How To Respond To Anxious Questions

Some persons with autism ask questions about thoughts that occur to them that do not mean to them what they may mean to a more typical child. Caregivers attempt to honestly answer these questions and often find themselves inadvertantly creating anxiety for their listener.

This article is about how to respond to questions by people who become aware of something that is somehow now relevant to themselves, but they couldn’t possibly understand the answer you know how to give.

Their question implies a deeper meaning than is meant. The ability to understand the answer to the question is not there. Trying to answer it “above” the person’s head makes them more anxious.

The rule is to be concrete and explicit with your answer.

For example:

The child who asks about sex. You may think they want to know about the “birds and the bees”, but what they really wanted to know was exactly where it happens, eg. in the bedroom on a bed, rather than in a bathroom. Then they have no further questions. Don’t tell more than they are asking. Answer what is on their mind at the time with a definite, black and white answer.

The child who hears about someone who dies and asks, “when will I die?” You may think they want a date, but what they really meant was, “am I going to die too?” They need your reassurance. Tell them, “not until you are ready, unless there is an accident. So be careful crossing the street, and don’t die before you are ready.” The question is satisfied on a concrete level. Don’t go into life after death, heaven, and other abstract ideas. Just answer the question in a certain, concrete, definite manner.

The man who asked about wanting to have more freedom. He did not know the exact meaning of the word. Trying to explain the connection between being mature enough to assume responsibility and the ability to have more personal freedom is above his head and agitates him, makes him feel enclosed, restricted, talked down to, not understood. Make it concrete. For example, “When you call from the mall before you get on the bus you are being responsible. So you have the freedom to go to the mall.” Be explicit.

The boy who is grieving about wanting “friends”. He does not know the meaning of the abstract concept. Don’t try to talk about this in the abstract. Say, “When Sam sends you an email he is being your friend. Let’s write some email and be friendly.” Make it concrete, in the moment, here and now, and within person’s own frame of reference. Satisfy the question in the here-and-now.

Know the answer to these abstract questions for the person. Offer certainty to protect person against anxious, perseverative, or obsessive questioning that occurs when they deal with any form of ambiguity or double meaning words or concepts.

This approach will help a person understand in concrete terms what they are unable to understand in abstract terms. Give person “rules” and rituals for meanings that will keep them feeling safe, secure, and that they live in a world where people are able to provide them with certainty. These type of certain answers assist the person to develop trust in their care provider.

Nathan E. Ory, M.A.
Registered Psychologist
Challenging Behavior Analysis and Consultation
Copyright 2001

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