Maybe I am on a nostalgic trip but for whatever reason I have been reminiscing about my life and immediate family for the past few weeks. In a certain sense I am grateful for all we have, but surprised by how many obstacles my family has had to overcome. Indeed my immediate family has battled cancer, diabetes, dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, and an autoimmune condition that affects hair follicles and other glands of the body. It seems that our genes have made us an easy prey for unwelcome disorders. Indeed, the latest addition to our long list of medical conditions has been autism spectrum disorders (ASD). During the years I have been able to write about the psychological aspects of these conditions. I would now like to adapt some of my previous writings to the subject of autism. My comments are directed to both autistic individuals and their parents or close relatives.
As I see it, everyone with life adversities needs to adapt and cope, more than defend against feelings. The defense mechanism language tends to be somewhat negative in its connotation. I personally believe that there are either better or less effective ways of dealing with a set of objective problems, not just unconscious wishes that must be defended against. Which means of coping people use will depend on their strengths and weaknesses, totally apart from their individual condition. Thus, the computer literate that has ASD and is socially self-conscious might find talking on the Internet the best means of socializing for a period of time. This option is not readily available to the less computer savvy. I realize this is a little concrete but perhaps it is illustrative. In the case of close friend with a disfiguring disease, his mother was profoundly concerned about her appearance (she was somewhat obese). She found it hard to accept what had happened to her son and that in turn made it more difficult for her son to accept his own condition. Maybe as parents we should also work a little bit on our own coping skills. Please keep in mind that with children, they must not only confront their own feelings of self-consciousness but also those of their parents.
Coping mechanisms offer a way to make a bad thing better. They represent a way to relieve emotional conflict and anxiety. It also makes for a healthier, better adjusted individual. There are different types of coping mechanisms, some being mature and others immature. The immature ones help you cope with a painful situation but only at a particular price- usually by distorting reality. An example of an immature defense mechanism (also called negative or primitive) is denial. With this mechanism, a patient invalidates an unpleasant experience simply by ignoring it. The experience ceases to exist in that person’s mind. Reality testing is diminished. The most common examples revolve around patients avoiding the recognition of a serious physical illness, e.g., the alcoholic who denies having a problem or the heart patient who undertakes strenuous construction work. Although all of us occasionally use some of these negative defense mechanisms, it is unhealthy to heavily rely on them.
Healthy defense mechanisms are those that keep painful events within bearable limits. They allow you to attain mastery over the event and to handle any unresolved conflicts regarding the same. You won’t be surprised to learn that I have spoken to several hundred (if not thousands) of people facing life adversities that lead a full and happy life. A study of coping mechanisms is a study of how these people carry a satisfactory life, of how they have come to grips with their condition, adjusted, and gained acceptance. Life adversities may affect your health but you don’t have to let them destroy your life.
Gaining acceptance is a gradual process. Some people just feel different throughout their whole lives. The roller coaster ride may make them feel embarrassed, awkward, self-conscious and even angry. Before accepting the condition it is OK to grieve and even cry. Accept your condition, be realistic, but don’t lose faith. At the end of Pandora’s box there was hope. As Bill Murray in “What About Bob?” would say, “Baby Steps!” Once you are ready, consider the following coping mechanisms:
This is a conscious effort to either control or postpone any painful, thoughts, feelings, etc., once you have done as much problem solving as possible. Suppression involves «keeping a stiff upper lip». In some instances it will allow you to postpone, but NOT AVOID, a difficult experience. It involves gaining a sense of mastery and control over one’s environment. It promotes increased self-worth, internal strength, and builds character. Scarlett O’Hara had a famous line in «Gone With the Wind»; «I’ll think about that tomorrow». This is a well-known example, but I do not use it often because the character (O’Hara) exhibited some personality disturbances. I think the main point about suppression is that it keeps you from obsessing beyond the point when it is no longer helpful to think about it.
