The Scientist and I moved cross-country a few years ago. We made the drive In four days and by the middle of the fourth day I was on the verge of shutdown. It was way past lunch time, we were out of snacks and we were driving through Middle of Nowhere, West Virginia.
When we finally came upon a place to eat it was a McDonald’s. Just the thought of eating fast food made me feel nauseous. I said I would walk the dog around while The Scientist went inside to order. When he asked what I wanted, I said “Nothing.” By the time he came out with a big bag of food, I was sitting on the curb by the car with my head on my knees, wishing I could teleport myself the final four hundred miles to our new home.
The Scientist sat down to me and said,”I got you something.”
Even though I was so hungry that I was light-headed, I couldn’t imagine being able to eat a burger or fries.
“I don’t want anything,” I said.
Undeterred, he reached in the bag and took out a container of oatmeal. When he opened it, I saw it was topped with fresh blueberries. He’d found the one thing on McDonald’s menu that wouldn’t totally repel me. I was so happy, I nearly cried.
What’s the point of this rather boring and uneventful story? It was the first memorable instance of something I’ve come to think of as backstopping.
Finding the Right Balance
For readers who aren’t familiar with baseball, the backstop is the tall metal fence located behind the batter. It keeps foul (mis-hit) balls from flying back into the bleachers, but it also saves the catcher a lot of work. If the pitcher throws a wild pitch that gets past the catcher, the backstop will “catch” the ball and the catcher won’t have to run fifty or a hundred yards to track down the ball.
In that McDonald’s parking lot, The Scientist saw the ball that was getting by me–I was too close to shutdown to realize that I wanted to eat something bland and that hunger was contributing to my crash. Instead of saying “you need to eat” or “go find something to eat”, both of which would have been met with negative responses, he recognized my crisis and went in search of a solution.
But not before giving me a chance to catch the ball myself, which is a key point. He didn’t just rush off to buy me lunch without first asking a couple of times what I wanted.
Backstopping is by nature a form of back-up support. It’s a tricky balance of recognizing that a potential crisis is arising and then giving me a chance to deal with it before stepping in to help or offer support.
Sometimes it requires reading between the lines and guesswork, like the McDonald’s incident. But sometimes it’s as simple as him saying, “hey, wouldn’t you be more comfortable if you sat on that side of the table” because he’s noticed that I’m about to sit down facing the restaurant’s chaotic open kitchen. And sometimes it’s about being ready to offer support, just in case.
My daughter reminded of the importance of this a few weeks ago. While we were out shopping, someone asked me an unexpected question and I floundered around a bit before finally blurting out an answer. Jess watched quietly and after the person left, I expressed my distress at struggling so much to find the word I was looking for.
She casually said, “Don’t worry, I was ready with it if you really couldn’t get it.”
That was perfect. It made me feel like she respected my competence and was patient enough to let me get to the answer on my own if I could. But she was also ready to support me if I couldn’t.
The beauty of backstopping is that it’s unobtrusive and supportive without being smothering or invasive. It makes me feel like the people around me care for me without having to act as caretakers.
Putting Backstopping to Work
Watching backstopping in action has gotten me thinking about how other people could put it to use to support an autistic people in their life. Here are a few suggestions:
1. Be observant. Often, the precursors to a crisis are obvious in retrospect. Each of us has specific things that trigger our sensory sensitivities, cause us to struggle in social situations, etc. We also have our own unique “tells” that signal when a shutdown or meltdown is imminent. By watching carefully, you can learn to recognize precursors and be on the lookout for them. The Scientist sometimes asks me what triggered a shutdown or what I was feeling during a key moment. I think he’s secretly building a precursor database.
2. Be prepared. What works to head off sensory overload? What strategies are best for making difficult situations less stressful? What kind of support is most useful? Sometimes observing our instinctive reactions to a situation can reveal useful strategies. But sometimes our instincts aren’t the best and a little post game analysis is necessary to work out a better plan for future occurrences. Asking questions like, “what do wish had happened?” or “what would have made that easier for you?” can be helpful. Some autistic individuals, especially children, might need more specifics, like, “did you want to leave the room when Joey started crying?” or “did you want me to tell Aunt Joan that you were tired and wanted to play quietly with your toys instead of playing a game with your cousins?”
3. Be patient. When someone is struggling, it can be tempting to simply step in and do the thing for them. But remember, the backstop is located behind the catcher. It doesn’t jump out and catch every ball that looks like it might go astray. It’s important to give the autistic individual in your life a chance to try and perhaps to fail before you offer support. The Scientist didn’t immediately go order food for me. He gave me multiple chances to recognize that I needed to eat and that hunger was contributing to my shutdown. Only when it was clear that I was already crashing and not in a state of mind to make good self-care decisions did he step in.
4. Be nonjudgmental. Sometimes backstopping means “doing the obvious.” If the autistic person in your life struggles with the same thing over and over, it can be easy to get frustrated and wonder why they “just don’t get it already.” The thing is, sometimes we have blind spots in areas that are obvious to others. We may not sense that we’re hungry or in pain. We may not realize that we’re putting ourselves in a position to trigger sensory sensitivities or we’re overdoing things socially. Rather than saying things like “why can’t you just _________” or “are you ever going to learn to ___________” try gentle reminders, prompts or leading questions.
5. Be ready to step back. Sometimes, once The Scientist points something out, I can “reboot” the necessary subroutine and get myself back on track. When this happens, he has the grace to step back and let me take over my self-care or whatever he’s been supporting me with. He’ll even do this when he suspects I’ll goof up because he knows that having a sense of independence is important to me.
Not An Instant Fix
Backstopping is a delicate art. As a friend or family member, it’s hard to watch someone you love struggle with something that seems easily solvable. As an autistic person, it’s hard to find yourself facing the “same” crisis repeatedly, feeling as if you’ve learned nothing from the ten iterations that came before it. Navigating these situations can require some emotional tightrope walking at first.
In the past, I was prone to resenting any help that was offered. I think The Scientist caught on to this early and finally found a way around my defenses by keeping his assistance really low-key. He doesn’t make a big deal out of offering it and (even more important) he doesn’t make a big deal out of how much better I feel as a result of it. That might sound strange to someone who has a good relationship with accepting support from others, but I suspect there are a bunch of you who know exactly what I’m talking about.
For my part, I’ve become better at suppressing my No Reflex, which makes it easier for me to consider alternative solutions. Or in some situations, any solution at all. I’ve also accepted that there are times when the ball is going to get by me, no matter how responsible, independent or careful I am. When that happens, having someone around to backstop me can prevent a deteriorating situation from spiraling into a full-blown crisis.