly, and then told his wife she was cr*zy whenever she commented on it being darker.

But basically gaslighting is when someone tells you that what you’re experiencing isn’t actually what you’re experiencing.

If you said “the sky is blue” and I was adamant that the sky is green to the point where you started to doubt your own ability to recognize colors, that’s gaslighting.

And unfortunately, Autistic children are gaslit a LOT.

We tell them that the sound isn’t that loud, or that the lights aren’t that bright, or that they were rude even when they just stated facts…

And when we tell a child that their “scratchy tag” problem is a small problem that deserves a small response, we are unintentionally gaslighting them.

We’re causing them to doubt their own experiences—experiences of discomfort or even pain—and believe that their interpretation of those experiences is wrong.

Who Gets to Choose How Big a Problem is?

Teaching size of problem this way ignores what your child thinks is a big problem versus a small problem, and prioritizes what adults around them prioritize.

And here’s the deal: If you asked my husband and I what was a big problem versus a small problem, you’d get very different answers.

  • My husband thinks that having the tag near him when he sleeps is a really small problem, even though it’s a huge problem to me.
  • He’d feel like the grass turning brown is a really big problem that needs immediate attention, and I don’t really care if our grass stays green.
  • On the flip side, I think that snow in the driveway is a really small problem (since we work from home and homeschool), but it’s a huge deal to him.
  • And I think that writing with a dull pencil is a massive problem, but he thinks it’s no big deal and never sharpens his pencils.

So when it comes to teaching kids the size of a problem, who gets to choose how big a problem is?

How to Address “Overreaction” Without Teaching Size of Problem

Instead of teaching kids to discount their own experiences and prioritize other people’s interpretations, we should encourage them to recognize for themselves what THEY believe is a small problem versus a big problem.

That will make it easier for them to prioritize what they need to fight for and what they can just let go.

Even more than that, it teaches them that other people might prioritize different things, just like me and my husband do.

So if they know that getting the right bowl at snack time is a huge deal to them, but their teacher doesn’t think it matters, they can address that and advocate for themselves:

“I know that it doesn’t seem like a big deal to you, but it’s really important to me that I get the blue bowl at snack time. It helps me stay calm and eat my food.”

And on the flip side, if they know that sitting quietly doesn’t matter to them much, but it’s a huge deal to their teacher, they can address that and advocate for themselves:

“I know it’s really important to you that we sit quietly so that you know we’re listening, but it’s really hard for me to sit still. Is there another way I can show you I’m listening?”

This approach of building skills and empowering self-advocacy will go much further than simply telling kids that getting the right bowl is a “small problem”.

Now you might be left thinking “okay, but how?? How do I actually teach my child to recognize the size of their problems? How do I help them empathize with other people’s problems? And goodness gracious, how do I help them advocate for themselves in a RESPECTFUL way??”

I teach all about how to build your child’s skills and empower your child’s self-advocacy in my Embracing Autism Accelerator Program.

Plus, when you apply for the Accelerator, you get access to an exclusive private training: 3 Steps to Become the Parent-Advocate Your Child Needs.

Image of a laptop showing the exclusive private training: 3 Crucial Steps to Become the Parent-Advocate Your Child Needs.

Click here to apply and get your invite to the private training!

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