This defense mechanism operates consciously by diverting instinctual drives into socially acceptable channels. Examples include turning a wish to dominate others by organizing charitable activities, or taming aggressiveness by participating in sports. Hobbies are the main vehicle for sublimation. Being successful in other areas of life (sports, art, writing, dancing, etc.) helps to balance participation in the areas you feel limited in. I know of a girl that is taking ballet classes but one of her legs is shorter than the other by several inches. You immediately notice this by the way she walks and dance…. But look at her glorious smile while she is dancing! Her movements are not awkward, they are graceful and artistic. She enjoys it so much that it is contagious. She draws the attention of everybody. I do not even know her, and yet, I am so proud of her.
Religiosity may provide another channel for sublimation and help you gain acceptance. «All things work out for the good for those who love the Lord». From the New Testament, Paul addresses the hardships we face in life and talks about how we can use our problems to help others facing the same difficulties. Praying may give you a new outlook on life. I have often told his story as happening to a friend but it happened to me many years ago in one of those special moments with my daughter (there were fewer of them as she got to be a teenager). I was praying with her for those suffering from AIDS and cancer. My daughter had lost of all of her hair to an autoimmune condition and now it was seemingly affecting other endocrine glands of her body. I took the opportunity to explain how alopecia (hair loss), AIDS, and cancer have a common link regarding autoimmunity. Then I explained about the disproportionately small amount of research done in a non-life threatening condition such as alopecia when compared to those other disorders. So, I suggested that we pray for a cure to AIDS and cancer. This cure could lead to a breakthrough in other autoimmune disorders including alopecia! So while we pray for others, the prayers help us as well.
Dr. Larry Dossey has written several articles and books on the effects of prayer on illness. According to the double-blind studies he and others have conducted, the majority of sick people that were prayed for got better more quickly and had fewer complications. The prayers didn’t have to be any formal or structured type tied to any particular religion or belief; they were within the prayer’s belief structure. Just remember, ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and the door will be opened. One of the members of a list server that I used to direct on alopecia areata lost her hair in her teens. She begged God for her hair to grow back. Sometimes it would for a while, only to fall out again, with the resultant devastation and eventual loss of faith that God had not heard her. Today, she realizes that she needs to pray for acceptance and strength to handle whatever comes down the pike. You usually get what you “need” but not always what you “want”. She has found much peace in this knowledge.
“Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers Remember when you’re talkin’ to the man upstairs That just because he doesn’t answer doesn’t mean he don’t care Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.”
from Garth Brooks’ song, “Unanswered Prayers”
This mechanism involves planning ahead realistically and effectively for any potential future experience. This is when you can get through a bad day by looking ahead to something good or special (i.e., study for a test today because summer vacation starts next week). Anticipation allows you to hope for the best but prepare for the worst.
This involves participating in actions that are both constructive and gratifying, like providing your ideas to this blog 🙂 Helping others who are needy or doing good works (charity, volunteer work). Just remember not to overdo it. At some point altruism becomes martyrdom.
This coping mechanism facilitates our ability to express feelings or forbidden wishes. In this fashion they can be released to the public in a funny way while not necessarily having to act on them. It differs greatly from wit. Remember we do not want to use this mechanism to attack other people. Dr. Cousins, a famous author, got through cancer and heart attacks, in part, by watching comedy, and finding things to laugh about.
As a parent of a son with classic autism, I found this study very illuminating, seeing my own coping patterns play out over the years exactly as described here. «Coping over time: the parents of children with autism» D. E. Gray, School of Social Science, University of New England, Armidale, New South Wales, Australia. Over a decade, 28 parents were studied. From Gray’s conclusions: «Coping strategies changed from the time of the initial study, as fewer parents coped through reliance on service providers, family support, social withdrawal and individualism and relatively more parents coped through their religious faith and other emotion-focused strategies.»
Personally, all my best efforts (which previously had been considered by myself as formidable—wink, wink) were useless. I had to surrender, in the end, to our situation…. and through faith, find His strength in my weakness.
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Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and adding the reference to Dr. Gray’s work. I can truly identify with your comment.
As an aside, I can only spend a few minutes during the weekend composing the blogs and may not check them for spelling. In this regard please forgive any grammatical mistakes.
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