Blog Post #7: “Holding” to Help Our Special Needs Son

Today I’m going to talk about how I used “Holding” with our special needs son, when he was 4 – 7 years old.  

BACKGROUND:  I explained some of his background before in my blog post “A Young Child with a 2 “Word” Vocabulary”.   He grew up in  a Romanian orphanage until we brought him home 3 weeks before his 4th birthday. Because he was deaf, they had taught him no language; his only two words were point and scream.  Because he was autistic (though we didn’t know that at the time) he didn’t look at people. This made it extra hard for him to learn Sign Language or English Language (using Cued Speech), since he had to see it.  Bottom line: He had no language and his world was completely changed when we brought him home. All of this makes it easy to understand how he could get so frustrated and emotional.

When he just turned 4, I was searching internet boards and articles about the challenges of adopting children and came across “Holding Therapy”, which was used for autistic children, children with attachment disorder and various other problems.  It was designed to be used on a regular schedule; for example at a set time  of day, 5 days a week. As the parent held the child they would tell the child how much they loved and supported them. At the time Holding Therapy was controversial; a couple of children even died during extreme incidents. If I remember correctly, they suffocated because of being held too tightly.  

Our son certainly did not have attachment disorder.  At that time I didn’t think he was autistic because he was so loving with us, even though he gave us no eye contact. But I started thinking about Holding Therapy due to our son’s meltdowns.

Our son was prone to meltdowns often, sometimes every day or two. It might happen at the grocery store or in public. After he started school, it would happen a lot of times when he got home … like he held all this pent up frustration over his inability to communicate inside, then once home he would let loose.  These meltdowns would typically involve him screaming, crying and banging his head repeatedly on the floor. 

The part about Holding Therapy that caught my interest involved holding the child so they can’t move until they calm down and give you eye contact.

So when he would start a meltdown, I would scoop him up, sit on the couch sideways where we could stretch out in a half sitting, half laying position. I would hold his legs still with my legs and hold his arms still with my arms.  He would scream and struggle to get away, but at least his head was safe from being banged on the floor.  I would keep holding him and paying close attention to him (trying to hold him just tight enough to keep him from moving, but making sure not to hold too tightly to squish him). I waited for two things: First for when he would stop struggling and calm down; and second for him to give me eye contact.  Once he was calm and gave me eye contact I would let him go.  Sometimes, especially at first, it took an hour or more. 

Even though he was a very affectionate child, delighting us with his hugs and smiles, he rarely, if ever, gave us eye contact.

One thing I came to realize through Holding him was how much I was starved for that eye contact.  When he would look around the room, look anywhere but into my eyes, I would be patient. Eventually he would look me in the eyes and such a huge feeling of relief would come over me. As his mom, I realized I needed that eye contact!

During the first year, I didn’t know if it was the best way to handle his meltdowns or not.  He eventually got too big for me to be able to hold him still for the necessary length of time. So I took a bed sheet, cocooned him in it. He would be all wrapped up with just his head sticking out.

The last couple of years of Holding I did with him, I realized it was working for him.  The way I know he knew he needed it? He would let me pick him up and hold him. I didn’t even have to wrap him in a sheet anymore. 

He grew big enough he could get away if he really tried.  But … as soon as I would pick him up I got the feeling he was feeling safe, and instead of screaming he would do this kind of pretend scream at a LOT lower volume, and instead of thrashing he would pretend to try and flail his arms and legs, but with a lot weaker effort.  He was totally letting me hold him!  

He would still look everywhere, until finally he would look in my eyes.   And the whole thing would not take an hour or more anymore, just 15 or 20 minutes.  

As his language and communication grew, his meltdowns gradually became fewer and fewer, just having a few after he turned 7 years old.  

When he did, rather than trying to bang his head, he would usually just do one of the following (1) scream and cry while flailing arms; (2) throw or break something (one time he broke his glasses … that’s another story); or (3) take himself to bed and rock so hard the bed would bang against the wall.  I was just glad he finally outgrew the head-banging! 

Now, at 26 years old, he rarely has a meltdown, and when he does, even though he’s not happy, he controls himself well.

So there you have it, how I used Holding on our son.

Here are the links to my signing and cueing YouTube “Word Of The Day” channels. I post a new word every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Check it out and I would love to know what you think of them!

YouTube ASL Word Of The Day with PSE Sentence Examples:

YouTube Cued Speech Word Of The Day:

Also, Check out my Adventure Games in the App Stores:

Please join me for my new blog posts each Friday.  Have fun with your ASL and/or Cued Speech Adventures!

Published by Donna Gateley

Developer of SignCueQuest and CueQuest

2 thoughts on “Blog Post #7: “Holding” to Help Our Special Needs Son

  1. Hi Donna,
    What beautiful insights about your wonderful son who I was so fond of. I remember his love of kite flying and his infectious smile. I felt honored whenever he gave me a big hug. You are both terrific parents and I’m happy that you’re in my life. Love, Sharon Zareski ❤️❤️🙏🏼❤️❤️

    Liked by 1 person

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